Sounds Local: Role of Jesus a ‘life-changing’ opportunity for Ted Neely

  • Ted Neeley as Jesus, in white, in a scene from the film adaptation of “Jesus Christ Superstar.” The film will be shown with subtitles, encouraging the crowd to sing along at Hawks & Reed Performing Arts Center this weekend. courtesy of Ted Neeley

Published: 11/15/2017 3:10:54 PM

In 1971, Texas born musician Ted Neeley was fresh off the Broadway hit “Hair” when he became the understudy for the role of Jesus in a new rock opera called “Jesus Christ Superstar.”

Written by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, the show explores the final weeks of the life of Jesus Christ as seen through the eyes of Judas. The play proved to be groundbreaking, controversial, and a huge Broadway smash that would be performed around the world for years to come. And for Neeley, 74, the role of Jesus was a life-changing experience.

Neeley played Jesus in the Los Angeles stage production of “Jesus Christ Superstar,” then went on to land the title role in Norman Jewison’s 1973 film adaptation. He has since stepped into the part hundreds of times in numerous touring productions. In recent years, Neeley has toured the country, hosting screenings of the acclaimed film. He will appear at two such screenings on Friday, Nov. 17, and Saturday, Nov. 18, at 7 p.m. each night at the Hawks & Reed Performing Arts Center in Greenfield.

Neeley will be joined by two of the film’s cast members, Bob Bingham (Caiaphas) and Kurt Yaghjian (Annas, on Friday only). There will be a sing-along, costume contest, meet and greet and so much more, including a sneak peak at the documentary, “Superstars: The Making of and Reunion of the Film,” with rare behind-the-scenes footage and recent cast interviews.

These shows will be dedicated to Barry Dennen, who played Pontius Pilate and passed away in September, and also to Carl Anderson, who played Judas and died in 2004.

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Neeley, who was calling from his home in Los Angeles, Calif. In conversation, Neeley is warm, funny and conveys a genuine sense of gratitude for all that his role in “Jesus Christ Superstar” has provided him. The following is an edited version of our conversation.

Sheryl Hunter: You were with “Jesus Christ Superstar” from the very beginning. Could you have ever imagined that the play and movie would endure all these years and that the role of Jesus would be one that you so closely identified with?

Ted Neeley: Not at all. We didn’t even have an idea if the movie would ever get seen. When Norman Jewison heard the music, he fell in love with it and said, “I could make a movie of this.” So, he took us all to Israel and the whole time we were shooting it we didn’t have a distribution deal. And then the fact that I’m still allowed to be a part of this wonderful thing, I count my blessings every day. I could not be more thankful. It gave me a whole new life. I met my wife on the set — she was one of the dancers. So thank you, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice.

SH: I was listening to the soundtrack the other day and that music sounds as good today as it did back in the early 1970s.

TN: Yes it does, and no matter where we do it, people come and sing along. They bring their children and grandchildren. No matter where we take it, people come to see the show.

SH: I’ve been fortunate enough to see you in the touring version of the play twice. Do you still perform the role of Jesus in these theatrical productions?

TN: I do. In fact, I just returned from Rome where I have been performing since 2014. I’m the only non-Italian in the production company, but they are all magnificent. It’s such an amazing experience, and I’m thinking every person in this entire company (is young enough to) be my children or grandchildren, and here is this dude from Texas who gets to be up there to be part of it. I couldn’t be more honored. And because of the success of that show, we have brought it to other parts of Europe.

SH: Do you ever get tired of playing this part?

TN: People ask me that all the time, and my honest response is, “absolutely not.” Every performance is like the first time, and that’s because of the music. It never grows old. I wish everyone could literally walk in my sandals, so to speak, to experience what it feels like to be on that stage.

SH: I would think the role of Jesus would be an exhausting role to play.

TN: It can be. The only time we really get to celebrate is (during) the song, “What’s the Buzz,” and the song that Simon does. But the rest is pretty much death and dying, so it is an overwhelmingly emotional challenge, no matter where we do it or how we do it. But the music always gives us this spiritual, powerful feeling as it’s happening, and we can feel it from the audience, too. It’s not about religion — it’s about human spirituality because the whole concept of this is looking at the life of Jesus of Nazareth through the eyes of his contemporaries, before anybody allegedly knew he was nothing more but an outspoken, peaceful man.

SH: Do people ever treat you as if you were actually Jesus?

TN: All the time, and the very first time I experienced that was when we did the first American tour. I remember on opening night, after the show, this lady comes up (to me) and was obviously pregnant and said, “Mr. Neeley, will you please bless my child?” I wasn’t sure what to do, but I figured if she believes this, I must carry on. So I put my hand on her tummy, and the minute I did, the baby kicked.

And she believed that me touching her made that happen, and that has been what I have experienced all these years. There are people who believe that I have some connection. They’ll say things like “You made me find my spirit,” and I’ll say, “But I’m a rock ’n’ roll drummer from Texas who can scream high notes!” But people are convinced that what they saw in the movie, because of Norman Jewison’s brilliance, they believe that we are those people. And that has stayed with me 40-plus years, ever since the movie, and I try to do my best to walk the walk.

SH: How long have you been doing the screenings like the one that will show at Hawks & Reed?

TN: About five years. I was trying to put them together for years. Carl Anderson and I wanted to do one at the 20th anniversary of the movie and nobody was interested. I would go to movies theaters and I’d always hear that they were a fan of the movie, but didn’t think it would draw people. Finally, the very first screening was at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. The manager was the world’s biggest fan of the movie. It was a hit, and we’ve been doing them across the country since.

SH: Can you tell our readers what they can expect at these screenings?

TN: About an hour before the doors open, we bring in the people who bought the VIP tickets and we sit down and talk with them. We keep it to only 12 because we want to keep it like the apostles. And after this is finished, the general admission doors open. We take questions from the audience, then we sit down and watch the film with everyone. After the movie, I stick around and chat with everyone.

We just started doing sing-alongs (there will be subtitles if you don’t know the words) and we will have a costume contest. Some people come dressed as hippies, while others come as characters from the film. So feel free to sing along, dance, whatever you want to do — just enjoy yourself and the movie.


Advance tickets are $20 and available at: You can also buy tickets for $25 at the door. For VIP tickets, visit: The Friday show is sold out, but tickets are available as of press time for Saturday. Doors open at 6 p.m. Hawks and Reed is at 289 Main St. in Greenfield.

Sheryl Hunter is a music writer who lives in Easthampton. Her work has appeared in various regional and national magazines. You can contact her at


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