The Journey So Far

A chronological stroll thru the history of Broadway Musicals as they came to be recorded by Hollywood--the summation of a lifelong vocation, and a journey of self discovery. Equal parts cultural history, critique and personal memoir. Coming next: Beauty & the Beast

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Jesus Christ Superstar

August 7, 1973,  Universal   107 minutes
Full disclosure: I've been allergic to this opera even before seeing it on Bway (in its original 1971 production) and nothing since has ever drawn me to it. Not the Biblical fable of the "Son of God," not the dreary, bone-dry desert milieu; not the screechy score by Tim Rice & Andrew Lloyd-Webber. It remains one of the few shows I never bought on CD. And as for the movie, I crossed paths with it once, on cable back in 1975--when I was stuck at home in a hip-to-toe cast after dislocating my knee. Once was enuf. Until now, when I must put aside my longstanding bias to examine this undisputed phenomenon with fresh eyes.

JC Superstar was the first post-Follies, post-Golden Age musical on Bway--and it was a clear-cut demarcation point. The shows that immediately followed: Melvin Van Peebles' scorching Ain't Supposed to Die a Natural Death; Galt MacDermot's Two Gentlemen of Verona, Eve Merriam's urban revue, Inner City, the '50s rock parody, Grease, Micki Grant's Don't Bother Me I Can't Cope had scores unlike those heard on Bway (except for Hair) before the previous season. That's quite a radical shift.  It was so sudden and nearly uniform that it made the season's single traditional musical, Sugar, seem as dated as The Student Prince. Tho it was always intended for the stage, JC Superstar began life as a concept album; an experiment several tuners tried since the LP in the '50s (without subsequent productions) now a form that became popular (post Sgt. Pepper) in the late '60s, as rock reached for mainstream respect in its creative evolution. No more the carefree catalog of random pop songs that Elvis and the first rock generation produced; bands now aspired to symphonic fusion; grand pretentions, thematic albums; rock operas.

From this zeitgest petri dish grew a teenage Andrew Lloyd Webber; a musical prodigy from a family of musicians, who by age 15 had already set T.S. Eliot's Book of Cats to music (which he'd do again later for Cats). At 17 he began collaborating with a 20 year old Tim Rice. The duo secured a commission from an English boy's school, which over time expanded from a modest short program into a full-scale, two act, Joseph & the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. For their next project they wavered between the Cuban Missle Crisis or Christ. Sophie's choice it wasn't. And tho it was surely the right commercial decision, I think the other would've been more interesting. The song "Superstar" was their starting point and gateway to the tone and style they'd adopt. This was an opera of Jesus for Now! (the late '60s) Full of casual anachronisms, contemporary vernacular; a hippie passion play. "Superstar" was recorded by British singer, Murray Head, and released as a single in Nov '69; long before the score was completed. The full two-disc album wasn't released until Sept '70. It promptly flopped in Britain--overshadowed by such then current British giants as The Beatles, The Stones, and The Who, whose own rock opera, Tommy--a loose take on the spiritual teachings of Meher Baba--was a huge sucess the year before (and an undeniable influence on Rice & Lloyd Webber) But the record took off in America, reaching #1 on the Billboard charts for several weeks. It became so popular that amateur concert versions started popping up all over--which virtually demanded the creation of a sanctioned, professional production. The first authorized concert was before a crowd of 13,000 in Pittsburgh in July '71--with two leads who would continue on to NY. Produced by record mogul, Robert Stigwood, Superstar opened on Bway in October. Reportedly, Harold Prince was angling to direct, but Stigwood objected, preferring experienced opera director, Frank Corsaro. When Corsaro was felled by an accident, Stigwood hired Tom O'Horgan--who saw this as another "phantasmagoria," much as his recent stage hit, Lenny. That this helmer was best known for Hair, surely fueled religious protests beyond those who objected to the opera itself. The outcry reached a peak as opening night neared--Stigwood couldn't have asked for better publicity. 
Critical opinion was sharply divided (Walter Kerr liked the opera, but loathed the production--others felt just the opposite) In the end the opera proved durable, O'Horgan's vision left in the dust. Tho it was first and foremost a Bway musical--due to the album's greater popularity in America--it crossed the pond to London a year later, and with an entirely new staging (by Jim Sharman, who later directed The Rocky Horror Show) became the longest-running musical in West End history, playing thru 1980. 
Surprisingly, the Bway edition was far less popular. After the initial brouhaha, the play was SRO for only four months. The Tony committee snubbed the show, as well as O'Horgan and the cast, except for Ben Vereen's Judas. Rice & Lloyd Webber's score was favored over that of Grease--which was nominated for Best Musical along with Two Gentlemen of Verona, Ain't Supposed to Die and the previous season's Follies (in another case of arbitrary and inconsistent Tony deadlines, which are set for mid-March one year, and late May another. (Traditionally, Bway seasons run from June thru May.) The show's scenic elements were acknowledged but lost all awards to Follies--which itself lost Best Musical to Two Gents--to unending outcry from some quarters. (Not this one.)

