Barry Dennen

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Interview conducted by Andy Simpson.

Q. How did you hear about Superstar?
A. I was living in London in those days. I had just done the musical Cabaret at the Palace Theatre with Judi Dench. The show closed around Christmastime (in 1968). I didn’t want to leave London, so I tried to generate work for myself. One of my ideas was to write a musical movie about a fictional rock group. The idea behind the movie was that the more famous the rock group became, and the more renowned the lead singer was, the crazier he went and the more socially distant he got. In the end, he wound up ripping everything apart. There hadn’t been any rock movies or movies about rock groups at that time, so I thought I was onto something. There also weren’t all those destructive stories like Keith Richards, and Syd Barrett, and other rockers who went crazy, and wound up shredding their lives and the lives of the people around them. Success is a bucking bronco, and not everybody can stay on it and ride it successfully. So, I thought I had a good idea here and I wrote a movie.

In the movie, I had a series of songs that the group recorded and played and became huge successes. The idea of the songs was that as the movie went on and the songwriter got crazier and wilder, well, so did the songs; they became more disjointed, disturbing, and upsetting. I had written some “dummy lyrics,” and I was with the William Morris Agency at the time, and my agent there said, “Look, there’s this fellow Murray Head, and I would like you to meet him, and he’s very talented. He’s a singer-songwriter himself. He plays guitar, he sings, he’s got a great voice and I think he would enjoy working with you.” So I met Murray and we hit it off, and I told him about my project and showed him my dummy lyrics, and we started to work on these songs together. Murray took the idea I had in the lyrics and he wrote a tune, a solid tune, and when he had finished, I re-fashioned the lyrics to fit his music. It came off very well. I was very happy and pleased with that. I then dragged Murray into a recording studio (I think it was the place where the Cabaret cast album was recorded, and they had a small studio in the basement), I paid for some studio time, and we recorded the songs. There were eight tunes. The tapes came out very well, but nothing ever came of the movie. We couldn’t get it funded. It died a rather sharp and quick death. 

In the meantime, several weeks into our working together, when Murray would come to my flat in London and we’d hammer out the songs, he said to me, “Well, you know, I’ve been doing this rock opera with these two blokes. They’ve been recording and it’s not completely finished yet. The idea is to do it as a record, and if that’s good and it sells, they want to do it as a stage production, so Decca Records is fronting them the money to do this album. Would you be interested? They saw you in Cabaret and would like to offer you a part.” I said, “Absolutely. Certainly. Can I hear some of it?” So he set it up and I went to this studio in Barnes, I think, which is a beautiful little suburb just outside London. (In fact, Tim Rice still lives in Barnes. He has a beautiful house and an office there. I went there last time I was in London. I’d never been to his place before. It’s very nice. Anyway…)

I met Tim and Andrew, and we were all wearing our frilly shirts, velvet jackets, and long, long hair, ’cause that was “it” in those days. They played me some of the stuff, and I just sat there and my jaw dropped, I just thought, “Oh my God!” They asked me if I wanted to do it, and I said, “Yes! This is going to be huge!” They said, “Do you really think so?” I said, “Yes! People are going to be outraged, people are going to be upset, and you’re going to get a ton of publicity. It’s very good! It’s really wonderful. I’d be honored to be associated with it.”

So we were on, and they started to make me some demo tapes of Pilate’s material, some extra material too. I’m not sure if “Pilate’s Dream” was written for me or written before, I can’t remember. I think it came after I joined the project. You can’t wait until halfway through for the character to appear. He has to show up near the beginning of it to establish himself as a character and you’re interested in him. When he reappears in the second act, you know who he is and you understand what he is about. So that’s how I came into Jesus Christ Superstar, writing songs and being involved with a totally different project. That’s what kept me in London, was doing Jesus Christ Superstar.

