'Superstar's' 2 Film Stars Are Reunited The Show, Opening Tuesday At The Merriam, Is Returning To Its Rock-and-roll Roots.

Posted: January 17, 1993

BALTIMORE — Carl Anderson saunters into the hotel coffee shop, unapologetically late, and jabs Ted Neeley with a large bottle of mineral water.

"Oh, no! It's right there in my back. Don't kill me!" jokes Neeley to his friend and co-star, the Judas to Neeley's Jesus.

The two are touring in Jesus Christ Superstar, the perennially popular Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice rock opera that first burst onto Broadway in 1971. On Tuesday, it will land at Philadelphia's Merriam Theater, where it will run through Jan. 31. This production, directed and choreographed by Tony Christopher, also features Irene Cara of Fame and Flashdance fame as Mary Magdalene and Dennis DeYoung of the rock band Styx, as Pontius Pilate. Early in its history, Jesus Christ Superstar - whose first incarnation was as a hit record album - was the target of protests by both Christian and Jewish groups offended by its updating of the Crucifixion. This time around, no pickets are expected. "It was controversial," said Neeley. "Now, it's become family theater."

The musical - which tells the story of Jesus Christ's last seven days in a colloquial idiom and largely from Judas' point of view - is no stranger to Philadelphia audiences. The Walnut Street Theatre mounted its own version just over a year ago to packed houses. And the show is a staple of the Bucks County Playhouse's repertory.

But for Superstar aficionados, this production offers something different: a rare opportunity to see Neeley and Anderson - co-stars of the 1973 Norman Jewison movie version and of the first Los Angeles stage production - facing off in the lead roles.

To hear them tell it, this is no mean thing.

"I'm not tooting my horn," said Anderson, an imposing presence even over coffee and scones. "It's just that God wrote this part for me. Andrew Lloyd Webber was a willing pawn. Nobody else can do this."

As for Neeley, Anderson said: "There are all these downsides to doing this, and there's one upside - and that's this man here. . . . Ted has this voice - it's a pretty voice; it can be gentle and then, if he wants to, he can make rocks crawl out of his throat. . . . The problem I have with someone else is he wouldn't sing like Ted."

Anderson, 48, a recording artist, and Neeley, 49, a singer, actor and composer, said they each laid down the same prerequisite to their participation in this national tour: Neither would perform without the other.

That was no problem for Christopher, who had first directed the two in a Santa Barbara, Calif., production of Jesus Christ Superstar in 1976. "They are the definitive Jesus and Judas, in my opinion," he said. "It's not just their individual performances . . . They have a fabulous rapport. They love each other so much."

Christopher, 40, said he viewed this production as a chance to return the show - whose original Tom O'Horgan staging was widely denounced for its

glitziness - to its rock-and-roll roots. Christopher's version features abundant dancing, costuming that mixes the classical and tie-dyed, and state- of-the-art sound and lighting.

"I'm trying to bring the record to life," said Christopher, who first fell in love with the music in high school. "I'm hoping to make a very beautiful show - what we call in California 'eye candy.' "

In Christopher's conception, "Jesus was the first rock-and-roll revolutionary with long hair," preaching a message of "peace and love." In this production, he said, "We're selling nostalgia. A lot of the costumes have a '60s psychedelic feel to them."

Anderson and Neeley have a long history of involvement with this early Webber-Rice collaboration.

It was Anderson who created the role of Judas in the concert version that preceded the Broadway show. He went on to replace Ben Vereen in New York and has played Judas in a variety of other productions.

Which doesn't mean, mind you, that he was all that keen on the part. Actually, he said: "I hated this piece. I hated doing it, because I wanted to do the next thing. . . . I had not a clue, didn't appreciate it.

"Now," he said, "I understand it. . . . Opening night, I said to Ted: 'I just want to thank God for the opportunity to redo this thing under these circumstances with the person that I should have done it with all the time.' ''

Let Neeley tell the story of how they missed each other on Broadway:

"I was brought into New York," he said, "with essentially my choice to play whatever character I wanted, was basically what Tom (O'Horgan) said: 'You're in - just pick a part.' "

"So," said Neeley, who had worked with O'Horgan in Hair, "I picked Judas.

"I go to New York all fired up," he said, breaking into melody: " 'My mind is clearer now, at last all too well. . . .' I sing the Judas songs, and Tom says, 'Come here. . . .' "

O'Horgan broke the news that he was planning to cast Ben Vereen, another Hair alumnus, as Judas. "And he said, 'Can you come back tomorrow and let the producers hear you sing some Jesus stuff?'

"And I come back the next day, and I go, 'Why should I die. . . . ' And he says, 'Come here, we got to talk.' " At that point, O'Horgan informed Neeley that Robert Stigwood, producer of the concert version, wanted to use his stars - Anderson and Jeff Fenholt - in the Broadway show. O'Horgan preferred Vereen and Neeley. "I don't know what the compromise is," O'Horgan told Neeley, ''so I'll let you know."

"So," said Neeley, "he comes back and says: 'How would you feel about being in the chorus?' "

Neeley ended up understudying Fenholt, who played Jesus. By way of consolation, he was offered the Los Angeles production - and the promise of a screen test in London.

Anderson, too, had been promised a screen test. But, he recalled, director Norman Jewison was very frank about the situation. "I got my Jesus and got my Judas," he told them. "I don't want to deal with a black Judas, and I don't want to deal with recasting."

Still, Jewison told the two, who were then rehearsing the L.A. production, he would fly them first-class to London and put them up in a nice hotel. Said Neeley: "We figured, 'What the hell. We're going to have a good time for a couple of days.' "

Drinking their way across the Atlantic Ocean, they quickly forged a friendship. "We were the only two people in first class," said Anderson. ''We each had our own stewardess and had our own bottle."

At the screen test, hundreds of crew members applauded Neeley and Anderson's performances of "Gethsemane" and "Heaven on Their Minds." Then Jewison unexpectedly asked them to do the confrontation scene.

Anderson smiles at the memory. "We had just rehearsed it in L.A.," he said, "and it was on fire. . . ."

They won the film parts, of course - a circumstance which cut short their Los Angeles stage run.

Now that they have another crack at it, you'd think that Neeley and Anderson - who have kept in touch all these years - would be satisfied.

But there's just one more thing . . .

"We both want to play Pilate," said Neeley. "Pilate is such a great role - God, it is so well-written. It's the one character that really has a beginning, middle and end to it."

IF YOU GO

* Jesus Christ Superstar runs Tuesday through Jan. 31 at the Merriam Theater, 250 S. Broad St. Previews at 8 p.m. Tuesday, continues at 8 p.m. through Saturday and 7 p.m. on Sunday. Matinees are at 2 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. Ticket prices range from $15.25 to $42.75. For telephone orders, call 215-336-2000 or 609-665-2500.

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