Jesus Christ Superstar: Ted Neeley Tells the Inside Story
He didn't board the bus at the end.
Norman Jewison: Director Extraordinaire
It's one of the more touching scenes in a movie overflowing with emotion, and a subtle modern-day lament to what took place in that very desert some 2,000 years ago.
With Norman Jewison's direction and a ridiculously talented cast, 1973's Jesus Christ Superstar
, filmed entirely in the Holy Land itself, brought to the big screen an infinitely human character. Revered, condemned, murdered, and ultimately deified, Jesus Christ was first a man, an emotional, thinking, bleeding, feeling someone not unlike you. Which is what makes this so compelling a tale. Through it all - the idolization, the betrayal, the public ridicule - Christ himself remains human. When Herod invites him to "walk across my swimming pool," Jesus simply looks back, sadly. Not defiant, just confused.
Perhaps that is what made the concept so difficult for some folks to grasp back in the early '70s, and indeed still today. "Sacrilege!" they protested. "Blasphemy!" And not just blasphemy
, but ultimate
blasphemy. "There's always somebody standing around with a protest sign saying it's going to destroy the universe in terms of 'that rock & roll music,'" says Ted Neeley, who portrayed Jesus in the film.
It is Neeley and his good friend Carl Anderson - playing Judas - who breathed life into Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's musical retelling of the last seven days in the life of Christ. Upon their arrival onscreen, the actors debark the bus which has arrived in a cloud of dust to the desert. After the crucifixion, they all climb back on board, with one glaring exception. Pay close attention, though, and in the very final seconds counting off, you'll see something exceptional on the screen. Something that you will be half convinced you didn't see, until you watch it again. And again. Because you will, if you haven't already, become addicted to this movie, the music, the actors, and the story itself.
August 16, 2013, marks the 40-year anniversary of the film's premiere, and Neeley is launching what looks to become a worldwide tour of movie theatres, showing the fully remastered digitized film on the big screen, complete with Q&A and meet-and-greet sessions with himself and other principles of the cast, including Yvonne Elliman ("Mary"), Barry Dennen ("Pontius Pilate"), Joshua Mostel ("King Herod"), and more.
In this candid, often humorous interview with Ted Neeley, we got a first-hand account of the film shoot in the Holy Land and the director and cast members who sang the movie to life.
~Shawna Hansen Ortega
One of the great things about Norman's direction was certainly the overall freedom. But he was always Johnny-on-the-spot prior to the first rehearsal, moments before the camera, and then actually in front of the camera doing it to let us know specifically what the concept was for that particular scene and how the line connected from that scene to one we had done maybe three weeks before, and the next one that was coming up maybe two weeks later. So he could not have been more directorial besides in what he had to say to us. But he always encouraged us to have a celebratory feeling as if we were all just on this wonderful vacation trip in a foreign country.
But keep in mind, he was the guy who decided to introduce this film with a big old bus coming in and a bunch of people getting off that bus, and then getting into costume and into character all during the overture of the film. He wanted to reel them in. He just wanted to show, "These are actors and singers and dancers on tour and in the show, and I'm going to make a movie out of it." He didn't want anybody to think that I believed I was Jesus, or Judas, or Mary, or any of that stuff. He just wanted people to get sucked into his concept of directorially telling us an idea that it's a Passion Play story, leave it, and walk away.
He wanted people to be drawn into it with their own interpretation of what they were feeling as opposed to being pounded on the head that this is Jesus and this is Judas and this whatever. He wanted people to see everybody on that screen as a human being. It wasn't Jesus Christ there, it was me, a human being, dressed and looking like the character we all seem to know and letting people see that that person, too, is a human being and had to deal with daily problems, just like we do. And it worked. For years I have gotten word from all around the world where, "You made me understand who Jesus really was."
120 in the Shade? What Shade?
