I had a come-to-Jesus moment last Friday in Tucson, Ariz.
Talking to him one-on-one, he sounds like a good ol’ boy rock ‘n’ roll drummer from Texas, which he actually was in high school, at the beginning of his career.
Ted Neeley, who premiered “Jesus Christ Superstar” on Broadway and Los Angeles stages before landing the role in Norman Jewison’s landmark 1973 film, came to Tucson — where my wife, Karen, and I are winding up a four-month stay — to present a singalong showing of the film at the Loft Cinema, a terrific art-house theater here.
He has been touring the audience-participation movie all over the country over the last five years. He has also reprised the role on world stages, most recently in a long-running Italian production. Sitting down for a short interview, I asked him how long he’s been playing the part.
“Just a little over 2,000 years now,” he answered with a laugh.
Ted starred in the original “Hair” and The Who’s “Tommy” and toured in a stage production of The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” — all milestones in the American renaissance otherwise known as the ’60s and ’70s. More recently, he was part of the ensemble in Quentin Tarantino’s outrageous “Django Unchained.”
“I’ve known Quentin since he was 16,” he begins. He’s got a career, and lifetime, of great stories.
Now in his 70s, Ted Neeley may be an overlooked icon in the grand scheme of things. Especially when you factor in Jesus. He’s philosophical, often hilarious, still boyishly enthusiastic and humbly unassuming about it all.
Doing “Superstar” “off and on since 1971,” he says, “I still love every second of it. It’s like the first time all over again.”
Although he initially auditioned to play Judas for the stage production, director Tom O’Horgan told him to “sing the other guy. He saw something in me I didn’t see in myself. So I got up the next day and sang that song called ‘Gethsemane’ . . . and I’ve been singing it ever since.”
Obviously it was a transformative experience for him. “This whole thing was an accident. I met my wife in Israel when we were filming it. She was a dancer in the movie. I can’t be thankful enough. I’ve done other shows but I can’t think of doing anything else.”
But the real transformation goes in the other direction. Every time they show the film, he hears from fans how it changed their lives. “I get that story every night. A priest came up to me and said, “Mr. Neeley, I’m a priest because I saw your movie as a child.”
When it opened on Broadway, it was greeted by protests. It went on to earn the approval of Pope Paul VI, and to still be around more than a half-century later. Now, with a gorgeous remastered print, Neeley says, “No matter where we go, it’s standing room only. They scream and holler as though it’s Metallica or something. They sing with the show. Sometimes they come in costume. They’re dancing at the end. It’s unbelievable.”
That’s what happened a few hours later in the Loft. My guess is it would cast the same spell on Maui.
“It’s remarkable. It’s uplifting,” he concluded. “It’s the music that keeps it alive. It’s not about religion. It’s about human beings.”
Speaking of great movies, just in a saint nick of time, Maui Film Festival has announced this year’s FirstLight screenings Wednesday, Saturday and Dec. 26 and 27 in Castle Theater at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center. Several of the films are Golden Globe nominees announced earlier this month. You’ll hear their names again at Oscar time.
This week’s offerings begin with “Downsizing,” director Alexander Payne’s version of less is more, starring a tiny Matt Damon, at 5 p.m. Wednesday. It’s followed at 8 p.m. by a personal favorite, Greta Gerwig’s sweet dramedy “Lady Bird,” starring Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf that will change the way you think about mothers, daughters and growing up in a wonderful way.
Saturday’s lineup begins at 2 p.m. with “Human Flow” from dissident Chinese director Ai Weiwei about the global challenge of refugees seeking a peaceful place to call home. At 5 p.m. it’s “All the Money in the World,” directed by Ridley Scott, starring Michelle Williams, Mark Wahlberg and A-list pinch hitter Christopher Plummer as J. Paul Getty. And at 8 p.m. it’s “Breathe,” a triumphant love story starring Maui Film Festival honoree Andrew Garfield and Claire Foy, guided by Andy Serkis in his directorial debut.
For more details, the complete schedule and ticket information, visit www.mauifilmfestival.com.
* Rick Chatenever, award-winning former entertainment and features editor of The Maui News, is a freelance journalist, instructor at UH-Maui College and documentary scriptwriter/producer. Contact him at email@example.com.