Q. Did they offer you Pilate right away or were there any other roles available?
A. Oh Lord, no. I was offered Pilate and that was it. When I heard what Pilate had to do, I just thought, “Oh my God, this is perfect for me.” Who else would I play? It was exactly the right role, and it was perfect to a T. I was happy with it all the time.

Q. What was your approach to the character, in terms of acting and singing?
A. Well, Pilate is traditionally played as a black-hearted villain who is responsible for Jesus’ death. I thought, “That can’t be the whole story.” I mean, this was a man who was smart enough to become Governor of [Judea] at the time. He knew that the Jewish people were always pushing against Roman authority in those days, and Pilate knew that this was something that Rome would not put up with. It would end in a very bloody outcome. This sort of thing went on and on. There were all these messiahs, it wasn’t just Jesus Christ, there were messiahs all the time all over Jerusalem because the Bible had predicted it, so there were lots and lots of gentlemen who went to the cross saying that they were the Messiah, and Jesus was just one of them. Jesus had a very big following, a very notable following, and Pilate felt he had to squash it. 

In terms of the Biblical text that we have, I knew that Pilate didn’t have the dream. It was his wife [Claudia]. I think that’s only in the Apocrypha, the books that were weeded out of the Bible when they decided what was holy and what was not. Anyway, I saw this as a character on the stage, not as a historical or Biblical person. Let’s look at him as a man. This man had a very disturbing dream in this country full of political forcefulness and righteousness. He had this dream, in which this man, who he had never seen before… he was very struck and moved by it, and he knew that it would be intertwined with his fate in a very serious and unnerving type of way. Suddenly, he meets the face that he saw in the dream. I think anyone would be freaked out by that. He would have moved, and behaved in all sorts of ways that he may not have anticipated himself doing. I decided to go for the heart of the man because, you know, anyone who behaves badly, anybody who is constrained by the rules, the Government takes flack for that. Look at our country now [2009]. People are doing things they wouldn’t normally do. Americans are torturing prisoners. That is really antithetical to the American people. People are doing it because that is the tenor of the times.

So I wanted to get to the heart of this guy, and to move the audience, and to try to put them in the same kind of conflicted position that Pilate himself is in, so they think, “Oh my God. He’s in a terrible situation.” He’s trying to save this guy’s life by giving him all the clues that he needs to escape the punishment of crucifixion, and Jesus just doesn’t get it. That leads to the final outburst, where he totally loses his temper, and control all goes out the window. He knows he has lost. He knows he has lost in a very spiritual way as well. That’s what I did; I just played it that way. It was a really good way to go and it was truthful. Actors are always looking for truth. I thought, “That’s powerful and I can play that. I think people will be moved by it. I know I am.”

I got very involved in the Broadway show and the film. It’s a very involving story. It’s really moving, touching, and upsetting. On the last tour I did [in 2003-04], I couldn’t watch the Crucifixion. I was backstage waiting for my curtain call. I was watching the first few nights I was with the tour, and I just said, “I can’t watch this anymore.” I looked around me and I saw the stagehands, wardrobe department, costume people, and props guys, they were moved too. We were moved night after night after night. I just couldn’t watch it. It was going to wear me down and upset me every day of my life. I had to push it away a little bit.

Q. In 1971, the show came to Broadway, under the direction of Tom O’Horgan. How much of the show’s controversy was related to his staging?
A. There would have been controversy over Superstar no matter who directed it. It was simply a controversial show. The religious element always seems to chop at something that doesn’t fit the orthodox. They condemn it before they see it! We saw the same thing happen with Passion of the Christ — the religious conservatives were screaming about that movie before it even came out, or before anyone had seen it, which seems to me a really odd way to judge things, to condemn before you really get to see or be exposed to something — there’s something that indicates a kind of deep-seated fear and insecurity which won’t allow any type of reality (or at least a judgment that’s based on experience, and not fear of what this thing they’re trying to deal with might be, what it is, because they haven’t seen or heard it) to come in and tamper with views. There’s something, in my mind, wrong with that.

