When Dallet Norris signed on to direct Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” for the fourth time in his career, he decided that the classic Bible tale turned classic musical needed some updating.
So, for the new touring production, which opens at the Pantages Theater on June 20, he cast an “American Idol” finalist (Amy Adams from Season Three) as the narrator, gave the characters computers and turned hedonistic Egypt into a South-Beach style party town replete with a sun-glasses-clad Sphinx backdrop — and the brothers use cell phones to call their father, Jacob, and to deliver the news of Joseph’s fake demise.
“You really go with where you are in time,” said Norris in a phone interview from New York. “Cell phones didn’t exist the first time [I directed the show]. But every time I do the show, I do it as if I am doing it for the first time. The different takes keep it fresh.”
For a musical like “Joseph,” freshness is imperative, because it seems that almost everyone has seen the show already.
The musical, which was born in 1968 when a then-unknown Lloyd Webber wrote a 20 minute pop cantata that was performed at London’s Colet Court school, produced professionally in 1972, opened on Broadway in 1982 and reopened in 1991 at the London Palladium, where it ran for two and a half years, attracted 2 million people and took in more than nearly $100 million in box office receipts. The show has been produced in 13 countries and, all told, according to Lloyd Webber’s Really Useful Group, “Joseph” has made more than $375 million at the box office worldwide. That is not counting the 20,000 schools and local theaters that have performed the musical — to an estimated audience of more than 9 million people.
And the audience continues to grow. Every year, 500 schools or amateur theater groups in the United Kingdom, and more than 750 in the United States, and countless others in countries like Australia, Germany and South Africa, perform the musical.
“I think because the show has been around for so long, people go there on a pilgrimage,” said Gary Gardner, a UCLA professor who specializes in American theater history and the history of the American musical. “You can take your entire family to see Joseph, and you have given them a cultural event.”
So what is it about this musical that makes it so popular and enduring? The story is a rags-to-riches family saga, the songs are sing-along good and the whole show embraces a sense of camp that gives a knowing wink to its biblical origins while making it so much more fun than regular Sunday school fare.
Despite its sacred source, throughout the years and its myriad productions, “Joseph” managed to avoid the incendiary reaction that accompanied Lloyd Webber’s next show, “Jesus Christ Superstar,” which fundamentalist Christians viewed as blasphemous, and Jewish groups viewed as anti-Semitic. In contrast, though, “Joseph” is a shallow, campy take on some hallowed stories; even religious audiences find it not only inoffensive, but fun.
“I don’t know if I would say ‘Joseph’ is sacrilegious,” Adams said. “I think it is another avenue [for the biblical stories] to make it a musical. I think people are more intrigued [by the stories] when you can have another take on it, like a musical.”
Indeed, the musical is aimed at an audience that is somewhat familiar with the story. During the middle of the show, the narrator sings to a despondent, jailed Joseph: “We’ve read the book, and you come out on top.” The joy of “Joseph” comes not from blind plot twists and turns, but from the delight of seeing an extravaganza made of something comforting and accessible.
The story comes from the last 13 chapters of the book of Genesis (although lyricist Rice admitted in interviews that it was less the Old Testament and more the “The Wonder Book of Bible Stories” that provided the inspiration for the show). In the musical, Joseph, favorite son of Jacob, is a sunny but self-absorbed dreamer. He upsets his 11 brothers when he tells them his dreams, which all seem to be analogous tales of them bowing down to him. Jealous of the many-colored coat their father gave him, and resentful of Joseph’s grandiosity, the brothers conspire to kill him. They throw him in a snake-filled pit, and then relent and sell him as a slave. They tell their father that Joseph is gone, and that “there’ll be one less place at our table.”
Meanwhile, Joseph is sent to Egypt, where he serves as a houseboy at Chez Potiphar (who in this production is a golf-playing millionaire). When he rebuffs the advances of Mrs. Potiphar, he is thrown into jail. A baker and a butler enter his cell, and when he correctly interprets their dreams, he attracts the notice of Pharaoh who had been having some strange dreams of his own. In his interpretation of Pharaoh’s dreams, Joseph advises him about how to prepare for years of famine by storing food during the years of plenty, and as a result becomes Pharaoh’s top adviser. When famine hits Canaan, Joseph’s brothers come to Egypt seeking food. They grovel at Joseph’s feet, and after Joseph is convinced that they have repented, he reveals himself and the family is reunited.
