A Coincidental Conversation about “Jesus Christ Superstar” (and more) with Ted Neeley

A Coincidental Conversation about “Jesus Christ Superstar” (and more) with Ted Neeley

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]

How it all began

I should have known.

In preparing to interview Ted Neeley about the release of SuperstarS – Extended Version, a documentary about the making of the 1973 film version of Jesus Christ Superstar, I thought about all the coincidences that had led me up to that moment.

You see, I had known Ted since I was young. Well, “known” is a bit of a stretch. Like many others, I first was “introduced” to him when Superstar was shown on TV every Easter.

Later, as I grew up into the early 80s, the music stayed with me. So much so that when my friends and I entered a “Battle of the Bands” contest at my all-boys catholic high school, we called our band, “Pontius Pilate.” We also advertised the show at the local all-girls catholic high school (you can imagine how well that went over). The night of the event, we started our set with a shortened version of the musical’s 39 Lashes, which we then segued into Born to be Wild. Yes, we were musical pioneers. Visionaries, if you will.

Later still, in 1994, my soon-to-be-wife, Gina, bought us tickets to see the musical at the Star Plaza Theatre in Merrillville, Indiana, a stop on its national tour. After the show, which featured Ted as Jesus, Carl Anderson as Judas Iscariot, and Dennis DeYoung of Styx as Pontius Pilate, we stood at the stage door, while I waited nervously for my childhood hero, not knowing what to expect from a man who had been playing Jesus for almost half his life already by that time.

As he walked out, I introduced myself. And though I had not really thought about what I was going to say, fortunately a question came immediately to mind.

“What’s it like to do Gethsemane?” I asked, referencing what to me is the most powerful moment from the musical − a testament to the power not only of Ted’s performance, but also Andrew Lloyd Webber’s music and Tim Rice’s lyrics.

“It’s a journey every night,” he replied.

A Journey Indeed

“Journey.” A word that perfectly describes the song, the musical, and the making of the musical − all captured in the expanded documentary produced by Ted and directed by Frank Munoz. The documentary features behind-the-scenes interviews, photos and videos by photographer David James, and even the cast’s one-night-only reunion in New York in 2015.

Yes, there were many coincidences, indeed, that led up to me interviewing Ted.

And then, when I talked with Ted, I learned of how many coincidences led to him playing Jesus for so long and for so many. And how many coincidences made their way into the final film, like the director’s “on the spot” decision to use already-there scaffolding and the sudden and sacred appearance of a shepherd in a pivotal scene (you can watch the full conversation to learn more about these coincidences.

Here are my seven biggest takeaways from our full conversation:

Seven Takeaways

  • Ted doesn’t get tired. Now granted, I have only personally talked to him less than two hours in my entire life, but I sure get this impression. With that, I asked him how he finds the energy to keep playing the role, especially with emotionally draining songs like Gethsemane and The Last Supper. “Every time I walk out on that stage,” he said, “when that guitar hits the opening notes of the Overture, it feels like the first time I’m doing it. My body becomes filled with absolute energy and, for the duration of the show, I can’t feel my feet touch the ground. And, what makes it even better is that I don’t have to pretend anything when I’m in the role. It all feels very real to me when I’m out there.”

