Ted Neely gives all the glory to the director. “Thank God Norman Jewison decided to make this film,” said Ted during our recent conversation. “Had it been any other director, it would not have had the same sort of effect. He was fine-tuning every moment.”
In August 2013, I interviewed Ted Neeley on the occasion of the film’s 40th Anniversary and just prior to its screening at San Francisco’s Castro Theatre. Ted would be there to greet the fans. The week before, the film played in Hollywood to a capacity crowd at the TCL Chinese Theatre (formerly known as Grauman’s Chinese Theatre) where he appeared along with “Pilate” – Barry Dennen. Both theaters used a vintage 70mm print.
“For years, I’d been trying to get Universal Pictures to do this screening thing. And they weren’t being dis-respectful, but they constantly said, ‘Ted, there’s really no demand for it. The film is forty years old, it would cost a lot of money, we don’t know if there’s any income…’ It was basically their gentle way of saying, ‘No!’”
Ted met with San Francisco-based music and film producer Frank Munoz. They began brainstorming a plan to resurrect the film from the vaults at Universal Pictures and get it back into circulation.
“Frank turns out to be a great fan of Superstar. He’s worked with Metallica for a long time and has connections throughout Rock Music. We started talking to people who have connections in various places. It didn’t quite work. I got to the point where I was so frustrated – because I know there is a fan base. People contact me all the time!”
I mentioned to Ted that as a vocal coach, I push my clients into naming the material they’ve always wanted to sing and the dream venues where it might all happen. I discovered that Ted and I shared one young dream in common.
“As a child – even in Ranger, Texas – I heard about Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, where the big stars put their hand prints and footprints in cement. It’s where the Academy Award ceremonies took place in the beginning. I’ve always been fascinated by the structure of that building. So, we decided to call them to see what they would say. It turned out that the general manager is also the biggest fan of Superstar. ‘Let’s do it!’ he says. The response was unbelievable. As a result of that – since Frank lives in San Francisco – he called the general manager at the Castro Theatre. He said that he didn’t know if there was enough of a demand to show the film by itself, but suggested a double bill. Maybe Godspell? I enjoy the film, but the die-hard Superstar fans do not. I suggested Monty Python’s Life of Brian. ‘Let’s do it!’ he says.” The Box Office receipts from both events were enough to tweak Universal’s attention.
“Then we had another meeting and said that what we wanted to do is get an up-graded digital print of this baby because people love it and want to see it in the best possible quality. So, they gave us the right to do that. Now, instead of carrying around these film containers, we just plug in the DCP. And, again, because of its success at the Castro, all of those theaters we’ve been calling for years – and hearing them claim there isn’t any sort of demand for the film – they are now calling us saying, ‘When can we be on your schedule?’”
“Now we’re working the same chain at Universal and addressing the sound track. Love it or not, the soundtrack is magnificent. But the quality is not up to par. Frank Munoz and I have been working diligently to get them to agree to let us do a complete re-mastering and re-mix of the soundtrack. And we’re really close. I have my genius engineer working on it. We made an agreement with Universal that I would do a certain amount of songs and bring it in for them to hear the difference. I want to be able to sit down in a theatre and have that thing be so visually beautiful and make that soundtrack feel like you’re at a Metallica concert.”
Not all lead Rock tenors have Broadway on their minds. It’s mostly about a lack of interest in portraying a character – night after night. Young leading Broadway tenors who carry the Rock gene know how to ace an audition for a Pop Rock musical or Rock Opera. Some write their own material and release recordings as Rock artists. Last year, Ted turned seventy-one during a year long stint in Italy – a record-breaking tour of Jesus Christ Superstar directed by Massimo Romeo Piparo. The outdoor theatre where they played in Verona has been around since 1700. When the theatre is booked for Verdi’s Aïda, it’s understood the “Triumphal March” will include a pack of elephants.
“The Arena Di Verona! In the film, where we did the trial sequence with Pilate and Christ and the the thirty-nine lashes – that’s what this theatre in Verona looks like, except it seats 15,000 people. It’s where the Verona Opera Company has celebrated their yearly season for a hundred-and-one years. They invited our production there. It’s the first time ever that a rock opera has been part of their season. It was just unbelievable. But it sold-out and we had to add a second show.”
Could we start again, please? Sure. A second tour of Italy begins in Milan at the Teatro Nuovo shortly after the movie plays the Chiller Festival in Parsippany, New Jersey. At this special screening, Ted has organized a reunion: Yvonne Elliman, Barry Dennen, Bob Bingham (Caiaphas), Kurt Yaghjian (Annas), Josh Mostel (Herod), and Larry Marshall (Simon Zealotes). In the meantime, his classic recording, Ted Neeley 1974 A.D. has been re-mastered and his latest CD, Rock Opera, includes a specially engineered track – a duet with the late Carl Anderson, “God’s Gift to the World.”
Obviously, the hand of Destiny is in all this. The evidence is overwhelming and has been mounting-up over four decades. In the rarified world of Rock Opera, Ted Neeley was born to the purple. The character of Mama Rose in Gypsy sums it up best: Ya either got it, or ya ain’t.
So, Ted! How are your High Cs these days?
“Believe it or not, they’re stronger than ever. I can’t understand it – they should have been gone. There were times, especially in Rome – being in a different climate and atmosphere during the springtime, with all the pollen that I’ve never been around – it really effected all of us. Most of the time, I was the only American there. Yvonne Elliman and Barry Dennen came and spent six weeks with me during the summer doing Mary and Pilate. That was just remarkable. But as the seasons change, so changes the air. It just kicks the hell out of your respiratory system. But even when I had a little trouble with the vocal range, I could scream those high notes all day. It’s freaky. Whatever it is – it’s always there. That just amazes me.”
Hey sanna, Hosanna!