DIVA TALK: Chatting With Jesus Christ Superstar's Mary Magdalene, Chilina Kennedy

Diva Talk   DIVA TALK: Chatting With Jesus Christ Superstar's Mary Magdalene, Chilina Kennedy
News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.

Chilina Kennedy
Chilina Kennedy Photo by Sophie Jasnowski

Canadian actress Chilina Kennedy had two major career goals: to play the Stratford Festival and Broadway. Her current role, Mary Magdalene, in the Broadway revival of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's Jesus Christ Superstar, has fulfilled both of those wishes. The production, which is directed by Tony winner Des McAnuff (Jersey Boys, The Who's Tommy), was a critical hit at the Stratford Festival in Ontario, where it played an extended, sold-out run last summer before transferring to the La Jolla Playhouse and subsequently Broadway's Neil Simon Theatre, where it is currently in previews prior to an official opening March 22. Earlier this week I had the chance to chat with the down-to-earth Kennedy, whose theatrical credits also include the world premiere of The Lord of the Rings and Sophie in the U.S. national tour of Mamma Mia! as well as several other productions at the Stratford Festival: Grapes of Wrath; Kiss Me, Kate; West Side Story; A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum; and Evita. Kennedy, who is also working on her debut solo album, spoke about her current role and her journey from the Stratford Festival to Broadway; that interview follows.

Question: Since we haven't spoken before, why don't we go back to the beginning? Where were you born and raised?
Chilina Kennedy: In a little place called Ormocto in New Brunswick, Canada, which is on the East Coast. It's pretty tiny, and my dad was in the military. He's now a retired brigadier general, so we traveled all over the place. I lived all over Canada and Australia and England.

Question: At what age did you start performing?
Kennedy: I guess I started pretty young. It was the only thing I ever wanted to do, so I started dancing when I was four, and I pretty much just did that all the time when I was a kid, and I never stopped. I started actually training in high school. When I was about 15, I started voice training.

Kennedy and Paul Nolan in Jesus Christ Superstar.
photo by David Hou

Question: At that age, were there any actors or singers that you particularly admired? Anyone who influenced you?
Kennedy: Oh, I think, at that age, everybody influenced me. You're so impressionable at that age, and you just want to be up there doing it. There were so many talented people in my community, and there were so many great stars that I loved. Obviously, the greats — I always looked up to Meryl Streep. I always had a thing for Kevin Bacon when I was growing up. [Laughs.]

Question: When did performing change from something you did as a hobby to when you knew it was going to be your career?
Kennedy: To be honest — I know it sounds kind of silly — but I always knew, ever since I was a little girl, I knew that that's what I wanted to do. I had two passions in my life — one was performing, and the other one was the environment and animals. So I always thought, "I'm either going to be an environmental activist or I'm going to be on the stage, somehow." Question: What was your first professional job?
Kennedy: The first job that I got paid for wasn't really professional, but I was in Kingston, Ontario, and I was in high school at the time, and they asked me if I wanted to be part of this children's theatre group, which ended up touring to Toronto, and that was kind of exciting since I got to miss school and I got a paycheck for it. [Laughs.] And then, my real sort of first professional gig was when I played Anne of Green Gables at the Charlottetown Festival on Prince Edward Island in Canada. That was my first real professional gig where I was union.

Kennedy and Paul Nolan in West Side Story at the Stratford Festival.
Photo by David Hou

Question: You also did the Mamma Mia! tour. How did that come about?
Kennedy: Because there was so many Canadians in that tour, they were coming to Canada and casting from Toronto a lot of the time, so I went in, and I auditioned. And, the girl who was leaving — we actually swapped tracks. I was playing Anne of Green Gables, and I went to go do her track in Mamma Mia! and cover the part of Sophie to start, and she gave up that part to play Anne of Green Gables at the Toronto Festival. [Laughs.] We kind of swapped jobs! It was really fun because I got a chance to work in the States for the first time, and after about a year, I got a chance to play Sophie for a year-and-a-half, so that was really great on many levels.

