By Robert Burgan
The careers of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, and thus the musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, were almost non-starters.
Lloyd Webber was nineteen and lyricist Tim Rice twenty-three when Alan Doggert, an acquaintance of Lloyd Webber’s father was appointed director of music at Colet Court, a school whose training parallels that of the Vienna Boys’ Choir. Doggert wanted a unique opportunity for his students, one that would advance their training and simultaneously appeal to their interest in pop/rock music. His idea was to commission a short cantata based on a Bible story. (Tim Rice later admitted that he “got most of it out of The Wonder Book of Bible Stories, which takes about four minutes to read!”) The first performance was at a school concert on March 1, 1968—and it was all of fifteen minutes long!
The piece impressed Lloyd Webber’s father, who used his influence to arrange for it (now expanded to twenty minutes in length) to be performed at Methodist Central Hall, Westminster, as part of a Sunday concert in May 1968.
Two important milestones for Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice occurred that day: first, an audience paid to see it; and, second, a critic from a major newspaper, The Sunday Times, attended.
When critic Richard Jewel’s review appeared on May 19, 1968, it was titled “A Springboard Called ‘Joseph’.” (Considering the hugely successful careers that awaited both of its youthful creators, the word “springboard” seems a happily apt choice.) Jewel praised the “happy bounce of lyrics” as “irresistible”; called the song “Close Every Door to Me” a “very beautiful melody” and concluded: “Throughout its twenty-minute duration, it bristles with wonderfully singable tunes. It entertains. It communicates instantly, as all good pop should communicate.”
As Time magazine noted “[Jewell’s] unexpected rave led to a recording. Lloyd Webber’s deft gift for parody (the Elvis homage of ‘Pharaoh’s Story’) and melodic invention (Joseph’s moving anthem ‘Close Every Door’) captures a wide audience. ‘Without realizing it,’ recalls Rice, ‘we were breaking new ground by forgetting about Rodgers and Hammerstein.’” (Rice’s sense of humor is in evidence in some of the titles he proposed for the work, including Pal Joseph and How to Succeed in Egypt without Really Trying!)
“We found,” Lloyd Webber said, “That you could switch styles crazily throughout the whole thing, mixing up musical comedy numbers with calypso, country/western, and Elvis Presley. And the basic story is such a good plot.”
A rush of events followed quickly. An expanded version was presented in St. Paul’s Cathedral (the second of five leading to the Broadway version, in which Andy Gibb and David Cassidy were among the actors who played Joseph), and, based upon the successful Decca recording of the work, impresario David Land offered the team a three-year contract paying each of the young artists 3000 pounds (then approximately $6000) a year. The record-breaking music opened at the London Palladium on June 12, 1991 starring Jason Donovan ran for over two years, was seen by over two million people, and the box office took in over forty-seven million pounds.
Within twelve months, they created Jesus Christ Superstar. Then, in 1976 the team was to join forces with legendary American Theatre director Hal Prince and create the enormously successful Evita.
Following Evita, the pair have only occasionally worked together, and they have been successful in their individual careers. (“Andrew was obsessed by being Richard Rodgers,” Rice said in a 1981 ABC interview. “I wanted to be Mick Jagger.”)
In the meantime, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat has continued to be an amazing success, in London, on Broadway, and touring around the world. It is hard to pinpoint the exact reason for the success of this play, but Lorin Maazel, the famed conductor, may have come close in a recent discussion when he asked Lloyd Webber about the composer Philip Glass and his work in minimalism:
“Please,” Lloyd Webber asked, “explain it to me.”
“There’s no point in trying to explain to you what minimalism is,” Maazel responded. “ You are a maximalist.”