When Val Kilmer talks about his new role in the small, bare room that is his office on the Paramount lot, he sounds more like a Bible class teacher than a participant in a multimillion-dollar extravaganza.
“It’s hard to imagine what a culture is like when a human thinks they’re God,” he said, referring to Pharaoh. “And people react [to that] from a foundation of fear. It’s amazing that Moses was able to do what he did, and that clarity of intensive righteousness that he had, and how selflessly he assumed the role of leader that he didn’t want. That is what characterizes him as extraordinary.”
Kilmer plays Moses in “The Ten Commandments,” the new musical version of the Exodus story, which is set to open at the Kodak Theatre on Sept. 27. His philosophical musings are typical of those of the main players behind the show. While the trend in recent popular musicals has been to give audiences a good time in the most facile way possible, “The Ten Commandments” aims to be wholly entertaining but primarily inspirational and educational.
“It’s so hard to find a story that lends itself to speak to a generation, but people do want to be entertained and they don’t want to be preached to,” said Robert Iscove, the show’s director. “We are trying to get our message across in a highly educated and entertaining way.”
The message of the show, as Iscove describes it, is: “Faith will not divide us, only our fear will. We are all the same underneath the skin, and without all agreeing on a code of behavior, anarchy rules. The only time we don’t grow and follow our spirituality is when our individual Pharaoh is ruling us.”
That message is one of the reasons that producers Charles Cohen and Max Azria decided to launch the production.
Cohen, who was the senior acquisitions adviser for Europe to SFX, the company that is now Clear Channel Entertainment, originally saw the “Le Dix Commandements” in France, where it was the most successful musical ever produced in that country. It ended up playing to audiences of more than 2.2 million over 17 months, and selling 11 million copies of the soundtrack and 1.2 million copies of the DVD.
When Cohen saw the production, he was mesmerized by its scale, extravagant special effects, heartwarming and heart-pumping score and inspirational underpinnings. He loved it so much that he invested in it, and he also started thinking about how he could bring the French production to an English-speaking audience in the United States. He brought his friend, Azria, the designer behind clothing label BCBG, in to see the show in Paris, and together they started a musical production company to get “The Ten Commandments” to America.
In the international exchange, Cohen and Azria ended up revamping the show completely. They recruited Patrick Leonard, who produced the soundtracks to “Moulin Rouge” and “Legally Blonde,” to write the new music, and Emmy-award winning songwriter Maribeth Derry to write the new lyrics.
“In America we knew that it was a different ballgame altogether,” Cohen said. “We decided to change the scenic aspects, the costumes, the designs and the composition of the lyric. A new book [script] was written, we had new choreography, and different, much bigger special effects. It’s the same story, but a new show.”
Cohen won’t disclose the exact figure he and Azria put into the production, except to say that it is “many millions of dollars.”
“We are much over [the budget of] a regular Broadway production,” he said. “We have 52 people on stage, and our show becomes bigger and bigger every day. Two months ago we didn’t know that Kilmer was going to be on board, and we tripled our special effects budget. It is huge. We cannot give numbers, but those numbers are going up every day.”
“The Ten Commandments” is the largest show to originate in Los Angeles. It is booked for 90 days at the 3,400-seat Kodak Theatre, and after that it will travel to Radio City Music Hall in New York, before beginning a national tour.
Of course, “The Ten Commandments” has a long history of being a “big” production.
The original giving of the Ten Commandments more than 5,000 years ago, where 600,000 Israelites saw the revelation of God, is the historical event that for many Jews establishes the authenticity of Judaism.
When Cecil B. DeMille decided to retell the story on screen in 1956, starring Charlton Heston as both Moses and God, it was billed as “The greatest event in motion picture history.”
Iscove said that his musical is significantly different from DeMille’s film.
“A lot of the effects back then were very anachronistic, and the style of acting is different, and the message to a ’50s generation is stricter and more rigid,” he said. “There is also more feminism [in this retelling]. We do a lot about the pain of the women in the story, Ziporrah [Moses’ wife], Yochebed [Moses’ mother] and Bithia [Pharaoh’s daughter who saved Moses from drowning and then raised him in the palace.] Zipporah is a much stronger woman [in this production] than she was in the 1950s.”
The musical tells the story of how Moses was raised in Pharaoh’s house, alongside Ramses (Kevin Earley), who is Pharaoh’s son. Ramses becomes the next Pharaoh who refuses to free the Israelites from their slavery, and Moses is the brave leader who defies him to bring the Israelites to freedom.
“The story is very close to the Bible,” Iscove said. “Two people were raised in the same house, given all the same privileges, and one finds his humanity and follows his spiritual path and the other rejects his humanity and his heart gets hardened by God. It is only by Moses recognizing his humanity that he became the leader of the three great religions.”
Iscove said that Kilmer, who in the past has had a reputation of being difficult with directors, is “terrific” as Moses.
“He is becoming Moses, and the leader of this company,” Iscove said. “He is adopting Moses. Moses is a gentle soul, and he has been very much a gentle soul in this.”
This production is Kilmer’s second turn as Moses. His first was with the 1998 DreamWorks animated film “The Prince of Egypt.”
For Kilmer, the role is an extension of the weekly Bible readings that he does for his local Christian Science congregation in his home state of New Mexico.
“I get a lot of satisfaction from reading the Bible and sharing stories that matter with my community,” he said. “Playing Moses is bound to have some effect on me and anyone else involved in this story, and hopefully the audience will be affected too.”
“The Ten Commandments” opens Sept. 27 at the Kodak Theatre at Hollywood and Highland. Previews begin Sept. 21. For tickets, call Ticketmaster at (213) 365-3500. For more information, visit www.the10com.com or call (323) 308-6363.