I first learned that Jesus was coming to Lynchburg, VA in February while attending a Dunbar Middle School theatre performance of “Rally Round the Flag, Boys”. The Dunbar program is the best in Virginia, has received national attention and even participated in international competition. What makes it even more special is that Albert and Lori Carter, who head up the program, are dear friends from Liberty University ‘back in the day’. The added connection is that our nephew attends Dunbar currently and our son will next year. It’s a school that many students hope to be able to attend by acceptance via application, but we are fortunate enough to reside in the area zoned for Dunbar, so we’re in automatically and are looking forward to those years, the next five. Seems like our eyes veered away from Jesus here for a moment, but the school's connection was important enough to lay as a foundation. So now… back to the announcement of the coming of Jesus.
Ted Neeley, who portrayed Jesus, both on Broadway’s version and in the film “Jesus Christ Superstar” would be gracing the local stage to kick off his tour with The Little Big Band, which was also in commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the film’s release. Making the night even more remarkable was that Ted himself wanted the tour-kick-off-event to happen in Lynchburg at Dunbar because of his close ties and friendship with Carl Anderson, who played the role of Judas opposite Neeley and grew up in Lynchburg, VA. The very auditorium that Ted wanted to rehearse and perform on is named in tribute to Carl, the Carl Anderson Auditorium.
Growing up in a conservative Christian family and attending a conservative Christian school, I’ve got to be honest and say I’ve never seen the movie all the way through and was a bit self-conscious to have to admit that a couple nights ago to Ted when I met him since I never really took the time or had the opportunity to explain why. Readers should know that it is on my list of things to do first chance I get. I’m very relieved that it can be streamed on Netflix. As I’ve matured in years and in the faith, I have come to realize it is important to make our own assessments and decisions and not automatically allow someone else’s to become ours. To protest anything without knowing what we are protesting personally is not the wisest approach. A blog I’ve recently found, authored locally last year, delves into that controversy over the film and theological matters much better than I can here, so I provide this link before I move on, http://www.theruthlessmonk.com/why-ill-spend-easter-watching-jesus-christ-superstar/. Maybe Easter is when I’ll find myself watching it as well, but in a brand new light.
Ted and his band were in town the entire week and I was able to somewhat experience their local town discoveries, their new friendships and their rehearsals albeit vicariously through Facebook posts, photos, videos from my friend Lori. Albert was there too, but it only takes one minute to realize he’s the more reserved one. She can make anything or anything feel great about themselves and so loved. In fact, if Albert hadn’t been by her side and part of the 2-member southern hospitality and visitation committee, I doubt he would have seen his wife at all until days after Neeley and band left town. I’m convinced Lori denied herself of the right to sleep to complete her costume transformation into Miss Congeniality, Miss Hospitality, Miss Love and well, all around supportive, encouraging, scolding, rock and roll band mother. I hope she can catch up soon and that Albert can get her back for himself … well, he, as well as the school full of kids they love so much!
Any reader who knows me already knows that I have an addictive passion for vinyl and the hunt to always add to my growing collection. I have collected records since dorm days at Liberty (then Baptist College) University began 34 years ago… I have more records than I have space to display so they bleed over into boxes and other rooms but that doesn’t stop me! Knowing however that Ted was in town, I knew I had a couple of records with his name on them… two copies of the “Jesus Christ Superstar” movie soundtrack, circa 1973 …one of which I had only owned for about a week, having located at the local Goodwill in anticipation of the concert event. I contacted Lori about whether Ted would be available to sign them. In more ways than one it can quite the disappointment to carry the extra luggage of vinyl to a concert, keep them safe at my seat, and then not have the opportunity to get the desired autograph. I reached out to Lori because I needed to know it was worth the effort. She contacted me immediately … during one of the band’s late rehearsals … and said she could do even better if I would contact her the next evening, and then took the phone up on stage for my own private listening party.
I got the call from Lori the next night at about 9p to inform me “we are leaving the school now”. Laura, Lily and I arrived at the revealed location for the late dinner shortly before 10p. After formal introductions, we launched immediately into a warm, open, give and take conversation with one of the most kind, caring, generous, thoughtful men I’ve ever met. Ted invited us to join them for dinner and we talked about music, movies, pets, family, theater, regrets, living your dreams, and heard stories about the making of the film in 1972. Ted was delighted to sign my albums and did so in a very personal way, thoughtfully crafting what he would say and whom he should address including Lily. As he opened the vinyl fold and paged through the photo insert, he told us stories of his first trip to Israel, the challenge of being there to portray Jesus, how he met his wife on set, how they had to grow grass for one scene, chase off sheep for another, and credited Golda Meir for their ability to get out of the country safely. More than once he mentioned how remarkable it was to be in Israel and be there to play Jesus, like he still couldn’t fathom it. He said while there he was able to walk the Stations of the Cross. We did not ask Ted for a photo together since it was quite late, the restaurant was cleaning up and closing and we knew Ted and band needed rest for the show the next night plus we needed to get Lily home for some rest with school the next day. We knew we could get the photo opportunity after the show. Ted hugged each of us, like he had known us much longer than simply the last 75 minutes.