The heat was overwhelming. Literally, the most important commodity the whole time we were there was water because of the heat. And Norman never made us stand out there and had our skin peeling off and sunstroke. It was a gradual preparing us from the time we were there. We spent a lot of time in Israel before we actually started shooting, just acclimating ourselves to the climate. And it was great to come out of the hotel in the morning and see off to the left all these wonderful dancers going through their warm-ups, they would go to a place inside where they could actually dance. And they would gradually go out and dance in the sun and so on and so on. While the rest of us actors, apostles and such, would stroll around the grounds and get in our groups and discuss what we were about to do. The preparation was magnificent. So when he did finally decide to start shooting something somewhere, we were all prepared for what was happening.
Norman was very concerned about how the heat affected all of us. Barry Dennen was wearing 300 pounds of velvet. And the soldiers were wearing metal or whatever. But if you shielded anything from the sun, it would change the whole atmosphere of the film. And he wanted that bright, blistering sun to be prevalent all the time.
Literally, the most important commodity the whole time we were there was water.
Separation of the "Classes"
In Israel, Norman did everything he possibly could to keep me separated from everyone else. It wasn't anything bad. He was looking at it from a professional point of view. In fact, when we first got there, when we were just in the country getting ourselves tanned so we looked like we had lived there, he actually built these little groups of people, the apostles who were most involved with Jesus, the apostles who were more involved with Judas, they were all separate. Even though we were in the same areas, the little caucuses, if you will, he always kept us separated from the priests and anybody else, say Pontius Pilate and Herod and all that, just so we could establish that we were not close. And whenever we did get together there was that automatic sort of, "Well, who is this
?" on camera. He's brilliant that way.
He explained it to us all up front, that he was just trying to do it in order to set up an atmosphere. We were always present and we were always on the same location 99% of the time. But when we were actually preparing for moments for scenes for whatever we were doing, that's when those elements would be put in place. It was an absolute magnificent celebration throughout. And watching Norman and his crew work so seamlessly and effortlessly and keeping this having fun and all that out in the middle of the desert. So it was wonderful.
He was so open to all of us and everybody in the film. Except for Barry Dennen, who played Pontius Pilate, and of course, Josh Mostel who played Herod, for everyone else it was the first time they'd been in front of a camera. So we were novices, having never done anything. And he treated us all like we'd all been working in the film business for years. So it was a magnificent communication from the first day we got on the set until it was done, and still to this day.
Mountains, Crosses, and Clint Eastwood
How did you all manage to sing so well in the parching desert?
Neeley: I will tell you this only if you promise you won't print this. You must promise me that you won't print this. It's just between us. Okay?
Absolutely. We've got to keep some secrets.
There's no question the most physically demanding scene I was in was "Gethsemane." Second would be "The Crucifixion." All of it was overwhelmed by the oppressive heat. The temple sequence, where I get to come in and play Clint Eastwood and destroy everything, that was outrageous, as well. Just walking in the desert... I mean, for example, the song towards the end called "Could We Start Again, Please," where Mary and the others are all up on the hills singing to Jesus, "Could we start again, please..." and I was off in the distance walking away and turning around and looking back, that was the hottest day we were there in the whole shoot. Standing there, we were covered with sweat. And I was so off in the distance that for my shot in that they had to truck all these separate groups of water guys to bring in the water so I didn't pass out.
The makeup people were always there. Anytime Norman would say "Cut" the makeup people came out and there was somebody there swabbing you with something, drying your face off to keep you from looking like you were melting.
The Magic of Yin and Yang
In terms of contribution, I think that what was a natural thing for me was half of the magnificent potion that Carl and I delivered, which was our personal friendship, relationship. Which is what Norman Jewison told us was why he cast us in the film as Jesus and Judas. He saw that in our screen test. We were fortunate to be able to screen test together. And when we did our screen test, Carl sang "Heaven on Their Minds," he had me sing "Gethsemane." And as we approached the exit of the soundstage at Pinewood Studios, he said, "Fellas, would you do me a favor. You know that sequence after the Last Supper when Jesus and Judas stand face to face and scream at each other?" We said, "Yes, we do." He said, "Would you do that for me?" And so we did. It's just a piano player, Carl, and myself.
