(RNS) — In the early 1970s, Ted Neeley was a 20-something rock ‘n’ roll drummer from Texas who never imagined he’d be known for playing the son of God. But 50 years later, his name is nearly synonymous with Jesus of Nazareth for fans of the 1973 film, “Jesus Christ Superstar.”
In 1971, Neeley was cast on Broadway as the Jesus understudy in Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s legendary rock opera. Despite mixed reviews (Webber himself called the production vulgar), the propulsive energy of the electric guitar-driven soundtrack and the attention of religious protesters cemented the show as a cultural phenomenon. In 1973, Norman Jewison’s movie version starred Ted Neeley and earned him and two other cast members Golden Globe nominations.
Neeley has played the role on and off ever since.
In a recent call with Religion News Service, Neeley estimated he’d sung the song “Gethsemane” — a climactic number requiring a rock scream that hits G above high C — well over a thousand times.
“Every time I get to sing it, it’s a new experience. I can feel the audience,” said Neeley, now 79. “Every time that I go on stage, I feel I’m in the middle of a magnificent miracle.”
In honor of the film’s 50th anniversary, Neeley and other movie cast members are hosting film screenings of “Jesus Christ Superstar” in theaters across the U.S. Though he’s seen the film more times than he can count, “I always see something new every time we show it,” he told RNS.
Neeley spoke to RNS about performing the show on Broadway, getting cast in the film and how the role changed his life. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Do you remember the first time you took the stage to play Jesus? What was that experience like for you?
Oh yes. It was terrifying. The way it was staged, the director had built what looks like a little triangular mountain, so that the audience could see each person’s face around Jesus during his speech for “The Last Supper.” And it was set up so that I had to be able to be on my knees on that while I was singing “Gethsemane,” which came after. The show went beautifully up to that point. And I sang “Gethsemane,” and I was just amazed because the audience went crazy. And during this applause, I slid down the little mountain onto the floor! And then the audience stopped for a moment. And then this laughter started. And I got up and they applauded again. There were little things that happened like that throughout every performance I’ve done. It’s something that is wonderful. And it actually helps me be able to carry that character the way it’s supposed to be.
Can you talk about the reception to the show when it was first on Broadway?
It was in the ’70s, and we were playing at the Mark Hellinger Theatre in New York City on Broadway. And every performance, when we went to the theater, they were protesting outside the building. They were doing everything they could to stop us from going into the theater to perform the show. I would say to them, “pardon me, sir or ma’am. If you’ve not seen the show, what is it about the show that you don’t like?” They’d say, “It’s terrible. It’s anti-religious. We hear that Jesus sings. Jesus didn’t sing.” Finally I would say, “Well, please forgive me. But would you come into the theater and watch the show tonight as my guest? After the show, I’ll come out and we will talk about it. You can tell me what you don’t like, and maybe we can change that.” Immediately their expressions changed to, would you really do that? I said “Yes. Because we’re here to entertain you, not to offend you.” Well, after the show, I would go out and there would be people there. The minute I opened the door they literally would go, “We love your show. It’s wonderful!” So basically what happened was the protesting audience was promoting the show because there was always TV coverage of the crowd at that theater on Broadway.
How did you get into character when you were preparing to play Jesus?
I was born and raised in a very tiny Texas town, less than 2,000 people were in the population. And the real source of entertainment was our churches. I was singing in the church choir as well. So I realized later on, I was doing research during my childhood to be able to present this character when I got to be an adult. And of course I studied as much as I could through Tim Rice’s lyrics for all the songs.
I was going for what I learned as a child in church, the man who saved the world and died for that. I did everything I possibly could to present my personal feelings of worshipping Jesus on the stage each night. And it was all music. There’s no dialogue in it at all. And I did whatever I could to present what ministers had taught me as a child and what I maintained in belief for my adulthood.
How did you land the role of Jesus in the film?
Norman Jewison flew Carl (Anderson) and myself to London for a screen test there at Pinewood Studios. Mr. Jewison told us, “You know, I was going for the movie stars because we wanted to have people come and see this movie with the biggest stars I could get. Everybody’s telling me nobody wants to see a rock opera in a movie. But when I saw you and Carl do your screen test together, there was something about the two of you that made me realize if I had named stars playing the characters, they’d be watching the named stars play the characters. But with you, it would be Jesus and Judas.” We were completely unknown.
What was it like transitioning from performing the show onstage to being the lead in the film?
The visionary director Norman Jewison, who produced and wrote the screenplay and directed the film, could have taken it to any desert anywhere. But he chose to take all of us to Israel to the Dead Sea area of the Negev Desert, so that we could feel the true atmosphere of where it all happened while we were making the film. And I have to say he could not have been more correct. No matter where we were, we were walking in someone’s footsteps. If that’s not enough, while we were there, making the film in Israel, I met the beautiful lady who became my wife. She’s a principal dancer in the film, you can see her everywhere, the beautiful brunette. And if you’ve seen the film, the Simon number, you know where they go, (singing) “Christ you know I love you. Did you see I waved?” She’s the lady who does all those high balletic kicks that they freeze frame on in that song. Honestly, being in this film gave me a life completely.
What do you mean by that?
Well, because I met my wife. I’ve been doing “Jesus Christ Superstar” off and on now for 50 years. It gave me a life. We have two children, they are grown up. And I’m still concerned with being able to present the character properly. And yet every performance that we do, people just go crazy. And it’s not just here in America, we’ve been in other countries as well. We were invited to Rome in 2014 to celebrate their 20th anniversary of doing it in Rome every year for Easter and Christmas. They wanted me to come over and be Jesus in that production. And we still are going back over there. When they opened the theaters once again in Rome after they closed due to the pandemic, they were only getting approximately 40% attendance. So the director called me and said, “Ted, can you come back over? I’d like to do a three month test tour to see if people will come see ‘Superstar.'” So we went over, and no matter where we went, it was sold out completely. So it’s amazing. After all this time people still come see this as if it’s the most wonderful show they’ve ever seen.
Do you ever get tired of performing it?
The “Gethsemane” song, literally, I have done so many times. And every time I get to sing it, it’s a new experience. When we begin the show each night, you know, the curtains are down, and the audience is coming in. When the show starts, the first thing you hear is the guitar lick. (vocalizing)
And the minute that happens, you can feel this rush of positive energy from the audience to the stage. And it’s a circle turning, that rush from the audience to us, from us back to them throughout the entire show. It happens every performance.