Jesus Christ Superstar, An Oral History
The pioneering musical that featured many stars from India’s nascent rock ‘n’ roll scene
In 1974, Alyque Padamsee staged his version of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s path-breaking rock opera, Jesus Christ Superstar, at the Birla Matoshree Sabhagriha, in Mumbai. First performed in 1971, Rice and Lloyd-Webber’s production created a stir around the world. It was loved and hated in equal measure. The conservatives called it a work of the devil, the young and the rebellious identified with it. The musical was loosely based on the rise and fall of Christ, and his troubled relationship with Judas and Mary Magdalene. Padamsee’s Jesus Christ Superstar, the first major musical to be staged in India, was a landmark project. It ran uninterrupted for over a year, every weekend, to a packed auditorium, and it had fans from other cities clamouring for the production to tour the country. Even as the play raised the hackles of some Catholic groups, theatre lore has it that nuns and priests fell to their knees, praying reverentially and weeping, as Christ was crucified on stage.
The scale at which the thespian conceptualised and executed the production was massive, and he ensured the building blocks were in place. Padamsee ”wanted to destroy the idea of the proscenium”, and, so, he designed a set that had a 100-foot-wide cross on the floor of the hall through the central aisle, and a diagonal cross, which ran over the first few rows. He even built a replica of the set on the rooftop of his home, in Colaba.
The cast comprised talented musicians such as Madhukar C Dhas, the frontman of the psych rock band, Atomic Forest; Gerson da Cunha, the stage and film actor, Nandu Bhende, who fronted bands such as Velvette Fogg and Savage Encounter; and Noel Godin, acclaimed music director and composer. Many members of the cast and crew, including Dhas, da Cunha and Godin, worked with Padamsee at Lintas India.
The musical had a five-piece band that performed live on stage and consisted of professional musicians such as Gussy Rick on lead guitar, Steve Sequeira on drums and Darryl Mendonsa on bass. Padamsee auditioned over 100 singers, before finalising on the cast led by Dhas and Bhende. Their music was emblematic of the generational shift taking place in the country and the frustration with moribund socialism. Their parents might have listened to jazz, but, the youngsters of that decade moved to the pounding rhythms of rock. Apart from Atomic Forest and Savage Encounter, the country saw many influential rock bands such as The Jets, Great Bear, The Mustangs and Human Bondage. In a recent interview to Rolling Stone India, Sidharth Bhatia says that ”rock music became the musical expression, the anthem of rebellion of a generation demanding social change for reasons totally extraneous to India – the Vietnam war, for instance – but, which also registered in the country.” Bhatia is the author of a forthcoming book, Indian Psychedelic: The Story of a Rocking Generation, which tracks the cultural history of the country as seen through the country’s iconic bands.
Jesus Christ Superstar was a milestone because it arrived at the right time. It had rock, it was irreverent and it had never-before-seen production values. What also struck a chord with the Indian audience was the production’s lack of cynicism, and sincere intent to find a commonality between Christ and Mahatma Gandhi – men of god who died for the sake of love and brotherhood. Despite the staging of many other popular musicals, including Padamsee’s own Evita, the country’s longest running musical, Man of La Mancha, Kabaret and recently, the Sound of Music, there has never been a musical as influential and as remembered as Jesus Christ Superstar. At the turn of the century, theatre personality Rahul daCunha staged his version and enjoyed his share of accolades and controversies. Da Cunha’s production, though, was the last of the significant Indian musicals. Rising costs, the lack of a well-informed audience and the failure of the productions to strike a contemporary chord have, it is said, contributed to the demise of the genre.
Madhukar C Dhas (Jesus CHRIST)
I first heard the JCS soundtrack when I was residing at the YMCA hostel, in Colaba. The music of JCS featured in a cultural evening at the YMCA. I sat in the last row with about hundred other residents. The audio was bad, the fans were loud. Thankfully, we had a script we could refer to. Frankly, I didn’t understand it at all. Also, my staunch Methodist Christian upbringing had never exposed me to such ideas. But, I was rebellious. I sang every night with Atomic Forest at clubs such as Slip Disc and Blow Up (at the TajMahal Hotel, at Apollo Bunder) and Hell, in Worli. During the day, I worked at Lintas India as an art director. AlyquePadamsee was the creative director. He took a liking to my music and artistic talents. Being a theatre moghul, I guess he took it upon himself to produce Jesus Christ Superstar in India.
