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"Joseph...": How It Could Be Better 
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Broadway Legend
Broadway Legend

Joined: Sat Sep 29, 2007 1:06 pm
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Post "Joseph...": How It Could Be Better
I've just finished reading an interesting fan essay about Disney's Pocahontas, in which the author discusses all its flaws, and then outlines a revised version of the movie that she thinks would have been better ( ... s-contents). It made me want to write my own similar "making it good" outlines for other flawed pieces of fiction. So that's what I'm doing. And I'm starting with a musical I adored when I was younger, Andrew Lloyd Webber's Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.

I still enjoy Joseph… It's funny, it's witty, it's exuberant, the main character is a hot young guy who spends 1/3 of the show wearing only a loincloth, and it's full of catchy music. But the older I get, the more I realize how flat it falls as a retelling of the Bible story. Yes, I know it's a kids' show, it was written to be performed by kids at a Catholic school, and I shouldn't expect it to have more emotional depth than an average Sunday school lesson. If you want a mature, deeply moving adaptation of the Joseph story, rent the 1995 TV movie with Paul Mercurio. But I think it's fair to want a tiny bit more emotional depth than the musical gives us, not to mention a more coherent, hole-free plot.

It kills me that when the show had its most recent West End revival, and Andrew Lloyd Webber reunited with Tim Rice to add new material, they didn't bother to fix any of the show's flaws, but just added a pointless comedy song for the Pharaoh, "King of My Heart."

These are the flaws I wish they had fixed:

1. The show barely mentions God. I don't hugely mind this fact, but it does make the piece less consistent with itself than it could have been They secularize it with a "Believe in your dreams" message, but is that message really a perfect fit for a story about a man with supernatural prophetic powers? "Anyone from anywhere can make it if they get a lucky break"… sure, Joseph, easy for you to say when you can interpret dreams! The show tries to portray him as an everyman and frame his story as a "Have faith in yourself" story, but the fact that he's actually a holy man and that it’s really a "Have faith in God" story can't help but poke through. Why not just acknowledge it? I don't think the non-religious public would be offended: look at the love for Les Misérables even among atheists, God-references and all! Nor do I think it needs to be preachy. Just a little bit more in touch with its Biblical origins than it is.

2. Joseph himself isn't always likeable. Based on reviews I’ve read, a surprising number of people despise the show because they despise the hero. They label him "an arrogant prat who gets lucky." Now, I don't agree, but I can see where they're coming from. His bragging at the beginning is never called out as a bad thing by anyone except his villainous brothers, and though he obviously learns a lesson in humility, singing "I do not matter, I'm only one person" in "Close Every Door,” that lesson is undermined just minutes later at the end of "Go, Go, Go, Joseph," when he echoes the chorus's praises and proclaims himself "Ahead of my time!" A stark contrast to the Bible's Joseph, who learns lasting humility and spends the whole later part of the story downplaying his own achievements and giving God all the credit! Plus there's his psychological torture of his starving, helpless brothers in "Grovel, Grovel," which, IMHO, feels more sadistic in the musical than in the Bible. Yes, Bible-Joseph's actions are even darker (throwing them in prison as spies for three days, then keeping Simeon as a hostage for months), but we also see his inner vulnerability and longing to have his family back. How I wish the musical included his private crying scenes! As it is, he just seems to coldly enjoy his revenge until the brothers prove themselves worthy of forgiveness.

2. The ending of "Potiphar" is problematic. Potiphar catching Joseph in bed with his wife works in The Red Tent, but not so much in a straight adaptation of the Bible story. If Joseph succumbs to Mrs. P.'s charms, as in some productions, he loses his integrity and more people view him as a jerk who gets lucky (see above). If he's forced into the bed, as in other productions, we're in disturbing "rape Is funny when it's female on male" territory. Besides, it's untrue to the Bible either way.

