Exclusive: Ted Neeley discusses his life as 'Jesus Christ Superstar'
If you are really lucky, you may just get a chance to see the restored print of the 1973 musical film "Jesus Christ Superstar," as it tours several southern California locations starting this week at Cinémas Palme D'Or in Palm Desert, California. Traveling with this newly restored print is "Jesus Christ Superstar," cast members Ted Neeley, Barry Dennen and Kurt Yaghjian. Here is an exclusive, in-depth interview with Ted Neeley as he talks about the origins of rock-opera musical, the motion picture that followed and how one lead role has changed his life.
Ted Neeley was born in Ranger, Texas and his first career goal was to become a rock star. Neeley did well, headlining his own band the Teddy Neeley Five, singing and playing the drums. Neeley's background singing gospel in choirs as a child gave him the him the prefect advantage to transition to the stage. His first gig in musical theater was as Claude in the New York production of "Hair." It was during this long run, that Neeley met director Tom O'Horgan and Neeley gives much of his success to the mentor-ship O'Horgan provided, "He saw something in me that I didn't know existed and cast me in 'Hair'."
It was O'Horgan that insisted that Neeley audition for the New York production of the rock musical, "Jesus Christ Superstar." This would mark the first rock-musical score written by the famed composer Andrew Lloyd Webber ("Phantom of the Opera") and Academy Award lyrists Tim Rice ("The Lion King").
Neeley was sure of one thing, he was not going to audition for the lead, "I sang for the role of Judas. That is the part I wanted to play. I didn't want to go near the man in the sandals. Just strictly as a performer, I would pick a character that no one knew. Everybody knows who Jesus is."
After his audition, he was asked to sing, "Gethsemane (I Only Want to Say)," which Neeley knew was for the lead and Neeley was hesitant. But after O'Horgan's pressing, Neeley agreed. Neeley was hired to sing in the chorus and was the understudy for the role of Jesus in New York. When the musical hit Los Angeles, it was Neeley that finally donned the robe and sandals for the lead.
Director Norman Jewison was just off the heels of a very successful film adaptation of "Fiddler on the Roof," and decided that "Jesus Christ Superstar," was the next musical he wanted to adapt to the big screen. Neeley told, "He heard five songs from the original album and knew he could make a movie out of it. He was a visionary. He secured the rights for the motion picture, wrote the screenplay and even scouted all the locations in Israel for months. He put it all together himself. None of the studios had any interest in the film. He even put up his own movie to fund the film."
Both Neeley and his pal Carl Anderson, who played Judas in the stage productions, were given screen test together and Jewison decided to cast both men in the film. Jewison told Neeley later about the screen tests, "Honestly guys when I saw your screen test, I saw in the two of you had an honest, human friendship that I didn't see in anyone else. And by the way, it didn't hurt that you were both fairly good singers."
Jewison had a very risky idea for the filming of the movie - he want it shot it in Israel. During the early 1970's Israel was not a very safe venue to produce a film, but Jewison felt it would give the film the look it needed to really be effective.
Neeley adds, "If it hadn't been for the relationship that we formed with Prime Minister Golda Meir, we would have never gotten out of the country. It was war, and they wanted us as hostages. We had to have armed guards with us 90% of the time."
The cast recorded the soundtrack at Pinewood Studios in England and then headed for Israel for the shoot. But during the production, Jewison felt something was missing. He contacted lyricist Tim Rice and requested a songs be written for the priests, Rice had lyrics for the new song written within two days, and after showing the lyrics to Jewison, the lyrics went to Andrew Lloyd Webber for the orchestration. Neeley commented on how he loved how all parties worked together so well, "Within a week, they came to Norman and played the songs they had written. Look how they collaborated!"
"Jesus Christ Superstar" was not only a hit, but a phenomenon. The film went on to be nominated for six Golden Globe Awards and one Oscar. The song sung by Yvonne Elliman, "I Don't Know How to Love Him," became a smash pop hit as well.
Over the years, Neeley has been reunited with this famous role, which includes a smash hit revival of performances during the A.D. tour in the 2000's. The initial run was booked for a three month term, and lasted an amazing five years - which ran for eight shows a week without a break in the United States and Canada.
Now, Neeley, along with co-stars Barry Dennen and Kurt Yaghjian are touring with the remastered print of the film. Film critic Roger Ebert compared the cinematography in "Jesus Christ Superstar," as being similar to "Dr. Zhivago," but a screening of the original print would have you scratching your head, wondering what Ebert was referring to. According to Neeley, the remastered print, "Looks like the film was shot yesterday. Every moment in the film is so clean and crystal clear. It makes all the difference in the world."
Ted Neeley has such an effervescent personality and it's so easy to see why he is so connected to the movie musical that made him a star, "Singing is my life. I was singing before I could speak the language. I cannot imagine living without being able to sing. I sing all the time. I sing to the radio. I completely believe that music is the language of the world and the human element told through the music in 'Jesus Christ Superstar' is why I love this movie."
For a complete list of venues that will be featuring this tour of the remastered print, see: http://tedneeley.com/