Devotio Moderna: Ted Neeley’s Passion Play
By Kimberlee A. Cloutier-Blazzard
There was something strangely sweet about this Christ, a sadness that was not divine, but human. You sensed He was weeping, dying like a human being, and thus the faithful who knelt before Him shuddered at the sight, for they felt it was they themselves who were suspended upon the cross, convulsed with pain.
- Nikos Kazantzakis, Saint Francis
What is a Passion play? What effect is it meant to have on the viewer? What, if any, effect might it have on the actor who plays Christ? These are the questions that I would like to answer, turning attention towards how the answers to those questions have changed over time—in history and our own modern time.
As the centerpieces of my project, I have chosen the modern Passion play Jesus Christ Superstar, and its iconic lead actor, Ted Neeley, who famously played Christ in the motion picture. Aside from his widely-acclaimed ability to channel Christ’s essence, Neeley is a natural choice as he has a unique perspective on the subject among performers; he has played the role of Christ for three-and-a-half decades: first in the Broadway and LA productions, then in the feature film and in two subsequent stage revivals.
The rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar (by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber) was first introduced as a concept album in 1970. A year later the “brown album” became the best-selling record in the US, the same year the play made its debut on Broadway. The movie adaptation, directed by Norman Jewison, was released a couple of years later in August of 1973.
The narrative covers the last seven days of Jesus’ life, from the preparation of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem to his Crucifixion. This follows the traditional construct of the Passion play as a story which depicts the trial, suffering and death of Jesus. The Superstar version is completely sung, told predominantly from the viewpoints of Judas Iscariot, Pontius Pilate, Jesus, Mary Magdalene, Caiaphas, Annas, Herod and a few others. Singing the story and using such a small cast are unusual in recent Passion plays. However, it was very typical of early liturgical Passion plays in which the lines of the key characters (including the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene) were written as church hymns, voiced by the clergy.
The earliest desire for Passion dramaturgy arose in the Eleventh Century, with the writings of such men as St. Bernard of Clairvaux and St. Anselm. These clergymen were at the fore of a Christocentric Piety movement that radically humanized the figure of Christ, focusing acutely on his Incarnational aspects. Later, in their wake, some desired to make the contemplation of Christ’s humanity a more vivid visual experience. With a creative combination of emotive, evocative art and music, the Passion play was born.
Hitherto, there had been Easter plays in the church, joyful celebrations of the Resurrection, but no Passion plays. The Mass and communion, it seems, were deemed a sufficient reenactment of the Passion. In fact, early Medieval commentators refer to the Mass as an authentic drama, with the Church as the theater, and the priest the tragic actor. (Sandro Sticca, “The Montecassino Passion and the Origin of the Latin Passion Play,” Italica, Vol. 44, No. 2, [Jun., 1967], 211.)
Over time, the original liturgical concert pieces, known as oratorios (without theatrical accoutrements), were staged as operas. At that point, they came to include costumes, props, and additional, non-clergy cast members. There was even the startling innovation of placing women in the female roles (though this practice remained unconventional until the Seventeenth Century). Eventually, wildly popular late Medieval Passion plays left the confines of the church for the streets, and their expanded cast included the whole town (sometimes numbering in the hundreds). There were actors, singers and stagehands, drawn from every class and profession. Historical accuracy had not yet been invented, so all the costume was contemporary dress. These elaborate productions could last for up to seven days. Participation in the religious play was considered to be a form of worship.
Eventually, because these plays took place in the village square, and were community-driven, they began to incorporate greater levels of extraneous narrative and humor. Though both high and low forms of art were blended in Medieval Christianity, over time dogmatic church officials increasingly came to see the “secularized” Passion plays as farcical, coarse and undignified. This was an unfortunate change from the serio-comical nature of earliest Christian theater traditions: a break with the past that culminated in our own largely humorless post-Enlightenment modern culture.
Though it had come full-circle to its historical roots (intentionally or not), when Jesus Christ Superstar first arrived on the scene in the Seventies, it was considered controversial for its use of contemporary costume, modern vernacular and its humanization (sometimes called “secularization”) of its characters, including a singing, emotional Christ and an unmediated, close rapport between Christ and the other leads. Few critics then, for instance, seemed ready to believe that Mary Magdalene sought a loving, Platonic relationship with her rabbi, Christ.