  • We are family. Whether it’s the cast, the crew, or the millions of fans who have been touched by the musical, there is a grace and gratitude about the show, which comes through Ted’s answers and the documentary. Whether focusing on Norman Jewison, who created that unforced feeling of family during the shoot, Carl Anderson (“Judas Iscariot”) and Barry Dennen (“Pontius Pilate”), both long-time friends and castmates of Ted’s who have both sadly passed away, the rest of the cast and crew, Tom O’Horgan, who directed Ted in Hair, and even the contagiously playful way that Josh Mostel (“Herod”) recreates his “Herod’s Song” song and dance during the documentary, there is something happening here that, with apologies to Buffalo Springfield, is more than exactly clear. These people love each other – “love” as in present tense. And they love their fans, and their fans love them back. Now, is “love” too strong a word? Well, I’ll leave that up to you. But, as someone who grew up with the musical, I’d have to argue whatever points you made. And, just to underscore my hypothesis that love is in the air, while watching the interview, notice how Ted introduces his wife, Leeyan Granger, as he proudly shares that she is a classically trained ballerina who he met in Israel during the film shoot. And also watch how Ted introduces us to the couple’s new dog, “Benji,” and just try not to smile. I dare you.
  • How would it affect you to play a person of peace for over 45 years? Interestingly and probably not too surprisingly, Ted exudes many of the qualities that you would expect from the man he portrays. Now, I’m not saying he’s actually divine (I’m guessing he’d agree with that pretty aggressively), but I am saying that when I met Ted for the first time outside that stage door in Merrillville, Indiana, I felt something, a presence, a “being there” that I don’t feel from a lot of people. And his own words seem to reinforce this appraisal. “How possible would it be to represent Jesus for all these years,” Neeley said, “and not understand at least a bit of what it might feel like to be him?” To add just a little more oomph to my argument, in the documentary, Jewison touches on this presence when he says it wasn’t Ted’s fake beard or hair that mattered to him in selecting him for the role, it was his eyes. Though I cannot obviously confirm it with Norman, I’m guessing what he meant was that he also saw a “being there” there, too.
  • As opposed to baseball, there is most definitely crying when it comes to “Jesus Christ Superstar.” Lots of it. Growing up, I remember how emotional the film was, especially during Gethsemane and the crucifixion, and of course, at the poignant ending, when the entire cast gets back on a bus to leave, except one person − Ted.  In the documentary, there is also much talk of tears. And, in Scott Haskin’s recent podcast about the documentary, Ted explained that he always cries when he sings Gethsemane during the show. Being curious, during our conversation, I asked Ted about this point. “Growing up in my small hometown of Ranger, Texas,” Ted offers, “I was surrounded by a large, accepting, affectionate family, which was surrounded by a large, accepting, and affectionate community. In that environment, crying was as natural as smiling, and there were many tears, often tears of joy. So, when I started playing Jesus, tears became the essence of what the role and the story represented to me. Plus, I hug everyone. In fact, in Italy, where we were performing an extended run of the show, unfortunately cut short by the pandemic, I’m known for my ‘Teddy Hugs.’”
  • The Boy Scouts played an important role in the musical. Having been a scout myself, I was surprised to learn that one of the Boy Scout’s guiding principles played a major role in Ted’s getting cast as Jesus. “As a Boy Scout,” he said, “I learned the importance of their ‘Be Prepared’ motto. And that is why I tried to always be prepared for whatever might happen. So, for example, when I was in the musical Tommy in Los Angeles in the early 70s, I read in the paper that Norman Jewison was in the city doing casting for his new musical, Jesus Christ Superstar. I wanted to meet him, not necessarily to get a role, but just because I admired his work. So, I tracked down which agency represented him, called to speak to his agent, and then asked his agent to ask Norman to come see me in the musical. And that is also why, after finding out that he had come to the one show I wasn’t in because of an injury suffered in the previous day’s show, I called back and asked his agent if I could meet with him in another way, leading to me being invited for lunch the next day at the hotel he was staying at with his wife. Which led to me, in preparing for that meeting, asking a friend to do makeup that made me look like Jesus, with a fake beard and long hair. Finally, the next day, at his hotel room door, I knocked once. No answer. I knocked twice. Again, no answer. And then, though I thought I might be getting a Hollywood-type brush-off, I knocked one more time, which led to him answering, us having lunch, and ultimately me getting the part. Imagine if I hadn’t knocked that third time.”
  • An actor not wanting to be typecast by a large, early success is almost cliché, but Ted has never been concerned about that. Not only does Ted want to talk about Superstar, but you get the sense that he needs to. That it burns in him bright, fast, hot, and “right now.” And that’s how the stories come out, like they just happened yesterday, or maybe earlier that morning. “This role and musical changed my life,” Neeley says. And you can tell that he feels honored to have been – and still be — part of it. For anyone who doubts his commitment and passion, they need only watch how Ted interacts with his fans both in-person and online. In fact, it’s quite fun to watch how he personally and regularly responds to their online comments on his Facebook page, for example, and watch their responses.
  • “Hamilton” and “Jesus Christ Superstar” are coincidentally connected, too. After being introduced to the also-so-super musical, Hamilton, by my daughter, something about it kept nagging at me, that somehow the feeling that Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical evoked in me was connected to how I felt about Superstar. So, I mentioned it to Ted, not exactly knowing what I was feeling or why I was asking. And, of course, the coincidences came. First, Ted referenced Miranda’s answer to ET at the 2016 Tony Awards when asked if he was completely leaving the role of Alexander Hamilton. Not at all, he explained, saying that he actually wanted to  “out-Ted Neeley Ted Neeley,” by coming back to the role in the future. In response, Neeley sent Miranda a photo of himself watching Hamilton for the first time. And, all one needs to do is a cursory Google search to see how even a young Lin-Manuel felt about the musical and later did a “playoff” with Andrew Lloyd Webber with Lloyd Weber singing You’ll Be Back from Hamilton and Miranda singing Everything’s Alright, which was followed by a tweet from Neeley congratulating them both and inviting Miranda to join him and Yvonne Elliman (“Mary Magdalene”) for a future rendition of the song. And, to cap off the coincidences, Hamilton star Brandon Victor Dixon, who played Aaron Burr in the musical, played Judas in the Easter Sunday live TV broadcast of Jesus Christ Superstar in 2018, which was re-broadcast in April last year, a needed moment of peace in a year of turmoil.

One Last, but Major, Coincidence

And, to top it off, was one last coincidence. As I was doing final preparations for the interview, a friend mentioned that I was interviewing him on Good Friday. A day that marked the beginning of a transformation, followed by rebirth and hope.

Speaking for a world that is just now coming out of a long year’s sleep, I do believe that is quite a coincidence indeed.

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