The coinciding last week of Easter and the start of Passover made it hard to avoid religious themes. But for a theatre-loving, chocolate-egg-eating, non-observant Jew like me, the themes were musical, which suggested such questions as: would Andrew Lloyd Webber have become the entertainment titan that he is without the Bible?
It was, after all, the book of Genesis that gave him and Tim Rice their break. What began as a 20-minute biblical ‘pop cantata’ for Colet Court School in 1968 was extended and strengthened via numerous incarnations into the Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat we love today.
The score, which makes for lively lockdown listening, displays Lloyd Webber’s lightest touch – ridiculously catchy tunes, brazen and fun pastiche – and the storyline cleaves wholeheartedly to its biblical inspiration. Indeed, it was strong enough to convince them that the world’s bestselling book might yield more musical opportunities, hence Jesus Christ Superstar. That famously began as a bestselling double album before being staged in New York, where it ran just shy of two years and at London’s Palace Theatre for an impressive eight years.
But while Lloyd Webber and Rice cornered the theatrical market in what we might term ‘sinaglong-a-biblical’, they were hardly the first to marry religion and theatrical music.
Baroque French composer Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1643-1704) was one of the first with his 1688 opera David et Jonathas. And long before Stephen Schwartz thought about The Prince of Egypt (the just-opened stage version of which fell victim to the shutdown), Rossini came up with Mosè in Egitto in 1818.
Arguably the best known biblical opera is Saint-Saëns’ Samson et Dalila (1877). It not only boasts the heartfelt hit aria Mon Coeur S’oeuvre à Ta Voix, which has been recorded by every mezzo-soprano from Marilyn Horne to Mae West (I kid you not), but also features a thrilling orchestral opening with grinding low strings that sounds like the best Hitchcock film score that Bernard Herrmann never wrote.
Speaking of the Old Testament, the writers of Spamalot famously wrote: “We won’t succeed on Broadway / If you don’t have any Jews.” Though not strictly biblical, Jews made their mark off and on stage in Milk and Honey, Jerry Herman’s 1961 Broadway debut. The only religious offering from the creator of Hello, Dolly!, this was the first Broadway celebration of the relatively new land of Israel (founded in 1948). Its finale included the lines: “Shalom, shalom, you’ll find shalom / The nicest greeting you know / It means ‘bonjour’, ‘salud’ and ‘skoal’ / And twice as much as ‘hello’.”
Critics were not kind to Stephen Schwartz’s Children of Eden – ‘Where is the nearest Exodus?’ cried one
Three years later, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick wrote a musical based on stories by Sholem Aleichem about a family with five marriageable daughters (dis)obeying Jewish traditions in Imperial Russia. Fiddler on the Roof broke Broadway records and has been performed ceaselessly across the world, a profile not equalled by their follow-up, The Apple Tree, a trio of one-act musicals beginning, as the title suggests, with Adam and Eve.
Undeniably charming – seek out the original cast recording with Alan Alda and Barbara Harris – it ran for just over a year. That was 45 weeks longer than another Genesis musical: Schwartz’s Children of Eden, which failed to match the global success of his first Bible belter Godspell, based on St Matthew’s gospel. The former staggered through 10 weeks at London’s Prince Edward Theatre in 1991.
Critics were not kind – “Where is the nearest Exodus?” cried one – but their reviews were paeans of praise compared with those dealt out in 1966 to Chu Chem. Composed by Mitch Leigh, riding high with Man of La Mancha, this was the world’s first – and, let us pray, last – Zen Bhuddist-Hebrew Broadway musical comedy about Jewish émigrés to 10th-century China. No… Yes.
As lovingly detailed in Ken Mandelbaum’s priceless study of Broadway flops Not Since Carrie (ideal lockdown reading), unhappiness and rewrites reigned during troubled rehearsals, so much so that the leading lady walked out. On opening night, her replacement turned to the audience at one point and declared: “There was a song here, but you’ll be better off without it.”
Twenty years later, Broadway swiftly decided it would be better off without the now even more celebrated religious floperoo Into the Light, the musical about the Turin Shroud. I know there’s no such thing as a bad idea for a musical, but come on…
Yet you have to applaud the brass neck of an American musical including the lyric: “Science without any data / Is like Henley without the regatta.” One critic concluded: “Heaven only knows: it will take an act of God to make it survive.” It lasted six performances. Religious theme notwithstanding, God, it seems, was underwhelmed.
Read David Benedict’s columns every Wednesday at thestage.co.uk/author/david-benedict