That’s what happened with Jesus Christ Superstar. There were people in front of the theater every night passing out pamphlets, you know, religious people who were saying “Day of Judgment is coming!” and “You are all sinners!” Even on the tour I did, there was a guy with a placard in front of the theater in Richmond, Virginia. It’s very frightening when you have a belief, the core belief of your life, in which you build your whole life on, your family life, your morale, there’s something very frightening about new points of view. It’s not like you can say, “Oh well, I don’t believe that. Let’s just get on with it, I know what’s true.” No. They want to really stamp you out because it attacks them on such a deep level that they feel their whole life’s view, the way they regard the world, is in jeopardy, and they want to get rid of that before it can affect them, or their families, or their church, or anything else, so they carry placards and they rail at you. This guy (in VA) hadn’t seen the show. It was opening night and he was standing there with a hand-written sign about “Jesus Christ Superstar is a sin!” and I thought, “Oh dear.” A friend of mine once said, “It comes with the dinner. You order the dinner, that’s what you get on your plate.” I don’t think it had anything to do with Tom O’Horgan.

Tom was a very talented, sweet, and good-natured fellow who staged a great show. In the first staging of Superstar, there was a lot of flashy machinery and things that had never been seen on a Broadway stage before. Now we’re kind of used to it because of Wicked and all that stuff; there was stuff in Superstar that had never been seen. It was dangerous. I had to be very, very careful. I don’t think there was an accident on Broadway in the years that we played. There could have been. Things were moving that couldn’t be stopped once they started; these were big, heavy pieces you wouldn’t want to get your leg caught in. It was an amazing production. I don’t know how fond of it Andrew was (maybe not very, but Andrew has always had other feelings about Superstar and how he wanted things to be done), but it was groundbreaking for its time.

Q. How long were you in the Broadway show?
A. I only did the show for four months.

Q. Do you find it ironic that the Mark Hellinger Theatre that housed JCS on Broadway is now a church?
A. You see, JCS has its beneficial effect wherever it goes. (Laughs) I don’t know what that’s all about. It was a great theater. It didn’t have much backstage room, but we were all happy to be there. It was a new theater. It was right off Broadway and Broadway was around the corner. It was right there. It was right in the middle of midtown Manhattan. I remember looking at the theater and there was this huge marquee that said Jesus Christ Superstar. It was a thrill of a lifetime.

Q. Let’s talk about the film.  What was it like shooting in Israel?
A. It was very hot, veryuncomfortably hot. It’s desert, a lot of it. I wasn’t happy about the food. Beautiful produce there. What they did to them, they’d take these wonderful carrots, sprinkle them with sugar, and serve them with raisins. They’d be served cold. Stuff like that. There was one day, or maybe it was a weekend, when they couldn’t cook, where they would deep fry eggs in oil, and let them sit and get cold for you to eat for breakfast the next morning. The food wasn’t really that great. I understand Israeli food has come way up in standards since then, pretty much world-class. In those days it was not wonderful.

I had a pair of boots made for the picture and they were not made correctly. We all wore these “push ’em up” boots to make us look taller. The ones that I had for the movie were made like a pair of women’s high heels, in that the sole of my foot was on a 45-degree angle! Everything was pressing down on my toes. It made walking in those damned things very difficult, especially when trying to walk down the side of a mountain and all that stuff. Do you know that scene in “Pilate and Christ” where he comes down the rocky stairwell? That really wasn’t a stairway, that was just stone. You can actually see me take a step at one point. I was trying not to fall in them. The shoes were really, really awful.

But making the movie was fun! We were all very, very excited to be associated with it. Norman Jewison was the most wonderful director to work with. I had done three pictures with Norman. I was on Fiddler on the Roof with him in Yugoslavia when the Jesus Christ Superstar album hit the stores in New York. They were all over the place. It was being played on FM radio. It was all up and down Broadway. He came over to me and said, “Your album is big.” And I said, “That’s good to hear.” He said, “I have an idea of doing it as a movie.” He asked me if I could introduce him to Andrew and Tim, so I did — this was before cell phones and everything — so they chatted. That is, sort of, how that came about. 