In the post-Sixties period, an age sensitive to ‘identity politics’, Superstar was also closely scrutinized for political agendas. For example, when Norman Jewison cast Carl Anderson, an African American, to play Judas, his choice unintentionally sparked controversy about the demonizing of Blacks in popular culture. Jewison strongly responded that he chose the actor based solely upon his merits as a performer. And, as with most Passion plays, anti-Semitism was also read into the script. This, too, Jewison vehemently denied. An anti-war agenda was also read into the use of machine guns, Israeli tanks and fighter planes.
Together with Carl Anderson, Jewison chose another Hollywood-unknown: Ted Neeley. This prescient choice arguably accounts for much of the film’s and stage production’s continuing success. Neeley’s penetrating, other-worldly glance—with his wide-set hazel eyes—and his impassioned voice—with its remarkable ability to venture into the soprano range—give his performance a mesmerizing, even “mystifying” power.
There are other reasons why Neeley has become the benchmark performer for Superstar’s lead. For one, (together with his friend, Anderson) Neeley was stretched personally and professionally by his experience in Israel filming the play. The authentic setting, itself, was captivating and stimulating. (As viewers, we can vicariously experience this through the superlative cinematography.) And, throughout the filming, Jewison kept the various groups of actors separated into organic groups according to their roles. Lastly, in an era before satellites and cell phones, there was no outside influence to drag the actors back into the present.
As a result, Neeley and Anderson spent many hours delving into and discussing their roles and characters, as well as the theology behind the story. Together they read The Last Temptation of Christ, written by Nikos Kazantzakis, searching for the man behind the myth. (Ted Neeley, voice-over commentary, Jesus Christ Superstar: Special Edition DVD, 2004.)
It is interesting to consider that Neeley was influenced by a Greek author’s vision of Christ, as the Eastern Orthodox traditional considerations are quite distinct from those in the West. The original split between Greek and Latin conceptions of the mystery of the Incarnation can be traced back to the earliest Doctors of the Church.
In the East, St. Basil of Caesarea (ca. 329-79) and his fellow Cappadocians worked to define the Trinity in philosophical terms. They explained the transcendent Godhead by means of two forms: as a humanly-incomprehensible essence, or ousia, and simultaneously as three knowable expressions, or hypostases [external glimpses of something's essence], understandable symbols of the ineffable. According to this dogma, mankind only experiences God through these hypostases, revealed to us as Father, Son and Holy Spirit: even though, in reality, the ousia and hypostases remain a single, divine self-consciousness.
In the West, the nuance was lost. St. Jerome (ca. 347-420) mistook the three hypostases for three separate divine essences. And, because St. Augustine’s (354-430) personalized vision of deity was much more cut and dry, his ideas are far less flexible than those of the Eastern Patriarchs. Though the Greek words embrace the paradox of the divine embodied in the physical, unfortunately Latin was not elastic enough to embrace this concept, and thus the whole liturgy and theology was shaded with difference. In the West, therefore, the Church teaches one essence in three persons [personae], creating a semblance of three separate beings. (Karen Armstrong, A History of God, 1993, 113-123)
In the end, it seems, the unified Trinity can only be fully understood through a mystical, or spiritual experience, beyond simple words. Because of the ineffable quality of the super-empirical, transcendent sphere, music, dance and meditation have always been a preferred means of channeling divinity. As an opera, therefore, Jesus Christ Superstar is in a superb position to express divinity more fully than the spoken word. Furthermore, in absorbing a more Eastern, paradoxical view of the Incarnation with its tension between body and spirit, Neeley crafted a Christ who is far more challenging, more developed and more devastatingly spiritual than viewers are accustomed to in traditional Biblical drama. Neeley absorbed and personalized Kazantzakis’ vision of divinized humanity as driven Nietzschian-hero in his figure of Christ. Perhaps this philosophical tension and operatic medium is what keeps Neeley himself infinitely interested in the role.
As many have noted, in the final scenes of the movie, Neeley is the only character who does not return to the bus. In a way, Neeley thereby forever remains within the film production. I think this serves as a great metaphor for how his life has permanently become interwoven with this piece. A self-described man “On the Road” (the fitting title of his personal website), Neeley’s been playing Christ for more than half of his life, and has measurably grown with the role. He has developed his personal understanding of the spiritual nature of Christ, while maintaining his powerful vision of Christ’s humanity.
