Tuesday night, March 17, the Castro Theatre in San Francisco hosts an encore performance of the 1973 mega classic, Jesus Christ Superstar. Ted Neeley and Barry Dennen – the Jesus and Pilate of the film, the original Broadway cast, and multiple productions since – will be onstage at 7:00 for a Q&A prior to the screening. According to Ted [See: “Jesus Christ Superstar” and Rock Star Ted Neeley – Behold, The Man!], the success of the 2013 40th Anniversary screening at the Castro prompted Universal Pictures to convert the original 70mm print into state-of-the-art DCP format. Dedicated fans will recognize the beauty of the upgrade. Plans are now underway to re-master the complete soundtrack and raise its quality to, as Ted expressed it, “make it feel like you’re at a Metallica concert.” In the meantime, the film’s glorious score will reverberate strong and true in the magnificent Castro Theatre.
[Click here to order tickets on-line.]
I began my conversation with Barry Dennen by confessing that at the time of the original 1971 Broadway production of Superstar – I was a Theatre Arts major at San Francisco State University and very-much-envious of the extraordinary opportunities that had come his way. Even though it helped to realize and accept that he was ten years older – still, with my then Shakespearean ambitions and his commanding performance as the MC in the West End production of Cabaret, I thought, “This guy is going to eat up every role that might ever come my way!” He apologized.
“I went to England in 1968 to play the MC in Cabaret with Judi Dench, Lila Kedrova, and Peter Sallis at the Palace Theatre. I recently found out that Andrew Lloyd Webber came and saw me several times. I was out of work when the show closed around Christmas time. I wanted to stay in England, but I knew they were going to kick me out in three months because I was on a visitor’s visa. I had to do something. You either marry somebody or create a project that brings in money for the British people. So, I went off for a while and wrote a screenplay which I tried to get produced.”
“It was about a Rock and Roll group. I went to my agency which at that time was the William Morris Agency and told them about my plan and that I needed a composer. They hooked me up with Murray Head. He was the original Judas on the brown album [the U.S. edition of the London Concept Album]. It was being recorded at that time. They hadn’t even found a Mary Magdalene yet! Murray and I started to work on some music. He said [Barry goes into a heavy British accent], ‘These blokes have written this rock opera called Jesus Christ. We recorded a single. They would like to meet you. Would you be interested?’ You bet I would!”
“I went out to a recording studio in Barnes where Tim and Andrew were working on what became Jesus Christ Superstar. They played me Murray’s single, Jesus Christ Superstar – which did pretty well in Holland and a couple of other countries. With that behind them, Decca put up the money to make the whole album. I sat there stupefied as I listened to it. I said, ‘This is going to be either a horrible fiasco or it’s going to be absolutely sensational. I think it’s going to be sensational. Of course, I’ll be in it.’ My agent wrote a contract to make the original recording and to get some royalties off it. Next thing I knew, I was in the studio recording Jesus Christ Superstar. They plumped-up the part for me. I don’t think Pilate’s Dream had been written yet. Then I was hired to do the film of Fiddler on the Roof.”
Barry Dennen was gifted with a distinguished and agile set of vocal chops. As evidenced on the original London cast album of Cabaret, his gutsy and animated interpretation of the role of the “MC” surpasses all other recordings. In the opening measures of “Willkommen, bienvenue, welcome!” Barry jumps deep into the subtext of the familiar lyrics, tossing around the international expressions and daring imagery with an aggressive assuredness and style that instantly hooks the imagination. As “Pilate” – in both the original cast recording and film soundtrack – his vocal expression darts from poetic subtlety to blistering attack in ways that instantly penetrate the listener’s heart. Pilate is angry with his enforced assignment. He has no choices in this grandest of schemes. Barry’s on-screen dynamism and physical allure, coupled with his voluminous expressions of pathos, resentment, and unhesitating love will mirror and challenge the subject of this Roman prefect for generations to come. The 2014 tour with Ted Neeley and Yvonne Elliman gave him new insight into the nature of his role.
“When Teddy and I played it in Italy, I had three days of rehearsal. The first time we ran through it, I thought, ‘This is not the same. It doesn’t feel the same, because in that iconic moment right after he’s been flogged – when I kneel down and scoop him up and get blood all over my hands – I looked into Teddy’s eyes and saw he was crying. And then I started to cry. Now I know what this production is about. It’s about two heterosexual men who fall in love with each other. And who are put into this horrible position. Neither of them can yield. Horrible martyrdom, painful death – at the hands of someone who is really attracted to this guy. If things were different, they’d be drinking buddies. But things aren’t different. I’m destroying the life of a gentleman – someone I would want to know better but who I have to kill. That changed everything. It brought the whole thing to life in a new and wonderful way.”
“What I didn’t realize when I went to Italy was that the Italians look at Teddy, Yvonne, me and all the people associated with the film as legends. They watch it every Easter and every Christmas, some of them watch it once a month. They actually call us ‘The Legends’. When we signed autographs and talked to people after the shows, every Italian I spoke to – who came up with their family to take a photo with me – stood in front of me trembling and crying. I have never had such a reaction. We were at this incredible Roman amphitheatre, the Arena Di Verona, for two days. I was on my way to rehearsal when a good looking young guy stops me. He’s trembling and crying and says, ‘You are my myth.’ And I said, ‘What did you say?’ ‘You are my myth.’ I’ve never received that kind of reaction from anybody.”
“I never stopped crying while I was in Italy. It was unreal. I had such a wonderful time. I love that company so much and everybody in it was beautiful. The rock band was the hottest band I’ve ever heard. The stage hands were gorgeous. Everyone was beautiful – and inside, too. Just lovely, lovely people. It was very hard for me to leave, but it was a wonderful experience and I’m glad I did it.”