NEAL MORSE: Raising the Rock Opera Bar Yet Again
I was so excited to hear about this album when you released news on it last year. I have to admit, I don’t keep my nose to the news grindstone anymore these days … so I was slightly confused when The Great Adventure came out. “What happened to the Jesus rock opera?” I thought. What were the thoughts and/or reasons behind this release coming after The Great Adventure?
It was just the way that it played out. The Neal Morse band had been working on The Great Adventure (TGA) on and off for awhile. Since Mike was out with sons of Apollo for most of that year, I had to figure out what to do at Morsefest without him. We could have taken the year off but it just didn’t feel right to me, so I had the idea to do Jesus Christ the Exorcist (JCE) as a featured performance at MorseFest. So, right in the middle of the rewrite of JCE, Michael Caplan called me and told me that he had a deal going for the musical. It was incredible timing! The amazing thing is we hadn’t talked about it for like 10 years! Amazing. So, in the months that followed I wound up working on both albums concurrently and it was super challenging. The band had decided that they wanted to release TGA in January, so we could debut it on cruise to the edge. Thankfully, frontiers decided that they wanted to release JCE in June so I think the timing is great. But, it wasn’t a calculated thing, it just seemed to be the way that it all happened. Perhaps there were forces greater than ourselves at work. :-)
People are always saying how busy and prolific you are, but this release seems to top even your schedule! How do you keep up this pace of creativity?
Well, the bulk of JCE was written 11 years ago or so, so the challenge for me was not so much from the writing perspective but a matter of getting all the recording done. And it was a great challenge that’s for sure! I wasn’t sure if I could do it all frankly. But the more time-consuming part for me is the recording process, mixing, artwork… All the things that go along with releasing a record. I usually write fairly quickly.
Let’s talk about Jesus Christ – The Exorcist. Brilliant title, by the way. What led to highlighting this authority/power aspect of His ministry?
I wrote this album with an open Bible and I was drawn to the drama of all the times Jesus is casting devils out of people. I don’t think I realized how much of the activity in the gospels is referring to this process which really is called exorcism. I suppose when I first thought of the title I was thinking that it was just a working title but the thing I like about it is that it’s a little challenging and might be a little bit controversial. I always like titles that make you think and I hope this is one. I hope people don’t get stuck thinking about the film with the pea soup and all of that. :)
Creating a rock opera about Jesus seems a daunting task in the shadow, so to speak, of Jesus Christ Superstar, Godspell and other passion plays. What led to this idea? How did you overcome any so-called “obstacles” of competing with these other previous works?
Like so many of my concept albums originally it wasn’t my idea. Michael Caplan called me years ago and said “hey some friends of mine were listening to Jesus Christ superstar last night and really digging it, and one of them said man, somebody should do something like that now!“ Michael said, “I got the guy!“
So he encouraged me to take this thing on, which I thought was pretty absurd at first but as I prayed about it I began to feel like God was in it.
As far as comparisons go I think it’s unavoidable. We always wish that our work was not compared to other works or even our own works but it’s just the way that people are and I hope ultimately people can enjoy this for what it is of course.
You wrote the first draft in 2008 and 2009. Was it complete then? How and why did you hold on to it so long?
Michael tried to get different kinds of deals for it. I think originally he was shopping it to Broadway producers and had some interest but nothing ever panned out. It was a complete piece although when I revisited it there were quite a few songs and musical sections that I thought could be better so I replaced and edited quite a bit from that original version. I held onto it just waiting for God to open the door. It’s been a long journey… But I’m thrilled to say that it’s finally found a home… At least it’s first home!
What made you do a complete re-write?
It isn’t really a complete rewrite. I don’t think I changed hardly anything in parts 1, 2, 3 and 4 for example. I just felt that there were some things that I listen to now that I thought could be better. Also, I was re-writing it with a performance at MorseFest in mind. The first draft had more of a Broadway performance in mind. It made a difference in how I approached it.
What original parts remained or are familiar to the original?
I’d really have to listen to the original again to tell you. I know that there was a whole 20 minute section that I cut out as I found it was not necessary. I believe the original draft was about 2 1/2 hours long so I knew I needed to cut it down which is one important element. Left untouched are parts 1 - 4 in Act One, and I think “the greatest love of all” at the end of Act Two is pretty much intact as well.
This album had a live premiere in 2018. Was this in its entirety – from track by track?
How did it go over with the audience?
Amazingly well! It was not as well attended as some other years have been because it was a rather unknown work as opposed to us playing some album that is well-known... that people love. But I think I can safely say that across-the-board people were absolutely stunned and blown away!
Where was this at?
Morsefest 2018 in Cross Plains TN near Nashville. It’s about five minutes from my house.
Which questionable parts got a confirmation (if any) with audience reaction, etc.
I wasn’t too sure about the Mary sections as I had trouble finding someone to sing the role and finally decided to try Talon David who is a local talent here in my area and her performance got an amazing reaction from the audience! Some people on the Internet even said that she was a highlight which is saying a lot when you’ve got guys like Ted Leonard and Nick D’Virgilio singing!
What about His baptism stands out to you?
One of my challenges when writing the show was how to write the voice of God musically? So, at Jesus baptism, I came up to the place where God says “this is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased“ and I thought about it and thought about it… And decided to have a choir sing the voice of God. And it’s one of my favorite moments in the show it’s so powerful!
Can you imagine being chosen by Him as a disciple in 30 AD?
