Theater & Arts

Actor finds inspiration in 'Jesus Christ Superstar'

You don't spend a lifetime playing the role of Jesus Christ thousands of times -- clear through to the climactic scene on the cross -- without some of that vaunted, well, goodness rubbing off on you.

That's what it seems like, at least, when you talk to Ted Neeley on the phone about "Jesus Christ Superstar." His voice is at least an 8 out of 10 on the gentle-as-a-lamb scale. His patience is industrial-strength as he endures two mixed-up interview connections. His love of the material is practically beatific as he describes the thrill of every performance as a new adventure.

He's found his bliss, and at age 66, he refuses to let it go.

"They just can't get rid of me," says the actor, composer and rock 'n' roll drummer.

Neeley has played the title role in the show, which returns Tuesday to the Saroyan Theatre for one performance, so many times that he's lost count. His name has been inextricably linked with "Jesus Christ Superstar" since 1973, when he starred in the movie version directed by Norman Jewison.

The Broadway production, with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics by Tim Rice, chronicles the last days of Jesus' life and includes such well-known songs as "Superstar," "I Don't Know How to Love Him" and the title song.

A five-year national tour in the 1990s criss-crossed the country several times. This current tour started in 2006 and was meant to last three months, but it's still going strong. It just kept getting extended, he says. (He's taken a few breaks here and there.) He last performed in Fresno, at the Saroyan, in 2007.

"I just haven't figured out a way to say no," he says of his decision to keep playing the role. "It's been such an amazing part of my life. I'm holding on to it like a brand new Christmas toy."

Neeley is speaking from the place he spends most of his time: the road. (He has a home in Texas, but he doesn't spend much time there.) He hates to fly, but he loves his custom-designed bus -- complete with kitchen -- that carts him from one venue to the next. The 50-person contingent of cast and crew travel on three buses and trucks. On this day, he's traveling from Seattle to San Diego, and he's just stopped to pick up a Quizno's sandwich to eat while he watches the interstate glide by.

"It's such a great way to see the beauty of this country," he says. "I love to stop in little towns, chill a bit with the locals."

One thing that keeps the show fresh is that the rest of the cast -- mostly young, up-and-coming performers in their first national-tour roles -- tend to rotate in and out of the production, leaving Neeley as the wise veteran.

He's absolutely serious about not getting tired of playing the role of Jesus, he says. When I interviewed him three years ago, he said his age was irrelevant because the audience sees the character, not him.

He's just as enthusiastic today. Every time he walks out on stage it's like he's doing it for the first time. It's a spiritual experience, he says. It's more than just a show. Audience members can be powerfully moved -- from first-timers to the ones who have seen the production repeatedly -- and he picks up on that energy.

"And thank goodness that everybody knows the story so we don't have to hold up cue cards," he says. Again, it's with that gentle voice of his -- so gentle that sometimes it's hard to know he's joking.

But there's a goofy side to Neeley as well, which is nice considering the magnitude of the role he's spent a lifetime playing.

Thank goodness, he says, that he's traveling from the frozen north of British Columbia to the slightly warmer environs of California.

"Can I tell you, I haven't quite thawed out," he says. "You wear those sandals and your feet freeze up on you."