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Ahead of Louisville Screening, 'Superstar' Actor Says Jesus Role Helped Shape His Spirituality

Ted Neeley

When Ted Neeley stood in front of Broadway director Tom O'Horgan in the early 1970s to audition for the original production of "Jesus Christ Superstar," he was angling for the part of Judas. "I didn't want to get anywhere near the role of Jesus," he said in a recent interview with WFPL. "Everybody in the world knows Jesus. I just figured that if I attempted that role, that everybody in the world would be a critic."
But after hearing Neeley sing, O'Horgan had other ideas. Neeley said the director jumped from his seat and ran up on stage. "I'm thinking, 'Oh, I got the part! This is great!' And he threw his arms around me, and he said, 'That was magnificent! But I'd like you to come back tomorrow and sing the other guy.'"

Neeley went home and practiced singing "Gethsemane (I Only Want to Say)," a pivotal moment in the show where Jesus goes off alone to have a conversation with God about his work on Earth and his impending death. He went back and sang it the next day, "And by golly," he says, "I've been singing that song ever since."

Neeley will be in Louisville on Sunday—along with Kurt Yaghjian, who played Annas in the movie—to attend a screening of the remastered film, at Baxter Avenue Theaters.

He recently spoke with me about landing the part of a lifetime (twice), his life-long connection with the show, and how getting inside the mind of Jesus has shaped his own personal approach to spirituality. Listen below:

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Neeley grew up in Ranger, Texas, population 2,500 or so, and said the community centered on religion. "Church was just part of our lives," he explains. When he began rehearsals for "Jesus Christ Superstar" on Broadway, the cast only had a few weeks to flesh out the relationships and histories between the apostles and other characters in the show. Calling upon Neeley's upbringing, O'Horgan told the cast, "If you need any information about any character in this piece, talk to Ted. He knows all the Bible stories."

Neeley recently wrapped a tour in Italy playing the part of Jesus live on stage, and he is making a few screening appearances here in the states, before he returns to Rome in June. And even after so much time and connection to the show, "It's fresh to me," he said.

He continues to play and record with rock bands when he has the chance (he released an EP called "Rock Opera" last year, and just finished recording a new album), but he said there's nothing as rewarding as performing the role of Jesus in front of an audience.

"I love everything about this," he said. "Honestly, when I walk on the stage at night to do these performances, if I've had the worst day of my life, the minute the guitar goes, it lifts me. Sometimes I feel like my feet don't touch the ground."

Update: A second screening of Jesus Christ Superstar has been added for Sunday at 2pm.

Laura is LPM's Director of Podcasts & Special Projects. Email Laura at lellis@lpm.org.