Jesus Christ Superstar at Vilar in Beaver Creek
Vail, CO, Colorado
As far as rock-operas go, they don’t get much bigger than “Jesus Christ Superstar.”
And as far as juicy acting roles go, filling the shoes of the Son of God might seem intimidating to most, but not to the original Jesus Christ star, Ted Neeley.
Neeley has been with the production off and on since 1972 when he understudied for the role of Christ during the play’s first years on Broadway and later starred in the film adaptation in 1973. He will be taking the stage tonight to play the Savior of mankind once again at the Vilar Performing Arts Center in Beaver Creek.
“It is a constant challenge to maintain ” hopefully ” some hint of respect to this character and to this story and to this well-known piece. But it is absolute comfort on stage in the process because I just love every minute of doing it,” Neeley said during an interview from a hotel room in Utah, a stop on the play’s tour.
“Jesus Christ Superstar” is a big-production musical about the last week before Christ’s crucifixion. It focuses heavily on the human side of the tale as Judas and fellow disciples try to understand Jesus and his ministry and eventually ends with the murder of Christ. The play teeters on the fine line between religious themes and entertainment, two things that some have a hard time placing in the same box.
The play’s success stems from the first generation of fans who owned the album and went to see the play and movie, and have since had offspring that relate to the modern slang and rock ‘n’ roll based soundtrack. “Jesus Christ Superstar” is continually on tour in some form and even churches and schools put on productions of the play today.
Many actors have played the role of Jesus in the play during many different productions, but Neeley is the face that most have come to recognize as Christ in the production.
When the play and movie first came out, people didn’t like the way Jesus was portrayed, saying he was shown as too human and Judas Iscariot (who betrays Jesus for 30 pieces of silver) was given too much sympathy, Neeley said. He recalled mobs of protesters picketing outside of theaters during the early ’70s trying to block the actors entrance to the building.
As times have changed, so to has the general public’s view of the play, which now seems harmless and tame even by most religious standards.
“You’re talking about the most … iconic figure in all of history, at least on the American continent,” said Neeley of the Jesus character.
Neeley stresses the fact that the play is a human interpretation of events that unfold in the Bible, the brainchild of Tim Rice (writer) and Andrew Lloyd Webber (composer), and as such is meant as entertainment, not as religious teaching.
“It’s not about religion, it’s about the last seven days of Jesus as seen through the eyes of his friends. So you get a complete humanistic approach to this man who walked on the earth, whether people believe him being the son of God or believe he was a rebellious rabbi or just some guy who had a little bit more to say than somebody else,” Neeley said.
But it’s not all about Jesus. There is a large cast of characters including Mary Magdalene, Jewish priests, disciples, King Herod and Pontius Pilate, who Neeley believes is the most under-appreciated character in the play.
“It is not a one-man show. I do get to play the title character but I’m one of many people up there that make this magic work,” Neeley said.
The focus falls on each of the major cast members’ own individual struggle with the politics of religion during Biblical times, making for broader character development and giving the audience a chance to relate to whomever they sympathize with throughout the story, which Neeley said is one of the most important aspects of the production.
“It doesn’t embrace nor reject any religious faith. It just looks at it objectively. It’s just saying here’s the facts and you choose what you wish to make of it,” Neeley said.
Ultimately, it’s an interpretive work, and the audience will walk away from it with whatever biases or beliefs they hold in their own minds. If one believes that Jesus is the Son of God, he may walk away hurt by the way Jesus is portrayed, but those that appreciate human nature may walk away with the realization that nobody is perfect, no matter how close they are to God.
“It’s about whatever we all may have as a universal spiritual connection, regardless of what we embrace in terms of our faith,” Neeley said.
High Life writer Charlie Owen can be reached at 748-2939 or firstname.lastname@example.org.