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Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Finding Religion. Sort of. Okay, Not Really.

I met Jesus! Well. Sort of. Actually, his name is Ted Neeley and he may not be Jesus, but he played him in the 1973 movie Jesus Christ Superstar. He didn't appear to me in a taco or even on a slice of toast, but at the stage door of the local theater. A small crowd had gathered in the hopes of meeting him after the show and we were told that he wouldn't simply sign an autograph and hightail it out of there, but would take the time to share a moment with each of his fans. And he did. I strongly suspect that 40 years of playing Jesus has rubbed off on him as he certainly seemed to exude an aura of calm and of sincere love with every tight hug he gave each of his fans. Granted, a certain amount of acting is probably involved in this, but I think it becomes something sincere at some point.

Having watched the movie over and over ever since I snuck it illegally into my country, I was in complete awe of seeing Ted Neeley in the flesh. Tears trickled down my cheeks when he first appeared on stage, and again when I was waiting in line to see him and watching him whisper quietly into the ear of each fan as he gave them a warm embrace and again when I finally got to talk to him they poured down my face with complete abandon.

I felt like an idiot, but this guy was there when so many changes took over my life and so it was like having a flashback to so many moments of my existence where his haunting voice was always in the background, singing first from an old cassette tape, then from my VCR, then a CD, and finally a DVD. In the instant I looked into his eyes, I was the child who found the tape, fell in love with music and the message, drowning out moments of frustration, childish depression, or loss with song, sneaking the video into the country to share with my friends and to enjoy over and over, the teenager who sought to express her frustration with the dogma of religion, the young woman who carried the soundtrack to her new home in the States, and finally the mother who wants to share such fantastic music with her child, as my mother did with me.

He wiped away some of my tears with his thumb, and I continued to feel stupid knowing I couldn't lucidly explain that I wasn't some airhead groupie but that there was far too much behind my tears to explain so I did my best and enjoyed the hugs I got from him.

Now, cheesy, mushy stuff aside... I was honored to see Ted in what may very well be his last tour as Jesus (he's 65, he may want to take it easy soon!) but was greatly disappointed in the direction of the show. Dallett Norris may be a good director of other shows, but I completely disagreed with his choices for Jesus Christ Superstar.

Before I go into my analysis, bear in mind that I am not religious and so I dissect this show as a work of art and not as a literal reading of the Bible or anything like that. If you take offense at this, feel free to stop reading now.

First mistake: The director had some guy get slain by a Roman and then get resurrected by Jesus during the opening overture. The entire point of the musical is to illustrate the last days of a man who is forced to wear a mantle he sometimes wishes was not upon his shoulders as he is "just a man". He is meant to be Jesus the man and not Jesus the performer of miracles or party tricks. He exhibits all the real emotions and frustrations of a real man who struggles with the selfishness and shallowness of mankind around him. He begins to realize that in order to get through their thick skulls, he really is going to have to make the ultimate sacrifice for the lesson to be learned. This kind of man isn't meant to be smiling throughout the show and acting as though he has accepted his role with humble humility and gratitude. He's meant to be disappointed, angry, but ultimately determined to place the salvation of mankind above his own mortal life.

It may be cynical and contrary to popular religious beliefs, but I find it far more moving to think of the character of Jesus as a real man, with all the failings and limitations that go along with being human, facing such enormous challenges to spread the word he believes to be true rather than to think of him as some perfect being for whom it would be so easy and effortless to do the things he did.

Second mistake: Never have I seen the backs of performers as much as during this production. I lost count of the number of times Corey Glover (playing Judas) had his back to us and using his downstage hand to point such that his face was hidden each time. Any director worth his salt would have directed him to stop that.

Third mistake: This is probably the responsibility of the choreographer, but they used the matrix move too many times during the fight scene in the overture. It got lame very quickly for me.

I was glad to see, however, that they put Judas back in white clothes following his death instead of red as I have seen in a previous touring production. I prefer the implication that Judas ends up in heaven having done the difficult bidding of his God to offer up his best friend for sacrifice rather than his being some mustache-twirling bad guy lurking in the shadows. Again, not being religious, I am approaching this from a literary or artistic perspective.

However, it was all worth it to see and meet Ted Neeley, my superstar.

PS: He smells nice.


kinzi said...

Teacher Lady, I am AMAZED that anyone blogging even knew of Jesus Christ Superstar! That rock-opera was my God-Epiphany at 13 (Godspell, too)and the extent of my religious knowledge. Although I didn't truly believe for another 7 years, reading your post was like a parallel experience of mine.

Now all those songs are flooding back, I listened to them over and over on a record player. Wow.

The Bible says Jesus was tempted in all ways we are, but was without sin. So I think your perception was quite on target. And I think if I saw Ted Neeley in real life, I would cry too. Thanks for posting this!

Anonymous said...

and i met allah, and mohammed...

and abraham...

programmer craig said...

Great play! I never saw the original cast on Broadway, but I did see them at the Pasadena play house (a very small venue) about 10 years ago. It was incredible, and they did a much better job than the larger production with a different cast that I saw as a teenager.

I've never been able to understand why some Christians have so much trouble with that play. It does a fantastic job of portraying the magnificence of Jesus, as a human being. And, he was that, in addition to anything else he may or may not have been.

programmer craig said...

Ted Neeley Farewell Tour Gethsemane- Pro Shot

Wow... he can still hit those screeching high notes he's famous for :)

TeacherLady said...

It really is an amazing musical. I might even be able to say it is my favorite musical of all with some close seconds... But the overall composition of the lyrics (much of which is taken directly from the Bible) and the rock-opera sound from the 70s is just fantastic to me. Funny, that kind of description sounds horrific, but it's really just amazing.

TeacherLady said...

Oh sweet! Thanks for sharing that, Craig! You rock. I totally didn't even think to look on Youtube for that. While he's not what he once was, he still rocks!

Gila said...

Okay, now I have to see the movie--add to my DVD list. :)

In respect to Jesus as a real man versus Jesus as some perfect being, I have the exact same attitude toward Jewish biblical figures. There is a tendency to try to explain away everything and say that they were all perfect saints. I think that this is so wrong, and on so many levels.


programmer craig said...

You're welcome, teacherlady :)

I've never seen the movie, just saw the play twice. I'm thinking I should get it from Netflix now also :)