Question: Skipping forward, how did Jesus Christ Superstar come about for you?
Kennedy: Well, I'd been at the Stratford Festival for a couple years, and offers were coming around, and Des said, "I'd really love for you to play Mary for me." And, I thought, "Oh, my gosh!" Only a week or, I guess, a month before that, I was in a class, and my teacher had asked me, "What are your top three plays to do or shows to do at Stratford?" And, I said… whatever the other two were, but one of the top ones was Jesus Christ Superstar, and she looked at me like, "Do you know something? Do you know what's happening?" [Laughs.] I was like, "I swear to God, I don't know anything."… Obviously, I wanted to play opposite Paul [Nolan as Jesus] and Josh [Young as Judas], and with Des as the director, it was kind of a dream team for me. So, when he offered me that part, I jumped at it, obviously. It's like the best role ever. And, to do it at Stratford is great, and to make it to La Jolla is another step, and then, the fact that it came here is kind of a dream come true.

Kennedy in Jesus Christ Superstar.
photo by Joan Marcus

Question: What about the show or the role was appealing to you before you started? What made that be on your list of shows or roles?
Kennedy: Well, first of all — not talking about the role, yet — but the score, itself, and the show is just one of my all-time favorites. I grew up, as I said, with military parents. We had a record player in the basement, and we'd all sit and listen to the brown [Jesus Christ Superstar] album, so I grew up on that stuff and loved it. And, when I found out I got the part, my parents and I sat in the living room with all the lights off and listened to it again. It was amazing. It just reminded me of my childhood. [Laughs.] And, the part — I was raised by a pretty feminist mom, who has a lot of unconventional thoughts about Mary Magdalene and her relationship with Jesus, so I've grown up with all of that stuff and all of those different opinions. I was just really fascinated to learn more about her and figure out how to play her as a strong female character, who can be a leader and a partner and so many things, as well as [confront] the images that she's portrayed often as being that penitent prostitute, but I think she's so much more than that as well. I was really interested to dig into that. Question: When you did start working on the role, what did you find the challenges of the role were or the challenges of the score?
Kennedy: That's a great question because I think there are a lot of challenges to Mary, and I didn't really know that or think that or expect it going into that… Actually, all three of those characters [Jesus, Judas and Mary] — we all have very strong images and strong opinions or most of us do, of who you think they are and who they should be. And, each character, I think, affects the other two. How you play Mary Magdalene is going to affect how Jesus is seen… And, how we treat each other really makes a difference as to how people view that. So, for me, I found it very challenging to figure out what her strengths were and to try to fight against… Obviously, I don't believe that she was ever a prostitute. There's lots of people who say that that's total nonsense. But, in our show, we're doing a theatrical version of the show, so we're making strong theatrical choices, and, in the book, she is a prostitute. So I have to find ways of making the strongest possible choices within that context. In a way, I don't know, I believe that she can be a great role model for young people because it shows people that you can fall in life, you can make mistakes, and you can still be forgiven and still be a great person and a great partner and a great leader. It's tough along the way trying to figure out how to do that. And, when you're running with a pack of boys and you're the only girl, it's hard on anybody I think. [Laughs.]

Kennedy and Paul Nolan in Jesus Christ Superstar.
Photo by David Hou

Question: You have one of the best-known songs in the show. How did you go about approaching singing "I Don't Know How to Love Him"?
Kennedy: Well, I think we're all a big fan of the — I mean all of us in the cast — we all seem to be big fans of the original, the movie and the album and all that stuff. And, I'm a big fan of Yvonne Elliman and so is our musical director. I think we all wanted to pay homage to that original sound and keep it fresh, so I really just tried to look at it, like I do anything, in terms of the text and "what am I trying to say with this song." I try not to do too much to it. I think the danger in this song is that you can try to put too much of your own stamp on it and do something really unique with it, when, in fact, the music, itself, is so amazing you pretty much have to get out of the way and let it speak.

Question: How much has the show changed from Stratford to La Jolla and now to Broadway?
Kennedy: You know, not too much. I thought it might change a little more. Obviously, we got some new technical things because the stage is quite a bit shallower than what we were used to at Stratford or even at La Jolla. We had to make some alterations in some of the tech things. There's more automation, there's more lights — that kind of thing. Generally, other than a few new touches to the choreography and a few new fine-tuning details, it's really, essentially the same show that we started with, which I think is kind of great. It was a really unified vision from the beginning, and I feel it really worked so great, so why fix it if it ain't broke?... [Laughs.]

