Ted Neeley: A conversation with Jesus Christ
‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ takes stage at the Civic Theatre this weekend
Published Thursday, 14-Jan-2010 in issue 1151
Jesus Christ Superstar, the first masterpiece from the legendary writing team of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber, exploded onto the scene in 1971 changing the world of musical theatre forever. With a score of amazing songs – I Don’t Know How to Love Him, Hosanna, Everything’s Alright, What’s the Buzz, Superstar, and Heaven on Their Mind, this original groundbreaking production starring Ted Neeley in the title role is as relevant and timeless as ever.
Neeley took time out of his busy touring schedule to chat with the Gay & Lesbian Times about his defining role as Jesus, the religious tenor of today’s society and Jesus’ views on same-sex marriage.
Gay and Lesbian Times: What’s it like to reach such a wide array of audiences with Jesus Christ Superstar?
Ted Neeley: It’s an honor for me and I can’t tell you how good it feels to talk to people after the show and somebody will come up to me with tears in their eyes and say what a great experience they just had and I’ll say, ‘Have you seen this show before?’ And they’ll say, ‘No that’s the first time I’ve ever been to a theatre production.’ Something about this show brings them out.
GLT: Yet, this production was originally considered sacrilegious.
TN: To say it quite gently yes. ‘Ultimate blasphemy’ is what they called it.
GLT: What’s it like to be part of a production that goes against the grain?
TN: Quite honestly it was the ‘boo’ that kept us alive. The reason I throw out ultimate blasphemy, is that for those who got to be in that very first Broadway production its what we heard. And it wasn’t that there was a couple folks that were saying, ‘boo boo boo.’ We would go to the theater at night and have to fight our way through picket lines to get in to go to work. Not a couple guys just around the block at 51st and Broadway, but entire demonstrations.
Ironically, Mark Hellinger Theatre in New York, two years after Superstar left the facility it became a church. It’s been a church ever since. Yet, we had to fight our way to get in. When I would walk past the people I would say, ‘Have you seen the show?’ and of course the answer was no and I would say well would you please come in as my guest, watch the show, talk to me afterwards, tell me about that which you take issue and maybe we can address it. Those who would come in loved it. Never once did I get a negative response from anyone who had the courage to open the door. Now this many years, we have a complete turnaround almost a 360 to where the people now feel this ultimate blasphemy is in essence spiritual “Sesame Street.” They use it to teach children spirituality, children can relate to the story and the music.
GLT: What are your thoughts on the religious tenor of our society today?
TN: I can go on for hours and hours, I know you don’t want me to.
What I’m bothered with now is we as a society are the product of the historical evolution of spirituality becoming religion. If we could plug into spirituality at its base, there would be no bigotry, there would be no war, we would all support each other in our lifestyles, dreams, loves, whatever with complete innocence and understanding. Unfortunately, when religion became organized, God knows how many years ago, it became, forgive me for this it became more like a business as opposed to a way of enjoying your spiritual connection to the universe. That’s what Superstar is, I’ve observed all these years doing this piece because the people who come to see it are people who have all forms of religious beliefs. It has in essence a spiritual universality. It’s a universal spirituality that brings people together to see this show and whether you believe in some form of religion or not, you can still enjoy what it has to say because damn right it is brilliant what end to the last seven days in the life of a man called Jesus Christ looks at Jesus as a man. With his misunderstandings and insecurities and wondering if he can be committed to what he said he was going to do and seeing all the foibles of life and wondering what to do and not wanting to die and there you go. Thank God for Norman Jewison, who directed the film, he gave us a visual of the humanity of the human inside of Jesus Christ the man and that’s why it’s still there
GLT: The film was shot in Israel. What was it like to be working in Israel, the very place the story takes place?
TN: Outrageous. Absolutely amazing. Even if it weren’t enough that you have the essence of spirituality in this piece running rampant, the way Tim [Rice] went into the first four books of the New Testament, primarily the Book of John and took all of the dialogue that’s from the Bible. It’s not the easiest language to understand when you read that lovely book. He made it accessible in his own way by twisting it to a modern interpretation. Then Andrew [Lloyd Weber] goes and puts beautiful melodies on top of words we can all sing along with. It makes it human and it makes it accessible and it makes it easy. Just the story alone makes you feel different from any other theatrical experience I’ve had. Add to that, Israel the dessert, being in the places where this allegedly happened there’s always something in the air. There’s an atmosphere there that you think you’re much more shall we say righteous than you actually are because you’re standing in the dirt. The people walked in the dirt 2000 years ago. The fact that the dirt is still there 2000 years later is incredible.
GLT: What is incredible is that in the beginning of the show you went to bat with Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber to change the ending of the production to have Jesus resurrected. How did you go up against the egos and masterminds?
TN: I have to say when this was first done there was no semblance of that because they were completely unknown. They were amazed that anyone was going to mount their production and that’s specifically for the Broadway show, because it was the first fully mounted professional production for live theater. There was the concert prior to that across the country, but this was the first approach to treat it as a theater piece.
We go to New York there’s these two guys, these two teenaged fellows like two little lost boys going I can’t believe they’re doing our show. There was not a problem with that. They stuck to their guns though mind you. Even to the point that it wasn’t in film either, it was the semblance of. It wasn’t until the early ’90s I just said well I’m not doing it unless there’s a resurrection. So now we always have that in the show. If you haven’t seen it that way, you’ll see it when we’re in San Diego.
GLT: Your challenges have changed throughout the years. What challenges do productions face in making theater accessible to the every day person today?