“Though the producers stylize it and make it a big extravaganza of costumes and sets, at the core of the show, it has a lot of heart,” said Patrick Cassidy, who plays Joseph in the current production. “It is about family, forgiveness, father and son reuniting, and those ideas appeal to everyone. You can dress it up all you want, but it has tremendous heart and sentiment and people really respond to that.”
Musically, “Joseph” is a high-energy pop-rock opera. The most infectious songs in the show are the rousing “Go, Go, Go Joseph” chorus, and the sweetly harmonious “Any Dream Will Do.” But the show has a pastiche of influences, and borrows from many musical genres. The brothers sing “One More Angel in Heaven,” a mournful country-western song to tell their father the bogus news that Joseph died wrestling a goat. Judah bops away to “Benjamin Calypso” — a stylized melody that proclaims Benjamin’s innocence after Joseph, in a trick to test his siblings, frames his youngest brother by planting a golden cup in his sack. Pharaoh is the Elvis of his time, and his “Song of the King (Seven Fat Cows)” is a reworked version of “Don’t be Cruel.”
“Adults recognize all the different music styles that we use, but [essentially] the whole idea behind the show is that it is a lesson for children,” Norris said. “Joseph is on the bottom, but he ends up on top. That is a lesson for all of us — to have something to hold on to, to have that dream to hold on to.”
“Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” plays June 20-July 2 at the Pantages Theater, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. Tickets are available at the Pantages Theater Box Office, Ticketmaster outlets and at
Jerry Herman doesn’t play favorites with his musicals. Ask him to rank “Mame,” “Hello, Dolly!” or “La Cage aux Folles” and he’ll tell you, “I love them all.” But as for which character he most wants to emulate, he’ll admit that it’s the Jew who calls himself S.L. Jacobowsky.
“I want to be him,” says Herman of the main character in “The Grand Tour,” his musical that originally appeared on Broadway in 1979 and closed after 61 performances. “He’s this man who creates joy in the face of horror. He never lets other people take away his optimism.”
The 74-year-old composer and Broadway icon has another opportunity to see his beloved character realized onstage when a revival of “The Grand Tour,” of which Herman wrote the music and lyrics, opens Nov. 5 at the Colony Theatre in Burbank. Featuring Herman’s Tony-nominated score and an extensively rewritten book by Mark Bramble, the show stars veteran theater actor Jason Graae and has sought to rectify “the problems” of the original production, according to director Evan Weinstein.
“The show had disparate elements that never gelled,” said Weinstein, particularly with “maintaining an appropriate balance between the natural ebullience of Herman’s music and the seriousness of the story.”
“The Grand Tour” arose out of one of the earliest theatrical attempts to explore the Holocaust. The musical is based on a tragi-comic play by Franz Werfel called, “Jacobowsky und der Oberst,” which was adapted into a 1944 Broadway production of “Jacobowsky and the Colonel” by S. N. Behrman and a 1958 film called, “Me and the Colonel.” “The Grand Tour” chronicles the plight of S.L. Jacobowsky, a Polish-born, Jewish refugee trapped in Nazi-occupied France. Accompanied by an anti-Semitic Polish officer carrying important underground papers, the indomitable Jacobowsky attempts to flee France for England. Along the way, he falls in love with Marianne, the colonel’s charming French girlfriend, pretends to be a circus performer, hides in a brothel and, above all, forges a friendship with the initially hostile colonel.
After its Broadway run, “The Grand Tour,” aside from a 1988 Jewish Repertory Theatre production, fell into obscurity. In the original script, “The Nazi characters were more farcical elements, think ‘Hogan’s Heroes,’ and today, are out of step with where Americans understand the Holocaust,” said Weinstein, who has a day job as the co-executive producer of the CBS reality series, “The Amazing Race.” In the new version, “the Nazis are a more constant presence so the audience gets a better sense of the terrible reality the characters face. At the same, there’s humor that the characters use to put a wall between themselves and the horror.”
The challenge of striking this balance played out in a recent rehearsal. In the part of the show where Jacobowsky is singing of his love for Marianne, actor Graae had to stop several times to consult with Weinstein.
“It’s such a lovely song and so casual,” Graae told the director. “But I’m in the middle of fleeing the Nazis. I need to play against the loveliness of the song.”
With the nuance updated and otherwise adjusted through Weinstein’s direction and Bramble’s book, Herman said that now, “all the song and dance numbers are inherent to the production. There’s no mindless dancing, no people sliding down staircases. And the hope is that you get a sense of the genuine threat that wasn’t in the original production.”
