As the opening night of Jesus Christ Superstar draws closer, we asked Surein De S. Wijeyratne, Assistant Director (Music) to take us through his favourite tracks from the rock opera. He’s the first to admit his picks might seem counter-intuitive – the list makes no mention of the most popular tunes the show has produced. [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

Their super hits: Away from the beaten tracks


As the opening night of Jesus Christ Superstar draws closer, we asked Surein De S. Wijeyratne, Assistant Director (Music) to take us through his favourite tracks from the rock opera. He’s the first to admit his picks might seem counter-intuitive – the list makes no mention of the most popular tunes the show has produced. Surein ignores ‘I Don’t Know How to Love Him,’ and doesn’t linger over ‘Heaven on My Mind’.

As for ‘Everything’s Alright’ Surein thinks it’s a tad hackneyed – it “has been performed by every choir and theatre school for the last 40 years!” he says. Still, in a production that he considers Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s best work, there’s a surfeit of choice.

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, Directed by Jerome L.De Silva. The production is on from October 4 – 13 at the Lionel Wendt Theatre. Box office opens on Tuesday, September 24 at the Lionel Wendt.

Surein’s unconventional picks are shaped in part by how long he has been waiting to take on Jesus Christ Superstar – “[It] is a dream that has taken almost 20 years to realize,” he says. “A musical that we’ve wanted to do ever since we first heard it, and saw the Norman Jewison film as teenagers.” So when he picks his favourite tracks, he refuses to put one above the other – listing them in order of appearance as his “heart will not allow me to give them a hierarchy!”Pitching in with a choreographer’s perspective, Shanuki de Alwis talks about her vision for the choreography of the show and picks two of her own favourites.
Surein’s picks:

The Overture:With those first echoing notes followed by a cascade of music the Overture to JCS is a bold and dazzling introduction to what lies ahead. “What a marvellous creation,” says Surein. “Seemingly random bits of music strung together so brilliantly, all of which only make sense when you realize that the overture is taking the audience through the themes of the entire musical in a few minutes.” While all overtures are designed to accomplish just that, Surein considers the one to JCS exceptional. “It has been used as the basis for so many varied interpretations in the staging of the opening sequence. This piece of music is an icon in itself. The lead rock-guitar riff sets the tone for the entire musical – simple yet so very emotive and powerful.” 

Simon Zealotes: Faced by a crowd of over 50,000 believers, Jesus is never been more Superstar-like than he is in this song. In a powerful, surging stanza Simon Zealote urges Christ to “Keep them yelling their devotion/but add a touch of hate at Rome,” promising power and glory will inevitably follow. Jesus’ response is that they have not understood the meaning of divine power at all. “The energy and charisma needed to perform this song is draining for me to watch!” says Surein, who loves the track for its “wonderful use of simplicity in the musical structure of the song, which goes to show what a good composer can do with just a few chords!”

Shanuki has had heaps of fun choreographing the track with her ensemble dancers who have contributed their ideas as well making it a very collaborative process. “I love the energy of this song, because the beat and tempo is bursting with life and allows the dancers to just unleash and showcase their skills,” says Shanuki, who felt it was “important not to forget, the sentiment and the words of the song and translate that into the movement.”

Twenty years on his mind: Surein De. S. Wijeyratne

Pilate’s Dream: A brief track with a punch-to-the-gut quality, ‘Pilate’s Dream’ is just a minute and a half long. “It is based on one of the most beautiful, repetitive themes in the musical and adds such a potent segment – to bring out the conflict and the reluctance of the man who ‘washed his hands’ off the death of Christ – Pontius Pilate,” says Surein. “In the hands of a brilliant actor, like Mario de Soyza, who just needs to stand and sing – this is a show stopping moment.”

Gethsemane/I Only Want to Say: The wrenching moment when Christ contemplates his own death and turns to God asking why he should die remains as potent as the day it was written. Knowing that this would be a key moment for the character, actors auditioning for the role of Jesus were asked to do so with this song. Andrew Lloyd Webber himself considered this the most challenging song to perform he had ever written and Surein is pleased to report that the leads “are capable of stopping the show, and your heart, with this song.” Says Surein:“It is a masterpiece both in terms of its lyrical content and the music, taking the audience through the agony and tumult that would have taken place during Christ’s last few moments in prayer in the garden of Gethsemane. Bring out the tissues at this point in the show.”

John 19:41:“And you probably never saw this coming, but the last few minutes of instrumental music that take place after the crucifixion and closes the show is…. well beyond my ability to describe it,” says Surein.“ A more poignant and evocative piece of music you will not find. Beautifully blending the musical themes of the show and wrapping it all up, it is worthy of its place as the finale to what is possibly the greatest rock opera of this, and the last two generations!”

Shanuki’s picks:

Herod’s Song: Inescapably buoyant till it is derailed by his listener’s refusal to rise to his mockery, Herod’s challenge to Christ is one of Shanuki’s favourites. A complete contrast to the intensity that precedes it, she notes that it provides a nice comic shift from rock to a classic swinging beat. “I thoroughly enjoyed bringing out the decadence and humour and indulgent nature of Herod’s character through the dancing. The song also gives the dancers the freedom to ham it up and lose their inhibitions, and yet you can see everyone enjoying themselves thoroughly.”

Superstar: Here is a song that offers the audience a glimpse into the workings of Judas’s heart and his frank bewilderment as he asks ‘did you mean to die like that?’“It’s that iconic song that basically represents the show,” says Shanuki. “It has such an infectious vibe and I enjoyed working on the movement for the backup ensemble. We needed to keep the same funk that back up soul singers have on stage and bring that extra oomph to the number without stealing the spotlight from Judas or Jesus. The girls are all brilliantly talented, so bringing that level of performance to stage is a breeze…”

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