In the Desert With 'Jesus Christ Superstar'

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Clip Job: an excerpt every day from the Voice archives.
August 16, 1973, Vol. XVIII, No. 33

Son of Son of God?
by Cynthia Grenier

EN BOQEQ, Israel -- We're 1286 feet below sea level. Total night, with a paring of a new moon and a sprinkle of fiercely bright stars. Suddenly day happens as if brought up by a master brightener. The sky is light blue and cloudless. The mountainous coast of Jordan stands pale violet across the wide motionless mirror surface of the Dead Sea. The first buses with cast and crew have already left.

It's a half-hour drive south, beside the Dead Sea, to the location -- past cliffs, their surfaces beveled by millennia of wind and rain, then off on an exceedingly bumpy dirt road into the vastness of the white-beige Negev. The car brakes behind a hillock. Utter silence. Then blaring forth, a disembodied full orchestra and chorus: "Christ you know I love you Did you see I waved?" It's "Jesus Christ Superstar" in action.

And there, half a mile on the far side of the hillock in the middle of miles of nothingness, shimmering through heat waves, is a fake Roman ruin, and amid its broken columns Norman Jewison high on a mobile camera crane surveying his 200 or so actors, dancers, singers, technicians, crew, and water boys. Blacks, white, Americans, British, Israelis, Christians, Jews, atheists, Muslims are joined in the daily expenditure of their labor and $40,000 of Universal Pictures' money for 12 weeks to bring the Passion of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ to the screen.

The is the last day of the Simon Zelotes number. Positioned about the ruins are Roman centurions -- young Israeli extras -- longhaired under shiny silver U.S. army helmets, dark purple undershirts bearing the head of Caesar, Israeli army pants and ankle-high boots. Some leaning on spears, others at ease with submachine gun lightly poised at their hips. Pilate's wife and her two attendants stand by a column, the wind whipping their purple silk jersey robes out nearly vertical. It is very very hot. Overhead a Phantom Jet hisses high through the sky beyond the hills into Jordan.

"Playback!" calls Jewison. "I believe in you and God So tell me I am saved." The Apostles and their women come leaping joyously down a wide ramp from off the desert in a series of great balletic jetties executed with immaculate precision. The object of their adoration sits trimly muscular in a pair of blue swim trunks and biblical sandals in their sight line on a low dais, having just shucked off his handwoven white linen robe. "Great," says Jewison. "Like a Coca Cola commercial -- only better." They break for lunch.

Jesus Christ

The superstar pulls his robe back on and sets out on foot for the base camp where the food tents are -- 15 minutes across the desert, which gives under your feet like sponge cake. Everyone else boards the air-conditioned buses.

His name is Teddy Neeley, age 29, born and raised in Ranger, Texas, population 2000. Neatly regular features, shoulder-length sun-bleached light brown hair, sparse beard -- the very image of the Christ of cheap religious art. He has a genuinely sweet, nicely friendly smile; he is touchingly sincere, gentle, and above all natural. Teddy says he grew up as a Southern Baptist -- "We were real Bible thumpers. I guess I really did believe heart and soul that Jesus died to save us. And that's the way I played him on stage" (Teddy understudied the lead in New York, played it in Los Angeles), "as the Son of God. But for the film, it's, well, I'm playing him as a man -- it's harder, much harder. It's all got to come from inside: the fears, the doubts -- the terrible doubts -- the conflict, the feelings about power." He speaks as one seriously concerned but not at all pretentiously or doing the actor thing. "I've been reading an awful lot about the historical Jesus: 'The Jesus Report,' 'The Passover Plot.' I don't know, maybe he never did even exist," Teddy smiles, faintly sadly, "but his problems still do seem very real."

The Director

Authority comes easily and sits well on Norman Jewison, 46, Canadian, thick white hair to the ear lobes, faded blue denim work shirt and jeans, a double strand of tiny Israeli glass beads; very bright, alert, intelligent eyes. In the cool green shadow of the large mess tent he efficiently puts away a good meal as he talks about "Jesus Christ Superstar."

