The story: the last days of Jesus Christ.
The setting: New Orleans, in the present day.
The music: contemporary, from country to pop and beyond.
The cast: eclectic, including Trisha Yearwood as the Virgin Mary, Chris Daughtry as Judas and Seal as Pontius Pilate, all in current dress, including Jesus (Jencarlos Canela) on trial in an orange jumpsuit.
Those seemingly unlikely elements add up to “The Passion,” a “musical event” airing Sunday on Fox, with Tyler Perry as host and narrator.
Oh, and the whole thing is live, including a massive procession carrying a 20-foot lighted cross from outside the Superdome to the banks of the Mississippi, with reporters conducting interviews along the way.
If your eyebrows went up at all, wondering whose idea this was and how Fox will pull it off, consider that it’s been done before, the first time in 2011 for TV in the Netherlands, where it is repeated every year to huge viewership. Belgium added its own “Passion” in 2014.
Passion plays, which are put on all over the Christian world before Easter, dramatize the betrayal, trial, suffering and death of Jesus. Jacco Doornbos took the idea of “The Passion” from a passion play that was televised in Great Britain 10 years ago.
Doornbos is Dutch, and he was inspired to try to remind his countrymen of “what the story of Easter is about.”
Pondering how to translate the old story into today’s language, he seized on the idea of using popular music.
“I felt like if I could combine popular hit songs with this story, suddenly giving hit songs a whole new meaning, placing them in this story, that could be a very powerful tool, and it turned out to be true.”
Doornbos joined Perry and executive producers Mark Bracco and Adam Anders (“Glee”) when Fox introduced “The Passion” to TV critics in Los Angeles in January.
Perry had heard about the Dutch production, “and I thought it was just amazing,” he said. He quickly got on board, even though he is more accustomed to projects that give him creative control and put his name in the title. (“Do you want to know why it’s not ‘Tyler Perry Presents Tyler Perry’s The Passion’?” he asked, laughing.)
“When I heard that it was going to be in New Orleans, which is my hometown, a place that had endured great suffering but also knows about triumph and overcoming, I thought no better place than there to tell this particular story,” Perry said.
He’s thrilled to use “the landmarks that I grew up with and the people that I know so well to help tell the story,” he added. “Also, being Christian, I love this story. I love the idea of it being told very modern, very updated, so that not only people who know about it and who are believers, but people who are not, who are from all walks of life, can look at this story, get it, understand it, appreciate it, and have love for it.”
The participation of Perry and the fact that “The Passion” uses contemporary music made it a comparatively easy sell to Fox, which found hits in the musicals “Glee” and “Empire” and at the time of the panel was gearing up for “Grease Live!,” Anders said.
“They know how to do this,” he said of the network. “They understand it. They love telling stories through music, and I think it was just a no-brainer for us to partner on it with them.”
Throughout, “We are using big hit songs that everybody knows, and we are putting them completely in a new context,” Anders said. “I’ll be rearranging them or reinventing them for the scene, so you might not even recognize them at first.”
For example, the scene in which Judas betrays Jesus with a kiss is set to Imagine Dragons’ “Demons.” “The lyrics, you would think it was written for the scene,” Anders said. “It’s incredible, when we start looking through the U.S. pop catalog, how many spiritual undertones there are, because most artists have a spirituality to them, and the songs are written from those moments in their lives.”
Music, Anders said, “has a way to move people that nothing else can, and if you can couple the perfect song and lyric with an emotion and a moment, it can drive something home more powerfully than anything else.”
Asked about casting Yearwood, Anders said, “It was incredibly important for us to find a Mary that can sing, and I mean really sing. This is live. She’s got a lot of songs to sing, and we can’t fake it.”
Yearwood, he said, is “one of the greatest voices of all time from any genre, not just country, but also she’s a huge, recognizable name that we all know. ... I can put her up there on the stage and not panic that this is going to be a disaster musically.”
The goal, Bracco said, is “to tell the story in a way that is inclusive for everyone to watch together whether you are a believer in the story or someone who wants to hear Trisha Yearwood sing a Whitney Houston song. We are doing it in a way that is young and modern and doing it in a way that is inclusive for everyone to watch it together as a family, and tell this story that has the themes of ... love, forgiveness, betrayal.”
A production this large, in the middle of a city known for crowds, presents its challenges, Bracco acknowledged. An ambulance or a fire truck could shriek past. It could rain.
“That’s why God created umbrellas. Right?” Anders said when Bracco noted that “it’s rain or shine.”
In mock protest, Perry said, “Nobody told me that.”
The uncertainty is “all part of the entertainment,” Doornbos said. “That’s all part of the live excitement.” In the Netherlands, after four years of nice weather, “then, suddenly, the fifth year, it was stormy, rainy,” he said. “It turned out to be great, even more emotional when it rains.”
During the procession, “There are certain streets that will be shut down for us, but certain ones that won’t be,” Bracco said. “So Tyler may throw to our field reporter, (where) the procession might be stopping because there’s a fire truck going by. Being live, you embrace that and have fun with it. It’s live television, and ultimately, something is going to go wrong, and sometimes that’s what makes the best moments.”
New Orleans was more than receptive to playing host to the show, Bracco said.
“We’ve been meeting with people in the city for a year and a half now, and from the very beginning, they really got it and embraced it and encouraged us to bring it there,” he said. “We’ve been meeting with city leaders, state leaders, going to the locations.”
Scouts determined the locations that will be used, including the mainstage at Woldenberg Park, on the banks of the Mississippi, where Perry will be stationed with a live audience and with cameras on a riverboat. The procession, including people from all over the country, will make its way there through the streets over the course of the two hours.
In addition, “There will be scenes throughout the two hours that are shot at various locations, from the French Quarter to Jackson Square to Audubon Park,” Bracco said. “We are really throughout the entire city.”
Doornbos, the veteran of other “Passions,” agrees. “It is very exciting to use the whole city as your live stage,” he said, “but in the end, that’s also what makes it a unifying experience, because the whole city is also embracing it.”
And Perry isn’t really worried about complications.
“No offense to Holland,” he said, “but you have to understand. This is New Orleans that handles Mardi Gras every year. I think they’ve got it covered.”
What “The Passion” • When 7 p.m. Sunday • Where Fox • More info fox.com/thepassion