Saturday, December 15, 2007

Zanah-hey, Zanah-ho-zanah

Okay, clear your mind, and think of this name: Ted Neeley. Anything?

Anything at all?

He was the guy who played the title role in the 1973 movie version of "Jesus Christ Superstar" (and on the soundtrack album). Not the one from Deep Purple with the great pipes on the original recording. The other one. The one whose most musically powerful moments as the Son of God sounded like he was humming in the shower. The one whose entire acting range--as a friend once pointed out--was deadpanning to the camera and holding his arms out at his side, palms upward. A 30-degree angle equals Happiness. A 45-degree angle equals Peace and benediction. And a 60-degree angle equals Line, please?

And so on.

I mention Neeley because I saw in this morning's paper that the 64-year-old actor is coming through town this month in the national touring company of--wait for it--"Jesus Christ Superstar." I could only assume he landed the part because the single other actor who remembered all the words from 30+ years ago was recovering from hip replacement surgery and couldn't go on the road.

It is, to paraphrase Tom Lehrer, a sobering thought to realize that, when Jesus was Ted Neeley's age, he had been dead for 31 years. (Hat tip to Doctor Beyond.)

Although it turns out there's more to it than that.

Whatever he's been doing for the last 30 years, no one caught any of it on film. Like his most famous role (not counting that episode of "Starky & Hutch"), decades of his life are unaccounted for until he mysteriously pops up again. His IMDB entry pretty much goes dark around the time Reagan took office.

But Neeley not only has a MySpace page, he's got a Wikipedia entry, which does at least solve the mystery of Ted's Lost Years with the following:

Twenty years after first playing the role, Mr. Neeley gained renewed success, and a new generation of fans, in the lead role of Jesus Christ in the 1990s touring company of Jesus Christ Superstar. This modernized version of the original production included a day-glow temple scene, and a glass crucifixion cross that elevated above the stage and was lit from within. From 1992 to 1997, the hugely successful tour criss-crossed the nation multiple times.

As of 2007, Neeley is in the middle of yet another critically acclaimed production of Jesus Christ Superstar. Billed as his national "farewell" tour of playing the role of Jesus Christ, this new production is a stripped down version with staging and set limited to a few risers. Corey Glover, famous as the lead singer of the rock band Living Colour, co-stars as Judas.

This, of course, raises the theological question that has plagued New Testament scholars for centuries: How can we say "farewell" if he won't leave? (And a flying, interior-lit cross? Jesus, what were they thinking? Chalk it off to the enthusiasms of the Clinton-era economy, I suppose. There's no record of a "JCS" national tour in the 1980s, but if there had been, one imagines that Mary Magdalene would have had big hair and padded shoulders, not unlike what Melanie Griffith sported in "Working Girl.")

I suppose being a 64-year-old getting crucified four nights a week plus weekend matinées is steady work, at least. Sort of like the fellow portraying that other famous son sent to earth to save mankind--the guy in Metropolis, Illinois, whose job is to wear the Superman costume and attend civic functions, parades, and such.

Tickets for the Portland performance are still available, but don't delay: The poor may be with us always, but "Jesus Christ Superstar" opens in Seattle on the 22nd.

(Image via Coast to Coast Tickets.)

1 comment:

Torrid said...

it absolutely KILLS me (crucifies me?) that I will be out of town for that. My family will be going without me, sniff.

I make fun of Ted a lot at home (honestly, I do)--my ear hears Greg Allman when he sings, only funnier. But Corey Glover as Judas ought to be outstanding, the guy can sing and scream with the best of them.

We listen exclusively to the Ian Gillan/Murray Head/Yvonne Elliman version, which is really the best thing Webber and Rice ever did, IMO. Such a humanizing portrait of those last days...and with the Judas Gospel out now, it seems almost to presage it, as Judas tells Jesus at the Last Supper, "You want me to do it...what if I just stayed here and ruined your ambition...Christ you deserve it!"

This is also not a lie--I am working on a one-man street rendition of JCS. I know all the words; it's more a matter of logistics in order to get all the voice changes right...!