The rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar will be resurrected as a live concert on NBC airing Sunday, April 1, 45 years after the movie became a hit — so what better way to celebrate than by learning secrets about the original movie?
The new event is just the latest incarnation of the musical, created in 1970 by then-20-somethings Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. “The premise comes from that Bob Dylan line, ‘Did Judas Iscariot have God on his side?'” Lloyd Webber says of their story of Jesus’ last six days.
The 1973 film, starring Ted Neeley as Jesus and Carl Anderson as Judas, earned a devoted following. “It changed my life completely,” says Ted, who at 74 still plays Jesus in traveling productions. “It’s the most magnificent experience I’ve ever had — that’s why I will do it until [my voice] doesn’t work anymore,” he says. Here’s a look at some of the miracles that brought the movie to life.
Ted as Jesus in Jesus Christ Superstar.
The movie filmed in the desert outside Jerusalem, in Israel, where temperatures rose above 100. “It was mysterious, and hot, and foreign, and wonderful,” said Barry Dennen, who played Pontius Pilate (he passed away last year at 79). Barry wore a heavy velvet cloak, and with the heat, “the most important commodity was water,” Ted recalls.
Cast members drank around five quarts a day. It rained only once, as they prepped the crucifixion scene. “As the cross raises up suddenly the sky was black, foreboding,” Ted recalls. “It rained for three days and nights nonstop. It’s the only time we had to shut down during the entire shoot.”
Most of the cast were newbies. “I was a wet-behind-the-ears, 24-year-old kid,” says Bob Bingham, 71, who played Caiaphas. Like several others, singer Yvonne Elliman, 66, who played Mary Magdalene, moved from stage to screen, and her rendition of “I Don’t Know How to Love
Him” landed her on the Billboard charts. Sara Bareilles, who plays Mary in the NBC concert, raves to Closer that Yvonne “is the bones, the beautiful DNA of this role.”
Film director Norman Jewison found his Jesus in Ted, who first showed up at the director’s door in LA wearing a false beard and mustache. “I thought he was kind of a nut,” Jewison says. “But we got to talking, and I was very impressed.” Ted was starring in the first LA staging alongside Carl, and they both nailed their film tests. Ted felt doubly blessed on set when he met his wife, Leeyan Granger, “the most beautiful” dancer in the Simon Zealotes scene, he insists.
Yvonne and Ted in Jesus Christ Superstar.
The original concept album hit No. 1 in the US in 1970, but most of the film’s actors didn’t expect their legacy to live on. “We just thought it was a great rock ‘n’ roll film,” says Kurt Yaghjian, who played the priest Annas. But David Leveaux, director of the new concert, marvels at “the wonder of this piece that is now in our DNA.” On NBC, John Legend stars as Jesus, Alice Cooper as Herod, and Hamilton vet Brandon Victor Dixon as Judas.
“Jesus Christ Superstar is one of those iconic pieces that wants to be and needs to be revisited again and again,” Leveaux notes to Closer. So is John nervous about stepping into such an iconic part? “I know the role has expectations,” the “All of Me” singer says. “People really want us to do right by the material. And I think we will.”
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