Alyque Padamsee, director
The first time I heard the recording of Jesus Christ Superstar (JCS) was at the Afghan Church, in Colaba, on a rainy evening, in 1973. I was stunned, absolutely enchanted and thought of putting the rock opera on stage as my next project. It was easier said than done. To put a musical of a scale that vast was a huge task.
Nandu Bhende (Judas)
We started working on JCS from 1973. Alyque was a renowned theatre director, but he was not much of a music guy. JCS came into the limelight globally when it ran into numerous controversies in the US. But, it had great rock music that teenagers like me could connect with. Madhu (Madhukhar Dhas) and Noel Godin presented the idea to Alyque, but he was initially wary about a production that required a strong singing cast.
Preparation and Casting
We worked on it for a year with Rex Lobo as music director, Noel Godin as singing director, CoomiWadia as chorus coach, Salomi Roy Kapoor as dance director. The scale in which I wanted to do it was said to be impossible. I chose the Birla Matoshree Sabhagriha, the underground auditorium at the Bombay Hospital, which seats 1200 people. I wanted to destroy the idea of the proscenium, and, so, I designed a set that had a 100-foot wide cross, which ran over the first few rows. The play took place on the stage and on this makeshift cross.
We put together a five-piece band with guitars, keyboard and drums that performed live. It had an electrifying effect on the audience. None of my plays had the effect that JCS had. We used to run houseful for every show. That was something unheard of in English theatre in India.
We auditioned over 100 singers. I was clear about casting Madhukar and Nandu Bhende from the very beginning, but it took us almost three months to cast Mary Magdalene. I tried out at least 60 singers, but, in vain. Finally, Nandu told us about his sister and she came in and sang ‘I don’t know how to love him’, and all three of us (Rex, Noel and I) fell in love with Poornima.
Gerson DaCunha (Pontius Pilate)
When Alyque offered the role of Pilate to me, I pretty much took it in my stride. He did so fully aware that I was not a singer. He said, ”Don’t worry, you can speak your lines and sing in a few places.” And, with Rex Lobo and Noel Godin, I, somehow, managed to do a kind of Henry Higgins (My Fair Lady). Higgins never sings in the musical. But, then, in the end, Rex and Noel actually made me sing most of my lines and I quite enjoyed that.
Madhukar C Dhas
I was vacationing in Madras with my parents when I got a call from Noel Godin asking me if I wanted to star in Jesus Christ Superstar. A chill ran down my spine. I could not tell my parents, because they would have dissuaded me. On the flight back I decided to say yes, but I wanted to play Judas because everyone considered me a bad boy, and I was too scared to play Christ. Alyque had started auditions by then. I begged him to let me be Judas. But he gave me no choice. I had to play Jesus. He said, ”You have the gentle mannerisms…” or something like that. Finally, I agreed. I had to grow a beard. I was reluctant. Why couldn’t I be a beardless Jesus? Like in Godspell (a musical by Stephen Schwartz, which was based on a book by John-Michael Tebelak). He said I had to grow a beard. He is a commanding force and gets whatever he wants. I succumbed.
Noel had heard me sing and asked me to come over to Alyque’s house. I went to Kulsum Terrace, in Colaba, to sing for Alyque. Noel had asked me to carry mics and an amplifier for a better impact. I guess they liked what they heard and offered me Judas, which is, kind of, the main role in the musical. And, soon, we kicked off with rehearsals.
My Jesus was a tall, dark South Indian man, and Madhu was a rock ‘n’ roll guy, and so was Nandu. And, they had never acted before. I had to work on their enunciation. If you hear the original on disc and my version, you’ll realise that you can actually understand every word in the latter. Singers tend to be unclear with the lyrics sometimes. I changed the singing style and slowed the tempo of the whole soundtrack by half a beat and, hence, the words could be delivered better and appropriately emphasised. In all the foreign productions, the music took over the meaning. For me, it was primarily drama, music came second.
