Photo by Troy Harvey, Ventura County Star
The singer-songwriter-actor will perform with his Little Big Band during a 10-concert run at the Rubicon Theatre in Ventura, 1006 E. Main St., with a preview at 7 tonight, opening night at 7 p.m. Saturday, and regular shows at 2 p.m. Sunday and Jan. 29, 2 and 7 p.m. Wednesday, 7 p.m. Thursday and Jan. 27, and 2 and 8 p.m. Jan. 29. Opening night: $125 (includes a post-show party). Regular shows: $25-$54 general admission, $25 full-time students with ID. For tickets or more information, call 667-2900 or visit rubicontheatre.org. Neeley's website is neeleyontheroad.com.
Troy Harvey/The Star
Neeley practices a set on stage at the Rubicon Theatre Monday afternoon.
Photo by Troy Harvey, Ventura County Star
Here are some random Ted Neeley nuggets:
Texas to California and back to Texas and California: Neeley was born and raised in Ranger, a small town in Texas. He met his wife, Leeyan, during production for the film version of "Jesus Christ Superstar" in Israel; she was a dancer in the cast. "Leeyan and I just have been in love with California since we first came out here; we got married up in the Carmel Valley," Neeley said. Their children, Tessa and Zachariah, were born in California in the 1980s, Neeley said, and in 1989 they moved back to Texas to be closer to family. When Tessa and Zachariah decided to attend college at CSU Channel Islands, the entire family moved to Ventura in 2007.
Chips off the block: Both Tessa and Zachariah, now in their 20s, are interested in the arts, Neeley said, although they also followed their parents' advice and earned business degrees in college. "In this business, if you don't have marketing and some sort of business sense, you're going to get lost in the shuffle real quickly," Neeley said. Zachariah, who lives in Thousand Oaks, "has leanings toward being a producer." Tessa, who lives in West Hollywood, "leans toward the performing arts."
Who has the Honda?: In 2005, when Neeley played Lucky in the Rubicon Theatre's "Waiting for Godot," he flew out from Texas to Ventura, but drove home in Rubicon Artistic Director Karl Lynn Burns' 1995 Honda Accord because he hates to fly. "I love the tactability of holding on to that steering wheel and knowing where I want to go at the end of the day, stopping whenever I feel like it," he said. Burns didn't get the car back until 2007, when Neeley returned to Ventura. She doesn't mind, however. "It's the extended Rubicon family car," she said.
Ventura County haunts: Neeley said he's a "movie freak." He and his wife also "do the beach thing, and anytime we get a chance we spend time up in Ojai. We love just walking around Main Street" (in downtown Ventura).
Advice to aspiring performers: "No matter how well-trained you are, until you actually have hands-on experience within the theater or a film or a TV show or a band or whatever, you still don't know what you're doing. So at the earliest age possible, be an apprentice so you have the experience of working with people who are doing the trade you wish to get into."
Future film: In March, Neeley said, he'll begin filming a movie shot in New Orleans. He can't say anything about it, however, because "the director wants his projects to be done before people start yammering about them."
He's a tart: Neeley's wife has a business, Granger's Cookies, that sells her gourmet baked goods. Neeley fans can order a cookie tart called "Teddie's T'heart" for $19.95. grangerscookies.com.
Troy Harvey/The Star
Singer Ted Neeley practices with his Little Big Band at the Rubicon Theatre in Ventura, where he's premiering a series of concerts starting tonight.
Photo by Joan Marcus
Joan Marcus/Contributed photo Ted Neeley has played the title role in "Jesus Christ Superstar" countless times on stage.
Ted Neeley will make you think he talks too much.
"I have a reputation for yammering a lot," he says sheepishly in his Texan drawl. "I run off at the mouth."
"Don't get me started," he warns, after almost veering off into a discussion of how "career politicians need to make the political system something that really serves the people as opposed to serving themselves."
But at heart, Neeley is more gracious listener than garrulous gabber.
The "Jesus Christ Superstar" star, 68, who has played Jesus so many times in the pop-rock musical since 1971 that he's spent more time as Jesus than the real Jesus, is known for staying hours after shows to meet with every fan who wants one-on-one time. During such conversations, and even during an interview with a reporter, you have to steer him away from asking the questions.
And although Neeley has never had any formal training as a singer, drummer, actor or composer, he's been successful in all those areas in part because he's all ears.
"He's probably the most insightful person I've ever met, and I think in a way it's tied to the notion of him being a good listener," said Karyl Lynn Burns, founder and producing artistic director of the Rubicon Theatre Company in Ventura and a longtime colleague and friend of Neeley's. "He learns very quickly."
Burns saves most of her praise, however, for the insightful listening connections that Neeley makes with fans.
"Ted can spend hours with someone; I think people feel heard and loved," she said. "He is kind of this soulful listener. I've heard people say he's looking into their soul."
Neeley is now listening to his own soul. Despite his thousands of performances as Jesus — and he'll still do any production of "Superstar" if someone asks — Neeley is most drawn to being in a band, something he hasn't done "officially" since the 1960s.
Fans will get a chance to hear many of Neeley's original tunes, which are a mix of country, rock and blues, for the first time when he returns to his music roots at the Rubicon.
Tonight, he'll premiere a run of 10 concerts at the theater as the frontman for his newly formed Little Big Band (five musicians with big talent).
The Rubicon has a history with Neeley: Burns' husband, Rubicon co-founder James O'Neil, became friends with Neeley when they both performed in a touring production of "Jesus Christ Superstar." Neeley starred in Rubicon's first-ever fundraiser, a concert version of "Superstar," in 1998 (and even hosted a "First Supper" meal for potential board members), then played a convicted murderer in "Murder in the First" in 2000 and Lucky in "Waiting for Godot" in 2004.