Raised as a Southern Baptist in Texas, if you read interviews with Neeley from 1971 and 1972, while in his late twenties, you’ll read his unconventional reactions to the character he plays such as: “I admire his tolerance…He was blindly devoted to his ideals, and was killed because of it. But that beautiful quality of his, of being able to pacify a slap in the face…I love it and hate it.” (Teen, Sept, 1972; found on http://www.cverbelun.addr.com/neeley.htm)
In the same early interview, when asked about Christ’s divinity Neeley said, “No, I don’t think Christ was God. I think Jesus was an incredibly intelligent philosopher of his time. He was a man who had the guts to stand up for what he believed in…As far as being God on earth, nobody knows that. But he was definitely a rebel…he was a religious politician.”
In 1971, while performing on Broadway, he similarly said, “To me Jesus was a great, charismatic leader, theologian and thinker, but not God. He was a man who got beyond himself and went too far.” (Terence Smith, NY Times, Nov. 6, 1971)
Neeley’s wrestling with his own religious beliefs in his youth probably, in part, resulted from an early disenchantment with his upbringing in a strict Southern Baptist community. As a boy, until the age of 13, Neeley had in fact flirted with the idea of becoming a minister. A drummer from the age of 4, by his early teens Neeley had begun a professional musical career by singing and playing at local nightspots. When his minister heard of these gigs he went to Neeley’s father to insist that Neeley cease doing this, as it was immoral. Perhaps surprisingly, Neeley’s father didn’t cave to the pastor’s pressure, and an observant, precocious Neeley soon concluded that the minister’s “intervention” had more to do with maintaining a hypocritical façade of morality. It seems the minister was just attempting to keep Neeley from bumping into fellow parishioners at the very same club. (Glenn Lovell, “Actor Who Plays Christ in Movie Tells Why He Quit Church at 13,” National Enquirer, Fall 1974) This bout with hypocrisy was disillusioning, and from that point forward it seems Neeley was unsure that his two passions—rock music and ministry—could be reconciled.
By the early Nineties, during the first stage revival of the Superstar show (headlined by Neeley and Anderson), Neeley was now struggling firsthand with the immense pathos and popular projection elicited by his rousing portrayal of Christ. Referring to the original three month booking that became a five year run, he said: “Honestly, I never thought anybody would see this show. I figured, they’ve seen the movie. But people come up to me and say, ‘The film changed my life’ or ‘When I looked into your face, I thought I was looking into the face of God.’ Ministers ask me if I’ll speak to their congregations. And I’ve gotta tell you: It scares the hell out of me.” (Marshall Sella, “Is God Ted?” The New York Magazine, Jan. 23, 1995)
This role had again thrust his own personal take on God and Christ into the central spotlight. “No one had a clue who Jesus was. He was a rabbi with a radical view – a man who could speak in parables and connect. And that thing we call charisma – well, he had a big bag of that. Me, I eat Cheerios for breakfast.” He laughed, “Is that charisma?” (Sella) He told other curious reporters, “I was born and raised Southern Baptist, and to an extent I guess I still am. I haven’t been to church in years except for weddings and funerals or when I am invited to speak to a congregation. Isn’t that wild? I guess I believe in God in whatever form is in us. In that sense I guess I am religious.” (Tony Brown, “Superstar Shines More Brightly This Time Around, Lead Actors Say,” Charlotte Observer, Feb. 20, 1994) In 1993 Neeley maintained that his family practiced religious ecumenicity, “We celebrate all forms of religion. We believe that all religious philosophies embrace the same thing.” (Bob Nocek, “Touched by the Spirit,” Times Leader, 1993)
Another decade later, however, while performing on the so-called “Farewell Tour” of Superstar, Neeley seems to have become more comfortable defining his faith in traditional terms. On PBS’ Religion and Ethics Newsweekly, Neeley was asked point blank, “Do you consider Jesus as a wise man, as a prophet, as the son of God, or all of the above?” Neeley confidently replied, “All of the above, yes, I do. I still have my beliefs, my Christian beliefs. I believe in Christ as the son of God, and I believe that so deeply that—that is so deeply set in my spirit that no one else can challenge that.” (Bob Faw, “Profile: Jesus Christ Superstar,” Religion and Ethics Newsweekly, July 6, 2007; http://www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/week1045/profile.html)
In the same interview the reporter questioned Neeley on the play’s personal impact on him: “Being Jesus Christ has changed you. It’s had a huge impact on you. In what way?” His reply, “It has deepened my faith. It has deepened my faith beyond recognition. Without even trying I have become, in the minds of many, a minister, because I am so committed to that which I do during the performance.”