And Norman says that in our individual screen tests when we sang a separate song, he saw the qualities of Judas in Carl and the qualities of Jesus in me. Then when we stood side by side and had the confrontation, he said, "I saw for the first time a natural relationship between two human beings so apparent, that's what I wanted in my film." And when we got to Israel, he said, "Fellas, I know you're a little apprehensive and this is new to you. But any time you have any questions and doubts in your mind, if I'm not there to help you, just remember what I said: You have a natural relationship, which is exactly what I want on film for these two characters."
So whatever Carl and I brought together, that was the contribution that I feel was the most important to this film. If you will, the yin yang of the relationship.
We were dear friends. We'd experienced things together. We had parallel universes as children, growing up in our lives, before we even knew each other. We'd had experiences with our families being in bands and trying to perform like rock stars, but we were copying everybody else. So once we met each other and shared those experiences together, then the relationship just continued to blossom. And quite frankly, it blooms as beautifully today even though he's no longer with us.
Luke 14:11, "For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted."
Despite the role he immortalized on screen and the resulting adulation from fans, Neeley remains remarkably grounded, with an endearing ability to poke fun at his own image.
"I was so overwhelmed with my character that my feet never touched the ground."
Pause. "Now you know why I'm not a stand-up comic."
"Tell your friends to bring some water, and I will accommodate them with wine."
"You've heard that rumor that I was either driving one of the tanks or flying one of the planes? I was actually standing on the wing of the one of the jets as they came through. And whenever the tanks came over the hill and they were chasing down Carl, I actually stood in front of them, lifted them and threw them back into the hills."
Only one time while we were there during the whole shooting schedule did it rain. And it was in a segment where we were shooting the Crucifixion sequence. It hadn't rained in years. That's where the Dead Sea is. Nothing, not even a sprinkle. And we were there when we shot the temple sequence, where Jesus gets to tear up the market. And we were getting back on the bus to go back to the hotel. And off to the left you could see the people building the site to the cross, so it was ever-present.
So finally we get to the time where we're shooting it. And at sunset, they put the cross down and snap me on the cross, then the cross raises up. And as the cross raises up and falls into its position, suddenly the sky was black, dark, horrible, foreboding. The wind picked up, and I'm hanging up there and the wind is doing its thing and all of a sudden I hear Norman on the squawk box, "Oh, we're going to have to get out of here now. There's a storm coming up, so everybody out." And I thought this gigantic hand was going come out of the sky and pound me into the ground, in the place where it happened.
Anyway, it rained for three days and nights nonstop. It's the only time we had to shut down during the entire shoot. It rained for three days, and then it cleared up.
So elements like that happened all the time while we were there.
What Would Jesus Do?
I remember once while we were shooting the sequence to bring Jesus down to the trial before Caiaphas. And there was Bob Bingham ("Caiaphas") singing, "Jesus, you must realize the serious charges facing you." There was a lot of preparation for Caiaphas and Annas to do their songs and all that. And a lot of times I wasn't there.
So I had a moment to myself, a private moment. And I could see 360 degrees of the entire circumference of Israel, mountains to the water, as far as the eye could see. So I was sitting there, was looking out over the horizon. And I decided, well, now's a good time for me to do some yoga breathing and focus myself on what I had to do that day. So I closed my eyes and I started to breathe. I sat there for maybe 15 minutes. When I opened my eyes, there were a bunch of children sitting in front of me, staring at me. Little Israeli children. I don't know where they came from. I could not speak their language, they could not speak mine. I opened my eyes and saw them. They just stared at me. So I thought, Okay, what would Jesus do? I stood up, I opened my arms, they came to me, it was the most genuinely sweet, loving group hug I've had in my life at that time. And they walked away and I went back to the set.
In A Time Before Wireless
I remember when we opened in New York for the first time, opened on Broadway, all the microphones were corded. And we had 43 people in the cast. And everybody had to carry a microphone. So imagine that, 43 microphone cords being carried around all over the stage. Do all that choreography, "How do we get these microphone cords out of the way so they don't kill themselves?"
They couldn't hang them from the ceilings because they didn't want that to be seen. That would make a difference with his visuals. The director wanted to disguise the microphone so it looked like we were just holding ropes or something, you know. If they're hanging from the ceiling, they're possibly in the way.