For Herman, “The Grand Tour” has always represented a return to Jewish roots. After his first Broadway musical, “Milk and Honey,” about the founding of the State of Israel and, premiered in 1961, producer David Merrick “told me I had to prove I could be more American,” Herman recalled. “So I started tackling shows with more American characters like Dolly and Mame.”
Herman lost no close relatives in the Holocaust, but his maternal grandmother would tell him stories “about running from the czar. The story of the Jewish refugee was a familiar one to me,” he said.
Growing up in New Jersey, Herman learned to play the piano without formal training and received his big break at 17, courtesy of his mother who taught Jewish music at the local Y. Though he wanted to be an architect, his mother had arranged for him to meet famed Broadway lyricist Frank Loesser.
“I was scared to share my work and my mother said, ‘Would you please waste a half hour of your life?’ That line of my mother’s changed everything,” he said.
From the music of his idol Irving Berlin, Herman “learned the value of simplicity, how to say something in fewer words and create melodies that audiences can hum as they leave the theater. I think I’ve allowed my work to be accessible,” he said. “I’ve always written optimistic shows about optimistic, larger-than-life characters whom audiences can take into their hearts.”
Lamenting the current, increasingly corporate state of theater in America (his most recent revival of “La Cage” cost $10 million), Herman said he’s devoted the rest of his life to “reviving the shows that were not the super hits. ‘Dolly,’ ‘Mame’ and ‘La Cage,’ will be here long after you and I are long gone,” he said. “But while I’m still here, I want to make sure that all my children are healthy.”
“The Grand Tour” runs Nov. 5-Dec. 4 at the Colony Theatre, 555 N. Third St., Burbank. Fri-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun. at 2 and 7 p.m. Additional Sat., Wed. and Thurs. performances Nov. 12, 19, 23 and Dec. 1. Tickets range from $43-$48. For information, call (818) 558-7000, ext. 15.
The Real World: Warlord
7 Days In Arts
Here’s a real chochme for you. Head out to The Los Angeles Yiddish Culture Club’s end-of-the-season concert this evening. Jacob Lewin’s readings of stories by Sholem Aleichem will make you long for the old country, the Yiddish musical program will have you all farklempt and a little nosh will make you glad you spent some time with landsleit.7:30 p.m. Free (members), $4 (guests). 8339 W. Third St., Los Angeles. For more information, call (310) 275-8455.
You’ve gotta give it up for the man who gave us “The Surrey With the Fringe on Top.” Richard Rodgers wrote 40 Broadway musicals and more than 900 published songs in his lifetime. Come hear a “best of” sampling of his work at the University of Judaism’s “Richard Rodgers Centennial Concert and Celebration.” There’ll even be birthday cake following the show.The Writers Guild Theater. 3 p.m. $15. 135 S. Doheny Drive, Beverly Hills. For reservations, call (310) 335-0917.
James Ellroy and Bruce Wagner have made the seedy side of Los Angeles their business. Ellroy has authored many works about it including “The Cold Six Thousand” and “L.A. Confidential,” and Wagner’s novels include “I’m Losing You” and “I’ll Let You Go.” These two masters of L.A. noir have a sit-down on the subjects of corruption, politics and the dark side of our fine city courtesy of The Writers Bloc.
Reminding us that God speaks all languages, The Gerard Edery Ensemble recently released “Sing to the Eternal,” a compilation of spiritual Jewish songs and prayers from Morocco, Turkey, Yugoslavia, Spain and Portugal, sung in English, Hebrew, Ladino and Arabic. There are also original songs on the CD, composed by Edery and based on sacred texts.To order online or to hear samples, visit www.sefaradrecords.com.
“The Waverly Gallery” tells the story of a feisty Greenwich Village bohemian woman who develops Alzheimer’s disease, and the effect it has on her atheistic Jewish intellectual family. The play, written by Kenneth Lonergan, is in production at the Pasadena Playhouse under the direction of Bruno Kirby.Runs nightly except Mondays, through Aug. 11. Previews June 28-July 6. 8 p.m. (Tuesdays-Fridays), 5 p.m. and 9 p.m. (Saturdays), 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. (Sundays). $29.50/$34.50 (previews and weeknights), $44.50 (general, weekends). 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena. For reservations, call (626) 356-7529.
