This was the genesis. More than 50 years ago, in March 1968, the first public performance of a musical work by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice was held at Colet Court School in London: a 15-minute pop cantata based on the biblical story of Jacob’s youngest son, titled Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.
That short snippet, via a few more amateur appearances, then a production at the 1972 Edinburgh International Festival, then a full staging in Leicester in 1974, would eventually become one of the most successful British musicals ever, and the founding myth of a legendary musical-writing duo.
It’s now back in the West End for the fifth time, in a new production at the London Palladium until September. Lloyd-Webber regular Laurence Connor directs a cast that includes Sheridan Smith as the narrator, and newcomer Jac Yarrow as the dreamcoat-donning protagonist.
But can this Joseph’s sartorial story still stir the hearts of the critics? Does Rice and Lloyd-Webber’s first foray into musicals still feel fresh more than half a century on? Is this a success of biblical proportions?
Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews.
Lloyd-Webber and Rice have chalked up scores of huge hits, both together – Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita – and apart. This was their first outing, though. Does it stand up to the scrutiny of time?
Most critics think it does. Stefan Kyriazis (Express, ★★★★★) writing that “somehow the show seems bigger, richer, deeper and even more ridiculous fun than ever” and Alun Hood (WhatsOnStage, ★★★) opining that the “eclectic, crowd-pleasing tunes” and “genuinely witty” lyrics “remain a source of pleasure”.
“What keeps the show alive is its delight in simple storytelling, the bounce of Tim Rice’s lyrics and the merry eclecticism of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s score, which embraces country and western, calypso, French chanson and Elvis-style rock,” reckons Michael Billington (Guardian, ★★★★). It is, says Matt Wolf (Arts Desk, ★★★★), “cheeky and broad and as entertaining as seems humanly possible”.
There are awkward, anachronistic moments: “No matter how ironic it’s being, the lurid portrayal of Egypt as a land of the Sexy Exotic Other is really quite icky,” points out Andrzej Lukowski (Time Out, ★★★), while Tim Bano (The Stage, ★★★★) observes that “the women have nothing to do except being never fully clothed and dancing sexily”.
But most critics concur with Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph, ★★★★). Joseph “reminds us what an impish, impious start our most successful musicals composer had”, he writes. “Colliding the hippy-dippy with the happy-clappy, it offers the glitter of pastiche allied to a heart of gold, feelgood to its core.”
Laurence Connor is no stranger to Lloyd Webber musicals. He directed School of Rock on Broadway and in the West End, and has taken the reins of productions of The Phantom of the Opera, Miss Saigon and Jesus Christ Superstar, as well as helming the 25th-anniversary staging of Les Misérables.
His directorial decisions here are spot-on, say the critics. His show is “a steamroller of pure joy and comic delights”, according to Mark Shenton (LondonTheatre, ★★★★), brings “youth and freshness” to the work, according to Ann Treneman (Times, ★★★★), and breathes “zesty new life into those potent, familiar songs”, according to Nick Curtis (Evening Standard, ★★★★).
The trick, continues Curtis, is in “the lack of pretension”. “Connor’s production celebrates the absurdity of somersaulting kids wearing biblical beards, and a Hebrew confronted with a Parisian dance routine moaning: “I said Canaan, not Can-Can!””
Bringing “the same tongue-in-cheek spirit one might invest in a Palladium Christmas panto” is a “masterstroke”, says Wolf, while Bano points out that it “really emphasises what this show is about, and who it was in fact created for: children”.
“It makes so much sense for children, and for a childlike sense of fun and innocence, to be the driving force,” he concludes. “It gives the show a purpose that a lot of other stale productions have failed to find.”
There are two talking points about Connor’s casting. Firstly, the return of musical theatre legend Sheridan Smith, who stars as the show’s narrator, and secondly, newcomer Jac Yarrow being given the title role, despite still studying at ArtsEd.
Yarrow, it turns out, is a star in the making. He gives “a sensational debut” and “gives the impression he was born on the Palladium stage”, writes Billington, while Lukowski lauds his “terrific pair of lungs” and “winningly peppy charisma”.
“Yarrow, a 21-year-old student due to graduate this summer, brings a new intensity and energy to the role — think The Night Manager meets Joseph,” writes Amanda Cable (Metro, ★★★★★). “When he sings Close Every Door — amid the dazzling prison set — with vein-bulging brilliance, his true potential emerges.”
Smith, meanwhile, manages to please most of the critics. “She can dance, she can sing, she can just about carry off an unfathomably horrible tracksuit and she more or less holds the whole show together through charisma and knowing looks,” writes Lukowski, while Bano notes that “she belongs on the Palladium stage, like she’s channelling Brucie and Ken Dodd and all those masterful entertainers who’ve been there before”.
She’s not for everyone, though. In fact, she’s “achingly irritating”, according to Treneman. “Cute eye rolls. Little fist pumps. Knowing mouth grimaces. I wanted to strangle her by the end of the first half, but the audience seemed besotted with her.”
A rack of four-star write-ups and a few useful five-star ratings suggest that this is a successful staging of Lloyd-Webber and Rice’s much-loved musical. It might have grown a few questionable warts over the years – in its depiction of Egypt and its female roles – but it remains a fun, flamboyant show nonetheless, and Connor’s staging, featuring a star-turn from Sheridan Smith and a star-making one from Jac Yarrow, captures that completely.