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Exclusive SDGLN interview with Jesus Christ Superstar, Ted Neeley

(SAN DIEGO) The Tony award-winning production is the first masterpiece from the legendary writing team of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber. It exploded onto the scene in 1971, changing the world of musical theatre forever and it is returning to San Diego this weekend for five performances only.

As relevant and timeless as ever, this rock opera vision of the greatest story ever told, focuses on the last seven days in the life of Jesus of Nazareth- and is perhaps more potent in today’s troubled world than when first produced.

Internationally beloved star Ted Neeley will be recreating his unforgettable performance once again. Neeley, best known for his Golden Globe-nominated role as Jesus in the Norman Jewison film version, SUPERSTAR, has enjoyed a distinguished career in resident theatres throughout America, appearing in a wide variety of productions from Hair to the works of Samuel Beckett. He is world renowned for this title role in, Jesus Christ Superstar, with a fan base that borders on a cult-like phenomenon.

Neeley was on the road on his way to San Diego [he prefers to travel by bus to see the country], when he took a few minutes to speak to SDGLN about his upcoming performance in America's Finest City.

Esther Rubio-Sheffrey (ERS), SDGLN: You have had the unique chance of repeatedly reprising a role you first took on almost 38 years ago – What about being Jesus entices you the most and keeps you coming back?

Ted Neeley (TN): Honestly, it is the ability to be able to talk to people every night. Not only from the stage but after the show and see how this wonderful project influences their lives. People are always telling me stories about how they discovered their spirituality or their personal spiritual beliefs by coming to see this play. Consequently I get to talk to several generations of families in every city we go, no matter where we are.

ERS: Are there any performances that were particularly meaningful for you?

TN: Since the very first time I stepped into the sandals it has been meaningful. It’s like that every night, I promise you. This is so much more than a standard theatrical show; it is truly a spiritual event for people who come to see it. I don’t mean to sound like I am preaching, because I’m not. People come and have a lovely evening of theater with their family and they walk away feeling better from what they have experienced. I can see that every night. I feel it every single night.

ERS: Have you lost track of the performance tally?

TN: I never did keep records. The only time records were kept was in the 90’s, it was planned as a 3 month tour but we ran for five years. I was told I performed over 2,000 times so certainly by now it's got to be close to 5,000. Certainly at this point I have performed the role enough where I know the material.

ERS: You don’t need to rehearse much then?

TN: [laughs]No. I just put the CD on and I remind myself, it’s wonderful.

ERS: Under what circumstances would you decline the opportunity to reprise the role of Jesus?

TN: If my voice stops working. The minute I feel I can’t deliver what is necessary, I am out of here. Quite frankly, I haven’t had the heart to say no when someone asks me if I want to reprise the role because I love it so much. It changed my life. To think about not doing this under the circumstances is insane.

ERS: Society has changed since the Broadway debut of Jesus Christ Superstar; age aside, how have you changed and how has that changed what you bring to the performance today?

TN: Since the 70’s when we first started, there is a tremendous amount of material that has been written on this subject, so every time I get the opportunity to relive this role I have a whole new resource of research from which I can pull new things to do, and each time I’ve done that, its been a completely different concept of how I relate to this. It has made a better person. I am much more aware and feel much better about what I’m doing and it also gives me a spiritual depth that grows with every time I get to do it. I feel better about this now than I did in the beginning.

ERS: Have there been moments in your life when it was particularly difficult for you to step out of character – perhaps where you felt compelled to pull out the “but I’m Jesus” card?

TN: [laughs] I must say I know exactly who I am. Yes, I get the pleasure of stepping into the role of Jesus theatrically, but you gotta understand I was born and raised in Texas. I’m a rock and roll drummer from Texas and I got lucky to be in this role. Anytime anybody tries to look across that barrier of looking at me, relating to me, as if I am the real deal, I immediately let them know [in a playful tone] ‘come on I’m a rock and roll actor, its just acting.’

ERS: I understand you have some devoted fans – that pregnant women have asked you to bless their unborn child – can you share some of your most memorable fan encounters?

TN: That has been going on since the 70’s. The very time it happened was at the Universal Amphitheatre, in Los Angeles when we did the first tour of JCS. A lady came up, and I assumed she was joking, but she could not have been more serious. She was extremely pregnant, she had just seen the show, she was crying her eyes out from the passion of the moment and certainly she was influenced by her condition. When she blurted it out, everyone laughed and I realized by the look in her eye that she was serious. I just put my open hand on her belly, so that I could make her feel good. And I learned from that and it has happened sequentially ever since. People really come to see the show, a lot of people do, not everyone, to see the show as their spiritual outlet and they believe that there’s a spiritual connection. And I am not going to step on anyone’s religious beliefs. I do whatever I can to encourage whatever they choose to embrace.

ERS: I am sure you are familiar with the popular acronym – WWJD –

TN: Yes of course, I wrote that you know [laughing again]. The crew members of this show for years have made up t-shirts and various things that they can sell that say WWTD. They always try to keep me in my place. I have a wonderful group of people that travel with me and they acknowledge what they see and understand what I go through on a regular basis. I could not be more honored.

ERS: When friends or family members ask you for advice or an opinion, do you ever think to yourself WWJD?

TN: Of course. I am not judgmental. I do not pass my judgment on anyone for what they believe. This is a free country and you can say and do what you want so as long as you don’t hurt anyone I am right there with you.

ERS: When JCS first made its debut there were some protests from religious organizations, who felt the play destroyed the country’s “religious fiber”- do the performances still draw protestors?

TN: Yes, nothing like in the beginning. Literally when we first started people would try and stop us from going to work. As I made my way through the picket lines I would ask people if they had seen the show. And they had not. So I would invite them as my guests, tell them to watch the show and talk to me after and if they had an issue we could address it. Everyone who had the courage to come into the show walked away loving everything about it. That’s why it still works- its now perceived as more of a spiritual Sesame Street. People use it to teach lessons to their children. Jesus, where I grew up, was untouchable, unreachable to the people, but this project makes Jesus accessible. It focused on the man. It puts humanity into it and everyone can relate to the human side. You don’t have to believe in Christianity or any sort of organized religion to understand that if you commit yourself to your goals, that you’re a much better person.

ERS: SDGLN caters to the LGBT community –

TN: Thank you very much for that.

ERS: And currently the LGBT community and several religious organizations are at opposite ends of the political battle over same-sex marriage in California. I will not ask WWJD – but I will ask – is there a relevant connection between issues in JCS and current LGBT political issues?

TN: Define the word connection. Where I am coming from what I see embraced in this philosophy and have observed for all these years, the problem lies in the same place. And that’s mixing politics with personal beliefs. This country was built on the separation of church and state. Freedom of thought. Freedom of individuality, and the minute the church and/or the state gets involved with your personal life its horrible. It’s nobody business to dictate to anybody what they can or cannot do. It’s not a societal experience, it’s a personal experience. Anybody who wants to be with somebody, I don’t care who it is, to each his own. How can anybody presuppose that they can tell you who you can choose as your life partner? Nobody has that right. Absolutely nobody. I can’t tell you how much I hate it. It’s just pathetic.

IF YOU GO: Jesus Christ Superstar, January 15 – 17, 2010, San Diego Civic Theatre, 3rd and B Street, downtown San Diego. Performances are scheduled to take place Friday at 8PM; Saturday at 2PM & 8PM and Sunday at 1PM & 6PM. Tickets on sale now - $20--$79