Telling the greatest story

You might think that someone who has portrayed Jesus Christ on stage and in the movies for nearly fo

You might think that someone who has portrayed Jesus Christ on stage and in the movies for nearly four decades could be a bit pompous and pretentious. A little high maintenance, maybe. Ted Neeley, however, is anything but.

The phone call for a 1 p.m. interview comes at 12:59, and it’s Neeley on the line, not a publicist, agent or some other kind of PR flack. He immediately puts you at ease, joking about how “the weather is miserable but the show is magnificent.”

‘Jesus Christ Superstar’

WHERE: The Mainstage at Proctors, 432 State St., Schenectady

WHEN: 8 p.m., Tuesday through Thursday.

HOW MUCH: $55-$20

MORE INFO: 346-6204

The show is “Jesus Christ Superstar,” and when it comes to Proctors in Schenectady for three 8 p.m. performances Tuesday through Thursday, Neeley will play the title character, a role he’s been at for longer than Christ’s 33 years on Earth. You could argue that his close connection with the most iconic figure in world history has hurt his career, limiting his chances at playing other characters, but he has no regrets.

“I am honored that I got the chance to do this role, and I’m honored that I’m still doing it,” said Neeley, 64. “It’s such a wonderful play; I feel very fortunate to be able to be a part of this piece. You might think you’d grow tired of the same thing, that’s only natural. But with this project, you put on the robe, you walk out on stage and the first three notes on the guitar during the overture just carries me away. It always feels fresh.”

He played Christ on Broadway a handful of times during the play’s 18-month run from October 1971 to June 1973, but he was usually Jeff Fenholt’s understudy in the lead role, performing instead in the chorus as a reporter and a leper. However, by the time the play, initially written as a rock album by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber, had begun its first national tour in Los Angeles in 1972, he had won the lead role. Hollywood producer Norman Jewison saw that production and cast Neeley as Christ in the movie version, a role that earned him a 1973 Golden Globe nomination.

A self-described “rock ’n’ roll drummer who can hit the high notes,” Neeley had earlier played Claude in New York and Los Angeles productions of “Hair,” directed by Tom O’Horgan.

“I didn’t do any acting until I was 22,” said Neeley. “I just wanted to be a rock star, but working for Tom O’Horgan and doing ‘Hair’ for three years in L.A. got me into the theater community. Tom was my mentor. He advised me all during that time and dragged me to auditions. It was a privilege to work with him.”

Keeping busy

Neeley is a good ol’ boy from Texas who doesn’t have a disingenuous bone in his body. Married to the same woman — a ballet dancer — he met while working on the movie version of “Jesus Christ Superstar” in Israel in 1972, he hasn’t stopped working since he left Texas and headed to California in the late 1960s. While he never matched the success he has enjoyed with “Superstar,” he kept himself busy working in regional theater, television (he had a recurring role on “Starsky and Hutch” in 1979), movies and the music world, recording with such artists as Meat Loaf, Bo Diddley, Tina Turner, Ray Charles and Keith Carradine.

“I’ve spent my entire life singing, and whenever I got the chance I’d go out and play with other people,” he said. “It’s a great experience, and music has always been my fall back position if you will. In this crazy business, if you need something to fall back on, I’d just jump in with somebody and play some music. I’ve been very lucky.”

He became reacquainted with his “Superstar” role in 1992, touring across the United States for five years. In September 2006, Neeley and “Superstar” once again took to the road . Although some have dubbed this his farewell tour, he indicates that might not be the case.

“We’re booked solid through the end of June, then we’ll take a short break and hopefully continue again right after that,” he said. “I’ve always taken good care of myself and I better be if I’m doing this. I don’t want to have a beer belly for the last scene, the crucifixion. We’re a society that’s so aware of our age bracket, but I feel intellectually and spiritually ageless. Everybody in the media worries about age, but I don’t.”

Although he feels right at home portraying the most important figure in Christian theology, Neeley says people who approach him looking for all the right answers are asking way too much.

“I certainly have an opinion on things, and I’m willing to discuss just about anything, but whether or not I can give advice is another thing,” he said. “People come to me with all these amazing stories about how this play or the movie has touched them and I end up feeling like I’m a part of their lives. I feel like a family member, which is fine, but I feel like I’m the one who’s learning new things. I get to make this spiritual connection with everybody, and that is very special.”

While Neeley, who grew up in the Baptist church, considers himself a spiritual being, he’s not a regular church goer.

“I had a very religious upbringing as a child, and that’s made me who I am, but I haven’t been to church in a while,” he said. “I haven’t been part of an organized religious group for a long time because to me the church is in the spirit. I’m open to discussing as many different concepts as possible. Religion is a very personal thing to me, and I don’t try to step on anyone else’s toes. I’m open and ready to listen to what anyone has to say, and I almost feel like because I’m in this show, I have a responsibility to do that kind of nurturing. I enjoy helping people feel better about their faith and what they believe.”

“Jesus Christ Superstar” tells the story of Christ’s last seven days on Earth, focusing on his betrayal by Judas, his trial before Pontius Pilate and the crucifixion. Making his theatrical debut as Judas is Corey Glover, lead singer of the Grammy Award-winning rock n’ roll band Living Colour. Directing is Dallet Norris, who also directed national touring productions of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” “Can-Can” and “South Pacific.”

“What could be better than having Ted Neeley, so grand in the film, on board as we delve into Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s brilliant musical telling of this timeless story,” said Norris.

Message for today

“Their idea of setting this tale in terms that immediately resonate with today’s audiences is revolutionary. Here we are, 21 centuries later, and it is so clear; we need the message of this story now more than ever.”

The reviews from around the country have been generally quite favorable. “Superstar” and Neeley still seem to be wowing audiences wherever they go.

“This play is deeply embedded in my psyche,” said Neeley. “It doesn’t matter how long it’s been, the music starts and bingo, I’m ready to go. I’ve done it with different directors and they may tweak it a little, but you can’t play with this piece. If you try to upgrade it, the audience won’t buy it. He’s the most well-known icon in the history of the world, and Christ will never get old. It’s a great story with absolutely wonderful melodies.”

‘Jesus Christ Superstar’

WHERE: The Mainstage at Proctors, 432 State St., Schenectady

WHEN: 8 p.m., Tuesday through Thursday.

HOW MUCH: $55-$20

MORE INFO: 346-6204

Categories: Life and Arts

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