During that first messy, lonely, scrolling and sourdough pandemic spring, I spent a lot of time trying to recreate rituals. When I was too anxious and exhausted to prepare for Passover, my wife lovingly gathered the components for a seder plate, orange and all, which we proudly displayed on the back-to-back Zoom seders (we did use Wheat Thins in lieu of matzah, which, given the circumstances at the time, was a pretty acceptable bread of affliction substitute). I used hot glue and an old shoebox to build a fourth-grade diorama of the supporters section for my local soccer team for a virtual tailgate. We even shipped Superfight cards to a friend in Denver to keep game night alive.
And then, there was Musical Mondays. For the uninitiated, Musical Mondays is exactly what it says on the tin — mainstay Chicago gay bar Sidetrack hosts an evening where they play showtunes and everyone sings along. Depending on how much of a theatre kid you were/are, it is plumbing the depths of cringe or it is the best night of the week, or both. So every Monday night for those first couple of months, I would crack open a beer and livestream a video playlist of showtunes, Glee clips and the like for whoever wanted to join and scream-sing together-apart in our respective homes.
It was this ritual, searching for clips to play every week for my virtual guests, that I first came across Jesus Christ Superstar: A Resurrection, a 90s fever dream reimagining of the Andrew Lloyd Webber rock opera starring the Indigo Girls, with Amy Ray assuming the titular role, Emily Saliers as Mary Magdalene and a host of other Atlanta musicians filling out the cast. It hooked me from the opening staging — that chugging rock guitar, the Pure Moods candelabra in the background, the of-a-specific-time aesthetics and choreography (“The Templewp_postsincludes inflatable sex dolls being tossed through the air like beach balls) that makes the whole thing feel like a pile of “Keep Austin Weirdwp_postst-shirts gained sentience.
It seemed at first silly and earnest with the festival dancing and the ensemble member riding a unicycle on stage, and silliness and earnestness alone would have been enough to make me fall in love during that dreary, heavy spring. We need more of both of those things, still. But in addition to the comfort of watching a live performance then, any live performance, even one from more than 20 years prior, there is so much about this zany project that resonates — the unabashed queerness, of course, but also the joy of watching a community of creative people who love each other coming together to celebrate a work they love and make it their own, the sincere love of the source material, and the comfort of losing yourself in time for a couple hours and letting Emily Saliers’ “Everything’s Alrightwp_postslull you into a state of calm.
It’s the perfect comforting, nostalgic queer Easter weekend watch, and thankfully, the good Samaritans at Indigo Girls fan archive lifeblood.net have put the whole thing on YouTube, for your viewing pleasure.
Jesus Christ Superstar: A Resurrection fits into the Indigo Girls continuum in a number of ways — Amy Ray talks a lot about growing up in the church (she says now she’s a “pagan who has a relationship with the historical Jesus,” according to a November 2022 interview with The Bitter Southerner), her music and lyrics often reflect those themes and her most recent album includes gospel influences.
Throughout their 40-year run together, the Indigo Girls have used their music and platform as a conduit for materially supporting causes they believe in, from co-founding Honor the Earth with Winona LaDuke to support indigenous-led environmental activism to a recent performance in Jacksonville, Fla., benefiting JASMYN, an organization serving queer and trans youth. The Jesus Christ Superstar project fits into this continuum — the performances raised funds for grassroots anti-gun violence organizations in each city. (Ray even told the Seattle Times that the gun control advocacy was more controversial to audiences in Texas and Georgia than the fact that Jesus was being played by a lesbian.)
The recording found on YouTube comes from the March 1995 benefit show at South By Southwest in Austin, Texas, a performance that had only two days of rehearsals. There are times where that shows, where things feel too frenetic and rushed and vocals are out-of-sync with the music. (If a constantly-moving, shaky camera will make you motion sick, I would track down the double album instead of watching.)
