“Just slightly over 2,000 years now,” he laughed. “And I’ve almost learned the words, mind you.”
This Broadway staple originated the title role in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Jesus Christ Superstar” in 1971, then translated the role to its big-screen version. He’s currently enjoying his third resurrection of the show, and long ago lost count of how many miles he’s walked in his sandals.
“When we started this, no one thought it would get past opening night, so there was no reason to keep records,” he explained. But the musical became a rock opera sensation, drawing sellout crowds and extending its run for two years.
The cast does about eight performances a week, and in just the musical’s second resurrection, between 1992 and 1997, Neeley performed more than 2,000 times. Multiply that by a godlike infinity and it’s a miracle he’s still alive.
“I have not done it continually, however,” he reminded, but the show never gets old for him.
“Every single night I get to experience the epiphany of a piece called ‘Gethsemane.’ The song is about Jesus talking to God about his confusion, allowing the audience to see him question his existence. I treat it as conversation with his own father,” Neeley said. In his opinion, it’s one of the best songs ever written in the history of Broadway.
“It’s overwhelming,” he said.
One can imagine that the attention Neeley receives for playing the part of the earthbound Son of God over the course of 35 years could also be overwhelming. The story might be the most well known in history, as it follows the last week of the life of Jesus Christ.
On the one hand, Neeley says it helps that the audience doesn’t require cue cards or back story to be able to relate to the characters.
On the other hand, how do you live up to Jesus? Audiences have found Neeley more than a match, at least for the duration of the show. Many of them return to multiple performances in adjacent cities. Call them Risen-from-the-Dead-Heads.
“They know the show better than we do. They know the show. They sing along,” he said.
The play that originally caused controversy is now performed by churches all over the world. He’s been playing the role for so long that the technology changed from live performances to vinyl records and now to CD. Apart from that, people associate Neeley both as an impressive secular performer, and as something a little more sacred. Not so much the Son of God, but perhaps as an unofficial biographer — kind of like Martin Basheer to Michael Jackson. Neeley said it’s a cross he’s willing to bear.
“Absolutely. It makes me a better person.”
But is he ever tempted to cash in on the myth and his own popularity, and maybe go into product endorsement? The Lamb of God could sell a lot of sandals.
“Maybe I should,” he mused.
“Jesus Christ Superstar”
Wednesday, May 16