Ted Neeley is not Jesus Christ, though you might be excused for thinking otherwise.
Like Yul Brynner in The King and I or Carol Channing in Hello, Dolly! Neeley has come to be associated with one particular role: Jesus in Jesus Christ Superstar. He did the New York and Los Angeles productions back in the early ’70s and was in Norman Jewison’s 1973 movie, and he’s pretty much been touring with the show off and on ever since.
Neeley, now 63, is back on the road, and he’s headed for the Bay Area. Jesus Christ Superstar opens Dec. 19 in San Francisco.
“I wish you could stand in my sandals on that stage and feel what it feels like,” Neeley says on a cell phone from snowy Cleveland. “I’m still doing this because I love it and because it’s an overwhelmingly positive experience for me every night. The voice still works, I feel great about doing the show, and, luckily for me, audiences still seem to be OK with me wearing the sandals.”
Having lived through the early years when Superstar was picketed and labeled blasphemous, Neeley says the Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice musical has become not only a theatrical standard but also, according to Neeley, “a way to help kids learn about their faith.”
In his white robes, and with his long hair and soaring voice, Neeley is so identified with his character that sometimes fans come back to see him expecting him to be something more than an actor playing a role.
“I always tell myself, `Don’t forget for one minute you’re a rock ‘n’ roll drummer from Texas who can hit high notes,’ ” Neeley says. “But when people come back to see me, I embrace the experience. I grew up in a small Texas town where your three square meals a day came with three square religious conversations. The Bible was a very comfortable experience for me, and the deep religious experience I had growing up is still with me. But I don’t step on anybody’s beliefs.”
Jesus Christ Superstar, a rock retelling of the last seven days in Jesus’ life, is not about religion, according to Neeley.
“To me, the show is about the spiritual connection of humanity,” he says. “No matter who we are or where we come from, under our exterior we have a spiritual connection. I challenge anyone to come into the theater and watch this piece live and not feel something very emotionally stirred in your spirit. That’s just what it does.”
And what Neeley does when he’s not touring is create new musicals. He’s written Pandemonium, the story of a hate-free Utopia, and Rasputin, about the fall of the Romanov dynasty. He’s also recording a country album _ something he’s been working on for quite a while.
But he’s in no hurry.
The current Jesus Christ Superstar tour is being advertised as the “farewell tour,” but as Neeley says, “Nobody included me in that memo. I plan to live forever and do this show forever.”
Jesus Christ Superstar opens Dec. 19 and continues through Dec. 30 at the Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $25 to $85. Call (415) 512-7770 or visit www.ticketmaster.com or www.shnsf.com for information