Barry Dennen, who played Pontius Pilate in the original stage and film versions of Jesus Christ Superstar and earlier played a key role in Barbra Streisand’s emergence from cabaret unknown to superstar diva, died Tuesday morning in Burbank, where he was in hospice care. He was 79. Dennen had suffered a brain injury after a fall at home in June, according to Lucy Chase Williams, a close friend who confirmed the death to Deadline.
An actor, singer and voice artist, Dennen’s connection with Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s megahit rock opera began after his late-1960s move from New York’s burgeoning Greenwich Village cabaret scene to swinging London. Director Hal Prince cast him as the Emcee in the West End premiere of Cabaret, playing the part originated by Joel Grey, opposite Judi Dench as Sally Bowles.
The cast recording of that production is notable for one of the major distinctions between the Broadway and West End shows, which comes in the Emcee’s “Gorilla Song,” in which the character sings about his love for a simian. The song’s last line, “If you could see her through my eyes/She wouldn’t look Jewish at all,” was changed at Prince’s insistence, for the Broadway opening after tryout performances drew strong protests, changing it to “meeskite,” the Yiddish word for “ugly.” When the show opened in London, however, the original “Jewish” was reinstated, doubtless for the more historically aware UK audience, and that’s what Dennen can be heard singing on the cast album. (“Jewish” also is what viewers of the Bob Fosse film hear.)
Dennen’s local fame had come earlier, in New York, within a smaller circle. As James Gavin, the pre-eminent historian of new York’s cabaret scene, told Deadline:
“I first reached out to Barry Dennen in 1988 in the course of researching my first book, Intimate Nights: The Golden Age of New York Cabaret. Barry had been referred to me as the man behind the young Barbra Streisand as well as a player in the Greenwich Village cabaret scene of the early ’60s – the Duplex, the Showplace, the youthful and naive let’s-put-on-a-show nightclub revues that were popular then. He was sly and droll and had presence. I fully believe that Barry was crucial in the emergence of the Barbra of legend; that he urged her to do cabaret when her acting efforts seemed stymied; that he steered her toward the talent contest at the Lion, the gay Village bar, and put an act together for her; and that he helped her with repertoire (Barry loved 1920s and ’30s songs and songbirds), attitude, and nightclub survival techniques and groomed her in all sorts of other ways.”
“They lived together as a couple for a while. All this is recounted in Barry’s book, My Life with Barbra: A Love Story, which I found touching and sweet. His story with Barbra ended sourly; as was her wont, she moved on from him as she continued her meteoric rise. Barry was not without bitterness about it; he wanted credit and acknowledgment for what he had done for her, and that wasn’t and isn’t Streisand’s style. In my book he says: ‘I don’t think Barbra wants to acknowledge that in her early years she had a lot of people to be grateful to. I was astonished when somebody told me years later that Barbra’s published position was that she listened to her ‘voices,’ and her voices told her what to do. It had nothing to do with that; she had people with voices telling her what to do. People who were helping her with her hair, her makeup, her shoes, her dresses, the material, and her direction. I think it makes her feel guilty and uncomfortable that she’s never been able to find it inside herself to repay this in any way. And that’s between her and her conscience.’
“About 10 years ago, feeling he deserved some recompense, he agreed to an auctioneer’s heeding that he put his original Streisand reel-to-reel home and club recordings up for auction at an exorbitant price, six figures, as I recall. Streisand acolytes went nuts, declaring that he was exploiting her, and I think her lawyers sent a threatening letter. He told me the tapes never sold. I wonder what will become of them.”
Dennen was born in Chicago on February 22, 1938. His family moved to Los Angeles when he was a child. After graduating from UCLA, he moved to New York City, where he began performing in workshops and on the cabaret circuit.
In London, Dennen was invited in 1970 by Lloyd Webber to sing the part of Pilate on the double LP of Webber & Rice’s groundbreaking rock opera, Jesus Christ Superstar. He returned stateside the following year and reprised his role as Pilate in the original 1971 Broadway production –which ran to July 1973, covering more than 700 performances — and then again in the Norman Jewison-directed film adaptation opposite Ted Neeley in 1973. Dennen’s role in Jesus Christ Superstar would reach legendary status as he would go on to be associated with the iconic musical for nearly 40 years, often with Neely and under the stewardship of his longtime agent and closest friend Pat Brady, of CESD Talent Agency.
Dennen’s additional stage credits include Silent Parnters, The Fantasticks, Ghetto, She Loves Me, Annie Get Your Gun, and The Pirates of Penzance.
In addition to the Jesus Christ Superstar movie, Dennen performed in several classics including The Shining, Trading Places, Fiddler on the Roof as well as Titanic. In addition, he appeared in on TV shows such as Wonder Woman, Batman, L.A. Law, Newhart, Hill Street Blues, Tales From the Darkside, Murphy Brown, and Murder, She Wrote. He also was an accomplished voice-over artist, providing his talent to the Jim Henson classic The Dark Crystal as well as video games including World of Warcraft, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, Darksiders 2, Fallout: New Vegas, Avatar: The Last Airbender and others.
Dennen is survived by his sons Timothy and Barnaby, who he had adopted from his early marriage to English actress Pamela Strong. Dennen lost his life partner James McGachy to cancer in 2001. His brother, Lyle, and his wife, Xenia, live outside London.