by Lien-yueh Wei
Joseph in Andrew Webber’s Musical
The musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, written by Andrew Webber and Tim Rice and based on Joseph’s story in Genesis of the Hebrew Bible, is one of the most successful and influential musicals in the world. It is currently estimated that this musical has been performed in nearly 20,000 schools or local theatres, involving over 700,000 performers of all ages, and with an audience in excess of 9 million people, since its first performance in 1968.
Due to its popularity, this musical has greatly influenced a huge amount of people on their impressions and understandings of Joseph’s story in Genesis. Many Christians have promoted this musical highly even though others have criticized it intensely. Because of its great influence and the controversy surrounding it in many Christian communities, it is necessary and helpful to explore this musical’s presentation and interpretation of the biblical story as well as to manifest its contributions and the differences between Joseph in this musical and in Genesis. Finally, it is meaningful and useful for contemporary Christians to discover what they can learn from this musical.
I. The Presentation and Interpretation of Joseph Story by Webber’s Musical
(a) The Way the Musical Presents Joseph’s Story
In this musical, Joseph’s story is presented by song, dance, and drama. The story is narrated exclusively through singing, and there is no spoken dialogue in the entire script. Notable in the composition of the music is the variety of styles used by Lloyd Webber, including parodies of French ballads (“Those Canaan Days”), Elvis-inspired rock and roll (“Song of the King”), western (“One More Angel In Heaven”), 1920’s ragtime (“Potiphar”), Caribbean style (“Benjamin Calypso”) and disco (“Go, Go, Go Joseph”).
(b) The Musical’s Interpretation of Joseph’s Story
In this musical, Joseph’s story is described like this: Joseph (the eleventh son out of twelve of Jacob) is the favorite son of Jacob. The brothers are jealous of Joseph for his colorful coat, which is a symbol of their father’s preference of him. But what really makes them mad is the thing that Joseph tells them of his dream which make it very clear that he is destined to rule over them. Joseph’s brothers then sell him into slavery. Eventually the favored son finds himself in jail where Joseph suffers and feels dejected. However, his favorable explanation of the Pharaoh’s dreams wins him the admiration of the Pharaoh, and soon Joseph becomes the second-in-charge of Egypt. During seven years of famine, Joseph’s brothers travel to Egypt seeking food. They learn of Joseph’s newfound power, and the family is reunited.
II. Contributions of the Musical
This musical has made at least three contributions to our society as well as the Christian community.
(a) Compelling Presentation of the Biblical Story
The way that this musical presents the biblical story is unique and compelling. It may be the first try in the Christian history to tell a biblical story by pop musical with various music styles, telling rhymes, modern dance, and playful drama. It successfully makes the story vivid and delightful. A British media report claims that this musical is enormously enjoyable and makes audiences cry with happiness. The Box Office record and the popularity of this musical also prove the fact that this musical’s presentation of the story has received its universal acceptance.
Many Christians have also identified with this musical as a good way to convey biblical messages. This musical has been performed by amateur and professional Christian performers in sanctuaries of many churches (such as Emerson Unitarian Church in Texas and St. Anne’s Episcopal Church in Georgia) for Christian education, for evangelical purposes, or for special programs.
(b) Another Interpretation of the Story
This musical provides another interpretation of Joseph’s story that is unconventional. The main Christian interpretation focuses on God’s action and guide in Joseph’s life while this musical’s interpretation emphasizes on the dramatic change of Joseph’s life and funny characters of other figures in the story, without mention of God.
In spite of its unconventional nature, this interpretation has been regarded by many people, including ministers, as biblical and consistent with biblical messages. For example, Bishop Ramirez delivered his speech “The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat of the U.S. Church,” for a Catholic conference at New Orleans in 1992. In this one-hour speech, he quoted nothing from the Bible, but quoted entire lyrics of the two songs (“Joseph’s Coat” and “Any Dream Will Do”) from this musical in order to undergird his message. Moreover, he use the image of Joseph’s multi-hued coat in this musical not only to support his idea that the Church should be made up by multi-hued people, but also to criticize racism and sexism. It is evident that for the Bishop, this musical’s interpretation and lyrics corresponds with the biblical message theologically and can be quoted as scripture for his official speech.
