What would Jesus do…in Pittsburgh?

Jul 12, 2015 | 2552 Views | 5 Comments

He’d have his “superstar” world premiere, of course. On July 12, 1971, the first authorized production of the Tim Rice/Andrew Lloyd Webber rock opera “Jesus Christ Superstar” was staged in my fair city, Pittsburgh, PA. Quite appropriate, actually, considering it’s the birthplace of the man who coined the term superstar: Andy Warhol! The musical starred Jeff Fenholt as a laid-back, hippiefied Jesus, Carl Anderson as a prescient, forewarning Judas, and Yvonne Elliman as a sexy Mary Magdalene.

Screen Shot 2015-08-22 at 1.08.05 AMThe first staged production of the musical didn’t occur until after the British songwriting duo released the controversial 2-disc concept LP in the U.K. in 1970. While Rice and Webber struggled to obtain financing to launch their own theatrical production of the last days of Christ, unlicensed versions of the musical started popping up in the United States, where the album was wildly received. The first live performance took place in June 1971, staged by high school students in Southold, New York. But this performance, like hundreds of others to follow, was unauthorized, and the play’s writers filed lawsuits to shut them all down. So, Pittsburgh had the honor of hosting the very first sanctioned version of the rock opera. A crowd of 13,000 people turned out to see the play at the city’s domed, space-age Civic Arena, the world’s first major sports/entertainment venue to feature a retractable roof (it was demolished in 2012).

The now-legendary opera finally opened on Broadway on October 12, 1971, to mixed reviews and closed on June 30, 1973, after 711 performances. The musical then got the Hollywood treatment in 1973, when it was adapted into a movie directed by Norman Jewison and starring Ted Neeley and Carl Anderson. After having listened to the original British recording hundreds of times, bowled over by the singing of Ian Gillan (former lead singer of Deep Purple) as Jesus and Murray Head as Judas, I never warmed to the vocal performances of the film’s stars or of subsequent stage actors. (Listen to this clip of Ian Gillan’s voice, and compare it to the vocal in the video below.)  All said, the music and lyrics are phenomenal, no matter who wears the robe.

While we’re on the subject of superstars – celestial and otherwise – here are a few interesting casting facts. It’s been said that Rice and Webber had John Lennon in mind as they wrote their musical. In 1969 John was offered the role of Jesus, but turned it down. Was it because the authors wouldn’t grant John’s supposed request to cast Yoko as Mary Magdalene, or because he was still recovering from the backlash over his “Beatles are bigger than Christ” remark in 1966? No one knows for sure. When producers began casting the film version, Mick Jagger, Mr. “Sympathy for the Devil” himself, was the top choice to play Jesus, but also declined. Next on the list was TV teen idol David Cassidy, who would have made a very pretty, but vocally weak Jesus. Personally, I’d like to have seen what David Bowie would have done with the role!

In the end, however, the film part went to Ted Neeley, who was Jeff Fenholt’s understudy during the first Broadway run. Ted’s very wired performance elicited some interesting reviews. Newsweek‘s Paul D. Zimmerman said Neeley’s “Jesus often recalls Charles Manson.” Bruce Williamson of Playboy said that Neeley’s “portrayal of Christ ought to fix him permanently in public memory as the Screamin’ Jesus.”

Director Norman Jewison could be partly to blame for Neeley’s theatrics. Talk about “screamin’ Jesus!” Here, a screamin’ Jewison gushes about his very beautiful film in a very beautiful interview in Playboy magazine:

“We made it into a spiritual experience and it’s beautiful, and Jesus is beautiful, the kids are beautiful, it’s going to be a beautiful film. People are going to see it in drive-ins and neighborhood ‘nowhere’ theaters and they’re going to be moved by it. People who were never moved by this story before. People who always thought that Jesus Christ was some kind of schmuck. They’re going to see something beautiful and they’re going to cry. They won’t be able to help themselves. When you really come to think of it, we’re doing Him a favor.”

Ah, don’t ya just love Hollywood?

Here’s a scene from the JC Superstar movie:

© Dana Spiardi, Feb 20, 2014

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Responses

  1. Gerrie Fitzgibbon says:

    July 11th, 2012 at 9:43 pm (#)

    Dana,
    Love your blogs!
    When is the new Broadway production set to go on tour?

  2. Dana Spiardi says:

    July 11th, 2012 at 9:54 pm (#)

    Gerrie, the show wrapped up it’s latest Broadway run on July 1, but I’m sure it will return. Those Superstars like JC get bored when they’re not touring.

    Thanks for reading my posts!!!

  3. David says:

    July 12th, 2012 at 4:58 am (#)

    Everything is beautiful. What a beautiful article for a beautiful blog from a beautiful writer. Beautiful, man. Sorry, I couldn’t help myself.

  4. Jane of the Desert says:

    July 16th, 2015 at 5:10 pm (#)

    Who knew? I was living in downtown Pittsburgh in 1971 and I didn’t know this. That musical must still be making tons of money for Rice and Webber. There have been two productions of it in Tucson in the amount of time I’ve lived here.

  5. Gary of NC says:

    July 23rd, 2015 at 9:20 pm (#)

    I was at the premiere at the Civic Arena that July 12th, 1971, evening and still have the program, framed and hanging in my home. We knew we were a part of something special. The audience became one with the performers, the stage was flooded with flowers at the end, and cars drove through the city beeping their horns as we left the arena. It was a night that I have never forgotten!

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