Ted Neeley and the fountain of youth
How long has Ted Neeley, the star of the 1973 motion picture "Jesus
Christ Superstar," actually been playing Jesus? Even a cursory
counting would suggest at least as long as the real Jesus Christ
lived. "Actually, if the truth be told," admits Neeley, "slightly
over 2007 years, but you know what? The donkey still works, but he
doesn't like the cold weather very much."
A soft-spoken and gentle native Texan who was raised a Southern
Baptist and even offstage still looks remarkably like a middle-aged
version of the stereotypical image of Jesuscomplete with his own
below collar-length-hair and his trademark "unique scrawny
beard"Neeley maintains a refreshing sense of humor about playing
Jesus for so long: "When it comes to this role, I borrow Jack Benny's
line, except that instead of 39, I will always be 33. But there's
plenty of parts out there for a guy with this lookJesse James,
General Custer, and the one they're thinking about giving me now is
Neeley has been associated with stage versions of "rock musicals"
since the phrase was first coined in the late 1960s. In addition to
starring in the original Los Angeles productions of "Hair" and
"Superstar" and going on to do both on Broadway, Neeley also
performed the lead in the first fully staged version of "Tommy" under
the auspices of The Who as well as the Broadway version of "Sgt.
Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band," where he had to audition for John
Lennon and Paul McCartney.
As for "Superstar," Neeley originally tried out for the role of Judas
and "sang my heart out" for the audition, only to have the director
come and put his arms around him and say, "That was great. Could we
hear you as 'the other guy?'" "I had done 'Hair,' which I used to say
was actually Jesus, Judas and Mary Magdeline in Haight-Ashbury," says
Neeley. "Claude was kind of a messianic-like figure to the 'turn out,
tune in and drop out' generation, who then dies."
Playing Jesus really begin to click for Neeley when Carl Anderson was
engaged to play Judas, the two having an instant chemistry and
intensity together that even Neeley concedes "defies understanding."
"We were the yin and the yang of the project, and it just really
worked somehow." So much so, that when Norman Jewison was making the
film version of "Superstar," he had already cast his leads but paid
them off and brought in Neeley and Anderson to make the film after
screen-testing the pair "as blocking figures for the real cast," says Neeley.
Neeley's life beyond "Superstar" has been that of a composer and
musician as well as an actor, having written and performed the music
for Michael Landon's long-running "Highway to Heaven" television
series, as well as scoringand appearing insuch films as Robert
Altman's "A Perfect Couple," "A Touch of Gold" and "Blame it on the
Night," among others, as well as a Broadway-bound musical,
"Pandemonium." He also sang the title role of "Rasputin" for a
concept album and appeared in "Waiting for Gigot."
But somehow, "Superstar" has interceded along the way, first in 1992,
when Neeley and Anderson were reunited for the first time since the
film with an all-star cast that included Irene Cara as Mary Magdelene
and Chicago native Dennis DeYoung of Styx as Pontius Pilate, a
three-month tour that kept on extending for five straight years and
even ended up on Broadway. "My thought at the time," says Neeley,
"was we were getting on in years, but if Carl would do it, I would do
it." Sadly, Anderson was preparing to be part of the current
"Superstar" tour before he was diagnosed with leukemia and passed
away in early 2004. "It was, and remains, devastating," says Neeley.
"Besides losing my best friend, I took it as a sign that it might be
time to stop, but the fan base for this show is so amazing and
persistent, and we forged on, at first trying to 'replace' Carl,
which after a year and a half of searching, we realized was not
possible. We found a lot of great singers who couldn't act, and a lot
of great actors who couldn't sing." Corey Glover of Living Colour
finally ended up landing the part. "Like Carl and I," explains
Neeley, "Corey has rock 'n' roll roots and is an uncontained energy
source and a wild beast roaming around that stage. He had an instant
presence and a strength and confidence, because you have to be able
to go head to head with Jesus. Audiences love what he does and he has
made the role his own."
Neeley continues, "People are still profoundly moved by this piece
and are willing to accept me in the role even at this stage of my
life, which surprises me more than anyone, although you do get a
certain wisdom and deeper appreciation of what you're doing as time
goes on. And as long as they still accept me, I'm having a ball. If I
were a beer-belly Jesus up there on the cross, that would be one
thing, but my wife is a ballet dancer and cracks the whip so I eat
well, and I have never been a smoker nor overindulged in alcohol, and
have never stopped singing all these years." Neeley admits, though,
that being crucified eight times a week "takes a certain toll, to say
nothing of the thirty-nine lashes.
"The star of this show is the music, that's for sure," he continues,
"and we never forget that," with Neeley's favorite part of the
evening occurring after the show when people come backstage and share
their personal stories of how the piece has affected them over the
years, a process that can last well into the wee hours. "It sounds so
egotistical, but generations of folks have now told me, 'You are my
image of Jesus,' because the humanity of the piece really speaks to
them and so many tell me how they found their spirituality through
this piece rather than through the dogmatic approach of the pulpit.
It's not about religion in an organized sense but about universal
spirituality and the deep connection between all of us as human beings."
"Jesus Christ Superstar" runs February 19-24 at the Cadillac Palace
Theatre, 151 West Randolph, (312)551-1212.