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Interview of the Week – Rahul DaCunha, Theatre Director/Playwright

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The art of communicating emotions and messages through an audio visual experience has been performed since time immemorial. Humans have used these art forms to tell stories of joy, sorrow, valour or to preach.

India has always been a cultural hub and has welcomed all forms of art with open arms be it cinema, theatre, music or any other form of expression. One of the traditional method of entertainment and storytelling is the ‘Jatras’ which are still a part of rustic culture.

Musical theatre or Broadway shows have also captured the imagination of the nation. While Bollywood themed musicals have their loyal fanbase, English musicals have been gaining ground.

In our Interview of the Week, we spoke to theatre director/playwright, Rahul DaCunha about basics of a musical production, casting and composing, his magnum opus ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ and the way ahead for musicals in India.

What is the current status of musicals in India?

At the moment the industry is in a bit of a crisis, thanks to the pandemic. A film can be released on OTT platforms where it will get viewership. We can keep rehearsing and be ready for performance but is the audience going to watch us?

Prior to the pandemic, there was always a strong market for musicals and Broadway productions. Disney licenses the use of its productions like Aladdin, Lion King, Beauty and the Beast etc to production houses here. These shows are either adapted to the audience here by giving them an Indian touch, introducing Indian characters or used as they are internationally.

What interests me tremendously is the creation of our own material. By and large, our Indian tradition of music and musicals is humongous and this does not include Bollywood. There have been a lot of musicals based on Bollywood films. They are created here but largely showcased in foreign countries to cater to the NRI audience.

The economics are very tricky especially when it comes to sponsorship. Unlike a play, musicals need a bigger budget to be made but there is a large audience which enjoys musicals.

The effects of the pandemic will last for 2 more years at least mentally. The big decision to be taken by the theatre industry is what kind of material the audience would want to watch when they return to the auditoriums. The content will be the key. I personally feel they would prefer lighter content.

I think Bollywood musicals will do better because of the mass appeal and known songs. This creates instant recognition. ‘Hinglish’ will always work better because we Indians think in Hindi.

How is the script writing different for a musical?

It is very different and difficult to write for a musical than a play. In case of a play you are writing dialogues while for a musical you are writing songs but you still have to communicate and convey an emotion. Not only this, writing lyrics for an album and for a musical is entirely different.

Same goes with composing too. In an ideal musical there has to be a repetitive motif which becomes a recall value. So the first song has to flow into the second and henceforth. The first song is tied with the last one. Writing musical is one of the most difficult jobs out there. 

How is composing music for a musical different?

Most compositions happen with the lyricist and composer in different spaces. The lyricist would pen down the words and hand them to the composer who would then start working on the song. With ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ the musical template was already set and we just needed to work on how to ‘Indianise’ it.

For ‘Sing India Sing’, Bugs Bhargava Krishna and I would write just a few verses and take it to the composer, Clinton Cerejo. Then the composition would be worked upon depending on the situation of the song, the artist performing it and the genre. The tricky part for the composer would be to decide on the chorus. The lyricist could have a different chorus in mind then the composer, sonically.

But as always the musical score depends heavily on the production.

Tell us about your magnum opus ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’. How did you select the composer, singers and others?

‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ is a 1970 album musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice with Ian Gillian of Deep Purple as Jesus Christ. My generation grew up on this version and the music stayed with me. I was quite clear that once the time is right and budgets are met, I will do a stage production of it.

Zubin Balaporia, from Indus Creed, is someone whose work I have always respected as an artist and composer. Though he is a rocker, he is also a classical pianist. This is what interested me as a large part of the musical is classical keyboard based. There are other instruments involved too but at the heart of it is the keyboard. The original album has a very 70s rock sound which needed to be adapted to the Indian context. Zubin understood this well and he provided the required depth to it.

The castings were a very enjoyable and fun process. In an ideal world, one would cast actors who could sing or singers who could act. But that’s an ideal world, in ours we had just singers. Some showed up with their bands to audition as singers. Vishal Dadlani was perfect for the role of Satan and I was very clear that Vivenne Pocha would play Mary. The difficulty was casting for Jesus as it need someone with a very high tenor voice. We had cast Kartik Chintamani as Simon but due the course of rehearsals and training we thought he was fit to play Jesus. His rapport with Vishal was a plus point.

This was how the essence of ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ got created.

What was the vision behind ‘Sing India Sing’?

My partner Bugs Bhargava Krishna, the brilliant actor, director and I started working on the concept of a reality show which are a great source of material and atmosphere for conflict and theatre is basically all about conflict. We came up with a show which revolved around music and the characters hung around in the same apartment with cameras on them 24/7. The team created that same feel in the auditorium so when the audience walked in they felt like they were a part of the reality show.

Bugs and I took the decision that 95% of the play would be songs. If you see not all musicals are only songs, the songs are usually followed by dialogues. We decided to do away with dialogues as singers mouthing them would not carry the show.

There were varied characters, one was a rocker while another a girl from Dharavi who wanted to be a Bollywood dancer. The most interesting character hails is a temple priest’s son from Tamil Nadu who has come to the city to study computer engineering. He watches Jaz Z the rapper on TV and becomes Jazzy!

musicals

This made it all the more difficult for us as it involved composing for different characters. Bugs and I were clear that we wanted Clinton Cerejo to compose as he is extremely creative and curious.

It was a great experience for me as I had never written lyrics before. We would meet Clinton in the studio with the lyrics and ask him to compose something that starts off like Metallica but smoothly flows into a Kishore Kumar song. And the man would deliver it. It was a magical experience.

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