Jo Lampert on Modernizing Mary Magdalene in ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’
Jo Lampert is used to being the only woman on a stage full of men. In Lyric Opera of Chicago’s “Jesus Christ Superstar,” Andrew Lloyd Weber’s 1971 exhilarating rock-n-roll take on Jesus’s final days, Lampert plays Mary Magdalene, and she drew some inspiration for the role from her experience leading “Joan of Arc: Into the Fire” at The Public Theater in 2016. After all, both characters are surrounded by men.
“Mary is the only female with a name in this show, therefore being the principal female role,” Lampert says. “But it’s not like she’s written with a huge arc. A lot of her songs are in conjunction with what the other person needs or wants.”
Lampert stars through May 20. We sat down with her to talk about trusting music to drive storytelling, strengthening underwritten women, and the intersection of her two religious roles.
You were a back-up vocalist for tUnE-yArDs on the Nikki Nack tour. How did that concert experience inform your “Jesus Christ Superstar” performance?
I think what tUnE-yArDs gave me was a reminder that you have the stamina, you have the ability. With musically complicated things and large scores, you can figure out a way to navigate them. And you can love what you do to the point where every night you want to get on that stage, even though you’re exhausted. Touring is exhausting, so it gave me stamina. It gave me tools to help me find the confidence to be a vocalist and performer. I’d done a lot of theater before that, so it was such a breath of fresh air and a new way to look at theater when I got back.
This production fuses rock concert and dance performance to put music at the forefront. Did you put in extra work to build Mary’s character and give her a background, or are you approaching this with more of a musician’s mindset and prioritizing the emotion of the songs?
We were definitely challenged to not think of this as the Mary, the Jesus, and the Judas from The Bible. We were challenged to investigate these roles via the music. That doesn’t mean people can’t act or there’s no character. There are relationships, and there are musical relationships. There are lyrics that connect us, and that can be seen as a script. I did go through the libretto and write down everything Mary sings and every lyric that was in reference to Mary. That was helpful to understand Mary’s position in the show, but when I got here, so much of what they were telling us to do was to forget — it’s hard to say it because it sounds like they’re saying, “Don’t act.” But it’s more intentional than that. What is the music telling you?
In “Joan Of Arc: Into The Fire,” you were also the only woman on stage for most of the show.
It’s interesting, because being the only woman is powerful. “Jesus Christ Superstar” was written at a time when women were underwritten. It’s different to play Joan of Arc, who in a modern-day musical can be written as the powerhouse who sings every song. Not to say that singing every song makes you more powerful; I’ve actually gained a lot of insight into interpreting Mary in this story and trying to understand her as not just an underwritten woman but as someone who has huge import in the story. But there were some threads that I had to create myself to make that happen. To not feel like all the men belt in her face, and she sings calmly back to them or doesn’t get to say anything at all.
Thinking about Joan of Arc has helped me with that. There are many different ways to be a strong woman. To be a caretaker, to be able to see what somebody might need. To be so invested in a mission, and to be at the forefront of that. There is so much strength in that. There were points at the beginning of this where I felt challenged by Mary in a different way than Joan because it feels like non-feminist Mary. She’s called a whore, which is not even true Biblically and historically, and then she sings solemnly and her big number is about not knowing how to love a man. But then I started to look at it very differently, and I had to, because you have to get behind the characters you play. With this, the music is so ahead of its time, and there’s so much more to be investigated than the lack.
It doesn’t have to be, “I’ve had so many men before,” meaning I’ve slept with so many men. Women in those times couldn’t buy land without a man, they couldn’t own anything. This is “I’ve dealt with brothers, fathers, suitors, but this person makes me want to be something different.” It’s about her; it’s not about him. And that is an intersection with Joan. That thing that makes you need to be something bigger than yourself that’s totally unknown territory, and you could be risking it all.