But before the opera even took to the stage, Hlwd director Norman Jewison was making inquiries about a film version of the album--what he later called "the first feature length music video"--a decade before MTV. Shortly after the show opened at the Mark Hellinger on Bway, Jewison's film of Fiddler on the Roof, premiered at the Rivoli--two houses within sight of each other. Fiddler would be his third Oscar nominated Best Pic. Now a proven handler of the film musical, Jewison convinced Stigwood he was the man to adapt Superstar for the screen. Stigwood set it up at Universal. But the film was to be lensed entirely in Israel, with a mostly British crew. It was also the last movie ever shot in widescreen Todd AO. Filmed among desolate canyons, underground caves and Roman era ruins--

the scenery has an earthy authenticity captured by Brit cinematographer, Douglas Slocombe (who shot some early Ealing classics like Kind Hearts & Coronets and The Lavender Hill Mob, and later earned Oscar nods for Julia, Travels with My Aunt, and Raiders of the Lost Ark--and who's still alive at age 101.) As with Fiddler, Jewison chose to go without Hlwd faces for the cast. Yvonne Elliman (Mary Magdalene) and Barry Dennen (Pontius Pilate) completed the trifecta from concept album to Bway to movie. Ted Neely was also in the Bway cast, but as chorus and understudy to Jeff Fenholt's Jesus--a role he later graduated to for the national tour. Carl Anderson was Judas in the first Pittsburgh concert and later tour but was passed over on Bway by O'Horgan in favor of Ben Vereen. But Jewison preferred Anderson--and Vereen went into Pippin. There was also advantage in having actors well-seasoned by the score, lipsynching thru dusty locations and 120 degree afternoons. Three of the film's dancers would later be among the original cast of A Chorus LineBaayork Lee, Robert Lupone and Thommie Walsh. 

But none of the leads, aside from Bway's Vereen, would ever achieve any fame beyond Superstar. And like Yul Brynner aging into his Siamese King, Neeley and Anderson would continue playing Jesus and Judas well into late middle age.

Tim Rice, whose lyrics were the opera's sole narrataive, took first stab at the screenplay, coming up short by his own admission. In talks with Jewison, another British scribe, Melvyn Bragg (who wrote Karel Reisz's Isadora, and Ken Russell's The Music Lovers), found a new approach for a film adaptation; tackling the show's modernity and anachronisms head-on by framing the film as a present day reinactment--a passion play performance sans audience; a mixture of the ancient and contemporary. A touring band bus brings a cast of hippies (or East Village actors) to a desolate spot of Israeli desert; complete with wooden cross strapped to the roof. We see them disembark in street clothes before the performance begins. From behind, a tunic is slipped on Neeley's back, his head framed by the sun as the title theme blares the start of the play. Rice's original impulse and narrative distinction is to tell the story of Jesus' final days from the perspective of Judas--whose very name is a synonym for betrayal. But to those not familiar with the fable, other than the vague outlines that permeate the ozone, it's confusing to follow what's going on here. Jesus comes off either haughty or moody. We don't know anything of his deeds other than he's being venerated by some, denounced by others--Jews and Romans alike. Yet he's dismissive of his own followers, condemning of the free market; paranoid of disloyalty--the instrument of his own doom. He's so misunderstood! Judas watches with resentment, like a band member seeing his frontman's fame go to this head. The rock band correlation is apt, for those not inclined to sacrilegious insult. A multi-racial cast allows black men to portray both zealot and betrayer without danger of racism. But with Caiaphas and Anas played as villainous Jews, protests and charges of antisemitism were unleashed, tho they were basically unwarranted. Jesus is cast, as he's always been by Hlwd studios (run by Jewish moguls) as a handsome, beatific, longhaired WASP. Ted Neeley falls squarely in this tradition adding a trace of surfer looks to his rock star cred. A change of tunic and he can step on stage at Fillmore East. 
Given that he's the so-called King of Jews, why doesn't Jesus ever look Jewish? Can you imagine a Christ who looks like Mel Brooks, David Schwimmer or Seth Rogen?

