For Actor, Jesus Is Life's Work
By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 13, 2009
Ted Neeley has walked in Jesus's sandals longer than the Messiah.
The actor has been starring in "Jesus Christ Superstar," off and on now, for almost 40 years: first as an understudy in the original 1971 Broadway production, then in the title role in the Los Angeles version, followed by Norman Jewison's 1973 film adaptation. Since then, Neeley, 65, has stepped into Jesus's robes more times, and in more touring productions, than he can count (at least 1,700 performances, by his own estimate, during one 1990s tour alone). Starting Tuesday, he'll once again headline, when Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber's rock musical comes to the Warner Theatre.
It's by no means the only thing Neeley does. He is also a country singer; he hopes to bring his newly composed musical "Pandemonium" to Broadway; and he has plans to star in a revival of the musical "Rasputin" ... just as soon as he can find the time.
But when you talk by phone to Neeley, who was on the road with the "Superstar" tour, now in its third year, it is sometimes hard not to get the feeling that the actor is, in fact, the chosen one.
And we don't just mean that Neeley -- who says he doesn't embrace any particular religious organization but describes his Southern Baptist upbringing in small-town Texas as "deep in my psyche" -- seems, in many ways, born to play the part. He still remembers his first audition for the Broadway show, coming in with a rendition of narrator and second-banana Judas's show-opener, "Heaven on Their Minds." When he was done, and sure he had gotten the part, director Tom O'Horgan came up, threw his arms around him and said, as Neeley recalls, "That was wonderful. I'd like you to come back tomorrow and sing the other guy."
Maybe it's because in conversation Neeley uses the word "unto" (repeatedly, and in the mellifluous tones of a Gospel preacher) when the word "to" would suffice. Or maybe it's the way he talks about how the line between Jesus onstage and Neeley offstage has, over several decades, become increasingly blurred. In a good way, of course.
"I do everything in my daily life," he says, "even when I'm not performing as Jesus, to emulate that which is thought of as a Christian belief of honoring everyone, and being kind and gentle and understanding, and whatever I can to bring a more peaceful coexistence for anyone with whom I might be speaking at the time."
"Since I'm doing the role of Jesus Christ -- emulating and pretending to be that person -- I try to do everything I can to emulate that which would be peaceful and honorable and compassionate, with every moment and with every gesture."
Not that Neeley isn't aware of just how egotistical that might sound.
"It's not that I know something," Neeley explains, almost apologetically. "It's just there's a feeling of spirituality there that I believe we all have. I truly believe there is a universal spirituality that we all share, no matter what we may believe in, even if you're an absolute nonbeliever."
Still, it can be tough being Ted Neeley, he admits, ironically in much the same way it was tough being Jesus. You know, the whole man/son of God thing.
Here Neeley is: just a "rock-and-roll drummer from Texas" who "screams high notes for a living." And yet people keep looking up to him as some sort of "authority," as he calls it. Not just in matters theatrical, as with the sometimes overly reverential casts and crews. After all, he says, "I'm the guy who was in the movie." But also in spiritual matters. "I have clergy members . . . asking my opinion on things," Neeley says with a laugh. "It's just absolutely remarkable."
Which kind of raises the question: Exactly how does a director direct someone who has been playing the same part for so long? Someone who says he needs to hear only the first few notes of Lloyd Webber's overture to be immediately transported "into this magnificent space of educational, theatrical knowledge"? Someone who, by his own admission, constantly seeks -- but only rarely finds -- the level of "insight" he gained from working with O'Horgan and Jewison, lo, these many years ago?
"My question is your question," says Dallett Norris, the director of the touring production. "My God, he knows this backwards and forwards, and I don't even know the Bible particularly well." (Norris says he studied "The Complete Idiot's Guide to the Bible" to bring himself up to speed.)
One thing Norris says was never a problem was his overqualified star acting like a prima donna. "I didn't feel, as I worked with him, any different than I would feel with an actor who had never done the part before."
With one exception.
Because of Neeley's experience and his ability to give what the director calls "100 percent," night after night, Norris says the actor has, in fact, become a kind of de facto shepherd of men, inspiring not only the novice but the more experienced in the company of more than 50 performers and musicians. Which is especially important with a long-running tour, where boredom can easily set in, leading to phoned-in performances.
"Ted's energy and his commitment to this is so genuine and so complete, and ultimately so gentle that it is a force," says Norris, waxing mystical. "It's an energy that ... takes everyone in and moves forward."
For the director of a road show, who may get out to check on his flock only once every three months or so, Neeley is, quite literally, a godsend. "I thank God he's there," Norris says, "because it's a tremendous force for keeping the show in shape."