THE MAN WHO PLAYS JESUS IS A NICE GUY
Last Friday night in Billings, Montana a crowd of thousands watched "Jesus Christ Superstar" and watched a man play a role he's performed thousands of times. Ted Neeley is playing 33 at 66 and still thrilling those crowds every time he takes (owns) the stage. After the show I went backstage and spent about half an hour catching up with a friend...catching up with Ted Neeley. There's an interesting story about how that came to be.
I saw the movie version starring Ted Neeley shortly after it came out in 1973, when I was 8 years old. A few years later I bought various recordings of JCSS including the movie soundtrack. I was a really big fan of rock music, and though this was a stage and movie piece....it was without a doubt, ROCK music.
By High School (in the early days of the VCR) it was one of the few movies available at the place where my family had a membership..a furniture store called Hatch's, I think it was at Rustic Hills. My family members all really liked the movie and we'd watch it sometimes when friends came over. Other teenagers and I used to just marvel a the way Ted Neeley could scream his part, just like a heavy metal singer, but never lose the meaning or the emotion written into the songs. I thought he had one of the greatest rock voices I'd ever heard. I also thought Carl Anderson who played Judas was amazing. I thought JCSS was a great piece of music from start to finish...and the story's pretty strong too, even if we all know how it ends.
In 1992 Ted Neeley and Carl Anderson both signed on for a revival tour..one that ended up lasting years and included more than 2000 live performances! I saw the show in Denver 3 or 4 times during its two stops there. I was working at a different TV station in Colorado Springs then and I even arranged to do a story on the show when it came to Denver for a 2nd stop. I met with Carl Anderson that day, but Ted Neeley wasn't feeling well and couldn't do the interview. Carl was great.
Over the next few years I moved around the country building my career and from time to time the Superstar tour continued. Any time the show was in a city near where I was, I would try to go see it, often introducing other friends to it in the process.
By 2006 I was back in here Colorado Springs, and so was Jesus Christ Superstar, with Ted Neeley in the title role. Sadly, Carl Anderson had died by then. I arranged to do an interview with Ted the day the show opened at the Pikes Peak Center. It went pretty well, I think he appreciated the fact that I knew the show and its history and it various incarnations. I was just happy to finally meet him. It was a brand new version of the tour with some changes that had just been made. When I told him I had seen the show about a dozen times over the years he told me he was really interested in what I thought of the new production.
He asked me to come backstage after the show that night to talk about what I thought. What? The guy whose name is synonymous with that show wants to know what I think?
I brought my younger sister Jen along because she is a trained actor/singer/director and she wanted to meet him too. He did a meet and greet with dozens of fans for about an hour and a half..then we had a chance to talk to him. We talked for an hour about the show and he was sincerely interested in our opinions! Eventually we all had to go, it was very late. Ted said he wanted to talk some more, did we have time to meet for lunch the next day? Again, What? The performer I've admired for decades wants to have lunch?...with me?
I gave him my cell number and he said he'd call after he finished some phone interviews that next day. Jen and I left, thrilled about the great conversation we'd had, but pretty much convinced that would be the end of it. Ted Neeley wasn't going to call me.
He did. We met for lunch and talked for another hour until I had to go to work. I reminded him that I sometimes catch the show in different cities and asked If I could say hello when I did. He said yes...and we've met up 7 or 8 times since. Jen and I had breakfast at Denny's with Jesus the next year! We spent some time backstage with him in Denver. I even met him for breakfast with my Dad (the man who first took me to see that movie, and who HATED all rock music, except "Jesus Christ Superstar") in Madison, Wisconsin.
I have a friend from High School in Billings. When I saw that the "Superstar" tour had a stop there I contacted my buddy. I stayed with him and his family, we all went to the show, and afterwards he and I had a long talk with Ted. He greeted my like an old friend so I guess that's what I consider us to be...all those years after I first saw him and heard him bring those songs to electrifying life!
The photo below was taken backstage in Billings.
Ted Neeley has a more mature voice now (don't we all?) but it still carries that power and passion that worked 40 years ago. It still works now. He still brings down the house during his most demanding song "Gethsemane (I Only Want to Say)" in Act Two. He says he's going to keep playing Jesus as long as he can. He started performing as the drummer/singer in a Texas rock band..and he told me the other night he's just a "road dog" He says as long as promoters still want send him out on the road and audiences still want to watch him perform...he's going to keep doing this. They do, and we do...Ted, keep up the great work.
We'll talk again soon.
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