In Jesus’s Shoes

Ted Neeley Throws on the Sandals and Robe for Last Stint as the Son of God

Ted Neeley calls 80 minutes before our scheduled interview time to warn me he was heading into the mountains of Montana. But before he even finishes the question, the phone goes dead.

It seems even Jesus Christ can’t compensate for a weak cell signal.

Having people confuse the man with the role is nothing new for Neeley, who has been portraying Christ in the rock musical “Jesus Christ Superstar” longer than Jesus himself was believed to have walked the face of the earth. Neeley first donned the robe and sandals way back in 1971 as a member of the chorus and understudy to Jesus in the original cast of the show on Broadway, then starred in the iconic film version directed by Norman Jewison the following year. Neeley has played Christ on and off on national tours and regional outings ever since, including the concert-format debut of the Rubicon Theater in Ventura in 1998, where he’s also had non-musical roles over the years. (Additional local note: Rubicon co-founder James O’Neil played Pontius Pilate on the last “Superstar” tour, 1992-97.)

But even if he still can’t walk across your swimming pool or change water into wine, Neeley, 63, has no problems with being typecast as the Son of God. So he eagerly put aside other projects he’s been developing when the national touring company came calling last year for one more stint, including a show next Wednesday at the Arlington Theatre.

Q. So this is your last tour as Jesus.

A. Actually that wasn’t my idea. I didn’t realize it was my farewell until I saw the program on the first night. Of course, we thought we were already done back in 1997. I can see why they would feel that way – I’m not twenty-six. So this could be the last time I do anything.

That’s true, one writer asked at what point do you get so old that you should stop playing Jesus and maybe consider taking on his father?

That’s a good one. I joke around about it myself. But truly my voice is working as well as it ever has. People tell me that they still accept my physicality in the role, and I have no trouble handling it. When you hear that, it’s hard to walk away unless something else is more inviting. And I’ve got to tell you, in thirty-five years, nothing has been more interesting for me. So as long as the tour has legs, and mine keep working, I’ll keep doing it.

Which brings up the idea of how the heck you don’t get sick of doing the same role night after night, year after year.

I have no problem keeping it fresh at all. Every time I walk on the stage it honestly feels like it’s the first time I’ve ever done it. I know it sounds like a cliché, but this piece really does keep us – the actors – fresh. That’s because of the music. Tim Rice jumped into the first few books of the New Testament and translated that dogmatic language into street language we all can understand. That poetry keeps me coming back, and then add to that those amazing melodies Andrew Lloyd Webber put on top, it’s overwhelming to sing it every night. We know fully well that ninety percent of the audience has seen it several times and probably knows the piece better than we do. So it’s like being in a living room celebrating someone’s birthday, or wearing a comfortable pair of old shoes you know is going to feel good all night long. So I look forward to getting up there again tonight, just as I do every night.

This is the first time you’ve worked with a Judas other than Carl Anderson (who died in 2004). I thought it was interesting that Cory Glover, from “In Loving Color,” who is black, got the role. Was that on purpose?

Carl was supposed to be a part of this, and then when he passed, they almost canceled the show because we couldn’t find anybody else. I know the producers wanted a black actor, and I’m not sure I agree with that, because it brings up implications, but Corey is fantastic. And both of his understudies are white.

The show was controversial because of its subject matter back in the early 1970s. Have there been any repeats of incidents with protesters?

I was just confronted two nights ago by a whole new group. They said I was the ultimate blasphemer because I was pretending to be Jesus. They quoted scripture and verse that allegedly says I’m doomed to be damned for all time. It was just like Broadway back in the seventies, but it was never from that point of view that I was personally responsible, beyond the show, for destroying the religious fiber of their community. Of course none of them has ever seen it.

The thing is, I have never thought of the show as factual. People seem to lose sight that this piece only focuses on the last seven days in Jesus’s life through the eyes of his friends and contemporaries, all of whom saw him as just a man, albeit a rebellious rabbi. Nothing in it preaches or bucks religion. It just looks at this icon’s last week on earth; it doesn’t take one side or the other. It’s just about how human beings relate to each other.

How have your own beliefs evolved via playing Jesus for 30 years?

The one thing I can tell you is had I been an absolute atheist at the beginning, I’d certainly be a believer by now. You can’t do what I do every night and not believe there is something more out there. I don’t know what it is, but I know there’s a connection. Which is why I say it’s about spirituality, not religion and beliefs.

I grew up a Southern Baptist in Texas with a deep-set religious background, vacation bible schools and all that. I was going to become a minister until rock ‘n’ roll took me away. But all I can think of now is that song (Neeley sings), “Tell me all your thoughts on God, ‘Cause I would I really like to meet her.” (From “Counting Blue Cars,” by Santa Barbara band Dishwalla.) That’s what I sang to my kids. I know it’s not something you can just laugh off and make fun of, and I hope that what I do helps people with their own spiritual beliefs. But this isn’t my mission in life. People see me as the personification of that person I portray. They’ve even asked me to bless babies. Some have come back years later and said, “Here’s my daughter. See, it worked out.” I just keep saying, “Folks, I’m just a rock ‘n’ roll drummer from Texas who hits high notes.”

(“Jesus Christ Superstar,” starring Ted Neeley in the title role, plays on Wednesday, March 7 at 7:30 pm. Tickets range from $52.50 to $62.50 and can be purchased via Ticketmaster.com.)