In Israel, we had to get into one of those mini-buses and take an hour’s drive out to the location for shooting in the desert. Every day, we played the George Harrison album All Things Must Pass on the car stereo. It seemed to me to fit the mood of the show. We were all very happy to be working together. Most of us were from Broadway. It was a wonderful experience. I loved it.

Q. What was it like working with the film cast?
A. Ted, Carl, Yvonne, and the rest of the cast were simply the best. I remember doing the concert in El Paso, Texas, and Tim Rice was there, and he said that that cast had “never been bettered.” That was a very nice thing to hear. There are so many people with much better voices than I have who’ve done Pilate. I have seen people really sing the crap out of it. I haven’t got the most beautiful voice in the world, but I see myself more as a singing actor, rather than an actor-singer. My big strength has always been character and the acting part of it. I was very pleased, or “chuffed” as the English say, to hear that. It’s nice to know that the person who wrote the thing — and it’s a very important piece — it’s nice to know that they think you’re the best. It was great! I’ll never forget it.

Q. How many times have you done JCS?
A. I have done less of JCS than most people suppose I have. Leaving the Broadway show was a mistake but I have made a lot of mistakes in my life  I didn’t do the Amphitheatre out here, which I should have done, and turned it down for other reasons, which was a mistake. I was offered the London production, which I didn’t do. That was a mistake. I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my career, especially in those days. No, I haven’t done a lot of tours. I did a tiny little three-city tour that came out of a production that we did in Sacramento. That was a long time ago. When the hell was that? I can’t remember — early ’80s, I think. I did the national tour with Carl. Carl actually got me the job for that. I played Herod for that tour and that was a lot of fun. But no, I haven’t done Superstar as much as you would think.

Q. You were a part of the 2002-05 national tour, which you just alluded to. What was it like playing all over the country, and in places like Canada?
A. I had never really worked in Canada before and that was great. The other cities were great, too. They were all wonderful. I had a great time everywhere I went. For personal reasons, it was satisfying and very important for me to do that tour. I needed to get away, get away from my house, get away from my life there. It fit the bill. The most exciting part was going to Canada and everyone in the show felt that way. We all loved being in the Canadian cities. I’d never been to Vancouver, Calgary… I’d been to Montreal once but only briefly. It was wonderful to visit these towns like Ottawa and Edmonton. Edmonton we went to when it was 40 below. I was a little concerned about that. But even when we got there, it wasn’t that cold… or too cold. The Canadian audiences were really good to us. We all had a wonderful time.

Q. What are your thoughts about the unfortunate situation involving Sebastian Bach?
A. Mercifully, I missed all that. I heard all the horror stories when I joined the cast. They were bubbling over to tell me because it had just happened. Bach was there for three months, and then he was fired for not showing up. But my understanding is that there was much more going on than what we all heard, the stories that Carl Anderson told me about his behavior, and so on. Bach is a rocker. Yes, this is a rock opera, but it’s theatrical as well and he was doing a lot of rocker stuff — throwing things into the audience, wearing something that belonged to one of the kids in the cast, and wearing it for his curtain call, I mean, all this kind of crap going on. He was really doing the diva thing. I was very happy to have missed all that because I am afraid I would have opened my big mouth, and I would not have taken it for an instant, not like Carl did. Carl was very clear with Bach, apparently. I think Bach was surprised when he got the boot because he thought he was important to the show and all that. Maybe it’s not fair to say this, but if he had been brilliant in the role, it would have led to the company forgiving him for his outrageous behavior. But he wasn’t, and because he wasn’t a genius in the role, he didn’t support the sort of star behavior that he was exhibiting. He was also undependable — he wouldn’t show up, and they didn’t know whether he was going to play that night. He just wasn’t a theater professional. I don’t think he understood that the rules are different in theater, not like when you’re with your rock group and you’re out there with your screaming fans. I think he thought he was the main draw to the show because he is Bach, but really, Jesus Christ Superstar is the draw. Sebastian Bach couldn’t figure that out.