I don’t know.. I would hope I would respond the same way I do today with an eagerness and full surrender to follow Him!!
What would be on your mind if you had that amazing opportunity in history?
I’d probably be like everyone else and be considering all the things I’d be leaving behind. It’s always a challenge what we have to turn from in order to turn to him. But of course, what he offers is so far above and beyond anything that this world has to offer.
What key elements did you focus on with the exorcism/deliverance scenes? I’m curious about “Free at Last,” “Madman…” and “the Woman of Seven Devils.”
The woman of seven Devils is Mary Magdalene describing her condition, when Jesus says that he can heal her she asks him to, even though I don’t know if she really believes it, then for the part where he’s actually casting the devils out of her is this very dramatic guitar solo. I’m not sure if people are going to understand that… If it was staged of course you would get it... but that is my thought, that she says at the end of seven Devils, “break these chains“ then there’s this long tormented guitar solo, and then comes the song free at last which is about her deliverance and being free of her demons.
The madman of the Gadarenes piece is one of my favorites on the album. It has that gentle giant style vocal layering that I always really enjoy writing. I love the idea of the demons coming out of the guy and singing as they come out about tormenting him. Of course, in the end Jesus casts them into the pigs and in the end the madman is made whole.
I like seeing CD2 starting off with “He Must Go to the Cross.” How necessary did you feel it was to bring that up? I know at times in my life – especially when I was younger – I used to really feel the emotion and passion of how unfair Jesus was treated, the mockery of a trial, His innocence and the seeming injustice of it all (when it was, in fact, justice itself being served).
I think it is a pivotal part of the story to have Caiaphas and the Pharisees singing of their plotting against him. That is something that I really enjoyed in Jesus Christ superstar and I think it’s a really necessarily element in the Gospels. It’s really interesting how Caiaphas says that it’s necessary for Jesus to be crucified so that the whole world would be saved.
What did you focus on with “Judas’ Death?” Why? What stood out to you?
Drama! I see Judas as someone who had good intentions in the beginning and tried to force Jesus to conquer the Romans. Afterwords, he repents, but he repents to the priests in the temple and not to God. That’s his big mistake and so he kills himself. Tragic and very important.
“Love Has Called My Name” sounds like a strong title and a potentially passionate melodic message. It shows up again as a reprise, so I am guessing my hunch is right. Tell us about that song. How do you feel about it and why?
That was one of the songs that came in the rewrite of last year. I wanted to have a new song about when the disciples come on board and start following him. And, in my way of thinking, it is the love of God that draws us and compels us to be disciples. So, singing love has called my name really fits for me.
How do love and authority/exorcism go hand-in-hand?
Well, it is the true love of God that delivers us and what could be a greater showing of that than delivering our souls from evil.
What led to choosing the different cast members for each of their roles?
Ted was one of the first people I thought of. Most of the people seemed to be pretty obvious to me. As I worked on writing the Judas role, I thought Nick would be perfect and so he is. As I said before the role of Mary took me longer to cast. Matt Smith as John the Baptist is just amazing! Rick Florian came in when I talk to a mutual friend in Nashville who knew Rick and when I heard him sing the role of the devil I was blown away. Jake Livgren was originally supposed to just sing the role of Peter, but we had some extra time when he was here in the studio, and when he was at the rehearsals for the live performance I had remembered that he could sing anything, so I asked him if he wanted to take a stab at the role of Caiaphas. What a blessing! But all the singers are great! Even the ones that I may have neglected to mention.
What was it like working with these folks?
Great! All of em. We had a great time together.
How do you plan on presenting this live?
I think when the time comes to perform this again I’d like to put together a small touring company of about 13 people total with singers doubling on roles and what not. We don’t have any solid plans at the moment but there are some things being discussed. I hope it happens! Would be amazing again I’m sure
Is it a foregone conclusion that each of your albums will be double-length? What are the challenges of working within this longer format? Do you still end up with songs “on the cutting room floor?” How hard it is to let go of a song you’ve written?
It’s difficult to lose songs but you have to be pragmatic about it and if you feel like it’s gonna make the whole piece better then you need to just cut it and move on. It’s always a challenge… I don’t really like to make double albums! Ha ha. I just follow the music where it wants to go and it seems many times to be really long! :)
Looking back on your career, what are the highlights for you?
Oh man, there’s a lot ! Live wise I suppose it would be the Prog nation cruise where I performed with Transatlantic and Jon Anderson. Studio wise it would be recording the last two albums with the Neal Morse band. Absolutely amazing.
What are some endearing comments you’ve received?
Well, I’ve been extremely blessed to have received a lot of us emails and letters and people at meet and greets telling me how the Lord is use my music to change their life and heal their family. It’s pretty amazing! God truly is able to do above all we can ask or even think. It’s very humbling.
I’m curious if you’ve encountered any incredibly negative (or demonic) comments or feedback over the years. If so, please share. And what lessons has this taught you?
I haven’t really had that much negative feedback over the years. Surprisingly really. Way back when I started on this journey I thought I would encounter a lot more resistance than I have. I think though, as Bonhoeffer said, the reproach of Christ in our day is many times under the radar and behind closed doors.
Anything else you’d like to share?
I’m really grateful for this label and this group of people helping to get the music out there this time! I’m so excited about this album... can’t wait to share it!!
June 14 can’t come soon enough for me.
Thanks a lot!
#NealMorse #Theocracy #DreamTheater #MikePortnoy #SpocksBeard #progrock #JesusChristSuperstar #TheExorcist