By Robert Brewer
He is the only composer to ever have three musicals running in New York and three in London at the same time. He has been awarded six Tony Awards, four Drama Desk Awards, three Grammys, and, oh yes, five Olivier Awards. He runs the Really Useful Group that produces not only his own but other writers’ work such as Ken Ludwig’s Lend Me a Tenor. Oh! Did I mention that he wrote the music for Cats, the longest running musical in Broadway history, as well as Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita, Starlight Express, Aspects of Love, Song and Dance, By Jeeves, and Sunset Boulevard?
He was awarded a knighthood in 1988 and became a lord in 1996. He was inducted into the American Songwriters’ Hall of Fame and given the Praemium Imperiale Award for Music in 1995.
He is also working on a new musical about a group of children meeting Christ called Whistle Down the Wind, set to open July 1 in London.
Oh! I almost forgot. He also wrote Phantom of the Opera. Did I mention that?
He, of course, is Andrew Lloyd Webber who is nothing more than the most successful composer in modern musical theatre history.
Historically, the musical has always been thought to be part of our American heritage, at least so it seemed. However, several years ago, producer Cameron Macintosh, in his acceptance speech for one of his first Tony Awards, looked sheepishly at the audience and warned: “The British are coming.”
Of course, it can be argued that the musical was never truly American. I mean Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, and Fritz Loewe, although thought to be American, were all born in Europe and immigrated here at a young age. And their inspirations were the great European opera and operetta composers.
Andrew Lloyd Webber came from this cloth. Inspired by the classicists, particularly Puccini, his music always seems to stir strong emotional response. Songs like “Memories” and “Music of the Night” are poignant examples of his brilliance. Of course, Andrew Lloyd Webber is not without his critics who call his work “derivative” and “forgetful.” In fact, his work has not had the same critical reception in America that it has had in Europe. I guess that is the price one pays for success. Currently, Andrew Lloyd Webber has twenty-three professional productions of his work going on in the world. This does not take into account college, stock, or amateur productions around the world which number in the hundreds.
This summer the Utah Shakespeare Festival is presenting Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. There are two things that are distinctive about this work—that separate it from the others.
First, this is the first piece Lloyd Webber ever wrote.
And second? Of all of Lloyd Webber’s musicals, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat is the composer’s personal favorite.
March 1, 1968, saw the first performance of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at Colet Court School in London. The head of music of the school wanted to create an original musical piece for the schoolboys to perform at the end-of-term concert and commissioned the composer (in collaboration with Tim Rice who penned the words) to write something. The result was the first version of the piece which ran all of fifteen minutes.
Soon after, the piece was performed again in a new twenty-minute version by the Colet College Choir with an orchestra. Still performed as a concert, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat started to be noticed and received favorable comments in the press.
The first recording was made in January 1969, further expanded with additional songs and music. “Joseph-mania” was building, and schools all over the United Kingdom and in America wanted to perform the new work.
In London, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat was given further concert performances at St. Paul’s Cathedral and Central Hall. The huge success of these led to the first fully-staged production of the musical.
The Young Vic Theater Company presented a new production at the 1972 Edinburgh Festival, which then transferred to the Young Vic Theater in London. It was now forty minutes long.
Finally, after further expansion, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat opened in the West End at the Albery Theater in 1973. Following this production, more music was added to create the performing version that we see today.
I personally believe this to be Lloyd Webber’s best musical work. Unlike the later shows that seem to rely heavily on extravaganza, this play’s magic is in its simplicity and its overall eclectic musical design.
Webber calls the piece a “pop cantata”—there’s country (“One More Angel in Heaven”), there’s Elvis (“Song of the King”), there’s disco (“Go, Go, Go, Joseph”), and there’s even calypso. And there are now the famous standards: “Any Dream Will Do” and “Close Every Door,” made famous as theme songs for Donny Osmond who toured with the show for years.
To understand an artist, one needs to study his beginnings. There is probably no other piece that exposes this composer’s heart better than Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. The piece is genuine, wholesome, spiritual, and, in the end, quietly powerful. It is about the power to endure, the ability to change, and the strength of the family.
The piece has somehow been labeled a “kids” show. But I think that it speaks to both old and young; to both father and son. Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat is no more a children’s show than Falsettos is a show for adults. More and more this wonderful piece shows us how we must stop labeling and judging the world we live in. Joseph, a young dreamer, embraces all the colors. Sounds pretty adult to me.
By the way. Did I tell you to bring the kids?