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Interview conducted by Andrew J. Simpson.
Q. When did you first hear JCS? What did you think?
A. I was young. I was listening to the [Brown Album] in my parents’ basement. I loved it and there were auditions for Jesus Christ Superstar at Theatre Aquarius. I was just out of school, so 20 or 21. I didn’t know the show intimately so I did it at Aquarius and then this production [at the Stratford Festival]. I’ve always been a huge fan of the show. I think it’s a great show. It’s a great story. It’s great to tell it in that way. It’s a gorgeous and smart score. I love it.
Q. On that note, what’s your favorite song from the score?
A. Oh that’s hard! I was thinking of that the other day. Every time a song in the show comes up you’re like “Oh I forgot this one…” or “That’s my favorite one!” I don’t know. I’d have to say that it changes from day to day. Of my tunes, I’d have to say “Everything’s Alright.” I love “Gethsemane (I Only Want to Say).” It’s tough to pick one.
Q. Your thoughts on this — 40 years on, why is JCS still performed and relevant?
A. This is a bit of a guess, but… superstardom has become more and more of a craze in our culture. The message is hitting me harder than it has before when Judas sings “Superstar” at the end, you know, it’s not a fun rock and roll song. He asks some very pertinent questions. Sometimes you take somebody’s teachings, and then suddenly, you turn that person into a megastar. It becomes a focus, the focus becomes less about the teachings and more about the individual who’s getting this fame and height, I guess like any spiritual leader. So, it gives us a chance to examine that a little bit and to ask some of those questions again, especially in the age of the Paris Hiltons. The superstars of the world are fascinating. You tend to ask questions like “Why?” and why do we tend to have these people with that status? I think every culture needs heroes, and we all need leaders. It’s interesting how far we can go. Look at the [Royal] wedding. It was a phenomenon, and you’re like, “Wow!” It’s crazy, our need and our desire to get obsessive about people. What is it about? What is our need to do this? I think it’s a very interesting question. I also think the story itself is really powerful. Christianity is a huge religion. It affects so many people differently. So, it’s interesting to tell this story in this particular way. People have very passionate opinions on it — negative and positive. It’s always a source of debate, and it’s a great show.
Q. Have you ever interacted with any of the original cast, be it in a production of the show or the course of your career?
A. I was actually on tour with Mamma Mia! in Boston and the JCS tour with Carl Anderson was also playing there. So, I got to hang out with Carl after the show and talk to him. That was a thrill. I grew up listening to him on the soundtrack record, and here I am on tour with a show and I’m hanging out with him in the same hotel! What a huge loss when he passed away.
Q. So, Mary Magdalene, huh? What’s it like playing the only major female role in a very male-oriented show?
A. (Laughs) It is interesting, right? The great thing is Des [McAnuff] has a real original interpretation of the characters in the show, especially keeping the characters of Mary, Judas, and Jesus as a very close-knit “triad” — you know, a trio, three friends who have been very, very close, and who are starting to fall apart. So, Mary is in a lot of scenes that maybe in other productions she isn’t seen in traditionally, like “The Last Supper” for example… I don’t want to give too much away by telling you this. But I think that when you get a large pack of men and one woman, you get certain dynamics going on. I was on tour with a show one time and we were in Toronto and I was the only female, I think — other than the director — and maybe ten men. We were on the road, and it was bizarre how I was treated among those males, and how they jockeyed for position. It’s interesting because that’s what happens in the animal kingdom, and I think it happens with people whether we recognize it or not. So, we see the same thing happening in the show, there are different sorts of tensions and dominance between Mary and the other Apostles. It’s very interesting. Then Jesus is there trying to teach all of his lessons about everybody being equal and treating everybody the same, that sort of thing. So, there’s a lot of good dramatic tension there.
I think “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” is so interesting because there are so many ways you can interpret it. But Mary has never really fallen in love before, and this is the first time, and it’s with Jesus. That’s a huge journey for somebody. I think Mary has a lot of intuition. She seems to understand Christ’s teachings in very deep ways and perhaps in ways the other Apostles don’t. Jesus says that at one point in the show: “She alone has tried to give me / What I need right here and now.” There is something about Mary that is very intuitive and smart, and I think she’s a really good listener. I think she knows that something is going to happen to Christ — he is going to be taken away. He says that in the play, “The end…” and “…when I’m gone…” So, how do you love a man that is going to be leaving you? That alone, in and of itself, is difficult, and then you add to it her past and loving so many men before him, you know, what is love and all those questions. So, I think she goes through a real struggle.