American theater music, like opera, is an idiom that can toy with any historical period to no apparent dissonance. Not so with rock music, which set to any age prior to the atomic, painfully flaunts its anachronism, sometimes with sheer glee (as in Two Gents from Verona); sometimes as pure camp (as in Elton John's Aida) or, as with Superstar, in cheesy flagrance--which is what's most kept me off it. Listening to it now more carefully than I ever had before, I'll allow it has appealing, melodic moments. The show's hit ballad, "I Don't Know How to Love Him" (with its clunky lyric "In very many ways, he's just one more"--seriously, very many?) is admittedly pretty, but not really a knockout. So much of Lloyd-Webber's style--of which I'm familiar with from later works--is here already fully evident. As well as his fatal lack of editing; his deadly passages of recitative; and some of his worst heavy metal pawning. It doesn't help that there's nothing interesting in the score until "Everything's Alright," nearly 20 minutes in. And aside from some incredible geological formations there's not much to look at either. The first video--er, musical sequence that brings any energy into the picture is "Simon Zealotes," but that's in great measure for turning into a  desert  Hullabaloo -- the   dancers   going   full   tilt; 
more convincing in their zealotry for Michael Bennett than Jesus Christ. (The choreography is by Rob Iscove--a TV regular--who was seriously injured during the filming, falling off a 30 foot platform.) "Pilate's Dream" sounds like a song borrowed from Man of La Mancha--which in this case is almost welcome. The Hawaiian-born singer, Yvonne Elliman lays down her definitive "I Don't Know How to Love Him" in anguished, candlelit closeup. It's a nice respite from the hard-driven recitative--too often scream-sung in the rock tradition, and not the better for it. Prime example is Jesus's soliloquy, "Gethsemane," a melody heard post crucifixion as a lovely symphonic requiem (titled "John 19:41") simply hasn't the same grace when sung like David Lee Roth. There's a long slog thru the second half, the narrative severely lacking musicality. 
"King Herod's Song," is a much needed change of pace, but it's the only levity in the entire show and bears a burden it cannot satisfy. As a bit of vaudeville it's woefully pedestrian--a rinky-dink tune set to witless words. And as led by Josh Mostel (Zero's son) it's no showpiece. "Could We Start Again, Please? (written on O'Horgan's suggestion--presumably to add some warmth into the tuneless second act) is another welcome break, shot spectaculalry on desolate rocky hilltops. 
But the march to death is mostly a chore to the ear, enlivened (if that's the word) by the abruptly modern title song. Jesus isn't resurrected in this show, Judas is (which in itself is weird), flying in from above, garbed in late-Elvis fringe, to lead "Superstar," as some sort of Galilee-a-Go-Go, complete with faux Supremes and laser lights. The song doesn't finish as much as cross-cut into JC carrying the cross to his inevitable death. I don't get the idea behind the whole sequence; it's a rare false note in the use of anarchornisms. Jewison indulges them sparingly--and mostly effectively; Jesus flashing on his ultimate fate thru a montage of Christian iconography; Judas chased by a fleet of tanks; the priests on scaffolding at the ancient sites--these are clever, even thoughtful. I especially like the touch of the drugstore postcard rack in the Temple black market. As a music video, on its own, "Superstar" stands as one of the pic's few musical highlights, but as a rock show finale leading into crucifixion, it's as awful as the urban junkyard version in Godspell. But once the scene is played, Jewison returns the cast to the bus, a subtle nod to curtain call as they climb aboard, Carl Anderson last to gaze upon the hill as the bus pulls away. Ted Neeley is notably absent in both arrival and departure--as if to suggest Jesus too sacred to be human, let alone an actor. The credits (all at the end) roll entirely in silence.