People who saw JCS abroad and then my production said that they could finally connect with the whole play rather than just hearing a bunch of song performances. That is because I started with an audiovisual of luminaries, who had believed in people and died for them. Gandhiji was one of them, there was Martin Luther King, and several others. And, we also wrote an original song called ‘My son My son My son’, which the Virgin Mary sings for Jesus and all the other people mentioned in the audiovisual who believed in peace and love and were assassinated.
Madhukar was a shy Christian boy. I told him, ”On the cross, you are practically nude, you understand that, right? You will just be wearing a langot.” So, he said, ”Oh, but I come from a Christian family.” But I told him that nobody should be embarrassed and that I had made many actors take off their pants and perform in their underpants. ”What was wrong with that?” He said, ”No, no, no, that’s impossible.” So, I took off my pants, with 70 members of my cast watching, and I remember I was wearing red underpants! And, I said, ”Don’t be shy. On stage you have to be naked emotionally, and, if required, physically too.”
I had such a young cast, all 18 and below. I have always worked with young people. KabirBedi was only 20 when he was cast as Tughlaq. Many of my cast members were stoned, rolling joints all the time. But, anyone who saw my JCS would tell you it was a milestone production. The Superstar family was very tight. Love blossomed, one or two even got married, all sorts of things happened.
The rehearsals were enormous fun. It was a huge cast. It was always a party. How Alyque managed such a big cast with such limited resources, I have no idea. For example, he created a mock-up of the whole set on the terrace of his house for rehearsals. We had just three mics between us. We had to leave a mic in a particular place for the next actor and we managed to get that right after numerous rehearsals. But, the greatest restriction was the music. How would you manage an orchestra score? And, that is where Noel and Rex did a fantastic job. The music track was done by a quartet, I think. And, we practiced for months to perfect the songs. By the end of it, the lack of instruments was no longer a handicap.
The complete musical is in song and, so, all we did for six months was come to the rehearsals and sing the songs. Then, suddenly, 15 days before we opened, Alyque started giving out the blocking. That was it. We hardly had any other preparation. And, most importantly, the acting was in the singing and, I guess, that is what he looked at. If you sing well, the emotion and acting comes out. Only the body language had to be worked on.
Madhukar C Dhas
Today, no one would allow a parallel theatre gig along with a regular job in an advertising agency. Alyque would drive me to rehearsals in his car after work. If I had work I needed to finish, he would transfer it to another art director. I did not realise that I had gained so much respect at Lintas that no one ever complained. In fact, Mr. Raj Arjunghi, the studio manager at Lintas India, called me to his room and told me the story of an actor who walked with a limp even off sets because he was playing Nero in a film. ”Go and live like Christ!” he said. I took that advice seriously and changed my reckless ways. ”God, please help me live this very serious and difficult role,” I would pray every day. Noel Godin said something very important. ”Madhu, try to imagine what Christ must have gone through. Imagine you are in an electric chair with a few moments left to live. Feel it and go through it.” Every night, when I sang ‘Gethsemane’, I could not hold back my tears. And, almost every night, I got a standing ovation.
Alyque brought in his favorite theatre personalities who were extremely good actors, but did not have any experience with rock music. Gerson was an extremely commanding personality on stage, but fell short in the music department. One of the iconic scenes has Pilate singing in sync with the riff as Jesus is whipped 39 times. He would keep missing it. Joe Alvarez, who played Simon Zelotes (one heck of a powerful voice), walks up to the managing director of Lintas India, Mr. Gerson DaCunha, and blatantly tells him, ”Arrey Pilaaate! Learn how to count!” Gerson replied angrily, ”I don’t intend to!”
In the beginning, all of us were just studying the parts. As the days passed, we became aware of the seriousness of it. Initially, we were all in Alyque’s home, it was always crowded, with 40 to 50 cast members. The musicians were terrific. Later, with the set on the rooftop, we got an understanding of what the stage would actually feel like.
The BBC filmed a segment starring Devika Bhojvani, who played Mother Mary, for a news segment. I remember they filmed from a helicopter. We had to wave from the rooftop. And, then, we were transported to the rooftop of the Taj Hotel, from where we were forced to wave again. All for publicity, which I can’t complain about as I am an ad man too.
