Miss Jesus Christ: Villanova Theatre’s Godspell Cast Talks Gender in the Gospel


Megan Slater performs as Judas during Villanova Theatre’s performance of Godspell.

Mikaela Krim Staff Writer

Friends who attend secular universities often question me about the implications of Catholic heritage: Do you have a bible study class? Is Mass mandatory? Are all our classes taught by nuns?  

Anyone privy to the Univeristy’s culture would find these inquiries laughable.  But Villanova Theater’s latest production fits right into their perception of life at a Catholic university. “Godspell,” the 1970s Broadway hit that chronicles the life of Jesus Christ, seems about the most religious production that Villanova could pick.  

Yet those familiar with Godspell know that the musical is far from a historically accurate depiction of Christianity. It has long been the subject of controversy, from the modern music it employs to the “hippie-like” garb worn by cast members. 

Villanova Theater’s production has taken the subversive element one step forward. The on-campus production is gender-blind, meaning the lead role of Jesus has been cast as an Asian female. Many supporting roles for characters typically portrayed as male are also filled by female performers. 

Though not the first to conceive of a gender-bending Godspell—previous versions have also featured female leads of varying ethnicities—this performance promises to be one of the most enriching experiences brought to campus. Megan Slater, a second year graduate student in the theater program who plays Judas in the production, regards this production’s cast in high esteem. 

“I’m really in love with the ensemble,” she said. “We’re all really close and they’re generous performers, and it’s made the process really great.”   

Godspell is structured as a series of parables based primarily on the Gospel of Matthew. With an upbeat soundtrack composed by Stephen Schwartz, the musical focuses on Jesus’ earthly deeds, leading to a brief portrayal of the Passion in its closing act. The music itself draws inspiration from traditional hymns, but often adopts the funky rhythms popular throughout the mid-20th century.  Popular songs include “Day By Day,” “Save the People” and “Beautiful City.” 

Slater, who has been acting since her first musical theater arts camp in the second grade, recalls seeing a wide variety of Godspell productions at churches and other venues growing up. As an actor who typically doesn’t lean toward musicals, this experience is a particular departure from the norm. 

“As an acting scholar we are required to audition for everything, and I was given this amazing opportunity to play Judas, so I’m very grateful.”

With a B.A. in theater from Drew University, Slater moved to Philadelphia in 2005 and has been working as an actor in the region since then.  Although she has been a member of a number of companies, the experience at the University is certainly distinct.

“Villanova is a great community; I am so grateful for my classmates and my professors here,” she said. “It’s a really academically rigorous program. I feel like I am being pushed and stretched in ways, especially in this role.” 

Being a female tasked with the responsibility of interpreting the man who betrayed Jesus Christ requires a level of self-reflection.  The gender-blind concept could be uncomfortable for those deeply devoted to strict, literal interpretation of biblical texts. Slater realizes that.

“I really respect that this can evoke a lot of emotion for people,” she said. “Faith is important and the images around faith are important.” 

Slater’s own education within the church lent the actor a more open-minded attitude in approaching the role.

“I will always remember the teaching that ‘we are all built in God’s image’ and that, to me, includes women,” Slater noted.

Women have played pivotal roles in history that often get overlooked. As many of us are aware, men portrayed the female characters in Shakespeare’s plays. Not until the English Restoration of 1660 and the lifting of drama’s 18-year prohibition were women allowed on stage. Even now, Hollywood is rife with conflict over sexism and the representation of females in movies. Women directors are few, the wage gap persists and many of the movie roles available to women skew negative and generally disempowering. 

Given the impact that females have on history, such lack of diversity is disappointing. For those who have grown numb to repeated portrayals of the same subject matter, a change of pace can be refreshing. 

“Something our director Matt Pfeiffer said is, ‘this is an opportunity for someone to maybe hear these words being spoken by someone else.  Maybe you will hear them with fresh ears because they are being presented in a different way,’” Slater recounted.

The cast and crew of Villanova Theater’s Godspell have certainly put serious effort into the art of presentation. With only around four weeks of preparation time, actors rehearsed every night of the week from 7:30 to 11:30 p.m., and for eight hours on the weekend.  Primarily graduates, the cast had to balance the intense rehearsal schedule with a full school workload and class schedule. 

“Many of us are also working part-time jobs,” Slater said.

Yet all this rehearsal pays off.  

“I feel like the world we’ve created is full of a lot of energy and vibrancy, and really embracing the love of this story,” Slater said. 

The first handful of performances has seen an audience that is “joyful and charmed.” And though rumors of misgivings in regards to the atypical casting have reached actors’ ears, the response has been overwhelmingly positive. 

“I think we have taken great care to be thoughtful and careful about our representations,” Slater said, adding that she would love the opportunity to start a conversation with anyone who has an emotional response to the production.  

“I think I would be curious, in a conversation, if somebody needed to talk about [the performance], to hear their point of view; but I don’t think this production or myself are out to make any political stance or are out to change anything about anyone’s faith,” she continued. “It’s more of a celebration of these teachings.” 

The celebratory tone of Villanova Theater’s Godspell extends beyond even the fourth wall. Slater recalls an incident that occurred during one of the ensemble’s early performances, when an unwitting audience member found themselves the sudden focus of the cast’s attention.  

“There’s a scene between Jesus and the Pharisees and the cell phone didn’t get turned back off after intermission,” she said. This occurrence was, of course, “a great opportunity for the three cast members playing the Pharisees to turn around and stare the person down.” One can only imagine the discomfort felt by the offending attendee, but the response from the cast and fellow audience member was jubilant.  

“There’s a lot of leeway to interacting with the audience,” Slater said with a laugh. “Sometimes when you’re doing a show and a phone goes off you have to pretend it’s not happening. . . so it was nice that both the cast and the audience could collectively acknowledge this moment.”

For Slater, theater serves as an escape from the pressures of every day life. A space where reality is bent and histories reinterpreted, the individual can lose him or herself in the immersive dramatic experience featured onstage.  

“I keep coming back to the word ‘joy,’ and it’s just what it feels like to me,” she said. “These songs are full of hope, and in the stress of our everyday lives—in the tone of the world we’re living in—it can be really amazing to sit in a theater and feel joy and hear some really fun songs.” The vibrant costuming and upbeat musical score helps not only cast members, but also theater attendees, to let go of some of the stress. 

In addition, Slater notes her co-star Mina Kawahara as a huge draw for potential audience members. “Come and see the woman playing Jesus,” she said. “Mina is amazing; she has just the most generous, joyful, open personality. I think it’s worth coming to see her performance.” 

Directed by Matt Pfieffer, Godspell will be playing through Oct. 1st. Though tickets are sold out for closing night, they can still be purchased on the box office website for shows from Wednesday Sept. 27 through Saturday Sept. 30.

A truly unique opportunity to engage the University’s Catholic history with the energy of its current students, Godspell promises to provide an enjoyable night of dramatic escape and hours of conversation to follow.