Amy Ray plays Jesus as reluctant, burnt-out savior (is this very millennial of me to be talking about Jesus having burnout?) and as righteous firebrand, at times thoughtful and subtle and at times bring-the-house-down fierce. Emily Saliers plays Mary Magdalene with a gentleness and warmth, a voice like a lap you can crawl into and doze off. The first number I watched in full from this production was her rendition of “Everything’s Alright,wp_postswhich, backed with flute and dreamy blues guitar, is a temporary balm in an uncertain, messy world. Her “I Don’t Know How to Love Himwp_postsalso slaps (as an aside, I appreciate the show’s approach to keeping the original pronouns, except in “This Jesus Must Die,wp_postswhere the cast uses both ‘her’ and ‘one man’ to refer to Jesus — unclear if this is intentional, but honestly, here for it).
Aesthetically, this show is incredible. Typically in productions of Jesus Christ Superstar, Jesus is instantly recognizable — the golden lighting, the white robe, the complicated balance of trying to show rock-star savior and human man in one person. When we get our first glimpse of Ray, she approaches in the regular garb of the mid-90s — a peace-sign t-shirt, one-strap-off overalls, and, incredibly, a tool belt, which a friend had to point out to me had to do with Jesus being a carpenter and not, as I assumed, a lesbian who can confidently take on any DIY and navigate the aisles of Lowe’s. Kelly Hogan plays Simon the Zealot butter-smooth as a smoking, slick-haired power dyke.
The Pharisees are even wilder — one is dressed in a full-on Leigh Bowery fantasy, while Benjamin’s Caiaphas skulks around the stage like a gothic prince. Mike Mantione, as Annas in Party City nun getup with white pancake makeup and a thick cigar, feels more Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence than one of the show’s core antagonists. In fact, much of the attire, with disciples sporting kilts and Viking hats and feather boas, with Amy donning the most 90s shirt imaginable with a bold Mother Mary print on it in the Last Supper scene, feels, if not outright drag, then at least loose and playful with gender presentation in a way that I wish didn’t feel as refreshing and subversive as it does in 2023, but here we are. (It’s also worth noting that Benjamin regularly performed in drag as his alter ego Opal Foxx before his untimely passing in 1999, and I am grateful to this production for introducing me to another weird, wonderful queer musician who was taken too soon.)
There are moments in this production that feel simultaneously dripping with sincerity and frozen in time and fitting in right now. “Hosannawp_postsfeels like a raucous, irreverent protest, with the Feed and Seed Marching Abominables serving as movement music. The signs the crowd waves are corny as hell (“I BRAKE FOR JESUS,wp_posts“IT’S A JESUS THANG”), but Caiaphas and Jesus trading barbs through megaphones heightens the tension in a way anyone who has taken to the streets in the last couple decades will recognize (although, unfortunately, the sound quality from this choice is abysmal). The chorus channels the same energy, earnest and deeply powerful, as Midwestern theater kids belting “La Vie Bohemewp_postsin a Denny’s after a late-night tech rehearsal. I feel like Andrew Lloyd Webber would absolutely hate this take on his work, and it makes me love it more.
The beginning of “Gethsemane (I Only Want to Say)wp_postsis quietly devastating, when Ray looks out at her apostles, all passed out, pleading for companionship, for a moment of solidarity: “Will no one stay awake with me? Peter, John, James? Will none of you wait with me?wp_postsThis moment felt particularly raw rewatching in March of 2023, in the midst of an onslaught of legislative and stochastic attacks on queer and trans people, in the wake of so many interconnected and head-spinning attacks on marginalized people trying to live their lives. It is the desperate plea for the ones we love to show up for us, the smoldering heartbreak when these pleas are met with more silence.
We all turn to art to make meaning of the world, to feel seen and understood, even by a decades-old, grainy VHS recording of a lesbian folk icon playing Christ. I hope that when I watch this again inevitably next Easter, I find fewer upsetting parallels to a gloomy political moment and more silly, earnest love. Until then, I hope you’ll spend some time with it and find some comfort and pleasure in it, whether in the goofy nostalgia of the fashion, the cozy familiarity of the musical numbers, the righteous ferocity of Amy Ray’s Jesus or the tenderness of Emily Saliers’s Mary Magdalene. And may this spring bring you joy, peace and renewal, whatever that looks like for you.