As enthusiastic crowds throng the Lionel Wendt for the newly-opened ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’, there comes the ‘news flash’ wrapped up in nostalgia — this is not the first. Wind the clock back to 1975, 38 long years ago, when some of the cast members of the current production “were not even born”. Scene: Navarangahala Dates: September [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

The stars of ’75

As Jesus Christ Superstar opens to a packed Wendt, the group who staged the first production of this epic rock musical in Sri Lanka looks back

As enthusiastic crowds throng the Lionel Wendt for the newly-opened ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’, there comes the ‘news flash’ wrapped up in nostalgia — this is not the first. Wind the clock back to 1975, 38 long years ago, when some of the cast members of the current production “were not even born”.

Scene: Navarangahala
Dates: September 6 & 7
Tickets: Rs. 15, 7.50 and 5

‘Jesus Christ Superstar’, Sri Lanka’s first home-grown production opens to a full-house, with a newspaper of the time screaming through a headline, ‘Muslim plays Jesus’ and a few nuns protesting outside. This was a production done by a bunch of youngsters only after hearing over-and-over-again the “ground-breaking” rock double-album with lyrics by Tim Rice and music by Andrew Lloyd Webber but not even getting a glimpse of its Broadway debut in New York.

The dancers

Just out of school, veering towards the hippie-way, in their denim jackets, bell-bottom pants, chains with the P-sign and bandanas wrapped around their heads, creativity had drawn them together. “Starting off with a record album, we found the potential to turn it into a theatre production. We listened to the album and worked it off,” says Co-Director Nimal Gunewardena (who now heads the Bates public relations agency), while Co-Director Senaka de Silva, a choreographer and crafts and fashion designer adds, “It was experimental. We developed a story line to go with the album. It was no fancy thing. It was very minimalistic.”

The main cast comprised — Reza Deane of Amazing Grace as Jesus; Tony de Silva of Amazing Grace with his fuzzy hair making him look “sinister” as Judas; Radha de Mel (nee Fernando) as Mary Magdalene; Ishan Bahar of the Jetliners as Herod; Geoffrey Alagaratnam as Pontius Pilate; Ramani Corea (nee Fernando) as Pilate’s wife; Kumar Eliyathamby as Caiaphas, Ravi Prakash as Annas, Lakshman Gunasekera as the Third Priest, Akushla Sellayah as Maid by the Fire and Ralph de Silva Wickrematileke as Peter.

Music was by Amazing Grace and Gobbledegook which included Nimal, Niraj Wickremasinghe and Joe Tambimuttu, while the choral work was by the St. Mary’s Church, Bambalapitiya, Youth Choir which was re-christened ‘Children of God’.
While practising was only for a couple of months and that too in the evenings and weekends on flat rooftops or spacious homes of cast members, “Sri Lankan touches” were added on the go. Mary Magdalene carried a kala-gediya and the other women kullas and woven baskets.

Mary Magdalene and Peter

As Nimal and Senaka go down memory lane on Wednesday, re-living the excitement of a time long gone, the nostalgia is tangible. It was Nimal who as an American Field Service (AFS) scholar from St. Joseph’s College who had brought back the ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ record album in the early ’70s. Back in Sri Lanka, at St. Joseph’s, the visionary Rector Fr. W.L.A. Don Peter got the senior boys to listen to the record.

By 1974, Nimal and a group of friends began experimenting and produced ‘Life!’ Sri Lanka’s first original rock opera, with the music being written by Nimal and the production being co-directed by him and Salinda Perera. It was, as its very name denotes, about life. The frustrations of youth, the pace of life, people running from pillar to post, were all there.

Coming on the heels of the Janatha Vimukthu Peramuna (JVP) insurrection and with tinges of Communist ideas, the authorities became suspicious. When photos of bearded youth with clenched, upraised fists were splashed across the ‘Weekend’ (the Sunday paper of the now-defunct Independent Newspapers Limited which also published the ‘Sun’), the newspapers ended on the table of then Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s Cabinet meeting. 

The original poster from 1975

“We almost got locked up,” laughs Nimal, explaining that it was M.S. Alif, then Cabinet Secretary and father of Interact President of the time, Zaki Alif (now a Director of Stassens), who assured the government that there was “nothing subversive” – just some young people “doing their thing”.

It was in the glow of the success of ‘Life’ that their thoughts turned towards ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’. “None were professionals,” Senaka who also doubled up as the Choreographer says of the majority of the cast members, “but some found a sense of rhythm.

Others had a bad sense of timing and they were co-opted for simple movements like kneeling and doing something with their hands”.


The eyes of both Nimal and Senaka light up though when they talk of dancer Akushla who was a glamorous model.
An early challenge was jazz singer Marie Rozairo opting out of the crucial role of Mary Magdalene and Radha stepping into her sandals by chance. “We didn’t know too much about Radha but we got her to take on the role and she was brilliant,” says Nimal, adding that the “hot group” at that time was Amazing Grace performing at the ‘Little Hut’ in Mount Lavinia where these youngsters would “hang out”. It was then that they asked Reza to join them on stage, for “he was a great singer”.

For, ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’, there was only a shoe-string budget. Senaka who was working part-time under Vipula Dharmawardena whose name was synonymous with batiks approached him and was given some cloth for the costumes.
Word was also passed around and cast members looked long and hard into the closets of their mothers and grandmothers, gathering sarees and costume jewellery including bead chains.

