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Jesus Christ Superstar

When composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyricist Tim Rice’s “Jesus Christ Superstar” opened on Broadway in 1971, religious groups condemned the show as “blasphemous” and protested outside the theater.

That’s quite a reaction for a show that, when it comes down to it, isn’t about religion. “It’s about the last seven days in the life of Jesus Christ as seen through the eyes of his friends and enemies,” said Ted Neeley, who’s been playing Jesus on stage for nearly 40 years. “The show really looks at Jesus and Judas as men and their commitment to die for what they believed in.”

Neeley, who also played Jesus in Norman Jewison’s 1973 film version of the musical, headlines the touring production of “Jesus Christ Superstar.” Neeley talked with us about playing the son of God, hanging up the robe and sandals and the importance of the show in people’s lives.

Do you have a God complex?

Not at all. I’m just a rock-n-roll drummer from Texas who hits high notes for a living.

You’ve been playing Jesus off and on for nearly 40 years. Aren’t you sick of it?

Absolutely not. It’s a brand new piece for me every night. I promise you the night it gets tiring or old, I’m gone.

That’s fair, but the pressure of being the son of God can’t be easy.

Well, I could tell you many stories about people who have told me how the show has affected their lives. It’s remarkable.

We have time for a quick story.

In all seriousness, because of the film people think of me as a connection to their spiritual existence. People have spent their entire lives watching the film over and over again with their families, and they’ve found their faith through watching the film. I respect everyone’s concept of Jesus Christ, and I do everything I can to channel the spirit of Christ in this role. It’s a responsibility, and I accept it.

This has been billed as your “farewell” tour, but you dispute that. How long would you keep doing this?

[Sighs] I’m still “faring” well. The last time I had the pleasure of doing the show it was planned for a three month tour and ran for five years. This tour started in August 2006 and was planned for three months, and now we’re booked through 2009. If people keep coming, I will keep screaming.

Corey Glover, who plays Judas, was the lead singer of the band Living Colour. Is there anything about his “Cult of Personality” you can share?

Corey’s incredible. Everywhere we go people love him. When Carl [Anderson, the show’s original Judas] passed on I thought it was a sign that we should stop doing this, but the producers and fans wanted to keep doing it. We spend a year and a half looking for a new Judas, and when Corey’s name was tossed out he was not only interested but had spent much of his life wanting to be part of the show. Carl was his idol, and seeing the movie when he was nine years old made him want to be a singer.