Even though it’s only the second month of the year, The Prince of Egypt, which opened at the Dominion Theatre this week, is one of the biggest West End productions of 2020. Its marketing campaign has been visible across the capital for months.
The musical marks the return to the West End of composer Stephen Schwartz, who adapts his 1998 movie for the stage. It’s also his first time back in the West End with a new work since Wicked flew into the Apollo Victoria Theatre 14 years ago.
The first days after opening, as the reviews roll in, are always critical in determining the onward life of any production. A lot is riding on this production for DreamWorks, the film company behind the original film. It has previously been involved in the film-to-stage adaptation of the musical Shrek, but has a much bigger lead-producing role with The Prince of Egypt. If this musical flies, then expect to see its name on more theatre marquees in the future.
But a new biblical-based musical in 2020 feels quite a gamble. The last biblical musical to grace the Dominion’s stage was the 1990 travesty Bernadette. That show branded itself “The People’s Musical” and attracted a considerable number of independent investors through the Catholic Church – regrettably, the people still stayed away, and no miracle could save it.
Last year, religious investors were again back in the news having stumped up cash for a new arena musical called Heaven on Earth, which was slated to star Kerry Ellis and Hugh Maynard – but it collapsed before opening, leaving its investors heavily out of pocket.
Before anyone sniggers at what may appear a naïve proposition for the more gullible and inexperienced theatre investor, it’s worth pausing to consider that the long-running weekly banker for the Dominion Theatre has not been the musicals it hosts on its stage Monday to Saturday, but the Sunday residency of Hillsong Church.
Hillsong’s services, which run throughout the day, regularly draw 10,000 attendees. Meanwhile in France, biblical-arena musicals have continued to be hugely successful, their own musical Bernadette De Lourdes a recent national hit. It’s therefore unsurprising that an eagle-eyed producer observing all of this may consider there’s still a market to be tapped elsewhere for the biblical musical.
However, while 1970s era-defining musicals such as Jesus Christ Superstar, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and Godspell have remained popular choices for revival, many other biblical musicals have floundered.
Schwartz could not repeat his Godspell success two decades later when his musical Children of Eden premiered at the Prince Edward Theatre. Act I tells the story of Adam and Eve; Act II, that of Noah. Even though it’s an infinitely more sophisticated musical than Godspell, it was a massive flop.
Children of Eden’s failure ended the reign of the British-made blockbuster. The production’s revelatory design by John Napier included clever animal puppetry and costumes that pre-dated Julie Taymor’s The Lion King but were no less groundbreaking. However, because Children of Eden was a short-lived failure, the contributions that it made are overlooked. Although, it is a score well worth revisiting.
Schwartz continues his biblical interest with The Prince of Egypt, which tells the story of Moses, though could its arrival in the West End be four decades too late?
While 1970s musicals such as Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell have remained popular, many other biblical musicals have floundered
Would musicals such as Children of Eden have succeeded had they opened in the 1970s around the same time as Jesus Christ Superstar? Or were these 1970s shows not really ‘biblical’ musicals at all? We assume they succeeded because of attracting large groups of Christians, but was that really the case? In fact, when it opened in 1971, Jesus Christ Superstar was considered by many to be blasphemous and there were calls to ban it. This is frequently forgotten but conversely may have helped it catch a wider public attention, as controversy always sells tickets.
Jesus Christ Superstar’s origins of success were built on its hit concept album and charting singles. This is something The Prince of Egypt has in common, with its own soundtrack enjoying similar chart success and hit single releases.
For the musical today, with many production houses such as Disney and DreamWorks adapting their films for the stage, their respective soundtracks may have become the modern equivalent of those early concept albums, several songs from which became standalone hits.
The Prince of Egypt is therefore travelling a well-trodden path from past decades – that extends all the way to Show Boat – and releasing its hit song When You Believe, a draw in its own right, as was I Don’t Know How to Love Him from Jesus Christ Superstar.
When musical songs largely vanished from mainstream radio stations’ playlists, so did their ability to draw wider public awareness about a show. This may give The Prince of Egypt an advantage over other new musicals. Even if its concept may sound old-fashioned, it has a recognisable song that in the 1990s became an international pop hit.
This may prove to be a significant factor in any potential success, but in 2020 opening a West End show based on Bible stories still carries considerable risk. We’ll soon see if more producers will be rushing back to church for inspiration, rather than just praying for ticket sales.