But if the score isn't as horrible as I thought, neither is it any more interesting. Tim Rice's lyrics are best excused by his youth. It's not so much that they're banal and repetitive--which they are--but that they're utterly lacking in poetry. "Always hoped that I'd be an apostle/Knew that I would make it if I tried." "Prove to me that you're no fool/Walk across my swimming pool." They get worse attempting hipness:  "What's the buzz?/Tell me what's happening" "I couldn't cope/just couldn't cope;" "I never thought it would come to this/What's it all about?" (Alfie?)
Or just plain inarticulate:

     If you knew the path we were riding
     You'd understand it even less than I

What the hell does that even mean? The more I exam the text, the less I understand of Jesus's motives or his very characterization. Best we leave it at that, as I don't feel the need to delve into any deeper examination. I found the movie more interesting to watch with the commentary track from Jewison & Ted Neeley (from 2004). Unsurprisingly, they venerate the picture, but what comes across stronger is their affection for the memory of its making. Now that I can understand and respect. Neeley even has a meltdown by the end of the viewing, and tho it's partly in relation to the events of the story, it's clearly a deeper well of feeling for the communal adventure among the natural elements; the full immersive once-in-a-lifetime experience--an early Burning Man carnival. (Neeley would also meet his wife there, one of the corps of dancers) Given that plate of nostalgia, I'd probably love this also, beyond reason. But tho I don't really like the movie, that doesn't mean I don't recognize Jewison made about the best film possible given the material he had to work with.
I must also acknowledge that the work--the album, the opera, the movie--has a huge fan base above and beyond the usual musical theater acolytes; one for whom the fairy tales of Christianity hold sway. With the horrors perpetuated daily in the world today--which remain essentially unchanged thru all human history--I find it absurd to hold Jesus as the savior of mankind, and exploit his gruesome demise as an instrument of torture porn. Catholics have long layered pain and self-afflicition in with the rapture; it's the Agony they claim leads to Ecstasy (which Mel Gibson carried to new extremes in his Passion of the Christ.) Here we must endure no less than 39 lashes, while Lloyd-Webber whips our ears with a hard-rock crescendo. In the end it's all agony to me; as phony and manipulative as any super-hero franchise in today's comic book Hlwd--which come to think of it makes for cult followers as well. Jewison & Neeley end their commentary viewing deeply moved. Their feelings are tangible and illuminating; touching even. But for me, the film's seminal climax draws no particular emotion. Like Morales confesses in A Chorus Line, "I felt nothing." Show me Harold Hill's surrender and I'm a soggy mess. But I've seen what Hill has done, all the good he's wrought. What do we see of Jesus in Superstar? Just one sour complainer, chronic scowler and accuser, espousing carpe diem one moment, obsessing over his legacy the next. A far more affecting and coherent version of this story was made 15 years later by Martin Scorcese, with a more effective, less intrusive (instrumental) score by Peter Gabriel. Inevitably, The Last Temptation of Christ. brewed controversy as well, tho not for reducing the story to kitsch.