Q. How do you view Mary Magdalene personally, and how will that factor into your portrayal?
A. Well, I have to say that I was raised with a very feminist mother in a very open-minded home, so you know, everything was to be questioned, and be interpreted, and it’s best to go and read a lot about something before you reach a final decision with that kind of attitude in mind. For me, Mary Magdalene can represent so many different things. If people believe she was a prostitute, then what a beautiful message that is, that she asked Jesus’ forgiveness and he forgave her, and brought her on to be someone that, I think, he had great esteem for. What a beautiful lesson for all women who have maybe gone astray in life — that you can be forgiven and choose a new path. For me, that sends an excellent message. For those people who don’t believe she was a prostitute, she’s a great image for women either way. I think she’s a very strong female figure from whom people can take a lot of hope. I think she’s also a beautiful symbol of service. If you take a look at her actions in the play, I’m not talking about the Bible, if you look at her actions in the show, she serves. She serves food; she is a witness to what Christ is going through in his journey. So, I think she is a very humble, strong female follower. I think that a lot of people don’t associate “strength” with “following,” but there is great strength in being humble enough to set aside ego and all of the rest to simply follow along the path, and to do what is required of you on that journey.
Q. You mentioned doing a lot of reading before deciding something. What research did you do into the role?
A. A couple of books. The Bible, and there’s another book on Mary Magdalene by a woman named Lynne Picknett. She’s sort of an expert on Mary Magdalene and John the Baptist; I read a lot of her stuff. I took it with a grain of salt like you have to do with everything, but she had a lot of interesting ideas about who she was, because so much of the stuff you read about Mary is vague, and no one is ever really sure if she’s the Mary that they list as the Mary of Bethany. There are lots of different theories of who she was and what she was all about. I tried to make the best choices for telling the story, for the story that we’re telling — and the version that we’re telling in our production. It’s not as clear as if you were playing, say, Judas or Jesus. Obviously, Des has lots of ideas of how he wants her to be played, so I just took the best of all the worlds and tied together something that made sense to me.
Q. Are there any previous Mary performances (such as Yvonne Elliman, etc.) that will influence your version?
A. Oh, definitely. I think Yvonne has influenced me. We’re trying to stay as close to the flavor of the original album as possible — especially the concept album. I have a record player in my dining room so I’ve been rocking it out with the old Brown Album. I love that style. It was written in the ’70s with all that was happening at the time in rock and roll and all of those influences. I think that it’s important that our production creates something new, but keeps the styles that Lloyd Webber originally wrote it in. So, I’m trying to do my best version of that, and what that was, with what Yvonne was doing.
Q. You’ve played roles in other Rice-Webber pieces, for example, Eva Peron in Evita, and also similar female leads like Maria in West Side Story. How do these roles compare to that of Mary Magdalene, and is there anything you will be drawing on from these past experiences in your performance?
A. Oh, interesting. I guess the subject of faith has come across for me in the last couple of years, starting with Maria. I get asked this question a lot with my relationship with religion and God because Maria was so devoted to her faith, I had to explore a lot of that in that first year here. And again, with Evita, Eva was deeply spiritual. I don’t think she always agreed with the church, but I think she had a deep devotion to God. Looking at that, as well as looking at Mary Magdalene in her journey with faith… she has absolute faith in Jesus’ teachings. She’s confused sometimes about whether or not she sees him as God until the end, but she believes in him, and she is living proof of his work. She is sort of a channel for that; she is made better because of his teachings. I think Maria was sort of the beginning of me digging deep, and about the other, and figuring out what all that is, what it means, and what it feels like inside different characters. So, it’s an interesting journey.
Q. What do you most want the audience to “get” out of your portrayal of the role?
A. Oh boy, that’s a good question. It’s interesting. I’m still trying to find that out, ’cause I never thought of it that way. I’m trying to play the role as truthfully as possible, and I’m still trying to discover what that is. I think that, if they take away a sense of somebody who has maybe gone astray in life, has gotten back on track, and is stronger for it…. she’s a strong woman despite what her past was. I think that’s the most important thing, especially for young women. We’ve all made mistakes in life, and I think the point of Jesus’ teachings is that it’s about forgiveness and moving forward, not looking back and feeling bad about what has happened in the past, and there’s always hope for people who ask for forgiveness. I think it’s a beautiful message. I think if people can take that away from it, then that’s great.
Q. Now we get to the production itself. What’s it like working with such talented people, including Des McAnuff?
A. Oh, it’s the best. It’s incredible. Des is the best. Some of his ideas for this show are just brilliant. And I love the way he has kept the flavor of the original but brought it into the present. There’s a lot of hip-hop and those sorts of influences in the show. I think that’s going to connect the story with young people, I think that’s important for the story and the Festival. Working with Paul [Nolan] is incredible. He’s an amazing, amazing Jesus. I think he’s the best I’ve seen, and the work he’s doing is fantastic. He’s a great actor. I love working with Josh [Young], Brent Carver, and Bruce Dow. We have this huge company, and I’m just trying to get better, and you can’t help but get better with people around you all the time.
Q. How big is the company?
A. Actually, I don’t know. I should check that out online. (Laughs) Let’s see… there must be about 25 people in the cast.
Q. When does the show open officially?
A. June 3rd at the Avon Theatre, and we run until October 29th. (The show later extended to run an additional week until November 6; at the time of the interview, neither the California nor Broadway transfer had been discussed.) We’re just wrapping up tech rehearsals, and today we’re doing a full dress rehearsal, so it’s pretty exciting.
Q. Thank you for talking to us today, Ms. Kennedy.
A. Thank you, Andy; it was my pleasure. We’ll see you in a couple of weeks!