Saturday, May 8, 2010

Essay: the Joseph story

Here is another essay from my fall term 2008 English class, Bible as Literature. This was my final project, for which we had to choose a relatively modern artifact and explore how it has been influenced by the Bible. This was probably one of my all time favorite school projects.

I did have to do a lot of editing in this one. Or anyways, I had to remove a lot of commas. I cannot believe how many I used.

"Joseph and the Amazing Technicoler Dreamcoat" and the Bible

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The artifact I have chosen is the musical “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” by Andrew Lloyd Webber. Webber first started working on the musical when he was asked to compose something for a school’s end of year concert in 1967, and he chose to base his composition on the Biblical Joseph story because he felt that the children performing the piece would be able to relate to the story. The first performance was about twenty minutes long, but it was such a hit with everyone that he continued to work on it, eventually turning it into the full length musical which we have today.
After considering several artifacts for this project I finally settled on this musical partially because I have been in love with it for some time, and also because I would love to explore it more in depth. I am not certain how I first came across it, but I think that my mom introduced it to me some years ago. There will be three “versions” of the musical I will be drawing on as I write this essay. First and foremost is the DVD (1999) I have of the musical, which is what I am most familiar with. Second is the CD (1992), which is very similar to the DVD, with only a few differences. Lastly, I will be drawing on my memories of the live performance (2006) I saw of the musical, which has some more marked differences from the DVD. I will not rely on this last version of the musical very much, because my memories of it are not perfect, and I can refer back to the CD or DVD at any time I so wish. If there is something that I know (or think) is not in all three of these versions, I will clarify that, as I think how the musical has changed over time is relevant to this essay.
There are many details in the musical which Lloyd Webber has tweaked, but it is essentially still the same story as that in the Bible. The greatest contrasting point is that Yahweh seems to have no place in the musical. For example, in the Bible Joseph says “Do not interpretations belong to God?” (Gen. 40:8) So he himself does not interpret the dreams. Rather, he learns what the proper interpretation is by what may be described as God’s grace. But in the musical, Joseph makes no reference to Yahweh, and after Joseph has interpreted the cook’s dream he confirms that he himself interprets the dreams:
“Don’t rely on all I said I saw.
It’s just that I have not been wrong before."
Yahweh’s absence is not the only difference, but it is the most blaring one between Lloyd Webber’s musical and the Bible. It should also be noted that the whole musical is narrated by a woman, which gives the musical a different texture than the male dominated Biblical version of the story.
Lloyd Webber takes a lot of artistic license with his musical. One of my favorite parts is not even in the Biblical story. It is right after Jacob has been told that Joseph is supposedly dead. Once Jacob has departed from the scene, the brothers and their wives celebrate Joseph’s demise with a huge dance number. The sing some of the same lyrics that they sang to explain to Jacob that Joseph is dead:
There's one more angel in heaven
There's one more star in the sky
Joseph we'll never forget you
It's tough but we're gonna get by”
In the dance number they sing the lyrics very upbeat, celebrating rather than pretending to be mournful about Joseph’s supposed death. It should be noted that the very use of the line “There’s one more angel in heaven” is also an example of artistic license, as at that point in the Bible there is no concept of heaven. Additionally, this scene, while in the DVD and the live performance I saw, is not in the CD.
Another point in the story not given much attention in the Bible and which Lloyd Webber explores, is when Joseph is thrown into jail after supposedly trying to seduce Potiphar’s wife. The Bible simply gave an account of what happened, without telling anything of Joseph’s feelings of the matter. Lloyd Webber speculates about Joseph’s feelings, starting with Joseph singing the heart wrenching lines:
“Close every door to me, hide all the world from me
Bar all the windows and shut out the light
Do what you want with me, hate me and laugh at me
Darken my daytime and torture my night”
The rest of the song continues in this vein, and Joseph is obviously very distressed by his misfortune. He is convinced that his life will never get better, and that he will be stuck in jail with a number rather than a name for the rest of his life. Regardless, he accepts his fate.
Lloyd Webber also uses artistic license in using some modern technology and clothing in his musical. In the DVD there is a sewing machine, modern soda bottles, and a camera is used to take a family photograph of Jacob and his sons. In the live performance I saw, Potiphar was using online banking, Jacob had a cell phone, and the brothers wives were wearing (more or less) Texas style clothing, complete with high heel cow-boy and cow-girl boots and hats. Furthermore, when Potiphar was introduced in the live performance, he was playing golf, which was never mentioned in the Bible!
Lloyd Webber does a very good job retelling the Joseph story. As I said in the introduction, I have loved this musical for a long time. Taking another look at it after having read the Biblical version of it, I find it interesting to consider Lloyd Webber’s interpretation of the story, and his exploration of the many background information not provided in the Bible, such as Joseph’s feelings of being thrown in prison. There are many places in the Bible story where background information is neglected, and this only helps to fuel my imagination in thinking of what those neglected (or avoided) details might be.

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