The story never ends for Neeley of ‘Superstar’
By John Benson
Next year marks the 40th anniversary of the opening of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s classic rock-opera “Jesus Christ Superstar.” Though actor Ted Neeley was a chorus member and understudy in that show, he soon would have the lead as Jesus in what became a career-defining role. The Vindicator talked to the 66-year-old performer recently about the latest touring production of “Jesus Christ Superstar,” which plays Akron’s E. J. Thomas Hall on Tuesday, as well as his iconic role and just how much longer we can expect to see Neeley hit the high notes on stage.
Q. It was reported a few years ago when you toured with “Jesus Christ Superstar” that it was actually your farewell tour. What happened?
A. I must tell you I never said that. There’s a line in the show where Pontius Pilate asks Jesus something about being the son of God, and the response is, “Your words, not mine.” Somebody somewhere thought maybe since I was more than 33 years old that it would be the farewell tour, but I have to say I never fared any more well. I have no desire to stop. I have lots of singing to do. So please forgive me for those comments that make me look like I’m trying to be Cher.
Q. Your fans will be happy to hear the news that you’ll be continuing on. Looking back nearly four decades, did you ever think you’d still be doing this so many years later?
A. No, I never thought it would go past opening night in New York City in 1971. And then when the film was shot, (director) Norman Jewison and I used to talk in length whether the movie will ever get off the cutting-room floor. I certainly had no idea and had no expectation. So there is nobody who is more amazed than I about the fact that it still works and people will still accept me doing the role. It’s remarkable.
Q. Naturally, whenever anyone thinks of Ted Neeley, your role in “Jesus Christ Superstar” comes to mind. What’s it like to have such a definitive r sum credit?
A. I have to tell you, it has given me a career. I’ve done many things. I had the great fortune of being in the original productions of all the four most-successful rock operas — “Hair,” “Sgt. Pepper,” “Tommy” and this one. And all because I’m a rock ’n’ roll drummer who can hit the high note. So I’m the most- fortunate guy in the world, and I could not be happier doing any other role. This one has so much depth, and what’s remarkable, quite frankly, is in the last 10 years, certainly, there’s so much more new material from which I can research and gain information because that information didn’t exist in the ’70s. The only publication I could find in the ’70s that looked at Jesus Christ as a man was the novel “The Last Temptation of Christ.” Now I can go online and find new material everyday. So it’s pretty remarkable, and it keeps the show fresh.
Q. Speaking of keeping the show fresh, this current national tour of “Jesus Christ Superstar” is billed as being stripped down. What does that mean?
A. People in general don’t understand how involved Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber are with the projects they’ve done. For this particular production alone, Andrew completely re-arranged the orchestrations of the show. It’s the same songs, but he added all of these new elements of music for us to use. Tim went in and re-addressed some of the lyrics. So from that point of view, yes it’s different. And what we’ve learned all of these years is people in general who come to see this show have seen it many times. They know exactly what goes on, and in some cases know the music better than we do. So they have an expectation, and they’ve let us know openly that they don’t need bells and whistles and special effects. They want to see the simplicity of the desert 2,000 years ago, and they want to hear that magnificent music. So what we have now is a minimalistic approach to this piece, that has not been done before.
Q. Finally, how long will we continue to see Ted Neeley in the role of Jesus?
A. With all honesty, the best I can say is no longer than say another 2,000 years (laughs). I couldn’t pass that one up. I honestly don’t know. If people are kind enough and generous enough to allow me the opportunity to do it, I’d be a fool to say no. I guess as long as I can hit the high notes, which blows me away. Technically, the high notes should have been gone years ago. But they’re stronger now than they ever have been.