A week shy of 35 years ago, Jesus Christ Superstar opened on Broadway.
It was picketed.
"The show is from Judas' perspective," said Christine Rea-Briskin, who plays Mary Magdalene in the production that opens tonight in the Stranahan Theater. Because the Tim Rice/Andrew Lloyd Webber rock opera portrays Jesus as a man with human failings, it ruffled the feathers of people who have strict beliefs about Christ and his relationships with his apostles and with Mary Magdalene, she added.
"It's really come full circle in a lot of ways. Religious leaders and such, churches and church groups now use [the play] as a tool to teach people about religion. It's not so much blasphemous any more. And compared to things like The Da Vinci Code, it's milquetoast. It's really milquetoast."
In a telephone interview from Utica, N.Y., last week, Rea-Briskin attributed the enduring popularity of the show to two elements.
"I think it has to do with the music. There's a little bit of something for everybody in this show, whether you're a rock and roll lover, rhythm and blues, jazz, country, folk. It's all there.
"And I also think that it's a really universal story, whether you are religious or spiritual or none of the above. If you are a human being and you see this story come to life, it's very powerful."
This is the second time Rea-Briskin, who is from the Chicago area, has played Mary Magdalene. She performed the role in the 20th anniversary tour, which ran for five years. That production starred Ted Neeley, who also played Jesus in the 1973 film and revisits the role on the current tour, and the late Carl Anderson, who played Judas in the movie.
For the production coming to the Stranahan, Corey Glover of the rock group Living Colour plays Judas, and Rea-Briskin is generous with her praise.
"He is great. Corey basically was weaned on the movie soundtrack, so he came into [the play] very aware of who both Ted and Carl were, and he, I think, felt a little bit of an allegiance to them. It was like, 'you guys are the bible in terms of the soundtrack, and I want to be true to that and honor that.'
"He's not only done that, he's come in with such a wonderful spirit and commitment to the work that, sometimes Ted and I just kind of stand back in awe. It's like there are little bits of Carl in him. It's a challenge every night to see what he's going to bring to the table and how he's going to go with the flow."
If The Da Vinci Code has raised an interest in Jesus' life in general, it has also increased awareness of Mary Magdalene.
Rea-Briskin said that when she first got the role 15 years ago, she did a lot of research on the historical figure. "One of the things that I thought was interesting was that, historically speaking, our concept of Mary Magdalene seems to be an amalgam of several different people," she said, listing a wealthy widow who supported Jesus financially, a prostitute whom he defended (which is the one most people think about), and Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus.
But in terms of her performance, Rea-Briskin said the popular theories really don't matter. "It's only the last seven days of Christ's life, so we really don't get to see a lot of their relationship.
"I think a lot of times people come to see Jesus Christ Superstar with their own preconceived notions of who Mary Magdalene was, and they might be reading a little more into what is happening between [Jesus and Mary Magdalene] than is really written."
Besides, she said, if you accept some of the popular theories and believe that Mary Magdalene and Jesus had a romantic relationship, it takes a lot of the dramatic intensity out of her signature song, "I Don't Know How to Love Him," which is a situation that Rea-Briskin absolutely refuses to consider.
"Here is an amazing story of somebody who is an amazing teacher and I get to play the person who has absolutely never experienced this kind of love for a human being before. I don't want to mess that up."
Rea-Briskin said the decade-long hiatus between tours hasn't changed her approach to the role, but it has added layers of understanding.
"Since we closed in '96, I've gotten married, and I have a wonderful husband 10 years of time, a lot of stuff happens, and that can't help but affect your view of the world."
Rea-Briskin has portrayed other famous women on the stage, among them anarchist Emma Goldman in Tintypes and Dusty Springfield, Brenda Lee, and Janis Joplin in Beehive.
And, somewhat sheepishly, she admits that another of her favorites is Magenta in Rocky Horror Picture Show. "I've got to tell you, I loved doing that show. Every single night I just had a blast."
But, she said, Mary Magdalene definitely tops her list.
"What a hoot to be able to play it with Ted again, and the ensemble is amazing as well. The show doesn't really work to its optimum unless you have a really tight ensemble. And this is one of the best I've ever worked with."
Theater League Presents "Jesus Christ Superstar" in the Stranahan Theater, 4645 Heatherdowns Blvd. Performances are at 8 p.m. today and tomorrow, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday. Seating is extremely limited, and remaining tickets are priced at $23 to $50 through the Stranahan box office or Ticketmaster. Information: 419-381-8851.
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