Theatre veterans such as Gerson had to put up with stoned kids like me every day. During rehearsals, when I would be in the zone, the other guys would be smoking up and cracking inane jokes. It would be so tough to keep a straight face.
We used to borrow the sound system from Slip Disc, carry the heavy speakers to Birla hall after 2am when the disc shut and be ready by six in the morning for a sound check. After the show, at 10pm, all the equipment had to be loaded onto trucks and taken back to the disc by 11pm, which is when it opened. We did that every show. On Broadway, they takeover a theatre, build an exclusive set and sound system and run for years. We had to strip the set and that giant cross every weekend and re-build it every week for a year. Weekends were sacred. If you asked me how I did it, I have no idea.
There were no handheld mics in India back then. Only mics with stands. Luckily, my brother bought three handheld mics from London, but they had 100-foot cables. You had the mic in your hand and the 100-foot long cable. As you walked, you had to unroll it and, as you walked back, you slowly rolled it up again. We colour-coded the mics and you had to put it down in the right place for the next actor. Imagine that.
When Jesus enters the city on Palm Sunday, to create an impact, I had ‘plants’ in the audience who joined the crowd on stage. Now, this one guy thought it was open for all, and he came up too. And, I saw that he was ruining the scene. I called him aside and realised he was not with the cast. He thought I wanted to congratulate him on his performance, but, I caught him by the collar and threw him out.
I don’t think I was nervous. When you are prepared the way we were, you don’t feel nervous. And, we had rehearsed so much and for so long that the songs were almost a part of our sub conscious. I now understand why Alyque kept making us do the songs. Also, I think we were quite chilled out. We were rockers in the real sense of the word. Alyque also gave pep talks. He would get people together for group talks and also do these one-on-ones with people after every five to six shows, and tell them how important and indispensable they were to the show. It tickled me to see him do that back then, but, now, I understand how important it is to appreciate people.
Madhukar C Dhas
There is nothing like the applause we received night after night. I would work all day at Lintas, then go to Birla hall, get made up to look like JC, relive the whole experience, and, then, catch a cab to go perform at Blow Up till 1am with blood-stained hands from the crucifixion scene that I did not have the time to wash off. I barely ate, slept for about four hours and had to do the routine all over again the next day. I thank my Creator for giving me that amount of energy.
At first, the Catholic community objected. So, I went to meet the archbishop and told him that my production was unlike the one on Broadway. It was more about Christ’s personal struggle and overcoming his own human drawbacks. The archbishop was absolutely fine with it.
My production also tried to bring in an Indian perspective. Though we started with the Roman times, as scenes unfolded, the costumes changed and we saw the Roman guards becoming Indian policemen. By the end of the play, Indian policemen arrest Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane, and Judas does not kiss Jesus, he touches his feet. The high priest was a saffron-wearing bald man. There were many things that reminded you that a man of peace was born in this country and he was killed too – Gandhi. I tried to bring in the parallel. The audience appreciated that. The repeat audience was phenomenal. I made the crucifixion very realistic. Christ was actually nailed on stage, blood trickled down, and there he was hanging mid-air on the cross. That is stagecraft. Directors forget that after cinema has come in, people want a visual treat on stage, too. Theatre is a visual experience. I have actually beheaded a man on stage.
I always left the first rows empty for Catholic priests or nuns, and, during the crucifixion scene, they actually began praying. They underwent the experience.
We couldn’t travel because the band said they couldn’t leave the city because they had assignments, or, we had to pay them film-industry rates, which was impossible. We were ready to go to Calcutta, but we couldn’t. We couldn’t have a second band, because we wanted good musicians. And, even the amateurs we had became famous during Superstar. Bollywood guys came to watch the production and said, ‘Hey, I want that guy.’ And they had them. Eventually, the whole music team began working for films in Bollywood.
JCS died early because AlyquePadamsee could not gauge the pulse of the youth in our group. It could have been huge. The discipline he wanted to instill in us was required, but not for an extended period. That is one of the reasons we couldn’t go on.
Or else, JCS could have gone on forever. We did not even travel with it. We were supposed to go to Calcutta, but it didn’t happen because people couldn’t come together.
