Portraying the most polarizing figure in all of history
One thing I’ll say for him, Jesus is cool. Labeled by Reverend S.M. Lockridge as the “loftiest idea in literature” and the “highest personality in philosophy,” any actor attempting the role of Jesus of Nazareth has to have some serious confidence in his acting abilities.
As Neeley points out, “Not only do you have theater critics and movie critics, you’ve got the entire world criticizing you. You get into that robe and pretend to be THAT person… WOOOOO! Look out! Everybody in the world has their own opinion of Jesus of Nazareth, you see. So that means to me that I could not be more thankful, all of us, that Norman Jewison was the man who put it all together. I couldn’t have done it without him.“
Oddly enough, Neeley didn’t initially want the part of Jesus. He preferred the role of Judas.
“I loved the songs that the Judas character sang. I sang ‘Heaven on their Mind,’ the opening song of the whole piece,” Ted said of his initial audition. “I loved that character, you know?
The director, Tom O’Horgan ran up on the stage after the song finished and I thought, ‘Oh my god, I got the part, this is great,’” Neeley continued. “He comes up to me and gives me a big hug and said, ‘Ted, I loved that, but could you please do me a favor and come back tomorrow and sing ‘the other guy?'”
After a long pause, Neeley reiterated:
“That’s all he said: ‘sing the other guy.’ I came back and chose the song ‘Gethsemane’ to sing. I’ve been singing ‘Gethsemane’ ever since!”
The success of Jesus Christ Superstar
It seemed a strange thing…mystifying…at the initial success of Jesus Christ Superstar. Two wannabe recording artists in Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice paired up for the first of several times to write what is now revered as a masterpiece. According to Ted, everyone, including himself, Webber, and Rice, were all skeptical in regards to the project’s ability to succeed.
“Even when we were making the film in Israel, we weren’t sure that it would ever be released! It was the first-ever rock opera made into a film. Studios in general didn’t give us a shot at all, but we had a brilliant, genius director in Norman Jewison who loved the original album and really believed in the project,” Neeley said. “He really did it all himself. He wrote the screenplay, put it all together, and scouted locations. When we finished it, he talked to studios and showed them a preview and Universal Studios decided to go for it. That was great because they were the company that had the original album, which was on Decca Records, which was a Universal subsidiary. Norman Jewison had faith in the project and he knew he could make it happen, and he did! We were very fortunate to have him as our director because there’s not a nicer man in the world.”
The show has stood the test of time and, as evidenced by the success of Neeley’s screening tour, and is still incredibly popular to this day.
“There have been so many things done; so many productions of the play; everywhere around the around. There has never a time since 1973 when the film came out, according to Andrew and Tim, that this show isn’t being produced live somewhere in the world,” Neeley said. “Usually, 20 to 30 countries are doing it at the same time.”
The power and legacy of Jesus Christ Superstar
Jesus Christ Superstar means different things to different folks. Select few still view the show as blasphemous, some view it as a religious piece, while others remain on the fence of the show’s purpose.
“To answer your question, literally, over all of these years, especially when the film was out and we were doing tours, people would come up after the show and say:
‘Wow! Mr Neeley! I’m an atheist, but this was great!’
‘You know, this is the most beautiful description of Jesus I have ever seen. I go to church all the time but this makes sense.’
The key was it was done through music and no dialog. It’s all singing. It’s not anybody trying to tell a story. The whole premise that Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice came up with when they first did the album was to look at the man called Jesus of Nazareth through the eyes of his contemporaries; friends or foes,” Neeley explained. “You saw the human side of Jesus of Nazareth and the human side of what he was going through, and what he was going through as a human being. People can relate to that themselves. It put a human touch to it. That’s the key to it. That’s what people have said to me over the years. ‘Oh, it’s great to see the human side of Jesus.'”
Even clergy and church leaders have been influenced by the show, according to Ted.
“In Italy, the theater we play is just down the street from The Vatican. There were constantly people from the Vatican coming to see this show. Priests would come up to me after the show and they would say, ‘I’ve decided to become a priest from watching this film.’ It has such a deeply positive effect on the people,” Neeley said. “You do see the power of Christianity and the beliefs of Christianity and so many people have come to me for all these years and said, ‘Mr. Neely, I’ve found my faith by watching this film. It’s something that touches the hearts of everybody. It’s the way that Tim and Andrew put these lyrics together that touches everybody’s hearts. People cry their eyes out when they hear this thing live.”