Dens of Iniquity and Other Fun Stuff
Interesting Actual Scene Locations
"Trial Before Caiaphas" was shot on the site of the Herodian fortresses near Bethlehem.
"The Temple" and "The Crucifixion" scenes were shot at Avdat.
Ein 'Boket provided the location for "Pilate's Dream."
"What's the Buzz" truly was under the Dead Sea... in a cave. The same cave served as Neeley's "prison" after "The Arrest."
For "King Herod's Song," the crew set up shop on the Dead Sea not far from Masada, where Herod actually once had a summer palace.
An ancient Roman ampitheater in Bet 'Shaan, tunneled through with catacombs, served as the location for "Trial Before Pilate" and "Superstar."
There were no riots, but there's always protests. Even today, every time that I've ever done Superstar
live anywhere, there's always somebody standing around with a protest sign saying it's going to destroy the universe in terms of "that rock & roll music." And you know what the biggest protests always were? Jesus was singing
Jesus was singing. Not only was Jesus singing, he was singing with a rock & roll band
. It's insane. When the play opened in New York - and mind you, that was New York City
, of all places - so I would push my way through as politely as possible, trying to get in on time for a half hour to do the show. I would say to the people, "Have you seen the show?" Of course, the answer would always be, "No! I wouldn't go into that den of iniquity!" And I would say, "Well, please just come in as my guest, sit, watch the show, talk to me after the show, and let me know what bothers you. Maybe we can address that." Well, the few brave people that would come in as my guest and saw the show came back and just praised how wonderful it was. And then they would come back and bring friends.
Even in all of those backstage two- or three-hour conferences I have after every show, I've never had a problem letting people know that who I am is a rock & roll drummer who just got lucky.
Won't You Touch, Won't You Heal Me, Christ
Nothing has ever gotten "weird" with the film that I cannot rise above whatever's there and help the person. Because I'm not going to step on anybody's faith or their religious beliefs. If they find somehow the essence of Christ in me, I am honored for that and I am grateful for that, and we talk about it. Because we're all given some sort of a mission in life. And people who are the bystanders are going to perceive you in some element there, through their own resources, their own experience. And if this thing - and it has done now for over 40 years - has some way of making people feel peaceful about their own spirituality, I am honored at being a part of it.
People come up and tell me things about their lives. There are people who honestly believe I've cured them from cancer just by hugging them, by saying hello. Bottom line is that if they perceive something, a spiritual connection through me to their own spiritual reality, I am honored. I embrace it. I will embrace it as long as I have air to breathe, and I encourage anybody to come and talk to me about anything they want, anytime, anyplace, anywhere. The only part I dislike about this is the days run out on me. We get to a place where the people running the theaters say, "I've got to close up. The alarm's going to go off. We have to leave."
And for me, this is all so magnificent. I try to let everybody know that it is a combination of their desire and need to find their spirituality, that combined with our desire to entertain them through the music with this magnificent story ever told, and we together create the magic that makes them find their spirituality. It is remarkable.
What's the Buzz Under the Dead Sea
The very first scene Norman decided to actually shoot and all of us had to rehearse was the scene down at the end of the tunnels, and the song was "What's the Buzz." It was the first time we had all congregated together actually in front of the camera to see how it worked. And the way he set it up he was down in these caves under the Dead Sea where the only source of light was a hole in the top of the cave, in the ceiling. And he had to shoot it in such a way that would follow the angle of the one ray of sunlight throughout the day so the sun reflected on the shot. So what we see on film, the light that we see coming in on that is the sunlight coming through a hole in the roof of the cave.
So he set it up so Mary and a couple of the Apostles could be on a sort of a rise, a desert boulder in the cave floor, so we'd be just a little bit higher than everybody else to view. And then he built a campfire in front of that and it all started, the apostles and all the apostle ladies could come in dancing and singing, carrying various items, wooden bowls and food and so on, and place it down around the campfire in front of Jesus and Mary. And every time they would come in, I was sitting there watching. I'm not singing, I'm observing. There was one particular person who had this long, beautiful black hair. She was dancing and doing her thing and her hair was getting close to the fire. And everybody on the set was doing their job, so really nobody but me had nothing to do except for observe.
