Interview: Memories of Jesus Christ Superstar at 50, With Ted Neeley and Yvonne Elliman
Neeley and Elliman reunite on stage for Superstars in Concert later this month.
Fifty years ago, Ted Neeley landed a role that would change his life. A few years before that, the same thing happened to Yvonne Elliman. Both were practically kids when they became attached to Jesus Christ Superstar, and now, five decades later, they display a youthful vigor when talking about the iconic project.
Elliman was singing in London when Andrew Lloyd Webber discovered her and subsequently hired her to sing the role of Mary Magdalene on the concept album he and Tim Rice were putting together. She subsequently played the role on a concert tour, on Broadway, on screen, and, decades later, in Italy.
Neeley was in a rock band when he was dragged to an open call for Hair. The show's director, Tom O'Horgan, hired him and invited him to later audition for the Broadway premiere of Superstar, where Neeley landed the role of the Jesus understudy. After playing Jesus on film for Norman Jewison (opposite Ellliman), it became the character for which Neeley was synonymous. He's played Jesus on stage more than 5,500 times, and has plans to continue this fall in Italy.
Before that, he and Elliman will share the stage in Superstars in Concert, on September 17 and 18 at the Regent Theater in Arlington, Massachusetts, and will host a screening of the Jesus Christ Superstar film there on September 19. Here's what they have to say about the concert, and the divine nature of this iconic show.
These conversations have been condensed and edited for clarity.
I hear this concert is years in the making.
Ted Neeley: This is something that Yvonne and I have wanted to do for such a long time.
Yvonne Elliman: We've been wanting to do this for years. It's the third time we've booked this thing, and we're finally gonna get there.
Ted: If it weren't for the pandemic, we wouldn't have been able to put it together.
What can people expect?
Ted: Songs that everybody will recognize from our careers. I did Hair, Tommy, Jesus Christ Superstar, and Sgt. Pepper. Yvonne was in Saturday Night Fever and Superstar and has traveled all over the world, so we sing from each one of those. And we want the fans to sing along with us as much as possible.
Yvonne: I'm sorry that people have to wear masks — they can sing in their masks but we won't hear them too well. But that's one of the great things about a live show. You get to mix it up with the audience.
Ted: And then we're screening the Jesus Christ Superstar film on Sunday. We have a brand-new digital remaster, and the visuals and sound ... it looks like it was just completed yesterday.
It's the 50th anniversary of Jesus Christ Superstar on Broadway in a couple weeks. How did you land your roles?
Yvonne: I was singing at the Pheasantry in London. One night, the owner told me I had to go on in place of Jon Hendricks of Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross, who didn't show up. Andrew Lloyd Webber had come that night to see him to potentially play Pontius Pilate on the album. I went up and played my ass off. I did "Where Have All the Flowers Gone," "Can't Find My Way Home," everything I knew. I was sweaty and happy because I had done all these great songs and Andrew ran up to me and said, "You're my Mary Magdalene!" And I was like "Yeah!" I didn't know who it was. I thought it was Mary the mother. He mentioned that he was making a record and I wanted to do it because all I wanted was to see my voice in the grooves on the vinyl. That was the biggest thing I could shoot for at the time.
I went down to his flat and listened to the beautiful song ("I Don't Know How to Love Him") and I thought "That's a funny song for a mother to sing to her son." And Andrew said "Darling, she's not the mother," and I was like "Oh. That's different then." I sang the song in one take and boom, that was it. I had to audition for the Broadway show, and the movie, too. There were women who were chomping at the bit for that role. Since I had done it on the record, they were like, "Oh, that fits." So they gave me the role.
Ted: I was in a screaming rock-and-roll band from Texas, and we were playing in Hollywood. There was a group of actors who would follow us, and one night, they invited me to go to an audition for Hair with them the next day. We get to the theater and it was packed with people — it was one of those auditions where you don't have to be in the union. The guys I was with made an arrangement to get me on the stage without my knowing it. I was halfway out the door when they called my number and they picked me up, threw me on the stage, and ran out. They asked me to sing a rock-and-roll song, so I sang Stevie Wonder's version of "For Once in My Life," and then they asked to sing a ballad, so I sang Tony Bennett's version of the same song. None of my actor friends got hired, but they hired me.
Hair was directed by Tom O'Horgan, who called me to audition again when he was hired to do Jesus Christ Superstar. I listened to the album and I auditioned for Judas, singing "Heaven on Their Minds." Tom told me it was great and to come back the next day and sing "the other guy." So I came back and sang "Gethsemane." They asked me to be the understudy for Jesus and eventually I got to perform, and I've been singing it for the rest of my life. All by accident.
Tell me one story you remember from the experience of doing the show either on stage or screen.
Ted: Every single performance was protested by people calling it sacrilegious. They would try to keep us from going in the stage door. Eventually, I would start inviting them to come watch the show as my guest, wait for me after, and tell me what it was they didn't like about it, because they hadn't seen our show. They hated the title, or they'd say, "Jesus didn't sing!" and I'd always want to say, "Were you there?" But I didn't, because I was afraid I'd get punched in the mouth. The people brave enough to cross the threshold into that den of iniquity would wait in the lobby and tell me how much they loved it. The protesters became our promoters.
Yvonne: When I was doing "Can We Start Again Please" for the film, they put me on a mountain and I was way far away, and the arms were out here. Norman Jewison came all the way over to me and said, "We can go this close. You don't have to do all that stuff." So I toned it down a bit. It was a great experience. Four months in Israel.
Ted, you've done the show thousands of times; Yvonne, you've not done it thousands of times, but a lot. Do you get tired of it? How do you keep it fresh?
Yvonne: I'm not tired of it now, but I was for a while back then. They only signed me for six months on Broadway because they knew I was a wandering soul. I did one song on my second album called "I Don't Know How to Love Him Blues," where I was totally rebelling. I purged myself a little bit, but now I'm just grateful.
Ted: I never once done a show where I've said "Oh god." Especially when I sing "Gethsemane." And believe it or not, and I can't believe it myself, the notes are still there. I have no problem whatsoever. But every time I have had the pleasure of singing that song is like the first time. You can feel the power of the audience coming up and holding you.
Yvonne: The fans are fans forever. It's incredible how much they love it. This project is gonna live way longer than I am.
Ted: When we did screenings of the film before the pandemic, I would always sit in the audience, and the minute it starts, everybody goes nuts. They come wearing costumes. They're dancing and singing. It's a magnificent celebration five decades later.