Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat
As its latest incarnation arrives in Edinburgh, Steve Cramer explores the ongoing success of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat
Much as there’s grumbling about Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musicals across the theatre world, it’s hard to deny their bankability. As the years pass, there might also be a certain nostalgia for such monolithic star vehicles as Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. But perhaps nostalgia is the wrong word, given that, far from something long since past, Joseph seems to return every few months, year upon year.
Still, at least Joseph doesn’t quite fall into the category of the ‘McMusical’, where roles are designed so the actor playing them has no scope for interpretation, and can therefore be replaced by another actor at any point. Performers such as Jason Donovan and Philip Schofield were certainly able to stamp a particular character on their Josephs (even if the latter was sometimes criticised for doing so), so, unlike, say, Mama Mia, there isn’t that sense of watching the telly at the theatre. Joseph, by contrast has an undeniably theatrical quality to it.
For all its basis in the Bible, Rice and Lloyd Webber’s musical has little to impart to Christians, and not much more to the generally spiritually inclined. Yet, its story of the separation of family speaks volumes about the period in which it was created (it was first performed in 1968 as a school play and had its professional debut here in Edinburgh in 1972). The central motif of the Technicolor Dreamcoat, as well as the piece’s insistence upon dreaming and subjectivity, though, is hard to separate from the period it was created.
The sense of hippy, and possibly druggy, celebration in the work, as well as the anxieties attendant on broken families comes from an angst about new forms of personal freedom, sexual and political, which characterised the era. That the predictions of breakdown in the nuclear family hasn’t happened to the degree predicted at the time is neither here nor there, because this anxiety about family is still very much part of our culture, so Joseph can still play to us as a reassurance that brothers and fathers can still be reunited.
That Lloyd Webber is a family (or in his case three family) values Tory who threatened to leave the country if Tony Blair were elected in 1997 is merely an interesting side issue. For as long as we worry about family breakdown, Joseph will be with us. Nor should it be held against the musical that it is commercially successful. Were this our only objection, then Shakespeare (easily the most commercially successful dramatist of his generation) would be banished from our stages along with Wilde and even Pinter, both of whom turned a pretty penny in their day. There are good and bad plays, and a good one attended by millions is as good as the good play which can’t draw an audience. Quite whether, this is a good play, though, given its slightly untidy structure, might be a more realistic objection.
Whatever the answer to this question, Joseph is back, this time with a cast of former Any Dream Will Do finalists. The lead, Craig Chalmers, an Edinburgh lad born a decade after the piece’s professional debut just down the road, looks like making yet another new Joseph for the crowds to flock to. But not any Joseph will do, so the lad had better be on his mettle.
Playhouse, Edinburgh, until Sat 13 Jan.