This show has always been polarizing. On the one hand, many of Webber’s usual detractors often harbor a secret soft spot for this early-career work simply because, in contrast to most of his other shows, it never takes itself remotely seriously for a moment. But the fact remains that the show is deliberately inane, and many people will see that inanity as a flaw rather than a feature or even fail to comprehend that it was done on purpose.
Joseph is, in reality, a work of intentional camp, it and The Rocky Horror Show being perhaps the only wholly successful incarnations of that style in musical theater. But while Rocky Horror represented an deliberately manufactured version of the trashy, explicit, sexploitation kind of camp, Joseph is going for the giddy innocence found only in the most gloriously goofy children’s stories. It does so quite successfully, actually, with endlessly catchy, upbeat melodies, a thick layer of cheesiness in both music and lyrics, and gloriously inappropriate bits of randomness sprinkled throughout, as when, just at the tensest moment in the story as Benjamin is about to be arrested, the entire cast suddenly breaks into an exuberant calypso number.
The show’s bizarre use of pastiche styles really adds to the overall atmosphere of camp, from the hilariously godawful hillbilly number “There’s One More Angel in Heaven”, to the rueful French-inspired Drinking Song “Those Canaan Days”, to “Song of the King (Seven Fat Cows)”, the Pharoah’s showstopper in the style of Elvis. (Yes, they made Pharoah an Elvis impersonator. Those of us who know the show are often so familiar with it that we tend to forget how downright weird it really is.)
Only twice in the show does Webber abandon his lighthearted silliness for the kind of sweeping dramatic ballads he’s more generally known for…on the soaring anthem that bookends the show, “Any Dream Will Do”, and the melodramatic lamentation “Close Every Door”. These mostly exist to give the actor playing Joseph center stage for a while, since otherwise the score is largely dominated by its nameless female narrator, making it more pop oratorio than pop opera.
Of course, as actually told in the Bible, the story of Joseph was a harsh and cynical one even by Genesis standards and not exactly suitable for children, and Joseph was an unscrupulous and ruthlessly pragmatic protagonist even by the usual standards of Old Testament heroes. The musical completely leaves out the story’s real ending, where Joseph is basically responsible for the enslavement of the Jewish people that led to the whole Book of Exodus thing, but given that the show is essentially intended as a parody, one can allow it some leeway in terms of fidelity.
The show is, in its own way, actually just as irreverent towards its source material as Jesus Christ Superstar, something that seems to escape the notice of the otherwise easily offended religious right, some of whom have been claiming it as a positive alternative to Superstar since that show’s release in the early 70s. This might be partly because, while Superstar mocks religion in order to make a serious point, Joseph does it just because it thought it would be funny.
The show makes no sense at all, consists more than half of narration rather than portrayal, and never offers the remotest glimmer of emotional depth, but it remains fantastically entertaining as a viewing or listening experience. Moreover, the fact that it’s already supposed to be ‘bad’ in some sense means that it’s almost impossible to screw up, so not only will you see High School and even Middle School productions of this, but they’ll actually be good productions. So, with plenty of productions being put on everywhere you look, and more than half-a-dozen cast albums to choose from, it’s both ridiculously easy and well worthwhile to give this deceptively weird little show a listen.
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