Q. Was there a chance for you to play Pilate during the tour?
A. No. That was never in the cards. They didn’t count on losing their Herod. He was hired in New York, but at some point he got laryngitis. After three or four months on tour, he lost his voice completely, so when I came in, he was very happy to hand it over to me because he was hurting his voice. Of course, I would have wanted to play Pilate, but they had already hired somebody for that part. There would have been a lot of bad feelings, and they would have had to pay him off on his contract, which is not something they wanted to do, so no chance.

Q. How did the El Paso concert figure into this?
A. This was the first time in a long time I got to play Pilate in the show. I remember thinking, “Am I ever going to play Pilate again before I die? I would like to.” Then I got the call from the people who were putting the concert together, so I was thrilled to be doing that again. Then I got a call from Carl Anderson and my dear friend Craig Barna, who was conducting the tour and had conducted my first tour of Superstar in America. They asked me to join the tour because the fellow playing Herod had lost his voice. The words are easy and I could just jump right in. I told them about the El Paso thing and they said, “Do that and then come join the tour,” so I did. I went home for a day after the show. I then got on a plane and flew out to wherever they were playing at that point. I rehearsed with the company for a week and a week later I was playing Herod. It was wonderful — frightening, but wonderful.

Q. Do you have any favorite Jesus’ you worked with?
A. You know, they’ve all been wonderful in their own ways. Teddie was wonderful… Dennis Cooley… Eric Kunze, I have worked with a few times and he’s remarkable. They were all wonderful in their own ways, really. Jesus is my anchor in that show. The show is really about these two men, Jesus and me (Pilate). It’s very important to me to establish a relationship with whoever is playing Jesus at the time and make sure that we get into each other in a certain way. If that relationship isn’t there, the audience wouldn’t be touched, so I used to work in terms of rapport and making sure that everybody and I were on the same page with the people who were playing Jesus. There are certainly more important people onstage or even offstage.

Teddie and I established a relationship long, long ago, during the original Broadway show. Teddie and I could be woken up in the middle of the night, have someone give us our costumes, and say, “You’re going on in three minutes,” and we would be right there. I have such a rock-bottom understanding of it. We know what to look for in the other person. We’re like two sides of a coin. Teddie and I have such an understanding of each other, mainly because we’ve done it together for so long. But I have always managed to find a strong bond with the men who have played Jesus and I have loved them all.

At the benefit show (2006), it was all there! It was like meeting an old friend. It was all there, it was all in place. We didn’t really have to prepare. We looked at each other and said, “Well, here we are again!” It’s true. It just went click. We didn’t have a lot of time to establish the kind of onstage relationship that I would normally have, but we didn’t need to. Ted knew what I was going to do backward, forwards, and upside down. Even if I did do something new or something he didn’t expect, he went right along with it. He knows me and I know him. It was great. He would do something that was brand new and I would just run with it, and vice-versa. We were there! Once Pilate and Christ’s relationship between the two actors is set, everything else falls into place. It’s solid and I have that with Ted. So through familiarity, wonderful skill, mutual admiration, and Ted’s heartfelt connection to the role, Ted and I probably have the closest Pilate and Christ relationship of all the men I’ve worked with, but there hasn’t been one that I haven’t adored. I look back on all of them and it’s been wonderful. And different, which is good too.

Q. Do you have any plans to direct JCS?
A. I did. That’s how I met Kunze. Yes, in St. Louis. I had worked there as an actor and the guy who runs the place, Paul Lake, is an old friend of mine from my days in New York. He has hired me several times to be an actor. I’m not much of a director, to be honest with you. I’m not a very talented director; I’m good at motivating actors and I’m brilliant with that, but with the actual staging, I haven’t had enough experience. But the Superstar we did was very effective and was the most popular show that year. Eric Kunze was Jesus. I can’t remember the rest of the cast off the top of my head, but it was a great show.