“We would sit on the ground in a circle around whatever we had collected and come up with the costumes, sewing waistcoats for the men and graceful Roman drapes from Georgette sarees for Mary Magdalene and the other women,” says Senaka, recreating the time before the production went on the boards of the Navarangahala.

The beauty of the whole thing was that they used everyday things, according to him, while Nimal points out that the props were so simple and not for them were the luxuries of clip-on mikes. They had to work with hand-held mikes. The props would be the envy of directors even today — at the back of the stage were two tables of different heights and all the other sets consisted of tea chests from Stassens.

One side of the tea chests was painted black and became the table for the Last Supper. The moment they were turned onto the other side they became the stand on which the High Priest and other priests stood tall in their flowing kaftans, covering the tea-chests as well, says Senaka, while Nimal recreates the image of the priests “looking like giants”.


Finally, it was time for the show – along with mishaps galore. There were no stage managers, says Senaka, “everyone managed themselves”.  Fraught with near-misses, the famous tale of Jesus Christ unfolded. Some didn’t know their cues and had to be prodded by others.

Two incidents stand out, etched into their memories. It was time for the Last Supper and the Apostles were carrying plates heaped high with rotti onto the stage, when an enthusiastic Roman soldier eager to join the meal had to be pulled back, chuckles Senaka.

Tense was also the moment when a priest’s voice just did not work and someone off-stage had the presence of mind to sing his song. However, the high-points were also numerous, the “wildest” being the market scene, the audience being taken by surprise when the palm-waving chorus came along the aisles through them in the Hosannah scene and “realistic” was the whipping and scourging scene. With no fancy lighting to aid them, it was the strobe light that created a slow-motion action which brought to life this scene, with the whip being a soft, twisted cloth, says Nimal, while Senaka adds that the “lashes” were strokes of lipstick on the back of Jesus.

Vivid recollections

Here’s what the actors of Jesus Christ Superstar of yesteryear have to say on e-mail as all of them are living abroad –
Reza Deane who played Jesus Christ: A Muslim playing Jesus was a honour. Being a Malay, I had no problems with my parents or relations. My parents were proud of me! Most of our closest friends were from different communities.

What was special to me was that we, the cast, were like a large family, with all the encouragement and support from Nimal and Senaka. I still reminisce…… was a highlight in my musical career.

Radha de Mel (nee Fernando) who played Mary Magdalene: 20 years old — dying to get on stage — and invited to join the chorus, my cup was full to the brim and running over. But fate, with a helping hand from Nimal and Senaka, had more delightful surprises for me. Marie, who was to play Mary Magdalene had to pull out at the last minute and after a few weeks of ‘filling in’, since I was probably the only ‘Wannabe’ who knew all the words and all the moves, Nimal called to say that they had decided to let me have the role. Mainly, I suspect, because time was running out and they couldn’t find anyone else!

To say I was in raptures is probably an understatement. For the next few months, I was walking on air, loving every bit of the exciting rehearsals, soaking up the live performances and just living for the wonderful moments when I did my solos.
Looking back I think I hammed the role (just a bit!) and given another chance I would probably hold back some of the raw emotion.

But, by God, what a rush it was to hear the first few bars of ‘Everything’s Alright’, ‘I Don’t know How to Love Him’, and ‘Could We Start Again Please’ and take a bow to rapturous applause!

Just recently I saw the Arena Production in Perth with Tim Minchin as Judas and Mel C as Mary Magdalene. It was a massive production, with all the spectacular ‘son et lumiere’ effects used to full effect. But, exciting as it was, it was not a patch on our production in 1975.

The scenes in Herod’s court, the Council of High Priests, with the lepers and the grand finale with Judas are among the best I have seen anywhere in the world, and the staging of the solos was pure magic! I marvel at the innovation, inspiration, and sheer genius of Nimal and Senaka that produced one of the finest musicals in Sri Lankan theatre history and I am so grateful to them for having given me one of the most wonderful experiences of my life.

Geoffrey Alagaratnam who played Pontius Pilate: I believe that when playing a role you have to reach out of yourself. I had to play Pilate and be Pilate. While there may be different interpretations of the role, I saw Pilate as a traditional and oft seen character. To me he was a holder of high office, pompous, pathetic, puppet of the system and coward, afraid to take decisions and pressured by others.

He conveniently passed the buck and washed his hands off major decisions. In the end his act lets evil triumph over good. Does that not make the background and meaning of Christ’s death seem more significant for all time and all years?
Ravi Prakash as Annas: It’s so vivid, how can we forget! We profited from all that creative energy, not only in JC but in ‘Life@the Lwendt!’

Talk about the Roman guard who was pulled back stage in the nick of time with his safety helmet (which he used as a bowl) during the Last Supper scene. Or the market scene when I let Menick nearly free fall when I was supposed to prop her up! I enjoyed every bit of it including standing on boxes. 

I did bump into our Caiaphas casually on the streets of Sydney many years ago! Still with that deep voice! I did see ‘JC Superstar’ recently in Sydney. You can tell they spend a lot of money on stage sets and modern technology! But our production of that era wins hands down, without wireless microphones or computers!

Ishan Bahar of Jetliners’ fame who played Herod with Hugh Hefner look and was accompanied in his act by our dancing girls: Ricky (who was 7 at the time) still remembers his brother Shane (4) doing a head-stand when I used to practise Herod’s song ‘Feed my household with this bread, You can do it on your head’, at home. They are now 45 and 42 respectively and we still reminisce when we meet.

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