No one is more surprised than Ted Neeley that, at 66, he's still playing the lead on stage in "Jesus Christ Superstar" — and still getting away with it, to audience and critical acclaim.
"People have been very enthusiastic," Neeley said in a recent interview. "The current tour started in 2006 and was supposed to last only three months. They even billed it as 'Ted Neeley's Farewell Tour.' But they kept extending it. It's three years later and we're now booked through 2010."
The groundbreaking, once-controversial 1971 rock opera by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice comes to Century II for one performance on Wednesday. It's sponsored by Theater League but not part of the regular season.
"People love the music. They know the music from the (1969) concept album and the (1973) movie. And they have certain expectations. Everybody has his own personal relationship with the show and I'm just happy to help them achieve it," Neeley said by phone while traveling though the Canadian Rockies with a youthful cast mostly in their 20s.
"I talk with people afterward and they are so respectful to me. They are very kind. I think I must be the most hugged person in the country."
Neeley said the irony has not escaped him that he has played Jesus longer (37 years) than Jesus was Jesus (33 years), but that he doesn't worry about getting some sort of god complex.
"I approach Jesus as a man because that's what I'm playing. I can't be the essence of Christ. I carry the essence of him as a man. Everybody knows him as the Son of God but not everybody knows what he was like as a man. That's what I try to explore," Neeley said.
"He was extraordinary. Even if he were only a mere mortal, just think what he accomplished in his short lifetime. I am aware that people see Jesus through me and I rise to it. But I have no illusions. I'm just a rock-and-roll drummer who hits high notes for a living. I'm very lucky but I'm not divine."
Has playing the role, first on Broadway, then in the movie and subsequently in three national tours changed Neeley personally or spiritually?
"I came out of the Southern Baptist traditions of small-town Texas so I already believed," Neeley said. "But even if I had been an atheist, I don't think I could have avoided the magnificence of this story."
If and when he finally hangs up his Jesus sackcloth and sandals, Neeley won't retire. He's got two Broadway musicals in the pipeline, one a rock opera treatment of the mad Russian monk "Rasputin" and one called "Pandemonium."
Born Teddie Joe in Ranger, Texas, in 1943, Neeley formed a five-member rock band as a teen and signed his first contract with Capitol Records at age 22 in 1965. He toured the club scene but was tapped for one of the two leads in "Hair" in 1969 in Los Angeles, then found his way to Broadway with "Jesus Christ Superstar" in 1972. He originally auditioned for the role of Judas.
"I thought Judas would provide a great opportunity to explore a character that few people understand. He is usually just dismissed as evil," Neeley said. "But Judas was an important part of God's plan. Without his betrayal, Jesus could not have fulfilled his destiny."
Ben Vereen was cast as Judas and Neeley became Jesus' understudy. He later played the role on Broadway and in Los Angeles and was cast for the movie by Norman Jewison with Carl Anderson as Judas and Broadway's Yvonne Elliman as Mary Magdalen.
Even though he came from Southern Baptist roots, Neeley said he was surprised when "Superstar" proved to be initially controversial. It was blasted by fundamentalists for its irreverent tone and brash rock music and condemned as sacrilegious for ending with the crucifixion rather than the resurrection. Here in Kansas, some radio stations refused to air the lyrics. When confronted by fan protests, they eventually played instrumental versions.
"I wasn't personally shocked because, well, I was a rock-and-roll musician. But it surprised me that other people were," Neeley said. "I would talk with protesters outside the theater and invite them in to see for themselves. Invariably, they would come to agree with me that it was a fresh, new and relevant way to reach a new generation. Now it's considered G-rated and almost quaint. It's on TV every Easter."
If you go
'jesus christ superstar'
What: National tour of the Weber/Rice rock opera with original star Ted Neeley
Where: Century II Concert Hall
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday
How much: Tickets: $52-$47; available through WichitaTix box office, at 316-219-4849 or www.theaterleague.com