But Jesus was nowhere on my mind in 1973. While my San Jose State classmates were "directing" by drawing blocking diagrams for one act plays, or "writing" shoot-'em-up dramas that hadn't any sense of theatricality, I was writing, directing & producing a full-length revue, Cracked Ice, at my inspirational junior college, DeAnza. Once it was clear that SJS refused me credit, or that any of my so-called teachers had even an ounce of curiosity, I stopped going to classes. To no surprise my parents didn't take well to my flunking the whole semester. What surprised me was how I felt: liberated, unburdened and guilt-free in disconnecting from the tyranny of grades. SJS taught me nothing valuable about theater or anything I didn't already know, and recognizing that was only going to get me started sooner. With further school in doubt, I decided to just stay in New York after that summer's sojourn--contingent on finding employment; a plan my parents grudgingly accepted, even as they must've been equally glad to be rid of me, as I of them. But I was also going over to the enemy: Baba--father's imperial mother; whom they blamed for poisoning my mind with her damning opinions (mostly, of them). But I'd seen enuf over 20 years of living with these bizarre and secretive aliens to form my own (similar) views. Not that Baba wasn't crazy in her own, more lovable, way. She ruled the roost with a tyrannical hand over her legally-blind, feeble-minded sister, Vera and old Russian boarder, Pavel (the very model of Uncle Fester--oh to have had an iphone camera then!) Four rooms with kitchen & bath on the top floor of a decaying apartment block on Broadway & 141st. After three summers I'd gotten used to the smelly old Puerto-Rican/Russian neighborhood, which now became my sanctuary; my Ellis Island to Bway. Tho Baba and Bway had nothing to do with one another, it was my good fortune they were in the same vicinity. Otherwise, I could never have afforded to move to NY so soon. I was still being coddled; paying no rent, having few responsibilites, fed nightly meals.

My few months at Books Inc. in Palo Alto, gave me the résumé to walk into a bookstore at the newly built One Astor Plaza--the first modern high rise to invade Times Square; (on the site of the old Astor Hotel--which, alas, I never saw)--and talk myself into a full-time job. Exciting as it (briefly) was to work at Bway Ground Zero, my Pakistani bosses were needless tyrants, and by September I had enuf experience to graduate to Brentano's on Fifth Avenue--in the multi-leveled store's paperback cellar. Here I'd make my first Big City pals, and gather my wits over 18 months before finding my door into the theater. Armed with a similar résumé, my best bud Bill (who had stayed with me at Baba's the previous three summers) packed his Datsun and drove 'cross country to take over my job in Times Square. Simultaneoulsy, another of my DeAnza pals, Ken Sailor, came to taste the Big Apple. Baba found rooms for them both in the apartment of another Russian dowager directly across the street. Thus we three California boys experienced our first East Coast autumn and winter. Bill's car, which became a parking albatross was also an excuse to indulge in late night drives to a deserted Wall Street, in a midnight Times Square, or around Central Park, thru fall foliage or winter's snow. This was a lot more exciting than Cupertino or Canoga Park.

But above all else, living in NY gave me access to theater, film and culture on a scale that was breathtaking. Of course my first priority was attending my first Bway season from start to finish. And with the thrilling bonus of attending opening nights! Tho they, like the seasons, weren't what they used to be. My initial first-night--and the season's first musical, was Raisin--a perfectly respectable musicalization of the Lorraine Hansberry play, but one that never caught fire and over time hasn't stolen any thunder from the original play, which keeps coming back with a surprising regularity. A much sadder vehicle, Kaye Ballard as Molly (Goldberg), was a fast flop (my first--and neither bad or notorious enuf to brag about). Having seen Lerner & Loewe's resurrection of Gigi in its spring tryout in SF--where I was underwhelmed, I didn't bother to subject myself to further disappointment. Of course I had opening night tix for the revival of The Pajama Game--which on the eve of my 21st birthday, seemed a gift from the Gods. But it wasn't the sizzling production it needed to be, and rather anemically cast. The highlight that fall was Harold Prince's environmental playground production of Candide at BAM in Brooklyn. This rescued the show from cult oblivion, and even won a Tony for Hugh Wheeler's rewritten libretto--Lillian Hellman's into the dustbin. Another discovery was the pocket Equity Library Theater high up on West 103rd St.--which drew me to their Call Me Madam (on the basis of my affection for the movie). It was done with such joy and polish that we were drawn back for other shows over time, including what was surely the very first NY revival of Follies--done credibly well on a postage-stamp sized stage. Bill, Ken and I saw over twenty shows those first six months--among them a few highlights such as Peter Cook & Dudley Moore in Good Evening, and Neil Simon's Chekov comedy, The Good Doctor, where we saw Audrey Hepburn first-nighting it in the flesh--one of the few celebrity sightings that left me breathless. There was a stunning revival of Durrenmatt's The Visit, starring Rachel Roberts & John McMartin, directed by Harold Prince (while concurrently building his mousetrap Candide--cementing his office as my future target). On the other hand, perhaps the most affecting theatrical experience of all was Lanford Wilson's Hot l Baltimore at the Circle in the Square on Bleecker St. Much as I loved musicals, who said I was destined to write one? Maybe I was made to write plays like this instead.

