Christ Complex

I suppose it could happen to anyone: You spend a good chunk of your professional life getting paid to pretend you're Christ, and after awhile you start believing you can part the Red Sea. At least that's what I'm hoping is behind the Christ complex implied in Ted Neeley's "Interview Guidelines" in the media kit for the touring production of Jesus Christ Superstar.

The show is playing here this week as part of Theatre League's spring season, but the media kit comes from Troika Entertainment, where an overzealous publicist (perhaps one of the "Ted Heads," as Neeley's fans refer to themselves) has provided a full page of questions sanctioned by some higher power. "Please be prepared to discuss the following topics during your interview with Mr. Neeley," the note begins. It goes on to list some amazingly high-and-mighty themes, like "The experience Ted shares with the audience every night" and "The fans that wait for him at the stage door in every market, some of whom have traveled from as far as Europe and South America."

You'll have to take my word for it when I tell you that publicists never tell reporters what to talk to their clients about, especially clients whose slender fame hangs on a single role. After understudying the part in its original 1971 Broadway run, Neeley played Christ in the 1973 film version of Superstar, and although he's now twice the age that Jesus was at the time of his death, he has since reprised it in two bus-and-truck revivals of the stage musical. Despite an impressive singing voice — and perhaps because of his striking resemblance to Rembrandt's 17th-century Christ — Neeley has never achieved much notice playing anyone other than the Son of God, a fact that must rankle him and perhaps explains why his media kit demands that "during interviews, please spend the brief time available focusing on the topics specified."

Those topics include: "The process of finding a Judas who could live up to and honor Carl Anderson's memory and talent" (because apparently Anderson's onstage betrayal was matchless) and "The bond that has developed between (Living Colour's) Corey Glover and Ted," because apparently the best place to find a Judas replacement is in a one-hit heavy metal band. Perhaps it was Glover who suggested the inclusion of "The experience of traveling and living on a bus," because only a has-been hair band singer would consider this an interesting story angle.

"Ask him what it's like to wear a dress on stage every night," my friend Mike begged when I told him about Neeley's list of interview rules. "Ask him what the H in Jesus H Christ stands for." And I might have, if I hadn't read the vainglorious and more-than-slightly irreverent wind-up to Neeley's preposterous Interview Guidelines.

"While the producers thought this likely to be the farewell tour, given the vitality of this production and Mr. Neeley," it reads, "they now think the show, like Mr. Neeley's title role, may have everlasting life."

Holy God!

I knew, after reading this, that I could never interview Ted Neeley. If I did, I'd only be able to ask him childish, snarky questions, like, "When you bump your shin, do you yell 'Ted Neeley!'?" I wouldn't be able to help myself. I'd wind up asking him, "How many people can you feed with a couple loaves of rye and a mackerel?" or "If you became addicted to sleeping pills, would your friends start calling you Ted Neeley O'Hara?" And then, of course, it would be clear that I'm truly a fourth-grader at heart, the kind of journalist who would call a sort-of famous musical theater star on the phone and say to him, "Is it a drag to have to wear your hair long and parted down the middle all the time? Do you ever wish that there was something in the Bible about Christ sometimes wearing barrettes — or feathered bangs?"

In other words, precisely the kind of journalist for whom Interview Guidelines were created.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela