Mary Magdalene

Female. Exotic/Beautiful Belter (Pop/Rock or Belt Mezzo). A female follower of Jesus who finds herself falling in love with him. The role requires an actress that can show grace, stability, weakness, and compassion.

Age range: 18-40
Vocal range: F3–E♭5
Voice type: “can communicate her solo as more than just a simple love song […] requires musical simplicity and excellent phrasing […] no riffing required” (50th)
Possible musical influences: “Think Joni Mitchell/Carole King” (50th)

Relevant Insights

“I think that when you get a large pack of men and one woman, you get certain dynamics going on. […] 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. […] 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. […] 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.”

– Chilina Kennedy (Mary, Broadway, 2012)

Further Analysis

Let’s not mince words: Jesus Christ Superstar is mainly about Jesus and Judas. Other central characters in the story are never fully drawn in the Bible, so Tim Rice thoroughly characterized them for us to understand them… and their relationship to Jesus and Judas. Because secondary characters get very little “dialogue” in the Bible, those questions aren’t answered, but in JCS, we see these characters as complete, living people. This brings me to Mary Magdalene, who sticks out as the only leading female role in a very male-oriented show.

History disagrees on whether Mary Magdalene was a prostitute, a goddess, a feminist icon, a church leader, or all of those. Such books as Holy Blood, Holy Grail, The Da Vinci Code, and the work of scholars like Margaret Starbird, Laurence Gardner, or Lynn Picknett, or writers and poets like Gloria Amendola and Kathleen McGowan, have proposed several alternative theories surrounding her relationship with Jesus in particular. Some Biblical and art historians believe the figure on Jesus’ right side in Da Vinci’s famous Last Supper is not John, as always reported, but Mary (take a close look sometime). There is a complex figure here and many avenues to pursue in exploring who she was, especially if one dares to look beyond the pages of the Bible.

Speaking of which… the Bible is surprisingly bereft of her traditional carnal image. We learn she’s one of several Galilean women who followed Jesus and supported him and the other disciples out of their means; we can assume that she must have been pretty important for each listing of female disciples to place her at the top. Two of the Gospels say she had been exorcised of seven devils. One puts her at the foot of the cross, three at Jesus’ burial, three portray her as the first witness to the resurrection, and two have Jesus commission her to tell the others he’s alive. That’s it as far as canonical sources are concerned.

We know now that the prostitute attribution was a misreading enshrined by Pope Gregory, that combined her with two other biblical figures (namely, Mary of Bethany, sister of Martha and Lazarus, and an unnamed woman in Luke’s Gospel), only one of whom (the latter) may have been implied to be a prostitute depending on how the passage mentioning her is interpreted. (In fact, the Catholic Church publicly, if quietly, retracted this “composite character” teaching in 1969 as part of several post-Vatican II reforms, just before JCS made its recorded debut.) It’s also not difficult to imagine the attribution of the “seven demons” being a patriarchal society’s reaction to her independence.

JCS doesn’t deal with any of that, at least as written. (In fact, Rice adds the “woman taken in adultery” from John’s Gospel to the traditional composite; see “If your slate is clean…” in “Strange Thing, Mystifying.”) She is painted as a former prostitute, albeit one who is now a follower of Jesus and grappling with her feelings and faith. But there’s still room to expand within that box, especially with a creative director and a bit of thought. So, let’s take a look.

Remember, from back in Part 1 of “Historical Background”: women had virtually no rights, were supposed to wear veils in public, were not allowed to interact with men in most situations, could not discuss the events of the day, offer opinions; women didn’t matter and were very much discriminated against in society. But Jesus was different from other men. He and his followers treated women as nearly full equals – they ate together, discussed politics together, his women disciples performed their poetry at feasts, and in the most radical departure from the norm, the women were welcomed alongside men as serious students worthy of an education. No wonder many women found themselves amongst Jesus’ closest followers traveling with him, and there were always several rich women around to finance the movement. This was a movement worth financing. They’re not “camp followers”; this is sincere.