TN: The challenges are tremendous. It’s disheartening to me, I’m not saying that theatre is dying I’m just saying we must be cognoscente of the fact that if we don’t get it out there, no one knows about it and they won’t come. When you say the average person, making it accessible, we’re constantly aware of that everywhere we go. I love having the pleasure of doing what we’re doing right now. We’ll reach a section of the public that doesn’t always do. It’s no secret that the people you’re writing for – the gay and lesbian community – are the biggest supporters of theater in the world.
GLT: Do you feel the gay and lesbian community has a connection to the show?
TN: Are you kidding me? Absolutely. I cannot believe in this time of our alleged societal advancement that you even have to say what you just did. What is that? What’s wrong with our society?
GLT: What are your views on same-sex marriage?
TN: When you see our show you’re going to see a young gentleman who is exactly in that space. He plays a brilliant zealot; in fact if you’re watching CNN today, you’re going to see him being interviewed with his husband about the subject. They just got married about three months ago, they were one of the first to jump in so to speak, because it became legalized and they ran up to Boston and got married, they’ve been together for years and just out of nowhere the CNN folks chose them the two of them to discuss the situation. They asked them the same questions you just asked me. What right does anybody have to tell anyone they can’t be married? What century are we in?
GLT: And this is coming directly from Jesus?
TN: You know what, that’s funny you should say that. You got to know that’s what he would say. Nobody has the right to say you can or can’t get married; I’ve heard so many comics say, ‘Well if that’s what is wanted then everyone should be as miserable as the rest of us.’ It’s funny for the moment, but my God come on. That comes from such a negative space. I’ve been happily married forever. It doesn’t matter who I fell in love with, I would have gotten married whether it was legal or not. Nobody has the right to step into your personal life. Anybody who does should be crucified.
GLT: With that said, do you feel you’re more Jesus or more Rasputin?
TN: That response was certainly Rasputin. I really perceive Rasputin based on the research I’ve done for so long getting this play together, that he kind of perceives himself as a Jesus type. However, he got to do an awful lot of stuff that I don’t believe Jesus had any opportunity to indulge in. At least that’s what the history books say. I haven’t found it and I’ve been researching the character for Superstar since 1970. No where have I found writing that would compare to the indulgence that Rasputin jumped into daily. I don’t know. I certainly don’t perceive myself as Jesus. I’m a rock and roll drummer from Texas who screams high notes for a living. I certainly would like to have fun like Rasputin but he died almost as horrific a death as Jesus did so either way I guess it’s somebody deciding it wasn’t right. Given the choice I would love to live an outrageously prosperous life and have all the fun I could possibly can until the time comes when I’m going to go somewhere that’s not too warm.
GLT: If you could drum for any band past or present which would it be?
TN: That’s tough; I think the most influential band in commercial history is the Beatles. Certainly concerns of my drumming prowess Ringo and I are pretty much the same. I was never an extreme musician drummer; I just keep the beat and make sure I don’t drop the sticks. It would certainly be great to play in bands like Led Zeppelin, Guns-N-Roses; you name any of the power rock bands and just go out there and go for it. There’s nothing like sitting behind a set of drums and just bashing away. It’s the greatest therapy in the world. In terms of fun The Who would have been great because Keith Williams was absolutely insane and he did a great job banging away for them.
GLT: Speaking of a great job banging away, for those who have seen you on stage, they know you bang out some pretty high notes. How have you sustained your voice for the number of years you have, when you’re doing shows sometimes eight times a week?
TN: I’m going to tell you a deep dark secret, I have no clue. Honestly it should have been gone ages ago, but it still works. I feel stronger vocally than I ever have in my life. Maybe it’s because I haven’t stopped using it. I sing all the time. Whether I’m in a show or in a recording studio or doing background vocals for somebody else or singing in the shower, it’s just something I’ve always done. I’m by nature, I was told by a musical director at a show years ago that my vocal range is basically baritone bass. But I have this freaky high thing that I can do. I learned how to do that by copying everybody else singing rock and roll. I don’t know it’s weird I’m a freak. People think its ok for me to scream like that because I’m playing Jesus.
GLT: You’ve ultimately become a superstar in your own right.
TN: Bless your heart. May I have an autograph?
GLT: I really think there are plenty of people who would agree with me, you’ve defined this role. What is it like to create a role?
TN: Excuse me I’m crying I’m sorry. No. I created nothing. I stepped into an icon’s sandals. I promise you. I came from a tiny Texas town and when you grow up in a tiny Texas town you’re surrounded by churches. Going to church is as common as having breakfast with your family. It’s just something you do. It’s just a way of life, with that honestly in retrospect, it was my social life. When you’re in a town that small the only real social things are what goes on at the church. I’m proud of that because it gave me a spiritual bas that has stuck with me throughout my life. I still cling to those beliefs that have nothing to do with any specific organized religion. It has to do with faith. I have contempt for no one except for people that take advantage of others people and I’ll grab them and slit their throat. That’s really gang based and ignorant but what I’m saying is the whole bottom line is what we talked about earlier regarding what goes on with marriages. No one person has the right to tell another person what they can and can’t do period. I’ve always believed do whatever you want in life that it is you want to do as long as you don’t hurt anybody in the process. Isn’t that what freedom is all about? We’re supposed to have in this country that’s what it was built upon, freedom of religion separation of church and state, freedom of whatever.
GLT: If you could play any role in a musical what would it be?
TN: The one I’m doing.