(c) Huge Influence of the Musical
This musical was premiered in 1968 at St Paul’s School of London. It was produced on Broadway in 1982 at the Royale Theatre where it remained for 749 performances. Over the years the musical was a record-breaking production which opened at the London Palladium in 1991 and seen by over 2 million people during its 2 and a half year run. It has played in 13 different countries, touring extensively. The show has played over 80 cities in the United States alone. Today there are nearly 500 school productions each year in the United Kingdom and over 750 in the United States and Canada. An established United Kingdom touring production is currently underway while a new production is touring many other countries, including Asian countries. Its music has been featured on numerous records. Its book could be found in libraries. Its movie version and video starring Donny Osmond as Joseph have made this musical spread all over the world.
Through this musical, Joseph’s story in Genesis has been heard by a huge amount of people. Many non-believers, especially people in Asian countries, never learn any biblical stories until they see or listen to this musical. Many Christian communities use this musical not merely for evangelical purposes but also for educational ones. For instance, in many religious schools, the song “Jacob and Sons” is taught as a helpful tool for remembering all of the tribes of Israel.
III. Differences between Joseph in the Musical and in Genesis
The key reason for the success of this musical may not be the music alone. It may also be the story itself. For many people, Joseph’s story is one of the most attractive and touching stories in the Bible and in the tale-world. Although this musical is based on Joseph’s story in Genesis, it does not have any obligation or responsibility to be consistent with the biblical narrative since its original and ultimate purpose is only for commercial benefit and entertainment.
However, because 1) this musical has great influence on people’s impressions and understandings of this biblical story, 2) many of its audiences who never heard the biblical version of this story may view this musical’s interpretations as biblical, and 3) this musical’s interpretation of the biblical story has been controversial in many Christian communities, it is necessary and helpful to manifest the aspects of this musical that do not correspond with the biblical narrative. By doing so, the differences between Joseph in this musical and in Genesis may be revealed, and people’s misunderstanding of the biblical story and messages may be prevented.
(a) The Origin of Lyrics not from Genesis
The first aspect of this musical that differs from the biblical narrative is the lyrics. Many of this musical’s lyrics do not originate from Genesis. For example, the lyrics of the two songs (See Appendix A-1 and A-2) which were quoted by Bishop Ramirez for his official speech do not derive from Genesis at all. The biblical narrative in Genesis never provides any information, either literally or theologically, that can be relevant to lyrics of these two songs. The image of the multi-hued coat which the Bishop used to deal with the issues of racism and sexism cannot be found in Genesis, too. The biblical narrative describes Joseph’s cloth made by his father as “an ornamented tunic,” rather than “a multi-color coat.”
In addition, the lyrics of the most moving song “Close Every Door” (See Appendix B) in this musical portrays the miserable time of Joseph in jail where he was tortured, mocked, and destroyed. However, the biblical story never says that Joseph suffered in jail, but states that the Lord “extended kindness to him and disposed the chief jailer favorably toward him; the chief jailer put in Joseph’s charge all the prisoners… and he [Joseph] was the one carry out everything…whatever he did the Lord made successful (Gen 39:21-23).”
(b) Overly Emphasis on Secondary Figures and the Absence of Primary Figure
The second aspect is that this musical excessively promotes some side figures while entirely casting off some primary figures. For instance, the pharaoh is a secondary figure who appears mainly in a chapter (Ch. 41) of the fourteen-chapter story. However, four songs in the twenty-one-song musical have a close relation with the pharaoh.
On the other hand, some significant figures are eliminated totally from this musical. For example, God (or the Lord) plays an indispensable role in Joseph’s story of Genesis. God’s name and action appears about forty times, almost in every plot of the story, in the biblical narrative, but none in this musical. Clearly, it is not proper that a side figure occupies almost one fourth of Joseph’s story in this musical while a pivotal one is absent.
(c) Neglect of the Crucially Biblical Message
The third aspect is revealed in the fact that this musical omits the crucially biblical message. Although based on Joseph’s story of Genesis in the Hebrew Bible, this musical does not come off as religious in any way. In this musical, there is not any religious message, and God’s (or the Lord’s) name or action is never mentioned.