3. The whole "Brothers Come to Egypt" sequence is a mess dramatically. This massive problem has a single, simple cause: the fact that Benjamin isn't distinguished from the other brothers until Joseph frames him for stealing the golden cup. In the Bible, Benjamin is special. He's Joseph's only full brother, his mother's only other son, and therefore Jacob's second favorite. He's also the youngest brother and would probably have only been a little boy, if he was even born yet (it's vague), when Joseph was sold into slavery – i.e. innocent of any sin. Yet in most productions of the musical he's an adult from the start, is just as ignored by his father as the other brothers are, hates Joseph just like the rest, and takes part in selling him. So why does Joseph use him to test the other brothers, yet not give him a test? Why is it meaningful when the brothers defend him– why wouldn't they, if they have no reason to hate him? How does their rhapsodizing about his goodness and honesty in "Benjamin Calypso" make sense when he helped them try to murder Joseph? It's plot hole city! Add Joseph's cold-blooded vengefulness (see above) to the mix, and it's clear why this whole scene tends to make me uncomfortable, to the point that I usually skip it when I listen to cast recordings.

Below is a song-by-song description of the changes I would make to the show if I could rewrite it. I won’t try to actually write new lyrics (I’m no Tim Rice) but I’ll outline the meanings I want conveyed. Sir Tim, Sir Andrew, if you see this somehow, please take note!

Prologue: I’d like to tweak the lyrics ever so slightly. The message of “Believe in your dreams” would stay intact, but it would be expanded to “Believe that God can make your dreams come true.” Also, if I were in charge of the staging, I’d scrap the usual framing device of “the Narrator as a Sunday/Catholic school teacher reading to her students,” because that image clashes with the line “But if, by chance, you are here for the night…” That beautiful lyric is one of my favorites in the show: to me it evokes the image of a woman in ancient Israel sitting by a fire in the dark, telling stories to her extended family or to travellers spending the night at her home. Or at least some image that’s more nocturnal and poetic than a cutesy Sunday school class.

Any Dream Will Do: Unchanged.

Jacob & Sons: Unchanged.

Joseph’s Coat: The second half of the first verse would be rewritten. The ten older brothers’ jealousy of Joseph would be established more quickly and succinctly, and the following one or two lines would establish Benjamin as different from all the others. I wouldn’t bother to mention that he’s Rachel’s only other son (that would just open up the Bible’s plot hole of “Why does Jacob favor Joseph even over Benjamin?”), but if “Benjamin Calypso” is going to make sense, he needs to be portrayed as the only “good” brother, who loves Joseph and isn’t jealous of him. He wouldn’t sing with the other brothers, but would spend the whole scene at Joseph’s side, chatting with him, admiring his new coat, and generally making it clear that Joseph is his Big Brother Best Friend Forever (yes, feel free to imagine Bible characters singing My Little Pony songs). I’d also add a line or two (and staging) implying that the older brothers don’t like Benjamin either, which would raise the stakes for him later in Egypt when Joseph gives them the chance to get rid of him. Last but not least, I’d replace “His astounding clothing took the biscuit/Quite the smoothest person in the district” with something along the lines of “And he made the brothers even madder by bragging night and day” (though worded in a witty, Tim Ricean way). Just a little acknowledgement that yes, Joseph’s ego is a flaw, for anyone who doesn’t realize it’s supposed to be.

Joseph’s Dreams: Mostly unchanged, though once again, Benjamin wouldn’t sing with the older brothers. Instead he’d be clearly impressed by Joseph’s dreams and excited for him. After “A ministry or two!” he and Joseph would high five, then run off together, leaving the older brothers to fume. “For there’s eleven of us and there’s only one of him” would be changed to something like “For there are ten of us and, shucks! There’s only one of him!”

Poor, Poor Joseph: I’d add a new opening verse. The Narrator would sing, in effect, “Next day the brothers went far from home to feed the sheep in a greener field. Joseph and Benjamin stayed behind, but then Jacob sent Joseph to check on the big boys.” This would handily explain Benjamin’s absence from the attack on Joseph – a much better choice than making him take part in it, IMHO. Then written first verse would become the second verse instead, with its opening line changed to “When they saw him near, the brothers planned a repulsive crime.” From there on, the scene would be unchanged.

One More Angel in Heaven: Unchanged, except, of course, that Benjamin would enter with Jacob and be distraught by the “bad news” along with him.

