An original musical for our time

Billed as the largest homegrown musical ever staged - ‘Rag’ addresses issues that have plagued universities, while the script written by Jehan Aloysius and Avanti Perera, makes it
a truly Sri Lankan production

It’s taken them 11 years but Jehan Aloysius and Avanti Perera are finally ready to share ‘Rag’ in its entirety with us. We’ve seen snippets so far – a handful songs, some dialog – but these are just tantalising hints of what awaits. With a cast of 45 and nearly as many songs, it’s a more ambitious undertaking than anything that’s been staged in Sri Lanka in recent years. This is particularly true because the material for this musical is entirely fresh. “This is a home grown musical,” says Jehan, adding “it’s 100% original.”

Jehan, who made his name with standout shows like ‘Pyramus and Thisby’, has poured a great deal of his time and energy into this project. Avanti Perera, his creative partner, wrote the music for it. Jehan says together they’ve rewritten the script at least 30 times, with each re-write bringing dramatic changes. Expectations are high – when they previewed the show in 2004 and 2005, it won the company standing ovations and more than one rave review.

Jehan says that ‘Rag’ is also profoundly personal because some of the scenes are actually autobiographical. The character ‘Natasha’ is loosely based on Avanti and her own experiences in university, while ‘Joseph’ is based on Jehan himself. The show has also proved itself prescient. “Some of the things that were written about, later happened in reality,” says Jehan, citing the ragging incidents that have convulsed university campuses in the recent past, with student deaths occurring in extreme cases.

But ‘Rag’ isn’t about moralising, says Jehan: “if you want to spread a message or preach, you should get a pulpit – you can’t expect a musical to do that.” This needn’t mean that musicals can’t tackle serious subjects and Jehan hopes that the project will resonate with young people. They intend to take it out of the theatre as well by coupling the musical with workshops. The workshops will use forum theatre to explore the issues surrounding ragging and to explore alternate strategies and responses to violence on campus. Firmly convinced that ‘music transcends language,’ Jehan hopes the production itself might provoke thought and provide insight for students trapped in the vicious cycle of ragging. Theatre is itself a powerful tool, says Jehan, “one of the themes of the play is that we have a dream we can make a change through theatre.”

Though they have months to go before the final performance, Jehan has already put his large cast to work. Represented in it are singers, actors, dancers and acrobats who are all learning various aspects of musical theatre including creativity and character analysis.  They will also be given training in stage-fighting and choreography. Jehan knows they’re up to the challenge. “They’re all extremely talented,” he says confidently. Early this month, they began the process on a happy note by bringing everyone together for a mini-performance which included solos and duets from the musical, as well as servings of cake.

The event was also used to introduce the main players. Eshantha Peiris will be choral director and in charge of writing some new arrangements for the production. Avanti will perform some of the music tracks and handle the orchestrations. Jehan himself is billed as the writer and composer and will star as Joseph. Other key singing roles are played by classical soprano Kumudini David, TNL Onstage winner Dilini Perera, Damien Fernando, Anushiya Bastianpillai, Amandhi Caldera, Shenal Perera and Trevis de Silva. Dulika Jayamanne, Stephen Anoj, Keshiya Leitch and Dinara Punchihewa play lead acting roles.

Centrestage Productions will perform ‘Rag’ this October at the Lionel Wendt Theatre. The performance, which is supported by Cargills and One Trust Sri Lanka, will be a fund-raiser for theatre-based humanitarian work conducted through the troupe’s StageHands Project.

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