In the 1970s, Jerome L. De Silva was obsessed with rock music. Working as a radio announcer, he became one of the first to play the genre on air. In fact he played so much of it that he was fined. It was a good time for rock – Black Sabbath released eight albums, Led [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

The opera that rocked the world

For Jerome L. De Silva, staging the iconic musical ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ is a long held dream come true

In the 1970s, Jerome L. De Silva was obsessed with rock music. Working as a radio announcer, he became one of the first to play the genre on air. In fact he played so much of it that he was fined. It was a good time for rock – Black Sabbath released eight albums, Led Zeppelin released six and Pink Floyd kicked off the decade with ‘Atom Heart Mother’ and ended it with ‘The Wall’ – slipping ‘The Dark Side of the Moon’ and ‘Wish You Were Here’ into the middle. The concert circuit was thick with raucous music from bands like The Grateful Dead, Blue Oyster Cult and Lynyrd Skynyrd and somewhere in the U.K, two twenty-something’s were busy writing the opera that would rock Jerome’s world. 

Jerome L. De Silva

When Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber released Jesus Christ Superstar as a vinyl album, it stunned audiences by reimagining the Biblical narrative for the 1970s. Here rock music and contemporary street slang were being used to tell a tale that was of profound significance to the world’s millions of believers – both those things stripped away the filters of an archaic language or a stuffy sermon, returning audiences to a visceral, shocking version of a story they thought they knew.

The events of the last seven days of Jesus’ life were told through the eyes of the man who had betrayed the Messiah. Instead of a cardboard cut-out of evil, we got a singing, cynical, deeply conflicted Judas. “We were all really young then, and it got us so interested. Whatever faith you were of, Jesus Christ Superstar was something you wanted to see,” says Jerome.

With The Workshop Players getting ready to stage this, possibly the most iconic rock opera of all time, Jerome is seeing a long held dream fulfilled. In fact, while ‘Evita’, which ran to sold out shows earlier this year, was on the boards Jerome would frequently catch himself wondering why they weren’t doing Jesus Christ Superstar instead – after all that was the CD on repeat in his car. “I’m crazy about it,” he says, “it’s unique, a real revolution where both theatre and music were concerned…it’s been in my blood for a long time now.” 

A chance to watch the revival on Broadway recently left Jerome convinced to stage the play. “What people don’t necessarily know about me is that I am a committed Christian,” reveals the director, explaining that he felt moved by the Spirit to stage the play in Colombo. He feels the content of the musical is no longer as shocking as it may have once been. As a director of the Christian Arts Foundation, Jerome says he’s seen far more challenging work by Christian playwrights.

In an attempt to remain faithful to his own beliefs, Jerome says he has edited not the script but the action. Moving away from the original production’s emphasis on the relationship between Mary Magdalene and Jesus Christ, Jerome says he’s treated those scenes differently. “They are interpreted in a very beautiful way, emphasising the compassion Jesus had for her.” In another small alteration to the script, Jerome has edited out the references to the Buddha and Prophet Mohammed. 

The cast of ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ at practice. Pic by M.A Pushpa Kumara

As much as Jerome loves the play, the process of preparing for it has only added to his admiration. An enthusiastic response to their open call for auditions brought 90 people in to try out, amongst them artistes like C.C and Suresh de Silva who Jerome dubs rock icons of Sri Lanka. “People half my age still think it’s so progressive,” says Jerome sharing his pleasure in the interest the production has drummed up amongst young rock enthusiasts.

Though they’ve only been working on it from late June, Jerome is pleased to report the production is running on well-oiled wheels. He finished directing and blocking it two weeks ago, and the choreography and music have likewise come together. Now it’s a matter of running it through with multiple casts. One thing Jerome doesn’t seem to doubt is that the play will resonate with its audience – like the story that lies at the heart of it, he says it’s built to last. 

The Workshop Players present an amateur production of Jesus Christ Superstar by arrangement with The Really Useful Group Ltd. Lyrics by Tim Rice, Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, and directed by Jerome L.De Silva. The production is on from October 4 – 13 at the Lionel Wendt Theatre.

Ticket details will be released later.

Trivia: Did you know?

  • Tim Rice was inspired by the Bob Dylan anthem ‘With God On Our Side’ which features Judas in its penultimate verse and is from his seminal 1964 album ‘The Times They Are a-Changin’. 
  • Released in 1970, the Jesus Christ Superstar album’s popularity rocketed with thousands of plays on FM radio. It became a #1 hit on the USA Billboard album charts four months after its release. 
  • On the original album, the part of Jesus was sung by Ian Gillan, the lead singer of Deep Purple who later also worked with Black Sabbath and others, and that of Judas by Murray Head. 
  • Jesus Christ Superstar opened at the Palace Theatre in London in 1972. It ran for eight years and 3,358 performances, breaking all West End records at the time. Soon it was playing in Australia, Germany, France, Scandinavia, Japan, Brazil, Mexico, Spain, and other countries.
  • In 2000, an Italian production of Jesus Christ Superstar was endorsed by the Vatican’s official Jubilee programme.
  • An unknown until cast in Jesus Christ Superstar as Mary Magdalene, Yvonne Elliman’s first hit single in 1971 was the ballad ‘I Don’t Know How to Love Him’.
  • Jesus Christ Superstar ran in the West End from 1972 – 80, becoming the longest-running musical grossing £7.5 million.
  • Jesus Christ Superstar has been staged in over 15 countries including India, Kenya, Mexico and Zimbabwe.

The 1973 film starring Ted Neeley as Jesus, Carl Anderson as Judas and Yvonne Elliman as Mary Magdalene took £8.6 million at the box office.

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