Finally, when Norman gave us a break, I walked over to this person to tell her to "please be careful, your hair's getting really close to the fire." And I faced her and I reached for her and I said, "Excuse me, but I..." We made eye contact, and I stammered. And that's my wife. That's how we met.
She's the most beautiful one. If you're looking at the screen, a better example would be the "Simon Zealotes" number. You know, the "Christ, you know I love you, did you see I waved?" If you're looking at the screen, she's on the left. And she has long, dark brown hair and it's in a ponytail. And she's wearing some brown dancer's type pants and she has a crop top, also brown. And she's not only the best dancer there, she had ballet training, so there's something magical about the way she moved. And once you focus on her there, you can see her throughout the movie. To the immediate left, whether it's myself or Simon himself on the screen, she's to the left. You're on his left.
My Dad, Jesus Christ
I'm sure that the natural thing has probably happened with children growing up and all that. But it never was an issue that became problematic at all for my kids. Neither of them ever came to me and said, "Daddy, they're making fun of me." Everything has always been celebratory and awestruck and so on. If I had the opportunity to play Pontius Pilate or King Herod or one of the priests, chances are no one would have said anything. But it's because Norman, who was so kind and generous enough to grant me the opportunity to play the lead role, everybody relates to that because of their spiritual upbringing.
I remember when I first saw the movie King of Kings
. I had the same feeling. When Jeffrey Hunter was baptized by John the Baptist and they raised him up out of the water and suddenly you saw his face for the first time, because until he raised him up out of the water, there'd never been a time where you could actually see the face of Christ, it was always over the shoulder. But suddenly there was a face. It happened to be Jeffrey Hunter. And I was blown away as a child when I saw that. So I can relate to what they're talking about, because of the way Norman exposed me in the beginning, the circumstances, people coming and putting this robe over me and then the camera zooms in...
We had breakfast with Ted Neeley on July 30, 2013.
According to the film's choreographer Rob Iscove, Ted Neeley nailed "Gethsemane" in one take.
Talking about the grueling shoot in Israel, Barry Dennen said the worst thing - above and beyond the heat and other hazards - were the shoes he had to wear as Pilate. For some reason, rather than making platform shoes to boost his height, the costume designers made his shoes 4" tall at the heel and almost flat at the toe, causing him to walk mainly on his toes and making it exceedingly uncomfortable and dangerous to film his scenes, many of which were on the side of a steep incline.
"The Temple" was shot in only two takes. Neeley's ransacking was so thorough they didn't have enough unbroken props to do any more.
Neeley and Anderson were both nominated for Golden Globe Awards for their roles in the film.
Yvonne Elliman ("Mary") went on to have a respectable singing career, scoring two Billboard
Number One singles between 1978 & 1979. She's also toured singing backup with Eric Clapton and sang on the studio version of "I Shot the Sheriff."
"King Herod's Song" was written in only about 20 minutes.
was the first movie based on a Broadway musical based on a record.
protest pamphlet read, "Hard rock excites sensual lusts … resulting in open and shameful sins!!" (Umm… one, please…
Composer Webber, on Rice's lyrics: "The lyrics are extremely good for any composer to work with, but I don't necessarily agree with all of them."
Neeley and Anderson starred in the West Coast Broadway version of JCS
, which opened at the Universal Studios Amphitheater on June 28, 1972.
"Then We Are Decided" was not an original Broadway song, it was written exclusively for the movie.
Member of Parliament in Jerusalem on allowing Superstar
to be filmed there: "Jesus Christ is still rather unpopular here. Why are we compromising our beliefs and principles?"
Great fears of the film company: scorpions, lizards, not enough water. And attack by Arab guerillas.
Five quarts of water a day per person was the prescribed remedy against dehydration during the shoot.
The film crew employed camels and donkeys to carry camera equipment and lighting to remote locations.
The cast was so close that many of them cried at the sight of Neeley on the cross.
Get more, including dates and tickets for his film tour at neeleytour.com. You'll love that you did!.
Ted also has a Facebook Page.