One reason he moved to Ventura from Texas in 2007 is his tremendous respect and affection for the Rubicon Theatre, and Burns and O'Neil.
When Rubicon offered Neeley the part of Lucky in "Waiting for Godot," Burns said, the actor had never been in a Samuel Beckett play. Director Walter Asmus (a Beckett expert who worked directly with the playwright) "was amazed at how he got the essence of who the character was, without any history of studying Beckett."
BACK TO A BAND
As a musician, Neeley never studied either. He started playing drums in a band during grade school because "we needed a drummer," and as a songwriter, has mainly absorbed material from other musicians, he said.
"I'm influenced by everybody," Neeley said of his original songs. "I've stolen from every other artist I've heard in my life."
He did get an early start in the music business, long before he joined the musical business.
"Singing and playing drums in a band got me from Texas to California to start with," Neeley said. The night he and his bandmates graduated from high school, they headed to California." The idea, he said, was to tour during the summer and return to Texas in the fall, but "we did well enough in California that we never went back."
The band stuck together, living in Los Angeles, "until the draft board split up the band, and then I was on my own," he said. Neeley drifted to Las Vegas and survived at nightclubs doing his Bobby Darin impression.
Then, he heard about an audition for a musical in Los Angeles. He planned to just go with a friend to watch, but ended up trying out and landed a lead role in "Hair."
"Hair" led to roles in "Superstar," both the musical and 1973 film, and other musicals such as "Tommy" and "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." He's also composed music for film, and participated in marathon tours of "Superstar" from 1992-97 and 2006-10.
Lee Marshall, CEO of MagicSpace Entertainment, which produces touring theater shows, worked with Neeley for eight years as a producer for "Superstar." He recently invited Neeley to play Jesus in a community production of the show in Marshall's hometown of Park City, Utah, at the 300-seat Egyptian Theatre. "Fifteen of 18 shows sold out," Marshall said. "In our town, that's a mighty feat."
Neeley "is the only person I've seen play Jesus that is totally believable," Marshall said. "He's a legend in this role; people come from far corners of the earth to see him" (fans are known as "Ted Heads"). "And he can still hit all the high notes."
Marshall, who will travel from Utah to see Neeley at the Rubicon, said the singer "has been talking to me about the band thing for 20 years. 'Superstar' had gotten in the way of his dream."
Neeley, however, repeatedly emphasizes how grateful he is for his "Superstar" longevity.
"But still in the back of my mind, I've been longing to get with the band and play," he said. "There's nothing as free for me as being able to be in a band singing songs, no matter whose songs they are."
The Rubicon shows will include Neeley's original compositions along with cover tunes by artists he's a fan of such as The Beatles and The Eagles, and songs from the Broadway shows he's known for.
"There's a lot of recognizable material mixed in with my original material," he said. "I could do easily three hours of all original music, but I thought as an audience person that would be kind of boring. I hope I can make my original music sound or feel as good as the songs from somebody else."
His "Little Big Band" members are guitarist-vocalist Kim Norton, who played lead guitar in numerous productions of "Superstar" with Neeley; guitarist Craig Stull; singer-bassist Candy Chase; pianist Ed Martel; and drummer Gavin Salmon. All are session musicians in L.A., he said, who are "cutting some of their own employment down to do this with me. They're being very generous to give me some time."
Those eager to see Neeley reprise his drumming prowess will be disappointed, however. "The people I discussed doing this project with thought I should be out front, as opposed to sitting behind the drums," he said.
If the show tours around the country, however, "I'll have a second set of drums up there so I can go back and play from time to time with the band," he said.
And Neeley definitely needs a band backing him, he said. "It's a little bit boring to just have a guy screaming behind the drums."
LONGER THEATER LIFE
About the only subject Neeley WILL talk about endlessly, because he wants everyone to know about it, is the Rubicon Theatre Company.
"This is home for me," he said of the theater. "I've seen lots of shows in lots of places, including New York, and there's nobody who does productions any better and more artistically beautifully than Jim and Karyl Lynn and their associates. I'm going to do as much as I can now with the Rubicon."
He doesn't have a formal position with the theater — at least not yet — and isn't a likely candidate to participate on a board of directors, he said, because "I'm too much of a free spirit."
Burns said that "we've talked about possibility of a formal role for Ted; informally he's definitely been the best consultant we can have."
Neeley would like to get involved with encouraging Rubicon and other local theaters to tour their productions rather than stick to a limited run at home before moving on to something else.
"Community theater is thriving in this country, but nobody knows it," he said. "There's thousands of them, literally. So I'm feeling it's maybe my calling, because of my touring experience, to help all of them develop a touring circuit of community theaters who will collaborate with each other to do great projects. They all then have the opportunity to just stay in their community, or expand to adjoining communities, and ultimately, go to Broadway. Why not?"
Rubicon has experimented successfully with touring productions, Burns said.
Neeley encouraged Rubicon early on, she said, to give shows a longer life and create an alternative revenue stream.
"Donation income has been pretty moderate in last couple of years, so touring income helps sustain the company," she explained. "It's helped us through the challenges of the recession." Rubicon's production of "Daddy Long Legs," for example, has now played in 14 cities. The theater's "Lonesome Traveler," written and directed by O'Neil, is starting a run at the Laguna Playhouse in Laguna Beach, and "Fascinating Rhythms" was "built to tour as well," Burns said.
Neeley doesn't limit his sights to professional theaters like the Rubicon.
"It's the little tiny nonunion theaters that create some of the most wonderful work in the world," he said.
"I can talk all day and night about it."
Keep your ears, and your mind, open to the idea.
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