Potiphar: Unchanged until the end of the seduction pantomime. Instead of victory for Mrs. P., the sequence would end with Joseph breaking away from her and running offstage, leaving his shirt in her hand. (With good timing, I think this would be very funny.) Then “Potiphar was counting shekels…” would be replaced by a verse that says, in effect, “Alone, angry and humiliated, she went crying to her husband, saying that Joseph came on to her and she barely managed to fight him off.” Potiphar’s bursting through the bedroom door would be changed to him storming offstage, then reentering dragging Joseph, with the lyrics changed accordingly.

Close Every Door: Unchanged.

Go, Go, Go, Joseph: Mostly unchanged, though Joseph’s “Tell me of your dreams, my friends…” would be slightly altered to say, in effect, “God will help me find the meaning.” And under no circumstances would Joseph sing with the chorus at the end, just happily dance with them. No “Ahead of my time!” He’s learned humility by now and that lesson needs to stick!

Pharaoh Story/Poor, Poor Pharaoh/Song of the King/Pharaoh’s Dream Explained: All unchanged.

Stone the Crows: The Pharaoh’s “piece of cake” line would be changed to something that ends with “love,” and the “lucky break” line would become “Anyone from anywhere can make it with some help from up above!”

There would be no “King of My Heart.” No pointless, plot-halting “King of My Heart.” Absolutely not.

Those Canaan Days: Unchanged.

The Brothers Come to Egypt/Grovel, Grovel: Unchanged until after the brothers’ “Grovel, Grovel” verse. Then we’d insert some new material to give Joseph a much-needed boost of audience sympathy and add some genuine heart to the proceedings. With the appropriate action playing out onstage, the Narrator would sing a slow, gentle reprise of some earlier melody (maybe “Joseph’s Dreams,” maybe “Jacob & Sons), saying, in effect, “Then Joseph saw his beloved brother Benjamin, quaking at his feet along with the guilty ones. In a flash his anger dissolved, his heart ached, and he hurried off to his bedroom, where no one would see his tears.” Joseph would withdraw to a corner (the brothers would freeze in poses of comic confusion) and the stage would go black, leaving only that corner lit by a spotlight. Then we’d have a short instrumental interlude as we watch Joseph softly sobbing. Maybe the Narrator would come over and try to comfort him, depending on how much we want her to interact with the characters. Then he’d sing a short solo, saying, in effect, “I miss my family, I want to reunite us, but I can’t trust my brothers… unless I put them to a test!” Then, with composure regained, he’d go back to the brothers, the stage lights would come back up, and “Grovel, Grovel” would resume with “I rather like the way you’re talking…”

Who’s the Thief?: Unchanged.

Benjamin Calypso: Unchanged, except now it makes sense because Benjamin really is “straighter than the tall palm tree” and “honest as coconuts.”

Joseph All The Time: Unchanged.

Jacob in Egypt: Unchanged, though the staging would need to be carefully paced to make sure that the father/son reunion makes a true impact. We need more than just the quick hug that some productions give us!

Any Dream Will Do/Give Me My Colored Coat: Unchanged.

With these rewrites, we’d have a musical that’s more coherent, more consistent with itself, truer to the Bible, and more heartfelt, while still being a mostly lighthearted family show. If only some new production somwhere (or the new animated film version that’s reportedly in development) would make some of these changes, I’d be thrilled.

Wed Dec 03, 2014 1:13 pm
Tony Winner
Tony Winner

Joined: Mon Apr 19, 2004 11:35 pm
Posts: 355
Location: Singapore
Post Re: "Joseph...": How It Could Be Better
I've been thinking about some issues I faced when I watched the Pimlott revival once. I've noted that sometimes the show gets bogged down in encores, reprises and prolongings. As such the show grinds to a crashing halt just to please the crowds. For instance we get two encores of the Song of the King when it is not absolutely necessary. And I'm also thinking about the way that the litany of colours at the end of Joseph's Coat is sung twice when it could have been sung once. I sometimes wonder if it is possible to do an hour-length version of the 1990s Joseph and cut out some repeats, especially in the first act.

Tue Feb 03, 2015 10:10 pm
Broadway Legend
Broadway Legend

Joined: Wed Apr 02, 2008 6:31 am
Posts: 1961
Post Re: "Joseph...": How It Could Be Better
The filmed version is only an hour and fifteen minutes.

Tue Feb 03, 2015 10:36 pm
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