Holy Week is upon us, which in the Philippines means a week off work to observe religious rituals such as the Visita Iglesia, where you’re supposed to visit fourteen churches in one night; Pabasa, which is a day-long singing of Jesus’ life from the Passion book; and the Stations of the Cross.
We’re quite religious in my house, but though sometimes we’d miss a few of the rituals, one thing we don’t miss is the Good Friday viewing of Jesus Christ Superstar. It’s not really meant to be a religious film, but it’s the one tradition we don’t skip. This started because when my older brothers and sisters were growing up (and before I was born), my dad would not allow any music or TV shows on Good Friday. Except the Jesus Christ Superstar concept album. My brother was allowed to play his vinyl record on Good Friday, so before I was even old enough to understand it, I knew the songs by heart. It gradually evolved into watching the movie, starring Ted Neeley, every year. By the time I was in grade school and attending religion classes, I thought Ted Neeley was Jesus Christ and that the Apostles all wore bell bottoms.
In the strictest sense, the movie (or the concept album) was not meant to be religious. It was just a collection of songs and a musical stage play that happened to be about Jesus Christ. And it wasn’t a Catholic production either, because the Virgin Mary is conspicuously absent. But for a Catholic family like ours, it was not offensive at all. In fact, I found it very impressive how Tim Rice’s lyrics accurately depicted Jesus’ life, right down to some phrases taken verbatim from the Bible. I sometimes feel I’m missing out on the beauty of the musical because I only listen to it during Lent and not the whole year, the way it was meant to be appreciated.
The film is meant to be an interpretation of the music, so there are hardly any sets. They shot it on location in Israel, but the numbers are just set against ruins or even scaffolding. It starts with a shot of all the actors in the bus, arriving on the set and preparing all the props and getting into costume. As the overture ends, Ted Neeley has changed from his groovy tie-dyed gear into the white robes of Jesus.
Ted Neeley did such an amazing job in the film, and he was able to highlight the humanity of Christ so well. In numbers like “Strange Thing Mystifying” or “Poor Jerusalem”, you can clearly see the pain in the eyes of a man who knows he is about to die, and who knows that he has to go through with it even though he has all the power to stop it. And his “Gethsemane” number is pure magic. That song should be the ultimate test for any male singer on Broadway – if you can sing that, you can sing anything.
Carl Anderson as Judas was the perfect counterpart for Neeley. From the opening number “Heaven on their Minds”, he has you hooked. And in the same way Ted Neeley shows you the humanity of Jesus Christ, Carl Anderson is able to show the humanity of Judas. And as “Strange Thing Mystifying” ends, the scene with Jesus and Judas is heartbreaking because, knowing how everything ends, you forget that Judas was one of Jesus’ best friends.
Director Norman Jewison also has a style of employing quick shots and pauses to emphasize an emotion, and in one shot he freezes on Ted Neeley’s face as the crowd sings, “JC, JC, will you die for me?”. It’s wrenching.
The movie is such a huge part of our family. We can all sing the whole musical on cue, and we basically have a quote from the movie for any situation. We still look at Ted Neeley as the ultimate Jesus (though I can now differentiate between the character and the, well, Son of God). So though I don’t know how we’ll spend our Holy Thursday, Good Friday is pretty much booked.
As a bonus, here’s the goosebump-inducing video of Ted Neeley performing “Gethsemane” on stage as recently as 2006! I dare you not to cry as you see even his own cast shed tears.