He made sure we knew who the boss was. He was from the corporate world and had his way of working, and all of us were free spirited rockers. The point is, when you keep on doing the same thing, boredom sets in. We had nothing to motivate us. We were not getting paid either. And, this was not the only place we were performing. The whole irreverence of our generation was not truly appreciated by the corporate world.
Alyque did Evita later, but, it was not rock anymore. I wish he had done Rent, or, Hair after JCS, but I don’t think those were his kind of productions. But, we are very lucky he did JCS back then. Who else would have done it? No one else had the vision. But no one was intimidated by him. In the ad world he was god, but not in the rock world. And, that is unfortunate, because even though he has contributed to the rock scene of Bombay to such a large extent, he has never been given the respect he deserves by the rock fraternity.
Madhukar C Dhas
Some of the girls in the cast told me that girls in the audience used to masturbate when I sang Gethsemane on stage. Sacrilegious, yes, but I thought this was a compliment to my singing. There was also this beach party that Alyque threw celebrating the play’s success. The place was all set up on a rooftop with amplifiers as loud as they could get. I reached late and was greeted by everyone. One of my friends coaxed me to eat a slice of cake (it was a spiced hash cake) and, after some time, I was going up and down a 16-foot ladder on the rooftop, singing songs. When I was brought down, Gerson grabbed my arm and asked, ‘What was in that cake?’ Obviously, I couldn’t tell him. Thank god, we all survived that night.
Jesus Christ Superstar, 2000
There is nothing more exciting than staging and performing for a live audience. You get an instant reaction, which, in turn, affects your performance. If Chennai Express was a live performance, Shah Rukh Khan would have been booed off stage. Even though he made Rs 150 crore, he has no way of knowing that people fell asleep, or that the seats were empty from the fourth day. Traditional Marathi theatre actors will tell you that the audience is ruthless. If they don’t like you, they will moon you during the performance. That challenge is intimidating and exciting. And, when I was doing JCS after 30 years, it was exciting to change and adapt the production accordingly.
To this day, it is the perfect musical for me. I did it in 2000, and it had the whole new millennium angle. Alyque’s production was a spiritual experience. It was written and performed at a time of anti-establishment fervour, pop culture, drugs, and Christ was this glamourous figure. The turn of the century meant that it was the next best time to do it.
The songs are so perfect. They can be remixed, Indianised, slowed down, and there are so many musical styles in one production. And, it is classic theatre – you have hero and villain locked in mortal combat. And, the woman. It is a Hindi film.
I got Zubin Balaporia to do the music. He stuck to the essence of the soundtrack, but made relevant additions. Our music programming was tremendous. We had the horns and clarinets, flutes, and even used Indian influences such as sarangis and tablas. Casting was a terrible experience. We had to get so many singing actors. We had auditions at St. Andrew’s and Tata (the National Centre for Performing Arts, in south Mumbai). I remember writing ‘sorry’ notes to the ones who didn’t get through. The most important thing was to find the perfect Mary and a great choir. Without a great choir striking the high notes excellently, the songs would have no effect. The problem is, we don’t have good actor-singers in the country. Even in the previous production, Nandu and Madhukar were professional singers. A lot of people who had seen both mine and Alyque’s JCS, said that his was a much simpler production. If we had made that today, nobody would have come to see it. So, I think both our productions were meaningful to people. You judge a JCS by the kind of controversies it creates. So, we had a few ourselves. I was banned from Sophia after one show.
At Andrew’s, we had a different issue. Just before Mary Magdalene sings ‘I don’t know how to love him’, she is lying at Jesus’s feet (he is sleeping) and we black out and have the light on her only when she starts singing. Those chutiyas told me that blackout is very symbolic and I should remove that. I said, thank you, I am sticking to Tata. That is when they softened. They also had people writing into them. Some guys from an organisation called the White Flag wanted to know ”How can a Christian like him (da Cunha) do this? Even a Muslim like Alyque showed reverence to the faith…” and all sorts of rubbish.
The stunner for me was the archbishop. He called me and said, ”This is the kind of music we need to get the young interested in the faith.” He asked me to do 25 shows for the church. We couldn’t do it because we couldn’t afford it, but his attitude blew me away. This tells us what the religion has become. It is we idiots who make unnecessary fuss while the Pope is fine.