What is it about the Bible and musical theatre? While the UK has the gospel according to Andrew Lloyd Webber – Joseph and JC Superstar – the US has the Book of Stephen. The man who would go on to write Wicked already had two Bible-based musicals under his belt – Godspell and Children of Eden – by the time he scored the 1998 animated film The Prince of Egypt, following Moses from basket to adoption by Pharaoh, to freeing of Hebrews and miraculous exodus from Egypt.
In the mid 1990s Stephen Schwartz was tired of working for the stage. He turned to film, and after two Oscar-winning collaborations with Alan Menken on the Disney films Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Schwartz was poached by the newly formed animation studio DreamWorks, which asked him to score a film about Moses.
Much to Disney’s displeasure, Schwartz abandoned the songs he’d written for Mulan and set to work on The Prince of Egypt. Disney needn’t have worried. Their releases at the time – Toy Story, Hercules, Mulan – comprise the canon of all-time greats, while The Prince of Egypt never quite entered the cultural consciousness in the same way.
And yet, it’s just as good as those Disney hits: its incredible animation, its harrowing depiction of the plagues, the grandeur of Ancient Egypt, plus Schwartz’s songs and Hans Zimmer’s score all combined to make one of the great 1990s animations.
After a tryout in Silicon Valley in 2017, the stage adaptation now takes its final form in the West End’s Dominion Theatre: an epic story on a vast stage. But under director Scott Schwartz, Stephen’s son, it makes a troubled translation to the stage. The musical is bigger and longer, with 10 more songs by Schwartz and an expanded book by Philip LaZebnik, who also wrote the film’s screenplay, which gives more time to the relationship between Moses and adoptive brother Ramses. But given that it’s a show about miracles, it manages to strip away most of the magic.
And not just the actual magic – there are a couple of dodgy-looking illusions, such as when high priest Hotep (wonderfully sinister Adam Pearce) makes his staff go floppy – but the big stuff too, the atmosphere, the vision.
We’re meant to be in the vast halls of the Pharaoh’s palace one moment, an endless desert the next, constantly shifting scales and locations. But there’s a huge stone slab in the centre of the stage and consequently each setting looks like a big stone slab. Nor does the slab (a stone tablet maybe, like the one the Ten Commandments were written on?) eliminate the fussiness of set changes, since foam blocks are being brought on and off constantly. The show relies a lot on projections, beautifully rendered pharaoh heads and hieroglyphs by Jon Driscoll, and there are some amazingly colourful costumes from Ann Hould-Ward, but they don’t quite mesh with the physical set, which has the slightly artificial quality of a theme park.
Take the parting of the Red Sea: if you’re going to make a musical about Moses, thou shalt give us a parting of the Red Sea and thou shalt make it awesome. We’re expecting a Miss Saigon helicopter or a chandelier, something really sock-knocking. Instead, string curtains slide in and out, projections show waves and the slab of stone tips up and tumbles a few soldiers into the orchestra pit.
Other, smaller moments pack more of a punch: the ensemble clustering together to play the burning bush, or the zipping chariot race towards the beginning. Schwartz Jr ‘s directorial style lands halfway between the gestural and the literal, but satisfies neither.
Luke Brady and Liam Tamne, as Moses and Ramses, are a powerful counterpoint to each other, similar at first as joshing brothers, but diverging when Moses finds out he is adopted, and the brothers’ destinies conflict. Moses must lead the Hebrews out of bondage, while Ramses continues his father’s legacy of slavery and oppression. While Brady remains natural and likeable as he matures, Tamne stiffens as he takes on the mantle of Pharaoh.
They’re backed by the excellent Debbie Kurup as Moses and Ramses’ mother Tuya, an entertaining Gary Wilmot as Jethro, and Alexia Khadime as Moses’ biological sister Miriam, the show’s centre of sincerity as she tries to persuade Moses to set her people free.
The ensemble is given some really tricky choreography by Sean Cheesman, many moments of which dazzle, but many more don’t quite land. The ensemble does a lot of incomprehensible things with their hands, there is much flinging about of limbs and chorines, and the overall effect is messy.
Schwartz’s score is fascinating though, greatly extended from the film, expanding on its slippery, shifting effect as he plays around with major and minor thirds throughout. The opening Deliver Us, sung by Hebrew slaves, is grand and chilling, plus a couple of new additions make their mark – Footprints in the Sand particularly. The Oscar-winning When You Believe, made famous by Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey is still a showstopper.
The world is meant to be one of eternal Pharaohs and immeasurable monuments on a scale the world had never seen; the story itself is central to the Abrahamic religions. But the show is too inconsistent in quality and vision to do itself justice. While it certainly fills the huge Dominion space, it does so through brute force rather than earning its grandeur.