Today, through Neeley’s performance in Jesus Christ Superstar, the Passion play has seemingly come full circle. During the genesis of the Passion play the Mass was “an authentic drama”, the Church “the theater”, the priest “the tragic actor”; in today’s Superstar performances Neeley’s Christ has become a sort of priest, turning any given theater into a church, and the drama into a Mass. This inversion is a function of the audience’s own modern perception, and Neeley’s. As he says, “The show will take you where you’re supposed to go if you just allow it to.” (Penny Carnathan, “Superstars: Ted Neeley,” Tampa Tribune, December 1, 2006)
Already, during the first tour, Neeley described this transformative process, one that arises from what he describes as a synergy between actor and audience, “Everybody who sees this show comes into the theater with their own interpretation of Jesus…they project that up onto the stage and onto me. Because of that, I do everything I can physically, spiritually, bodily, mentally, emotionally, to project what I feel is the true biblical essence of the character. They are in essence using me as a palette, upon which they’re painting their opinion of who Jesus might be.” (Cecile B. Holmes, “Actor Seeks Biblical Spirit of ‘Superstar’,” Houston Chronicle, 1996)
Is this incredible onstage and personal transformation burdensome to Neeley? No. “Most of the people in the audience have seen the film or heard the music or seen the show on tour before…They bring such positive energy into the building, and they sit there and focus that energy onto the stage. I walk out on that stage every night surrounded by the most positive energy I’ve ever felt in my life. Quite frankly, I just float around on the stage every single night.” (Kevin Nance, “Actor Says Superstar Spreading the Spirit,” Lexington Herald Leader, June 9, 1996) Does he feel that, through Superstar, he has married his true loves—rock and preaching? Could be. “…to be able to touch humanity anywhere as a result of being able to sing each night, what could be better than that?” (Religion and Ethics Newsweekly, July 6, 2007) When asked, Neeley always says that he will continue performing the opera indefinitely.
No matter his state of faith in Jesus’ divinity, Neeley’s compelling portrait of Christ has never been an uncomplicated, one-dimensional creation. Though it has developed over time, it remains cobbled together from his knowledge, experience and personal grit. Neeley admits that he brings a deeply rooted primal passion to the man, something most actors would not envision. “I’ve read so much in the press we’ve gotten about Judas’s strength and Jesus’s frailty – but I can kick Judas’s ass anytime. That’s not the point. Betrayal is a metaphor for love. Jesus, as I understand him, is not weak. The essence of Christ is to say, ‘What’s mine is yours.’ But where I come from is primal – an animal world. You can be Christ like and also be tough.” (Sella)
The “Last Supper” scene in the film is a perfect example of Christ’s stormy nature in Neeley’s portrayal. It shows Neeley as a distraught Christ who has made his ultimate choice to be betrayed, and yet a hectoring Judas is able to make him feel unsure and peevish. As I see it, rather than an anti-hero, Judas, in fact, represents an alter-ego for Christ. Or, perhaps what the famous psychiatrist Carl Jung would call the “shadow archetype”. He’s the “little voice” in Jesus’s head that nags him with doubt, eventually stirring him to rage. Judas articulates the doubt and fear that Jesus is desperately trying to repress in his final days, and Jesus lashes out.
If we understand the concept of “Satan” as “an obstacle to the right path”, Judas, has become such a major stumbling block. But, Jesus knows he ultimately must not falter, regardless of how painful it is to lose a friend. The stakes for humanity are too high. Even after his outburst, Neeley’s compassionate Christ tries to mend fences, attempting to return Judas’ cloak. But, Judas’ brittle mind is settled, and he cannot reconcile with Christ. He flees, a disillusioned man.
And, then the scene segues into “Gethsemane” when Christ, himself, is able to turn to God and ask him what he’s been waiting to find out. Is there any other way? Christ is facing his mortality, scared and alone. He wants assurances. He knows that his followers are not yet fully aware of the reasons behind his motives. Therefore, he isn’t sure if this plan is foolproof. At this point, the apostles don’t yet have the Holy Spirit; they will only fully recognize the message when a risen Christ visits them and bestows it. This is where Neeley’s assertion that “No one had a clue who Jesus was…” holds some water. It wasn’t until later, outside the scope of the opera, that these foreshadowings of Christ’s sacrifice and message of hope became legible. At this point in the process, as the Apostles’ song illustrates, they are still naïve.
