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 www.broadwayla.org.