Question: Tell me about working with Des McAnuff as a director.
Kennedy: He's amazing… First of all, he's really funny and fun to work with, and he's also very passionate about what he does. He can get very serious, and I love that because I'm the same way. And, I think what I respect most about Des is that he believes that it's a collaborative art form, and so he listens to the ideas and the things that you bring to the table, and he always works with you, not against you. It's not just his idea, and he won't listen to anything you're saying. He's very, very open-minded. In that way, he makes you — he made me — learn more about the part than I ever thought I could because he was so gracious and so open and gently kind of nudged me in certain directions, and then I went, "Oh, wow." And then, I could discover for myself what the answers were… I think the world of him.

Question: Was Broadway your goal? Was that something in the back of your mind that you wanted to do or was that not part of your plan?
Kennedy: Oh, absolutely! Without a doubt. It was sort of top of my list. A lot of people dream about going into film or TV — all sorts of different dreams. It sounds sort of funny, but mine was the Stratford Festival, Canada, and Broadway. [Laughs.] It's pretty great to have both of those sort of combined in this job.

Kennedy in Evita at the Stratford Festival.
photo by David Hou

Question: What was your first preview like on Broadway? How did it live up to what you imagined it to be or how was it different?
Kennedy: I find the greatest things in life are never what you expect it to be. I find that I get so focused on trying to do my job that I have no time or no energy to think about what's actually happening until afterwards, which I think is as it should be because if I'm really in — in the world of the show — there's no room for nerves and to be thinking about the audience or the rest of it. It was great. I mean, it was just like any other show, other than there was a bit more energy because I think that the collective sense of energy in the cast was elevated because we knew that this was a momentous occasion. There was a huge amount of energy from the audience. They stopped the show after Simon Zealotes' number with their applause and their screaming, and it was thrilling — absolutely thrilling. Question: Not including Jesus Christ Superstar, do you have a favorite theatrical experience?
Kennedy: Oh, boy. I have to say that the process of rehearsing The Lord of the Rings in Toronto was pretty special. I think as Canadians we don't often get a chance to create shows from the ground up, so it was very, very interesting to be a part of that. Also, I would have to say that doing West Side Story at the Stratford Festival is maybe top of my list other than Jesus Christ Superstar.

Question: Is there talk of Jesus Christ Superstar getting recorded?
Kennedy: Right now, that's just speculation. I don't know for certain. I certainly have my fingers crossed. [Laughs.]

Question: It seems to be Andrew Lloyd Webber's year on Broadway with Evita also coming. That's another role that you've played…
Kennedy: Yes, I did.

Question: What was it like playing Eva?
Kennedy: Well, it was difficult. It's extremely vocally taxing and challenging. It was interesting. I was reading an article the other day that Andrew Lloyd Webber did an interview for about that very show. The ironies in this whole year are really strong because the guy playing Judas, Josh Young, he played Che when I played Eva at the Stratford Festival. And, here we are, just down the road from the other production of Evita, and it's also ironic that I turned 33, the [age] that Eva Peron died, and Paul Nolan, who's playing Jesus, is 33, Jesus' [age] when he died. It's just all these things that have been put together, so I kind of feel like there must be a lesson in that that I played that part and then I got a chance to do this. But it's a really hard show. She's not necessarily a very likeable character in that show, so to portray her as the winner of her own story, it can be really challenging. Personally, I had a really great director, who was very smart and very supportive, and it was a great experience.

Question: Do you have any other projects in the works or are you just focusing on this role at the moment?
Kennedy: [Laughs.] Well, right now that's sort of all I have time for — that and my dog, who you heard yapping in the living room! Other than that, I'm also working on my own album. I don't know when on earth that's going to come out, but I'm grinding away at it when I have a few moments… It's sort of indie-folk [with] a little bit of country thrown in there. They're songs that I've been working on for the past five or six years. It's a bit of an amalgamation of the work I've been doing since I started The Lord of the Rings.

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Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to agans@playbill.com.

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