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The Next Stage

April 08, 2001|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Andrew Lloyd Webber is on a mission to find the definitive stage version of each one of his musicals and produce it for television and home video.

When Lloyd Webber's Really Useful Company began production a few years ago on a filmed version of "Cats"--his feline musical that seems to have more than nine lives--the composer issued an edict: He didn't want it shot in front of an audience.

"Andrew felt that it shouldn't be a straightforward record in a theater with the backs of people's heads," says Austin Shaw, the executive producer of these musical movies.

Rather, says Shaw, "you should go into the world of these shows. There is no intention of these to be full features shot on location, because that would betray the theatrical essence of the shows. Bringing the original stage team back and asking them to re-conceive the musicals for film has been a wonderful exercise."

Last year, Really Useful and Universal Pictures Visual Programming produced a clever, campy version of "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat," the first musical written by Lloyd Webber and lyricist Tim Rice. Like "Cats," this romp based on the Bible was released on video and DVD by Universal and aired on PBS' "Great Performances."

The latest Lloyd Webber classic to get the small-screen movie treatment is "Jesus Christ Superstar," which arrived on DVD and video last month and premieres Wednesday on PBS' "Great Performances."

Unlike the lavish 1973 film version directed by Norman Jewison that was produced on location in the Holy Land, this "Superstar" is much more intimate and raw. Just the way that Lloyd Webber and Rice intended.

Shaw says that Lloyd Webber was never very happy with the outrageous 1971 Broadway production or the feature film. "He and Tim wrote the show to be this telling of a man in extraordinary circumstances," says Shaw. "Tim has always said, 'What an unbelievable dilemma to be in. You are on this destiny to die. How would an ordinary man react?' "

So when Australian Gale Edwards, who directed this production, mounted a theatrical revival of "Superstar" in England in the late '90s, Shaw says, "Andrew had said he wanted it to be true to the original. He thought it should be stripped back and raw and emotional. It shouldn't be the glam rock [show] that was done in the '70s."

David Horn, series producer of "Great Performances," has a relationship with Lloyd Webber that goes back to 1985 when the showcase aired a performance of his classical work, "Requiem." When Horn learned that "Cats" was being transformed into a movie, he says, "Great Performances" quickly agreed to telecast it.

Horn had seen Edwards' production of "Superstar" when it was on tour in England. "They said they wanted to build a film on it," he recalls. "I thought it was good, but I wasn't really blown away by it. But this is one of those cases where a television film can make a theatrical production better, just the way it has been blown up."

"Superstar" depicts the last seven days of Christ's life. Glenn Carter, a dead ringer for Peter Fonda, stars as Christ and Jerome Pradon is Judas. Songs include such hits as "I Don't Know How to Love Him" and "Superstar." Rik Mayall is King Herod.

Shot at London's Pinewood Studios in 26 days, this "Superstar" is not set in the Holy Land of 2000 years ago, but an oppressed, graffiti-ridden universe--sort of a cross between "West Side Story" and Julie Taymor's Nazi-esque "Titus."

Carter, who played Christ in "Superstar" in England and on Broadway, describes the setting as "urban ... Jesus goes from wearing army combat pants at the beginning to classical robes at the end. It is supposed to depict the relevance of the story throughout the ages."

And Carter portrays a very human Christ. "He could have backed down at any point and said, 'I am not who I say I am.' But he stuck to what he believed to be true and went through an amazing series of humiliating events in order to make a statement: 'I will not back down and you will not break me.' "

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"Great Performances: Jesus Christ Superstar" airs Wednesday at 8 p.m. on KCET and KVCR. The network has rated it TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children).

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