Saturday, April 10, 2010

Reel Thoughts Interview: WWND — What Would Neeley Do?

Perhaps it isn’t surprising that the man who plays the most loving figure in history is pretty friendly and caring himself, but it is refreshing. Ted Neeley, who came to prominence as the front man of his own band and starred in the original LA and NY productions of Hair (as Claude), first auditioned to play Judas in Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s then controversial show Jesus Christ Superstar. When Ben Vereen won that role, Neeley became the understudy for Jesus, and ultimately garnered the lead in the LA production, the 1973 Norman Jewison film and the current national tour. Billed as the "New A.D." tour, response has kept this production going strong for almost five years.

Jesus Christ Superstar takes the novel approach of showing Jesus as a man, flaws and all, and Judas as a tragic character. “My interpretation of the role has deepened so tremendously over the years, I wish honestly, I could turn back the clock and, shall we say, address it one more time,” Neeley explained. “When we first did this in 1971 in New York, we had little if any information to pull from to work this concept.” He relied on the book The Last Temptation of Christ to give him his only depiction of “Jesus as man.” Growing up and attending church regularly, Neeley admits, “Jesus was to me a stained glass window, always accessible through a spiritual context, but never accessible to touch and to sight.” Now, however, he says that there is an abundance of material that touches on the human side of Jesus.

“We deal with the last seven days in the life of the man, as seen through the eyes of his contemporaries. He wasn’t considered a deity until he passed on.” This made the show very controversial when it opened, and also very successful.

“We had no idea if we were going to make it past opening night, and suddenly there were lines around the building. It was really something to have to push through those picket lines,” he explained. When he would find out that the protesters had never seen the show (and didn’t intend to), he’d invite them in to see it as his guest. Those who took him up on his offer ended up loving the show.

“Now, this many years later, we’re doing the same show, the same concept, singing the same songs with the same lyrics, but we’re perceived as, and these are my words, as the spiritual Sesame Street. Completely harmless — completely educational. People tell me their children learned their spirituality from watching the movie.


Neeley recognizes the role that organized religion plays in dividing people. “Any religious organization that dictates to people what they can or cannot do and with whom, that has nothing to do with spirituality,” he explained. “That makes bigotry continue to grow. We were established as a free society, that’s what I’ve always heard. When you and I are elected, we’ll fix all of this, right?”

“This is not a Broadway show, this is a rock concert that has been misinterpreted since the time it was first done,” Neeley insisted. “So much so, that some people think of it as church, some people think of it as absolute blasphemy, and some people recognize it as a night of entertainment in a spiritual context.”

For more information on Jesus Christ Superstar, including future dates and locations, visit the tour's official website.

Interview by Neil Cohen, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Phoenix's Echo Magazine.

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