Like most boys of a certain bent, we had our Divas. Babs, of course, in those early mega-movie years. Liza, not Judy (she was for the older crowd), Cass Eliot, and Grace Slick, our rock goddess. But the most accessible, and the most fun of all was Bette Midler. From her first appearance on Johnny Carson, Bill and I were in her pocket. We were in New York for her first Carnegie Hall concert in June of '72. 
Now, as another 21st birthday present to me, Midler came to the Palace that December in what I know Bill will agree was the show she would never surpass. We were outside the Palace one dark, early evening when Miss M walked by, tiny and nearly invisbile under knit cap and heavy coat. But it was indeed she, who stopped to chat with a friend in our earshot. Hours later she would take command of that venerable stage like nobody's business. The curtain rose on the second half to a giant high heel shoe; the Harlette's chirping, Oz's "Optimistic Voices" ("You're out of the woods/You're out of the dark/You're out of the night") before Bette appeared on top the shoe's heel launching into "The Lullaby of Broadway." It was one of those moments you remember as losing your mind in euphoria. The very next month, Liza sold out two weeks at the Winter Garden in what I believe was her best show ever; staged entirely by Bob Fosse. (Portions of Bette's show were staged by Michael Bennett) Thru fresh eyes and youth, enthusiasm is easily accrued. I was too busy enjoying my freedom and life along the Rialto to notice it wasn't a "Golden Age" on Bway anymore.

But if the Fabulous Invalid was ailing, the American cinema--tho we didn't quite know it yet--was fomenting a Renaissance thru the ranks of new young turks: Coppola, Altman, Scorcese, DePalma, Bogdanovich, Mazursky, Allen, Spielberg, and someone named George Lucas--who came out of nowhere that summer with a slice of California nostalgia that cut so deep into my roots, I took it as an elegy for my youth. (Tho I still had a lot of growing up to do.) American Graffiti opened with little fanfare at the boutique Sutton theater on 57th St (which became one of my favorite houses) the same August week that Jesus Christ Superstar was unspooled at the Rivoli, just a month after the Bway edition closed. But the old Roadshow palace (which had last housed Man of La Mancha, as its final hard-ticket engagement) was no longer a viable venue for exclusive runs in a deteriorating Times Square, thus the film opened as well in Murray Hill and the Upper East Side. I shut it out of my radar immediately, but apparently it did well enuf to be the #8 grossing movie of 1973, eventually totaling $12,960,000 in rentals--not even half of Jewison's Fiddler, tho not exactly bad. Still it was an expensive project and Universal promoted it heavily at Oscar time. The studio had another costly investment and clear favorite (as well as ultimate winner) in The Sting, but it was another Universal release that stole whatever was left in the Academy pool: the made-on-a-shoestring American Graffiti--which was embraced by the public and industry alike, taking a surprise Best Pic nomination over Last Tango in Paris, Serpico, Paper Moon, Mean Streets and The Way We Were. That it also became one of the most profitable movies in Hlwd history is no surprise to me.  I paid at least half a dozen admissions. But Superstar never made a dime off of me.

Next Up: Mame

Report Card:  Jesus Christ Superstar
Overall Film:  C
Stage Fidelity:  A (material) C (staging)
Songs from Bway: 24
Songs Cut from Bway: 2
New Songs:  1: "Then We Are Decided"
Standout Numbers: "Simon Zealotes"
   "Superstar" "Could We Start Again, Please?"
Casting: Heavy with show's veterans
Standout Cast: Carl Anderson, Baayork Lee
Cast from Bway: Yvonne Elliman, Ted Neeley,
     Barry Dennen. Bob Bingham (Caiaphas)
Direction:  Thoughtful, interesting, kitsch-free
Choreography:  Galilee-a-Go-Go
Scenic Design:  Nature, scaffolding on ruins
Costumes:  Mix of period & contemporary
Standout Locations: Take your pick
Titles: Plain end titles in silence
Oscar noms:  1 (scoring-Andre Previn)

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