Entertainment » Vol. 3

TED NEELEY is JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR

By Len Sousa

Ted Neeley

Ted Neeley

Jesus Christ has been very good to Ted Neeley and the reverse is equally true. Since first portraying the titular character in the Los Angeles stage production of Jesus Christ Superstar in 1972 and starring in Norman Jewison’s film adaptation (photo below) the following year, Neeley has been more associated with the role of Jesus than any other living actor. Now, at sixty-four, he is also nearly twice the age of the character he plays, but it doesn’t mean he’s slowed down for a second.

“It is an absolute honor to be able to address this piece and be accepted by an audience so long after I first began,” Neeley admits. “Nobody is more overwhelmed by that than I.”

Describing himself simply as “a rock ‘n’ roll drummer from Texas who hits high notes,” Neeley began singing in church choirs before joining a rock group. While out in L.A. with an actor friend, Neeley found himself at an impromptu audition for a musical and stuck around just to see firsthand what acting was all about. In the end, Neeley was offered the lead role and his friend wasn’t. The musical was Hair.

Jesus Christ Superstar followed, and Neeley admits it changed his life changed forever. “I got so lucky that I was cast in this piece and jumped from playing drums every night to suddenly being in a major motion picture.” And while filming in the deserts of Israel, Neeley met his wife Leeyan, who appeared as one of the dancers in the film.

Ted Neeley

Ted Neeley

After first performing the role in the 1970s, returning to it again in 1992 for a five-year run with fellow film co-star [the late] Carl Anderson and yet again in 2006 for this latest production with Corey Glover, Neeley still hasn’t tired of the role.

“I go into the theatre every night,” he says, “I slip into the sandals, put on the robe, and I walk over to stage right and the band starts playing the overture. From literally the first three notes of the guitar line, the music just carries me someplace else…We do eight performances a week and everybody is out there doing it each time as if it’s the first time all over again.”

And the audience for the musical is still growing. Owing to what Neeley describes as its cross-generational impact, the actor says he’s spoken with as many as five generations of the same family who come to see the show.

But after so many years performing, what’s Neeley’s secret for keeping his voice in such good shape after all these years?

“My secret is I have no secret,” he confesses. “I’ve been screaming since I was one and I’ve never stopped. I sing all the time, whether I’m stage, in the recording studio, in the shower, or driving down the road in the car. I’m always singing.”

Often hearing about each tour that it’s being labeled his farewell tour, Neeley insists he isn’t interested in quitting anytime soon. When previously asked about it, the actor has joked he “…didn’t get the memo…” that announced he was saying good-bye to his favorite role. As Neeley puts it, “I couldn’t be happier doing anything else.”

Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar starring Ted
Neeley plays at the Hanover Theatre for the Performing Arts May 14 & 15. For more information, head to www.thehanovertheatre.org/

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