However, the most principal message that the biblical story (or the biblical writer) desires to present may be that God is almighty and directs everything (Gen 43:14; 48:3; 49:5). This is why God’s name, voice, or action penetrates in almost every plot of the biblical story. For instance, according to the biblical narrative, the reason why Potiphar and Pharaoh make Joseph ruler of their house or Egypt and put him in charge of all they have is because they saw that the LORD is with him (Gen 39:2,) and God’s spirit is in him (Gen 41:38). Namely, it is God who makes Joseph prosperous. Moreover, the biblical writer stresses that it is not Joseph, but God, who can interpret dreams correctly (Gen 40:8; 41:16) and that it is not Joseph’s brothers, but God, who sends Joseph to Egypt in order to preserve a numerous people (Gen 45:5-8; 50:20). The writer is eager to show that Joseph is an archetypal role who bears a divine mandate, rather than a person who can know or control his own life.
Joseph’s story may be compelling and touching, but the ultimate purpose for the writer to construct this story is to convey a religious message that God is almighty and directs everything in Joseph’s life. All characterized figures and all spectacular plots in this biblical story serve this religious message. If an interpretation of Joseph’s story (such as the interpretation of Webber’s musical) ignores this message, this interpretation cannot be biblical.
IV. What Christians can Learn from the Musical
There are at least two things that contemporary Christians can learn from this musical even though it may have an unbiblical nature. First, Christians can learn the way that this musical presents the biblical story. This musical is a good example to show that a biblical story can be presented by a vivid and delightful way.
For years most ministers regard preaching as the best way (for some, even the only way) to tell people of biblical words. As the result, many intriguing and moving stories in the Bible have not been told attractively in many Christian communities. One of the reasons why many Christians, especially the young, always feel biblical stories are boring may be because for many years they have heard those stories told by their ministers in the same monotonous way. It is even more difficult to draw non-believers’ attentions to biblical words in the modern society if ministers use only traditional ways, such as preaching, to tell biblical stories.
This musical is a good reminder that Christians should try various ways to present biblical stories and messages in modern society. A biblical story can be told by a drama, musical, or movie which has a potential to make the story win a universal acceptance and popularity. Indeed, it is possible for biblical messages to be heard by huge numbers of non-believers if Christians are willing to find a good way to present it.
Second, Christians can learn the aspect that this musical interprets the biblical story. This musical manifests that it values aspects (such as characters of biblical figures) other than the theological one when it interprets Joseph’s story.
Many ministers’ interpretations of biblical words focus only on theological meanings for faith. They pay almost all their attentions on the theological aspect of biblical narratives, but ignore many other aspects entirely, such as literary features and characters of figures. However, the success and popularity of this musical may indicate that those aspects which many ministers ignore may be the decisive elements which are able to make their interpretations of biblical stories more vivid, compelling, and impressive.
Indeed, almost every biblical story is essentially a complete interfusion of literary art with theological, moral, or historical vision. Theological messages may be the ultimate concern of biblical writers. But without using other literary elements and skills, they may not be able to convey those messages attractively and impressively. Eventually, the analyses of literary or other aspects become the indispensable access for readers and hearers of biblical words to understand biblical messages.
In short, this musical reminds Christians that they should value the theological aspect together with other aspects when they read or preach biblical words in order to comprehend the theological meanings in biblical narratives more fully as well as to convey biblical messages more intriguingly and effectively.
A-1. Lyric of the song “Joseph’s Coat”
was red and yellow and green and brown
A-2. Lyric of the song “Any Dream Will Do”
closed my eyes, drew back the curtain
And in the east the dawn was breaking.
And the world was waking, any cream will do.
A crash of drums, a flash of light,
My golden cloak flew out of sight.
The color faded into darkness, I was left alone.
May I return to the beginning.
light is dimming and the dream is too.
Give me my colored coat, my amazing color coat.
B. Lyric of the song “Close Every Door”
Close every door to me, hide all the world from me
C. Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat - Broadway theater production promotional poster from 1991
D. DVD Version of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, 1999