Amazing durable dream musical

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 04 December, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 04 December, 1997, 12:00am

When Stephen Pimlott was first asked to direct a West End production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, he had never heard or sung anything from this, Andrew Lloyd Webber's first musical.

'So I snuck out to the only place I could find it was playing - a small touring company somewhere out in the sticks. And I bumped into the choreographer who had also snuck out there: he hadn't seen it either,' said the 44-year-old director, who was more used to directing the Royal Shakespeare Company or big opera productions than the cast of 40 professional musical singers and 50 children Joseph offered.

I had met Pimlott at The Angel in London: he was snatching an hour between meetings about a new Royal Shakespeare Company play and a production of a Dr Doolittle children's musical.

He suggested coffee, I suggested wine, and we ended up having Sex on the Beach cocktails in a smoky bar in Islington.

There were certain advantages in coming fresh to something that has proved - through its constant appearance in school halls throughout the British Isles - to be the most performed of all Lloyd Webber's musicals.

'If you know it too well, have sung it when you're a child, then you have a certain nostalgia, which can be a burden if you're trying to do something new,' said Pimlott, whose directorial curriculum vitae includes both Carmen ('arguably an early musical') and the 1980s update Carmen Jones.

This was back in 1991, and the revival was intended partly as a showcase for former soap star Jason Donovan who donned a loincloth for the lead role.

'But it was also a celebration for Andrew and Tim [Rice]. They'd written it when they were in their early 20s, and had sold the rights soon after,' Pimlott said.

In 1989 the composer-lyricist duo bought back the copyright from publisher Novello and Co, and clearly wanted to enjoy the exercise of their newly regained rights.

But, first, some important changes had to be made.

The Genesis of the story - and in Hong Kong we will have to wait until May for Revelation - is that it was written as a 'pop cantata' by Rice and Lloyd Webber for the choir at St Paul's Junior School, Colet Court - a private boys' school in south London.

But an audience for a full West End show would feel more than short-changed if presented with only the original one act, with just 60 minutes of music.

'But Tim and Andrew made a decision very early on that they wouldn't write any new songs, not even a special hit for Jason Donovan,' Pimlott said.

'We wanted to expand it without inflating the show to something that was just fill-in. It's not a Phantom or Sunset Boulevard, and we didn't want it to become that.' The solution was to add a narrator, who is telling 20th-century children the ancient story of a boy whose brothers sold him to slave traders yet who became the most powerful man in the known world, and eventually gained the power of life and death over his brothers.

'We added a cast of 50 children, and a huge mega-mix party at the end. We also decided to increase the number of in-laws,' Pimlott said.

When the show was written - for a cast of pre-teenage boys - there was only one female role, Potiphar's vampish wife who tries to seduce Joseph and thus causes him to be thrown into prison.

The West End offers rather more flexibility in female singers, so Pimlott married off all the brothers, and almost doubled the size of the company, adding a dozen wives.

How this might go down with largely Chinese audiences in Hong Kong next year and in Singapore, where it is going to be performed first, is an unanswerable question for now.

'If we used the word 'myth' rather than 'Bible story', it might make more sense,' he said, describing Joseph as 'a mythic treatment of family relationships, and success and power'.

'The concepts of luck and fortune are huge in Chinese culture, after all.

'Originally it was all multi-coloured T-shirts and long hair,' said Pimlott. Musically, he noted, the piece is stuffed with parody - of country and western, of calypso, of Elvis Presley's raunchier numbers, of Noel Coward.

Another piece - Go Go Go Joseph - was not supposed to be pastiche - 'it was Tim and Andrew being hip, but now it's so 60s that it needs to be treated with as much parody as everything else'.

For him there was also a certain pleasure about the theatre in which they were creating the show: 'For everyone around my age or older, Sunday nights in the early 60s meant a show called Sunday Night at the Palladium.

'At the end of every show all the guests used to go round on a revolving floor. We just had to have that.' Since it opened at the Palladium the production has been performed in New York, in Australia and throughout Canada - where Joseph is still played by Donny Osmond.

'The production is different in each country: the Broadway production arguably came much too close to razzle-dazzling the life out of the whole thing,' Pimlott said.

'It's quite an English sense of humour which the Australians understand far better than the Americans.' But what is Joseph about? 'I suppose it is about dreaming. I suspect it was written by Tim in the late 1960s under the influence of something or other - as people lived then,' Pimlott speculated.

'For me theatre is a way in which people can dream in public: in a darkened space, free from the trammels of literalism. Any good theatre has a dimension that is less about the here and now than about the landscape of the mind.

'It's a souffle of a piece, very light and enjoyable. It is one of the most feel-good pieces I know.' But, he said, the piece works because, while embracing a childlike simplicity, it does not present a sentimentalised view of human nature.

'It acknowledges that people are complicated.

'Joseph is the hero but he is rather priggish: and the brothers are horrible but we love them as well.' Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat from April 30 until late June. Cultural Centre Grand Theatre. $325-$750; tickets on sale from February