La Paloma Theatre to host ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ screening with Ted Neeley

Ted Neeley

Almost 50 years after “Jesus Christ Superstar” debuted on Broadway, Ted Neeley still remembers the protesters outside the theater on 51st Street in New York City every night who called the rock opera sacreligious.

And Jesus was no singer, they said.

“I wanted to say, ‘Were you there?’ But I didn’t,” said Neeley, who appeared in the Broadway production before being cast as Jesus in the 1973 film adaptation. “So then I would say, ‘Would you please do me a favor? Would you come in tonight as my guest, watch the show, wait for me in the lobby? Because I’ll come out to talk with you to find out what you hate about the show. Maybe we can fix it.’”

That’s how, Neely recalls, some of the show’s biggest detractors turned into lifelong fans.

“They helped us make it successful on Broadway, and it’s been that way ever since,” said Neeley, a Texas native who now lives near Santa Barbara.

Neeley will be at the La Paloma Theatre on Monday, Aug. 9, at 7 p.m. for a screening of “Jesus Christ Superstar” and a release party for “Superstars,” a behind-the-scenes documentary about the making of the movie that will be available Aug. 10.

After a long year of lockdowns because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Neeley said he’s looking forward to the upcoming California leg of his screening tour, which heads to Santa Ana, Livermore and Sacramento after Encinitas.

“I’m so happy we’re able to do these first few screenings in California, because we have a wonderful group of people who come to these screenings,” he said.

But before acting, Neeley first arrived in California from Texas with his rock ‘n’ roll band one summer after graduating high school. The group, inspired by artists such as Elvis Presley and Little Richard, quickly found work at nightclubs throughout Hollywood. His parents had told him he could do whatever he wanted that summer as long as he returned by the fall to begin college.

“We never went back home to get that college education because we were working constantly,” Neeley said.

One day he tagged along with an actor friend on an audition, just to watch — or so he thought.

“The guys literally picked me up and carried me down the aisle of the theater and pushed me up on the stage,” he said.

A voice from the seats below, which were shrouded in the darkness of the theater, asked Neeley what he had prepared.

“Nothing, I’ve never done this before,” he recalls saying.

“Well could you sing us a song?” the voice asked.

Neeley turned to the piano player. “You know Stevie Wonder’s version of ‘For Once in My Life’?”

“Yeah, what key?”

“I don’t care, just play.”

After the song, he turned to walk off the stage before the voice from the audience chimed in again: “Excuse me, Mr. Neeley, could you sing us a ballad? A love song of some sort that shows us your vocal range and your sense of passion?”

He sang “For Once in My Life” again, but this time the more serene Tony Bennett version.

The director of that project was Tom O’Horgan, who directed the original production of “Hair.” Neeley’s relationship with O’Horgan over the following years led to roles in “Hair,” “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band on the Road.”

Neeley said “the fanbase is overwhelming” for “Jesus Christ Superstar.” This October will mark the 50th anniversary of its Broadway debut, and the “Superstars” documentary commemorates the movie that followed two years later.

“It is literally a behind-the-scenes look at what we, the eight principle characters, experienced during the shoot in Israel on the set and how it affected our lives and still influences us today,” Neeley said.

The La Paloma Theatre is located at 471 South Coast Highway 101 in Encinitas. For more information, visit