The one work about Jesus Christ that really got to him, he says, was Pasolini's "The Passion According to Saint Matthew." It can count as a real influence in how he undertook to bring the Webber-Rice rock oratorio to the screen. "I must have seen the film eight, nine times. The simplicity of the approach, the feel about the presentation of the Gospel in all its starkness, the successful anachronistic mixing of costumes and decors, its genuine Christian quality -- it's great. The one thing there won't be in my film is any 'King of Kings' flavor -- that I can guarantee you. The New York production was very plastic, the Los Angeles one simpler, but the film is going to be even simpler, more human-scaled. In what way will it differ from the stage productions? The film will be more caustic. It will express more doubts. It will exist on more levels, and" -- he gives a small smile -- "it will be more intelligent."

Jewison says Universal has left him entirely in peace on the film, except for requesting him to kindly refrain from showing any registered U.S. trademarks such as "the Diners' Club" or "Bank of America" in the sequence where Christ drives the merchants from the Temple.

Of Anglo-Saxon stock growing up in Toronto, Jewison experienced anti-Semitism on a personal, everyday level from kindergarten on because of misinterpretation of his family name. "Oh yes, Jew boy, kick, sheeny. The lot, all through childhood and adolescence." He shrugs like a man who's successfully weathered an experience but not forgotten it. His forced assimilation with Jews led Jewison fairly early to considerable interest in this people and traditions long before he got involved in "Fiddler on the Roof." "I tell you, I can give any Talmudic scholar a run for his money today."

Judas

In the Simon Zelotes number Carl Anderson as Judas doesn't have much more to do than stand by a column watching the crowd going mad for Jesus, and look disturbed. He has resolutely resisted all efforts of Jewison and choreographer Rob Iscove to incorporate him into the dance numbers in which any number of non-dancing extras have been trained to participate. "You just don't want to understand," he says. "I am probably the only black cat in the world with no sense of rhythm. I can't dance, man, that's it."

Later he took most of a day to come down after his 30 pieces of silver in the desert scene -- "Damed for All Time" -- which Jewison shot with five Israeli tanks lumbering relentlessly after him. "Norman said wait till they're 20 feet from you and start running. Man, I ran. Those tanks they chased my ass off. If I'd stumbled I'd have had it. There was so much dust they couldn't see me and I couldn't see them. Woooo. Three takes and all I do man is run. Chick Waterson, the cameraman, had it rough in the next shot where two jets dive-bomb me. He's the man who got hit by a plane wing shooting 'The Blue Max' in Ireland the other year and like he's a little plane shy. They only came over twice -- at 70 feet -- but Jesus I felt if I reached up I could touch them with my fingertips."

The Company

Long-haired and sweet-mannered with the sort of real faces, nice faces, interesting faces, but none of your pretty glamor Hollywood casting faces. Oldest member of the group is Barry Dennen, age 33, who's Pilate, as he was on the original record. There's a kind of communal, we're-all-involved-in-something-we-care-a-lot-about spirit while being pleasantly cool. They have a dedication to the task at hand; an enthusiasm and a mood of agape prevails which is certainly not typical show biz or movie set.

The costumes and off-hours clothes of the company are almost interchangeable; the film outfits, in terry cloth in soft beiges, blues, lavenders, and pinks, simply blend a bit more with the landscape, but the general air is about the same. Nobody wears any make-up worth mention except for Botticelli-faced Apostle Jeff Hyslop, who when he hit the desert at the wind-up of the Simon Zelotes number opened his chin nine stitches worth on a serrated plastic spoon buried in the sand -- pollution -- and has to have the bandage tinted to skin tone.

Mary Magdalene

Yvonne Eliman sits in the shade of the sound engineer's truck and wishes they made movies faster. Long black hair, smooth gentle face, Japanese mother, French father. She and Barry Denen are alone among the cast to have lasted from the original record through the two stage productions to the film. "I hated the music then," she says. "I did it for the bread. I was into drugs and all that, and thought Grace Slick and the Jefferson Airplane was it." She is more than a little surprised and quite pleased to be where she is today. "Listen, when I was little you know what my ambition was? To be a waitress. So anything I do now I'm ahead, right?"

Yvonne says the role hasn't had much contact with her own psyche, as it were, but "gee, what it's done for Teddy. Before he started playing Jesus he really used to be rather nasty, you know. And now he turns the other cheek. Really, I mean I've seen him turn aside blows. This has been a good scene for him."

[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]

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