(RNS) — Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s 1970 concept album “Jesus Christ Superstar” — from which the 1971 rock musical was born — delivered one radio hit, with Australian pop artist Helen Reddy channeling Mary Magdalene’s confused feelings about her rabbi in “I Don’t Know How To Love Him.”
But otherwise, the album and the show, with its rock-and-roll rhythms, propulsive energy and 12 male apostles, is a guy-heavy affair. In all its stage, film and TV adaptations over the decades, men have always dominated the musical score.
Until now: A new take on the album released Friday (April 29), “Jesus Christ Superstar: Highlights From the All-Female Studio Cast Recording,” was created entirely by women vocalists, engineers and orchestra members, and among the voices on the tracks are Broadway veterans Cynthia Erivo as Mary Magdalene, Morgan James as Jesus and Shoshana Bean as Judas. Grammy-winner Ledisi sings the role of Simon, and Broadway star Orfeh is Pilate.
“‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ has always been a vehicle for breaking boundaries,” said Henry Bial, chair of the theatre and dance department at the University of Kansas. “It was groundbreaking to have Jesus represented physically on stage. It was groundbreaking to do rock ‘n roll in a Broadway musical. It was originally groundbreaking in its multiracial casting.”
James, the force behind the new project, grew up listening to the “Jesus Christ Superstar” score but lamented the show’s lack of female roles, she told Religion News Service. “I thought to myself, I would love to hear other people I know sing this incredible score.”
In January of 2017, she gathered a diverse team of female performers for a concert version of the show in New York’s Highline Ballroom. The sold-out event took place in the days leading up to the 2017 Women’s March and was staged against a backdrop of modern-day images, including photos of Black Lives Matter protests. “The tension and celebration mingled together were really palpable,” James said.
The team reunited a year later to record the score. In honor of the original 1970 album, the all-female version was recorded in the same exact keys and tempo. “We really geeked out on that,” said James. “We wanted to fully pay homage. We did not want anyone to be able to walk away and say, yeah, it’s fine, but they changed or took away what I love from it.”
Legal red tape prevented the group from dropping the album immediately, so they released the music in batches. A five-track EP, “She Is Risen (Vol. 1),” came out in 2020, followed by a second EP a few months later. The final version has 18 tracks, including “Heaven On Their Minds,” “I Don’t Know How To Love Him,” “Gethsemane” and “Superstar.”
The musical has been criticized over its half-century of existence for perceived theological blunders. The BBC banned it at its original release from its radio air, calling it “sacrilegious,” and religious groups fumed at the show’s depiction of a deeply human Jesus, a promiscuous Mary Magdalene and, some argued, antisemitic depictions of Jewish leaders.
Rice and Webber told reporters in 1971 that they aimed to make a compelling show, not a theological comment. Similarly, James said this latest reincarnation isn’t so much a theological statement as a demonstration of female performers’ capabilities.
“Women are not just feminine, and they’re not just any one thing. They’re not a monolith, and so bringing all these different kinds of women, all these ages of women, all these women from different backgrounds, to these roles… they brought all the different parts of femininity that are lacking, frankly, in the Mary Magdalene character,” said James, calling the show’s one named female character “one-dimensional.”
“The fact that these women have chosen ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ as the vehicle to demonstrate what they can do as vocalists, as performers and as engineers helps cement it in the musical theater canon,” said Bial, who added that the album builds on the legacy of women performers like Sarah Bernhardt and Eva Le Gallienne who, in the 20th century, cast themselves in roles like Hamlet or King Lear to highlight their skills.
“In fact, Bernhardt even played Judas Iscariot in the 1910 production called ‘Judas’ by a playwright named John De Kay,” said Bial. “That was even more scandalous than ‘Jesus Christ Superstar.’”
The all-female “Jesus Christ Superstar” has paved the way for other female performers to take on its male roles. Earlier this year, Sandy Redd, an ensemble member in the “Jesus Christ Superstar” 50th Anniversary tour, stepped up to play Judas in a number of shows.
James, who didn’t grow up religious, pointed out that there are still significant parallels between the theater world and many churches, where women’s roles are often diminished.
“There’s always men leading the church, and then leading theater, leading all these aspects. What if the women were leading?” asked James. “I really hope that for a new generation of musical theatre, (of) women and girls coming, they can say, ‘I see myself in so many more roles now.’”