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SGN Exclusive: An interview with Ted Neeley, Jesus of Jesus Christ Superstar
SGN Exclusive: An interview with Ted Neeley, Jesus of Jesus Christ Superstar
by Eric Andrews-Katz - SGN Contributing Writer

"I've been on the road for 2000 years and will be for 2000 years more." From the cheerful tone of his voice, Ted Neeley seems to be more boasting than complaining. There is a definite ring of pride in his voice knowing that he's been with the show practically from its origins.

Most people are familiar with the double brown covered concept album to Jesus Christ Superstar (1971, Ian Gillian, Murry Head and Yvonne Elliman). Everyone is familiar with the title song, which went to the top of the charts along with "I Don't Know How To Love Him." But few know of the controversy of the show - that is to say, few aside from Ted Neeley.

Starting off as a Reporter (and understudy for the lead), Ted is best known for his lead role as Jesus in the 1973 Norman Jewison film, Jesus Christ Superstar. Currently, he is starring in the touring company of the latest resurrection. I caught up with Ted via phone as he was traveling toward Seattle. With a cheery disposition and easy laugh in his voice, he seemed eager to discuss the show.

What makes the current stage version different from the original production in 1971?
The current version is much more simplistic than the original. The original was a visually gothic conception. It was stunning with flashy lights and props. Director Tom O'Horgan was a Fellini of the live stage. Most subsequent versions [now] are more simplistic allowing the audience to indulge with each character, understanding the positive traits and personal faults of each person on stage. It's more of an Our Town in Jerusalem 2000 years ago.

You were in the original Broadway cast of JCS as a reporter and understudied the lead. Later you played Jesus in the movie version. How different is it playing Jesus on stage from the screen?
Actually, it's almost identically the same. The only difference is the fact that it's more personal on film since the camera is right there. But the point is to have the audience form the relationship with the characters, whether it's from the seats of a movie theater or a live theater.

When JCS first came out in 1971, it was controversial. Does it still put people on defense today?
There still are places that are picketed. It's mostly non-violent and more cerebral, making it less problematic than it was in NYC [in 1971] - then there were serious protestors that made it difficult to get into the stage doors. If stopped, I usually asked them if they've seen the show. Most of the time they hadn't. I'd invite them as my personal guest and those that took me up on it usually walked away satisfied. Those that don't take the time to at least see it usually already have their minds made up.

Why do you think people get so defensive over the retelling of this story? There were bomb threats with the showings of Corpus Christi.
I've had no experience with bomb threats but have heard of them being made. Mostly I've dealt with people up in my face making verbal threats, usually based on their personal beliefs. I respectfully listen and try to learn something from their opinions, positive or negative. Most people in the last 25 years have learned some kind of tolerance. I try to remember when I put on the robe and sandals that, 'If one accepts the praise for the role, then they have to accept the protest.' Tom [O'Horgan] prepared me for that when he [previously] directed HAIR.

Aside from the movie soundtrack, do you ever listen to any of the different recordings of JCS? If so, do you have a favorite/preferred version?
The original concept album we call "The Brown Bible" since it started everything. It will always be the classic. The Australian cast recording is my favorite without question. There are so many magnificent performances by such talented artists.

Do you have a favorite song from JCS?
The song "Gethsemane" is an epiphany for me every night. It's something personal both as a performer and as an experience in the show. Two favorites are "Could We Start Again, Please" [written for Broadway after the concept album] and "Then We Are Decided" [written especially for the movie]. The first gives voice to the apostles' confusion and the latter to the Sanhedrin.

How do you think JCS stands up against other religious films such as The Passion, The Last Temptation of Christ or even Godspell?
It's tough for me to be overly objective because I'm so partial to JCS. I haven't seen Godspell, but The Last Temptation was magnificent. I remember the protests when the movie opened. Religious groups would bus-in mobs to protest and fight outside the theaters. At the time I couldn't understand why because if they [movie producers] cave in, then it's no longer about artistic license. I used the book, The Last Temptation [by Nikos Kazantzakis] as research when I was filming Jesus Christ Superstar.

The Passion is recommended because the concepts are phenomenal. Mel [Gibson] showed the relationship between Jesus and his mother as being spiritual and beautiful. The subtitles weren't even needed.

Both movies were magnificently done.

If someone fell onto this planet and had never even heard of the bible, would there be any message gathered from JCS or would it just be for entertainment?
I believe, based on all the years with JCS, that it has opened the minds and hearts of people worldwide to a more spiritual connection to the God or the Universe - or whatever else - more so than any other piece. Tim [Rice]'s lyrics and [Sir Andrew] Lloyd Webber's music are an easy spiritual connection for any to hear.

I have many friends in theater and they all have superstitions. Do you have any superstitious rituals you do before going on the stage?
Nothing whatsoever. I get into the costume and get up and walk on stage. I've been screaming rock-n-roll since I was a child and it's the most natural place for me to be.

What's it like to work with a singer like Corey Glover [member of the group Living Color]? Do you think he takes to the stage well?
Magnificent. With all due respect, no on will ever replace Cal Anderson [Judas in the film] - we were like Yin and Yang - but Corey is magnificent. Recently redid this peace with Ben [Vereen - Judas on Broadway] and Yvonne [Elliman - Mary Magdalene], and it was wonderful. When you have those two, they set the precedent hard for anyone to step into their shoes. Pursued casting for over one and-a-half years and then here comes Corey! He's intense and he brings his intensity to Judas.

You worked with many other noticeable names in the original cast of JCS [Anita Morris, Samuel Wright, Ben Vereen, Cal Anderson and, of course, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice]. Do you have any particular memories or anecdotes about any of them you'd like to share?
With all honesty, in the beginning everyone was there and thankful just to have a job. It was so obvious with Ben Vereen [ROOTS] and Anita [Ruthless People] - especially with Anita - that they were going to be a shining star from the first day. Anita & [chuckles] what a delicious diva she was. Same with Samuel Wright [Disney's Little Mermaid]. It's obvious when you see them. It's been an honor to work with them. I'm overwhelmed that I still have the opportunity to know people like them and to meet others. I am truly thankful.

Jesus Christ Superstar will be playing for only three performances; two on Saturday December 22 and one on Sunday, December 23. The Paramount Theater is located at 911 Pine Street, Seattle, WA 9810

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