“She Is Risen” Albums Brings Feminist Voices to “Jesus Christ Superstar”

“Women want to be involved in projects like this. The scarcity of this is what made everybody say ‘Yes, I want to do this, I want to be in that room with that many amazing women.'”

"She Is Risen" Albums Brings Feminist Voices to "Jesus Christ Superstar"
Morgan James. (Akshay Bhoan)

The concept album started with a dream. Singer, songwriter and Broadway actor Morgan James (Motown, Godspell) dreamed that she performed Jesus Christ Superstar. In her dream, she was Jesus and Shoshana Bean was Judas.

She told her friends about the dream, and they encouraged her to make her idea of an all-women production a reality. She texted Shoshana who agreed to join her, and eventually what James says started out as a lark became the (so far) two-volume “She Is Risen.”

Volume One was released in April, and Volume Two in September. Other performers on the albums include Cynthia Erivo as Mary Magdalene, Orfeh as Pilate, and Ledisi as Simon.

The dream-turned-reality started with a concert in 2017 at the Highline Ballroom in New York City. James says getting the rights to the Andrew Lloyd Weber/Tim Rice score took some time because the theatrical company that holds the rights was worried about what a group of women might do with it. James assured them that women could perform this score, that they were not going to change a note, and they were not going to change the story.

"She Is Risen" Albums Brings Feminist Voices to "Jesus Christ Superstar"
Performer Morgan James made her 2017 dream a reality with the “She Is Risen” albums in 2020. (Jenny Anderson)

“Using this story and this score in this time to empower women’s voices, especially as many kinds of women as we can pull together in one room, was really my dream and my goal,” James explained.

She invited women she knew (and a few she didn’t) to be part of the show—as performers, musicians, producers and engineers. Women, she suggested, don’t often have opportunities to be involved in projects with other women, and so recruiting women to participate was easy.

“Women want to be involved in projects like this. The scarcity of this is what made everybody say ‘Yes, I want to do this, I want to be in that room with that many amazing women,’” James noted.

The concert was performed a week before the Women’s March in 2017. The pain and frustration were palpable, James noted: “It was in the air. Our pain and our frustration. [The show] felt like an expression of our own power and our unity and our sadness and frustration and fear.”

She pointed to a line in the song “Gethsemane” that goes “Once I was inspired. Now I’m sad and tired.” She said, that was “totally me, trying to do everything.”

But the women in the production were “excited to do something they would never get cast to do. It was a different kind of power.”

The concert at the Highline sold out in hours. The ballroom was packed for the production. After the show, audience members told James they wanted to see it again, and this response led her to the idea of a concept recording.

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Meg Toohey, who co-produced the albums with James, initially got involved as part of the band for the Highline show. Toohey is also a singer and songwriter and plays in orchestras on Broadway (Waitress).

"She Is Risen" Albums Brings Feminist Voices to "Jesus Christ Superstar"
Meg Toohey, a singer and songwriter, co-produced the albums with Morgan James. (Shervin Lainez)

“The score has this ‘masculine’ energy to it—it’s this rock ‘n’ roll, in your face music,” said Toohey. “My background was rocking music, but as a woman I’ve often been passed over to play those kinds of roles because they’ve traditionally gone to men. The chance to dig in and be loud and make this epic sound is so important. The women in the band, the engineers, every aspect is all women, and it’s so clear when you hear these recordings there’s nothing missing. That speaks volumes to what we were trying to achieve. Hopefully it will open doors for more of that in the Broadway community down the road so that women will not be passed over for those stereotypical sounds that men are supposed to make.”

James said she’d always looked at scores from musicals and thought, “Gosh, it must be great to be a man.”

She added, “It makes me upset. I wonder are there any roles as thrilling for a woman as Judas, and I’d kill to hear Shoshana do that. It wasn’t trying to make a statement about religion but about our society and how underrepresented women are, and they continue to not get it that we want to be represented in equal ways in terms of the quality of the roles we’re offered and the opportunities we’re presented. So I thought what better representation than stepping right into the same shoes ourselves with our voices, not changing a thing.”

Until this project, James said, she’d never worked with a woman engineer.

During production, she explained, “to look around studio, the engineer, the assistant engineer, both producers, the entire band, everybody, I got choked up so many time because I’d never experienced that. We were such a well-oiled machine. We were on each other’s side. There was much love in that room.”

As an outsider to religion herself, James believes that we’ve bastardized Jesus’s teachings and his true goodness. She often says, “Buddhists really get Christ’s teaching the most.”

In trying to lead the show and then the studio production, James said she felt a lot of pressure from herself to try to be a great leader, to be a “a good and kind leader and see what these women needed in the studio—how much they needed me to accept them and tell them their work is good. I had to prove I was worthy for them to go with me on this journey they had all said yes to.”

While James and Toohey had hoped to produce the score in its entirety on an album, roadblocks led them to decide to release the songs in volumes. Volume One, they say, is the “greatest hits”—the songs from the musical that everyone knows and loves. Volume Two offers the next five songs the duo finds especially important and meaningful.

"She Is Risen" Albums Brings Feminist Voices to "Jesus Christ Superstar"
Co-producer Meg Toohey takes pride in the albums as “part of the resistance.” (David Doobinin)

Not surprisingly, Toohey noted that a number of religious people have criticized the albums, calling them sacrilegious. Other theatre purists challenged the use of an all-woman cast.

“A lot of people, just plain sexists, came out,” James said. “‘What are you going to start doing this to every show?’ Why not? It’s been done the same way for 50 years. Is it really hurting you if one time it’s done differently? It’s not taking away from your favorite version.”

She noted that the show was born in “a time of great strife before the Women’s March.” Now, she said, it’s the 50th anniversary of the premiere of the show, and “Here we are again in a time of strife.”

Toohey added, “This work is part of the resistance. Especially having all of these incredibly powerful women from every background. Going into this project,” she said, the most important thing was making sure we had diversity, making “sure our resistance was about representation and making sure every woman could see themselves in our cast or crew.”

James continued, “It was so important to me to have everyone represented. I wanted women involved to have an ownership they don’t get to have in other projects. When you give women power, they take charge in a different and more elevated way. This project spoke to that. It’s not ‘female power.’ It’s social justice. It’s the future. I want to empower young girls who never get to see plays with women in power and never open a play bill and see an all women creative team. It’s important.”

Before the pandemic shut down Broadway, Toohey noted, a shift was underway that was seeing more women involved in producing, writing and playing in the orchestras.

James added, “People are fed up with same old same old. When we go back have to return with different set of values and rules. It can’t be old guard boys club forever.”

This project was an opportunity to challenge the notion that women can’t work together, James said. “Our intention to say how much warmth and hope comes from strong women uniting. There’s so much room for all of us. Because there’s usually only one job for a woman at the law firm or wherever, women have fought against one another because there are 20 jobs for the men. But that doesn’t mean we want to fight one another. We want to work together. When we unify it’s beautiful. I wanted to lift up this score and these women, and I hope that’s what we’ve done.”

While James and Toohey hope eventually to produce all of the songs from the score, they also continue their own individual work.

Toohey’s newest project, Butch, is an album of what she calls “queer country.”

James recently released a solo album, Memphis Magnetic, that is inspired by her love for classic soul and R&B.

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Susan M. Shaw, Ph.D., is a professor of women, gender and sexuality studies at Oregon State University.