Ted Neeley returns to Jesus at the Egyptian Theatre
December 13, 2011
Ted Neeley never wanted to play the title character of the film version of the award-winning Broadway musical "Jesus Christ Superstar," a role that would forever change his life.
No, the actor/musician from Texas had his eye on another character, Judas, when he stepped up for the audition in 1973.
"Honestly, I had no desire, whatsoever, in getting anywhere near the role of Jesus, because everybody, no matter what their faith may or may not be, knows something about him," Neeley said during a rehearsal-break interview with The Park Record. "Few know anything about Judas Iscariot, other than think he’s the bad guy, and I wanted to attempt that role."
As fate or heaven would have it, Neeley didn’t get the part, but the director Norm Jewison asked him to audition for Jesus.
"When the director says ‘Try out for another role,’ you don’t say, ‘I don’t think it’s for me,’" Neeley said with a laugh. "You say, ‘Sure.’"
Neeley, who has resurrected his film role for the live stage a reported 1,700 times, will once again ascend to the stage to play the Savior in the Egyptian Theatre’s production of "Jesus Christ Superstar" that will open on Thursday, Dec. 15 and run on select days through Dec. 31.
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Although Neeley said he has been "blessed" by playing Christ over the years, he still thinks about how he would have portrayed the betrayer.
"To me, Judas is still a misunderstood character, that is, if the history is correct," he said. "I think Judas felt he was doing the right thing and couldn’t understand what was going on with this Jesus guy."
The one thing Neeley loves about the musical is the juxtaposition of the two characters.
"The one major advantages of the concept of ‘Superstar,’ is that (lyricist) Tim Rice was able to jump into the books of the New Testament and pull out a storyline that, in essence, is about Jesus, but seen through the eyes of all his contemporaries, be they friends or enemies, and told through the eyes and spirit of Judas, who is the narrator," he explained. " doing so, the show compares the journey of both Jesus and Judas simultaneously."
Neeley grew up in the small-town surroundings of Ranger, Texas, with a talented family.
"Everybody was very musically inclined, but never became performers, so I was the black sheep, if you know what I mean," he said with a laugh. "I was interested in playing music since the day I was born. I started playing drums and was the member of a four-piece band. We had two guitarists and a bass player, but no drummer, so I volunteered."
In the early 1960s, Neeley headed the Teddy Neeley Five and recorded for Capitol Records. His music led him to other creative endeavors.
"I was able to get in shows like ‘Hair,’ ‘Tommy’ and ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,’" he said.
It was his portrayal of Claude, the lead role in "Hair" that caught Jewison’s attention.
"Fortune moved me to the other side of the coin," Neeley said. "I gave it a shot and here I am yammering about it after all these years."
Because of its story and music, Neeley said he isn’t aware of any other kind of production that would lend itself to repetition like "Jesus Christ Superstar."
"First and foremost, I love the score. I love the musicality of it and it’s based on such a magnificent historical concept," he said. "Everybody knows about it. You don’t have to carry signs to explain what you’re doing.
"People who come to see it have their own opinion of what they’re coming to see, and a lot of them have heard the music by Andrew (Lloyd-Webber)," he said. Those who haven’t and see the show for the first time usually become very supportive of the show."
That makes it easy for him to revive a role, although at 68, he is a few years more than double the age when Christ was reportedly crucified.
"They always say it’s wonderful to come back to Jesus," he said with a laugh. "Sorry, I can’t avoid saying things like that. I’ve been doing this for so long and they just come to me, but Jesus is always there with open arms and listens to what I have to say.
"Seriously, because of its subject matter and the compassion of the piece itself, I have to continually do research," Neeley said. "Every time I do the piece, there is more information I can garner from the wonderful books that have been published in the last several years on the subject.
"Then you add the fact that what Andrew did with the score of the piece and the way it interweaves the characters and how the audience can experience the passion of the piece through the music and it’s easy to see why I can never tire of being a part of the ensemble with other people. In fact, we’re rehearsing it now and it’s like a new experience for me."
For the Park City production, Neeley considers himself "the new kid on the block."
"It’s an entirely new cast, but this cast is wonderfully talented," he said. "It’s fresh and beautiful and they love what they’re doing, which is completely different in the overall structure than any production I’ve ever done, so that’s a welcome challenge and a chance for me to learn something new about the piece."
Neeley is also honored to work with Egyptian Theatre manager Randy Barton who plays Pontius Pilate.
"He’s outrageous," Neeley said of Barton. "We’ve communicated over the past few months by phone and email, and he’s got an incredible sense of humor. This is the first time ever, where the general manager of the theatre is going to be on stage with us performing."
Another new aspect is the intimacy of the space.
"The intimacy of the production has always been there, but not in this particular fashion, because this theatre has tables that run up to the stage," Neeley said with a laugh.
"The challenge is not stepping on the tables in the front row or sitting down in somebody’s drink. There is a moment in the second act during the Pilate sequence, where I could literally reach over and grab a glass of water from somebody.
"I think maybe when it comes to the Last Supper, I may have to bring more bread and pass it out," he chuckled. "We cannot be selfish, now, can we?"
The Egyptian Theatre’s "Jesus Christ Superstar" will open Thursday, Dec. 15, and run on select dates through Saturday, Dec. 31. Tickets are $40 to $55 in advance or $45 and $60 at the door. Tickets can be purchased by visiting http://www.parkcityshows.com or calling (435) 649-9371.