Christ, and Christ alone, sees the writing on the wall, the extent of his mission, the necessity of his crucifixion. He must go it alone. In his humanity, his isolation, unbearable grief and anguish come over him. In the Gospels Christ says, “The sorrow in my heart is so great that it almost crushes me.” (Matthew 26: 37-38) Luke writes, “In great anguish he prayed even more fervently; his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.” (Luke 22:44) Such sweating of blood (due to burst capillaries) actually occurs in extreme cases of fear and distress, as with impending execution.
Though there is no blood, in “Gethsemane” Neeley’s high notes in singing, “watch me die” are like primal screams, tapping into human suffering so raw, running so deep, that we cannot help but be moved. Resigned to his fate, Neeley channels Christ’s anguish. Neeley sobs as he sings, his eyes glistening and red with grief; we watch his chest heave as he sings the last lines: “God, thy will is hard, but you hold every card. I will drink your cup of poison, nail me to your cross and break me. Bleed me, beat me, kill me. Take me now, before I change my mind.” Very few can watch this moving scene with dry eyes. (Even the Vatican representatives who screened the film allegedly said, “That boy that plays Jesus should be canonized!” [Ted Neeley, Audio commentary, Special Edition DVD]) Neeley himself has said, “It’s the most powerfully written piece of music ever,” Neeley says. “It’s absolutely epiphanous for the character. He realizes there’s no turning back.” (Carnathan)
In 2004, when the film was re-released on DVD, in the commentary dialogue Neeley described the overwhelming experience of filming Gethsemane: “I’ve obviously done [this song] many times since this moment in the film, but [when I sang it at Anderson's funeral, on April 9, 2004] that was the first moment, that even anywhere nearly touched this experience. I wish you could feel from within me what you [Norman Jewison] helped me achieve in these moments…It was so on my mind, the complete spiritual connection at this moment: one man representing all of humanity in his conversation with God.” (Audio commentary, Special Edition DVD)
Jewison asked Neeley about his experience in the role, “Did it ever occur to you, Ted, when you were playing this remarkable spiritual leader, Jesus of Nazareth, and having to do this…that it would affect your life? The rest of your life?” Neeley answered, “No. And I must tell you that just the opportunity to step into those shoes was not something I pursued, ‘cause I initially went out to do the role of Judas. I was afraid of what you’re talking about. But, once you made that [casting] decision, and you had faith in my ability to maybe deliver something, I was so committed to it, and I’m telling you, talk about an effect on my life, my life completely changed as a result of that. Not only in my spiritual element, but also having met Leeyan [Neeley's wife] as a result of it. Everything in my life was different from that moment on…to be able to do this right there [in Israel], with that intensity, and have ourselves surrounded by that olive grove, the authenticity of that created such a magnificent experience for us [he and Anderson], and it lasted forever.” (Audio commentary, Special Edition DVD) [Italics mine.]
The reality of the filming, in Israel, affected the actors and the final product in remarkable ways, some of them unexpected and unexplainable. As Jewison put it, “[the film] works because of the strength of the music and the brilliance of the lyrics, but it’s also in the performances, but it also goes much deeper than that because what we’re dealing here with is a religious aspect of the film, which keeps creeping in and grabbing a hold of your heart.” (Audio commentary, Special Edition DVD) This “religious aspect” even had some supernatural manifestations, such as the freak thunderstorms that swept over desert during the filming of the crucifixion scene (the first in living memory). Or, during the final sunset scene, when the ghostly silhouettes of a shepherd and his herd serendipitously “materialized” before an image of the empty cross. The latter symbolically-rife vision took the director and camera crew by such surprise that they could only cry tears and keep shooting. (Norman Jewison, Audio commentary, Special Edition DVD) Thus, though no hopeful Resurrection scene was planned for the movie (in order to remain true to the original play), it seems fate created one. For, alone, the Passion is only half a story, as Ted Neeley would surely agree. In a departure from the original play, at the end of the crucifixion scene in both of Neeley’s productions of Superstar he and the cross rise into the rafters, simulating an Ascension.
Since the beginning of Jesus Christ Superstar people have often wondered: “A singing Jesus?” As Neeley poetically puts it, “who else would have more reason to sing?” (Audio commentary, Special Edition DVD)
Postscript: Please see my related article, Finding Ted Neeley.
Kimberlee A. Cloutier-Blazzard, Ph.D., is a senior contributing writer & contributing editor of Bread and Circus Magazine and an Independent Scholar of Art History, Specializing in Northern Renaissance and Baroque. Click here to send her email.
This article originally appeared in the blog Percyflage and appears here by special arrangement.
Image (above) : Jesus Christ Superstar (1973 Special Edition) Universal Studios. Available at Amazon.com