Q. Are there any plans on writing a book about your experiences in JCS?
A. Well, I started a book many years ago about the whole Superstar thing. I remember pitching it to a few literary agents at the time that I had been hooked up with by many people. They said, “Who is the audience for this book?” Excuse me? Who is the audience?! There are JCS fans worldwide who would buy a copy of this. But they didn’t get it, they didn’t remember. The thing with publishing is it’s disappearing. It’s such an amazing way of getting information out to people, what with the Internet and endless communication. Getting a book out is just agony, it’s extensive and it’s old-fashioned. When I wrote My Life with Barbra, I was amazed to find out that they didn’t do the type electronically. It was like doing it in a cave by candlelight. You had to send these huge hard copies of rewrites, etc., in these big envelopes, and I found out that it was that way across the board. I think book-writing is doomed. I think the only books making money now are biographies and “How to Keep Fit” books. Things are changing, there will be something new. The publishers are scrambling to keep up.

Q. Have you seen the new (2006-2010) tour of JCS with Ted Neeley?
A. No, no I haven’t. I think that’s a non-Equity tour. Ted and I were talking about that, and he wanted me to join. I said that I’d have to drop my Equity status, and I’m not sure I want to do that. You can drop out and do the non-union thing, but when you’re done, you can join up again, and get a fine, which is what I think Carl and Ted did on several of their tours. They were making so much money, that they dropped out of Equity. When they wanted back in, they just paid the fine, which is what, a week’s salary? But at the end of the last tour, I was tired. I was tired of being on the road too. So I won’t join this one. I’ll certainly go see it. I love watching the show, too. It’s wonderful. Ted is a real warhorse. It’s amazing. I don’t know where he gets it.

Q. It’s been rumored that you are going to retire from the role of Pilate. Is this true?
A. Oh no. I can still do it. As long as people ask me to play the role, I will.

Q. Do you have any advice for young people who want to pursue acting as a career?
A. Yes, one word: don’t. It’s rejection after rejection after rejection. Acting makes you feel like you’re going to trip. It’s a trip in which you’re going to be humiliated, and get your feelings hurt, mocked, and made fun of. People are going to trample on your feelings and they are going to reject you. Unless you have rhinoceros skin, it’s a kind of business that can crush the life out of you. You have to be very, very tough.

I also don’t think that actors have the best seat at the table. If you really want to have the power, you have to be a huge star and then you see what happens. They go into producing and directing, and they open their own production companies because that’s where the power is. Long after your smile, million-dollar looks, and beautiful voice have faded, you keep a place at the table because of the other things you bring to your work — not the acting, the other auxiliary stuff. If you’re clever enough, or talented enough I should say, to be a writer, or a director or producer, or any of those things, you are set for life. But if you have to keep auditioning for your work, day after day, week after week, your whole life through, you’re always in line for a job or never assured. Unless you’re in a repertory company, which these days is very rare, you’re never assured of work. You’re always pushing. Imagine if someone was working in a business, an office, a factory, anywhere, having to audition for their job every week; having to go to a new boss every week, sit down, and tell them their capabilities and qualifications for their work. It’s soul-destroying.

I don’t say things that young actors want to hear, because I’m telling them the truth about how damn hard it is to get ahead in the business. But you know something? If they are so powerfully motivated, they do it anyway. If people are burning with that hot flame to be actors, I think that’s great. But I also say don’t be just an actor. You’ve got the talent to make your mark as an actor, that’s great, look at the other actors around you who did lots of other things as well as acting. You will see that that’s a way to choreograph your life so that you’re not just acting. You have other quivers to your bow, and more bullets in your gun, to keep you going when the acting jobs start to dry up.

Q. Thank you very much for chatting with JCS Zone. It was an honor and a privilege to talk to you.
Q. Well, thank you for pursuing me and making this happen. I think it’s great.

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