So, this is what drew streetwise, tough Mary in. She was fascinated by Christ, and she found a niche. These men only want to know about tomorrow, but Mary focuses on today. All her life, she’s had to figure out how to scheme and scrimp and save, get from one town to the next, and eat on a buck… now it has a purpose and a focus beyond just her survival. She merely wants to comfort Jesus and help him relax, to give when everyone else seems to take; she only knows how to do that by soothing him physically. She bathes him in ointments and oils, rubs his feet, massages his head and shoulders, probably asks if he’s eaten when he gets back to camp, and has something cooking already, even if he says he’s not hungry. The stuff most take for granted. She’s ferociously protective of him and constantly associated with things that represent living in the present moment, with items of immediate need: water, food, sleep, comfort, and peace of mind.

Nowhere is this better illustrated than in her first song, “Everything’s Alright,” which clearly defines her character (much like “Heaven on Their Minds” does with Judas), the balance and calm she brings to this combative group of friends, as well as her relationship with both Jesus and Judas. (Incidentally, thanks to recent biblical scholarship, we now know that she could have offered more than one form of “calm.” The Jewish people of that time used extracts of cannabis, the marijuana plant, in their anointing oils and religious incense to help them achieve inner peace and encourage visions. The oil Mary anoints Jesus with may well contain THC. “Sleep and I shall soothe you / Calm you, and anoint you […] And it’s cool and the ointment’s sweet / For the fire in your head and feet / Close your eyes, close your eyes / And relax think of nothing tonight” indeed.)

But “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” expresses her most profound conflict. On a personal level, Jesus returns this affection by treating Mary with respect and genuine love, something almost unheard of. He appreciates her efforts. And… it throws. Her. Completely.

This relationship goes against all social conventions! She’s never been treated like this by a man, with such respect! How does she deal with this? How does she respond to his treatment of her? Her first impulse is to return that affection physically, but she knows that’s not appropriate. She doesn’t know how to express love without physical forms of attentiveness; she genuinely does not know how to love this man. For that matter, is it love? Is it fear? Is it awe? Does she only want friendship, or does she want something more?

“Should I bring him down?” is a question loaded with meaning. She knows she will soon lose him to the movement, either by merely losing his time as he gets busier and busier or because he’ll be arrested. There are layers to “bring him down”: Should she load the baggage of her feelings on him at this pivotal moment and tell him exactly how she feels? Should she demand a place at his side no matter how busy he gets? Should she try to get him to pull back from the movement so she can spend more time with him? He’ll be safer… Then again, she wonders, what would she do if he said he shared her feelings? To live up to that love might be more than she’s capable of…

Since they didn’t have psychiatrists then, she sings the blues instead. (Indeed, the fact that the number is essentially blues leads me to urge your performer to study Janis Joplin along with the previously named musical influences for the feel and some vocal stylings.) She is in love with Jesus and can’t decide whether or not to tell him.

This, of course, makes it all the more tragic when it’s too late. “Could We Start Again Please?” is crushing because she has lost forever her chance to express her love to Jesus. She was scared, and now she’s lost him. It’s like a fly ball in left field that she never saw coming. She wants to turn back the clock, calm him, anoint him again, feel his hand in hers. She feels desperate and confused. How did things get so out of hand? Why is Jesus taking things to such an extreme? Mary says she’s been both living to see him and dying to see him, that she’s been hopeful but also now pessimistic. Like Jesus himself, like his movement, this moment is rife with emotional and intellectual contradictions. Mary even echoes Judas’ opinion that Jesus has gone too far, begging Jesus to stop all this – just as Judas had. Even Mary no longer believes that Jesus is on the right path… could it be because he’s not?

Unfortunately, like many of the gray areas JCS presents for contemplation, this is where we leave Mary: shocked, sad, and scared. Visually, Mary appears again in many productions during the trial and at the crucifixion, but neither scene would leave her in much better shape. The image in my mind of the last moment we see Mary is not unlike the 2000 film, but… somewhat darker. Think Bouguereau’s Pietà, sitting quietly like a woman in mourning, lifting her head stoically and resentfully despite the tears on her face. She’s been changed… yes, really changed.

My Two Cents

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