In 1971, Ted Neeley was appearing on Broadway in one of his first major roles. Every night he had to struggle though lines of angry Christian picketers who screamed that he was a blasphemer.
In his current role, Christian parents bring their kids to Neeley's show to teach them about the Bible.
It's the same role, in the same show: the lead in Jesus Christ Superstar.
"It's become a sort of spiritual Sesame Street," Neeley said in a phone interview from a stop on the current Superstar tour, which comes to the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center this week. "People are bringing their children and their grandchildren to teach them about Jesus. It's the same stories that put them to sleep in church, but in the theater the kids pay attention."
Neeley played Jesus in the original Broadway production and re-created the role for the 1973 film. He has starred in almost all of the major touring productions since.
He's now 64, and he's been playing a 33-year-old man for 37 years.
"It's not a matter of age, it's a matter of perception," he said. "And fortunately, people are still able to perceive me as Jesus. And I think one reason people keep coming back year after year is to see if I can still hit the high notes. And so far, I still can."
Besides, he said, the depth of the character and the vocal challenges of Andrew Lloyd Webber's music make playing the role interesting, even after all these years.
Back when he faced angry crowds every night when he came to work, Neeley understood their point of view and figured they'd come around. In those days, the idea of "Christian rock" was shocking, and the show was reverent but intentionally provocative.
"First, there was that title," Neeley said. "And then you had Jesus singing rock music, and Mary Magdalene singing I Don't Know How to Love Him, and man, did they read between the lines of that one."
The protesters had never actually seen the show or listened to the music, so Neeley would invite them into the theater as his guests. The ones who accepted became Superstar converts.
"What (lyricist) Tim Rice did, in his brilliance, was take Jesus off the stained glass windows and put him on the streets, which is where he started."
At Neeley's side for most of the Superstar journey has been Carl Anderson, who played Judas in the movie and has been in most of the touring productions. (Ben Vereen originated the role on Broadway.)
Anderson was recently diagnosed with leukemia, but producers found an able substitute in Corey Glover, an actor and signer best known for fronting the '80s rock band Living Colour.
"It turns out he saw the movie when he was 9," Neeley said. "The movie is what made him want to be a performer, and Carl Anderson is who made him want to be a singer. So it's just perfect."
Marty Clear is a Tampa freelance writer who specializes in performing arts. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.