Fast-forward to the concert… great time for all who were there, including Carl’s family. For their sake and for the sake of the theatre program, I wish the place would have been packed out. Ted and band, an incredibly gifted bunch of musicians who had only been together for two weeks and no one could tell, opened with the “Tommy” classic “Pinball Wizard” and rocked it! Neeley played the original Tommy so he nailed it and kicked off the night perfectly. One of many special moments happened when the middle school’s show choir accompanied a recording of Carl singing “God’s Gift to the World”. They later returned to join Ted and band with “Let the SunShine In” from Hair and remained up front for the closing Beatles medley … a night these young actors, singers and dreamers will never forget. Ted and band performed nearly every song from his new CD, of which a shipment had just arrived that afternoon, so it was being sold for the first time. Ted also played a clip of Carl Anderson performing “Superstar” on The Tonight Show many years ago. This was so poignant as Carl had returned to the very stage on which he started. Not every eye remained dry, I’m sure. For those who do not know, Carl passed away in 2004 after a battle with leukemia. After that video played, Ted performed “Gethsemane” from JC Superstar. It was chilling to hear as Ted, now 68, still nailed those high notes, but more importantly how he performed in character, dropping to his knees and looking heavenward as the song reached its emotional end filled with surrender and energy spent. Ted sprinkled acting and audition stories between songs and, other than when the band members were rocking the tunes so flawlessly, even with a broken string during “White Buffalo”, it felt more like Ted was sitting with you in your living room as a friend than a performer of Broadway, film and stage for the last 40 years. Even his comments like “be patient with us”, and “I hope we get it right” could not distract from the cohesiveness the band displayed. Ted is clearly still learning some of the new songs and hopefully as he becomes more comfortable with them, can step away from his notebook of lyrics so he can even better connect and showcase the new material, but his humility shined through.
After the show Ted held a meet and greet in the hallway outside the auditorium. There were probably 25-30 people who waited in line with the last autographed signed 3 hours later, at 1:30am. Ted clearly is energized by meeting people and would take personal time with each one. Ted, of course, appreciated that we came back to the show, and were willing to wait to greet him again, seemed genuinely happy to see us, appreciating our feedback and praise for his performance and the band’s expertise. He took time to sign our CD and poster and pose for a few photos. Lily had fallen asleep while waiting and he wanted us to tell her he was sorry it took so long and that he missed seeing her.
As we waited … and waited … to see Jesus, we wondered what it would have been like to be waiting with the large crowds to see the real Jesus a little over 2,000 years ago. Would we have waited, or would we have grown tired and walked away prematurely? Maybe we would have been a skeptic, perhaps one of the religious zealots? If we were in the line waiting to meet the Messiah, when would the wait have become too long? Would we have been selfish, impatient, pushed to the front or just been content to wait our turn? Would we have even slightly realized the historical impact of this moment, this man? Actually, I feel the answer lies in how much faith we would have had that Jesus possessed exactly what we needed, and that He was willing to give it to us upon our first meeting. How badly would we want it? Today, are we willing to wait? Do we sacrifice time in order to meet with Him? Convicting questions for myself, and I expect, for you the reader. One lady in the Bible didn’t even need to meet Him personally; she just wanted to touch His clothing, which takes pressure off about what to say once you do meet face to face. The great thing about having met the other Jesus – Ted Neeley – is the believability and confirmation in my heart, that Jesus receives us in a similar way, with arms open. I did meet the real Jesus in 1976 and have tried to follow Him for these 37 years since, but as a visually influenced person, this weekend was as close to an epiphany as it gets, and it has a lot to do with branding of sorts. If Ted Neeley had played Jesus on stage and film but had turned out to be rude, arrogant, apathetic, and ungrateful, it could taint the name of Jesus to a searching soul who may doubt His claims. Now, I know that my God and my Jesus are big enough to take care of themselves and rise above that, but the opposite is also true. Ted Neeley showed love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, kindness, generosity … and though I didn’t have enough time or opportunity to speak with him about deeper spiritual things and find out what he thinks about the real Jesus and whether he has met Him, those attributes Neeley genuinely displays are without question, according to Paul in the scriptures, fruits of the Spirit.
Meeting Ted this weekend, gave a face to Jesus and not in a sacrilegious way but in a relational way. You see, Jesus really did come to Lynchburg this week, Jesus really did spend time with us, and Jesus did love on us, showing us that each has worth and should aspire towards what He has placed in our hearts as our purpose and calling … and He did this through Ted Neeley, His wonderfully made creation and gift.