Ben Vereen & Jesus Christ Superstar: From Judas to Pontius Pilate

Almost 40 years after playing Judas in the first Broadway production of Jesus Christ Superstar, actor Ben Vereen is coming to Houston to play Pontius Pilate in the classic rock opera.

"I get a chance to play the judge who makes the decision to crucify Jesus. It's going to be fun," Vereen tells Art Attack in a wide-ranging conversation that takes a few unexpected left turns - everything from jokes to irony to spiritual statements to frustration with today's economy and values.

Vereen, nominated for a Tony in 1972 for his turn as Judas (and who won a Tony the next year for his role in Pippin) and known for movie and TV work (he played Chicken George in Roots), will appear in The Musical Theatre of Houston's production of Jesus Christ Superstar at the Wortham Center's Brown Theater.

When asked the difference between the two parts, Vereen jokes: "Pontius wore good clothes; he got to wear the Armanis. And Judas wore, you know, Salvation Army clothes off the rack."

Jesus Christ Superstar is a musical adaptation of the final days of Jesus Christ by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyricist Tim Rice. Originally, both the play and the album ( a huge hit in 1971) were attacked as being sacrilegious by some Christians. Asked about that, Vereen says he thinks there are other things that are more irreverent and worrisome. "What do you think is going on with the economy? Don't you think that's kind of sacrilegious?"

In the '70s, he says, his response was: "At least we're getting the name of Jesus out into the press."

He says reviving the work "is wonderful," and "it gives actors a chance to express something they probably know nothing about." The 1970s, he says, were "a time when we were in the streets. Vietnam was going on. Young people were still searching for their spiritual understanding; whatever path they're going to take whether Christian, Buddhist, Islam, Jewish. They were searching for a higher understanding of themselves."

Today, though, people are struggling with "just trying to find a job," he says. "But in doing so, we need to rely on a power greater than ourselves...any forum that's going to put that out there such as a Jesus Christ Superstar, such as a Godspell, such as a Joseph and his coat of many colors - any production that's going to praise the name of the spirit is always welcome."

Asked if he is religious, Vereen says: "I'm a spiritual person. I combine them all. There's no one particular path to the top of the mountain." He adds that everyone should have a chance to practice their own religion, but not if it means hurting someone else. "That's the one thing about Jesus Christ Superstar. He never put down the Romans. He never put down the Jews. I think we can learn something from that now."

Rather than blaming Congress, Vereen says, he thinks we should pray for its members, because, after all, we elected them. He hopes audiences will appreciate and be uplifted by Jesus Christ Superstar, but more than that, commit "to their higher power" and work together to get rid of homelessness, war, poverty and the economic crisis.

The Musical Theatre of Houston will present Jesus Christ Superstar at 8 p.m. on August 19 and 20 at the Wortham Center's Brown Theater, 500 Texas. For ticket information go to http://www.houstontx.gov/worthamcenter/ or call 713-237-1439.

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