'Jesus Christ Superstar' - For Ted Neeley, Jesus Is Life's Work

Ted Neeley, whose association with the title role in
Ted Neeley, whose association with the title role in "Jesus Christ Superstar" goes back to 1971, will appear with the touring production at the Warner Theatre beginning Tuesday. (By Joan Marcus © 2006)
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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."

And:

"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."

Whew.

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."


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