Johnny’s Bar Mitzvah should have signified his passage into adulthood, but apparently that didn’t happen. Now ostensibly a grown man, he’s still struggling with being a grown-up. Unfortunately for him, his long-suffering, recently pregnant girlfriend isn’t putting up with it much longer. Hence the title of Neil Landau’s comedy/drama, “Johnny on the Spot,” Having just lost his insurance job, Johnny is visited by the dead policy holders of his past, present and future. They, along with Johnny’s girlfriend and Jewish mother, are gonna do their darndest to straighten him out.Runs through July 21. 7:30 p.m. $8 (general), $6 (members), $7 (seniors and students). Lloyd E. Rigler Theatre at the Egyptian, 6712 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. For more information, visitwww.egyptiantheatre.com.
Artist David Aronson began his sculpture entitled “Prophet II” long before the events of Sept. 11 deepened its impact and significance. Its physical size is larger than his sculptures tend to be, only adding to the piece’s affecting presence. “Prophet II” and another sculpture called “Singer II,” are on display at galerie yoramgil through July 21, as are his newest encaustic paintings.10:30 a.m.-9 p.m. (Thursdays-Saturdays), 11 a.m.-4 p.m. (Sundays), 10:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. (Tuesdays and Wednesdays), closed Mondays. 319 N. Canon Drive, Beverly Hills. For more information, call (310) 275-8130.
Travel through another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind….Your next stop, the “Twilight Zone” — the play, that is. Written by Rod Serling, the live stage production of two “Twilight Zone” episodes, “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” and “The Odyssey of Flight 33” plays at El Portal Center’s Circle Theatre at 11 p.m.(Fridays and Saturdays), 2 p.m. (Sundays). The Matrix Theatre, 7657 Melrose Ave., West Hollywood. For reservations, call (323) 856-4200.
7 Days In The Arts
the Spectator With Reprise, Marcia Seligson banks on the public’s desire for the return of the
Marcia Seligson is the prime mover and shaker behind Reprise, a new theater organization determined to mount local, first-class revival productions of Broadway musicals.
Marcia Seligson is a self-described “musical theater fanatic” and the prime mover and shaker behind Reprise, a new theater organization determined to mount local, first-class revival productions of Broadway musicals that just don’t get dusted off and given a professional run anymore.
There was a time in the not-too-distant past, Seligson pointed out, when hit numbers from Broadway were the songs people hummed in the street.
“When you look back at musicals by George Gershwin, Harold Arlen and these other artists, the score was the star of the musical, and those songs were the popular music of the day,” she said.
“Growing up in New York, Broadway musical theater was my popular music. I’ve been a fan my whole life. The first show I ever saw was Ethel Merman in “Annie Get Your Gun.” I never forgot that experience.”
Although she was a music major in college, Seligson worked primarily as a journalist upon her arrival in Los Angeles 26 years ago.
“When I realized that I didn’t want to do that anymore,” she said, “I began to think seriously about producing musical theater here. I was inspired by the Encore series at New York’s City Center. It’s really an appropriate and spectacular idea for our times. I just saw so clearly how it isn’t absolutely necessary to have all this tremendous spectacle and these special effects to succeed these days.”
Although Encore is an older organization with deeper pockets, Seligson adapted their budget priorities for Reprise. Money goes into the musical where it will count most. Only Los Angeles performers are cast, thereby avoiding costly air fare and hotel tabs and making this a true local effort. There are no spare production dollars for pricey stage props or saturation publicity campaigns.
“Instead of doing a $5 million or $10 million production, which is what a lot of these big new shows cost, our first production is costing $160,000,” she said. “It’s fully casted, orchestrated and choreographed. What is different is that it will be a very simple set, and there will be no elaborate costume changes.”
Reprise’s first season began, on May 14, with a two-week revival of “Promises, Promises.”
A look at the cast indicates that Seligson and her fellow board members are the real deal. Stage veteran Jason Alexander, best known for his role on TV’s “Seinfeld,” has been cast in the lead role. Co-starring with Alexander are Jean Smart, Alan Rachins, Karen Fineman and Fred Willard.
In September, Andrea Marcovicci and Keith Carradine are slated to star in a revival of “Finian’s Rainbow.” The third and final show of Reprise’s first series will be “Wonderful Town,” with Tyne Daly. All three productions will be staged at UCLA’s Freud Playhouse.
The response to Reprise — within the theater community and from the ticket-buying public — has been wildly enthusiastic, Seligson said. “We had 3,500 subscriptions to sell for this series,” she said. “We sold 3,000 of them before a single ad ran.”
Additional dates have been scheduled to meet the demand, and seats for some performances are still available, although going fast.
For tickets to upcoming Reprise performances, call the UCLA box office at (310) 825-2101 or Ticketmaster at (213) 480-3232.
Jason Alexander, best known for his role as George on “Seinfeld,” has the lead role in “Promises, Promises.”