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On the one hand, there is Torah; on the other

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, March 7, 2005


By Donald H. Harrison

Joseph and The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat was produced back in the 1960s—long enough ago that for my nearly four-year-old grandson and other youngsters with only hazy concepts of extended time it must seem as ancient as the Torah.

Nancy and I escorted grandson Shor to a Sunday matinee of the J*Company's joyful, energetic and highly entertaining production of this Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice musical, and we were so glad that we did. He was entranced by the production, sitting attentively on Nancy's lap the length of the musical without squirming once.

During one dance scene as lights were swirling around the David and Dorothea Garfield Theatre, I pointed to the ceiling and began to explain that this globe was the source of the light show. "It's a disco ball, grandpa!" Shor told me, somewhat exasperated that I felt it necessary to impart such obvious information.  I was amazed he knew that.

On the way home from the Lawrence Family JCC, Nancy asked Shor what part of the play he liked best. "When Joseph was free," he responded. "Three?" asked Nancy, misunderstanding. At no point in the play was Joseph only three. Even his kid brother Benjamin was older than that.

"Free! Free!" said Shor. "When he wasn't in jail!"

Grandparents! You really can't take them anywhere!

We decided we all had different parts that we especially liked. Nancy liked the dance scene in which they displayed Joseph's amazing technicolor dreamcoat—Joseph (Brian Crum) seemingly the center of a maypole with everyone holding a brightly colored piece of cloth. The children in the chorus also wore brightly colored shirts making the production an eye-pleasing kaleidoscope of color.

I liked the strong singing of Cory Felder as Joseph's brother Reuben in the "One More Angel/Hoedown" and Cailene Kilicoyne as the narrator. I thought that Riley Faison was a particularly charismatic Judah as he led the "Benjamin Calypso." I was touched by the reunification of Joseph and his long grieving father Jacob (Parnia Ayari). I'm really quite sentimental that way.

On the other hand, the scene in which Joseph was discovered by the Egyptian official, Potiphar, (Izzy Polak) wrestling on the bed with Potiphar's wife (Elizabeth Kreutz), who had pulled him there, jarred me. Oh, the cast members performed this tastefully enough, but what bothered me was that this scene was in such conflict with the Torah account. 

In Genesis 39:7-20, Joseph resists the advances of Potiphar's wife and she pulls a garment from him, which, to spite Joseph, she later shows to Potiphar to trick him into believing Joseph had attempted to rape her. Potiphar, not having witnessed the encounter, takes his wife's word for it, and Joseph is sent to jail.

The Webber-Rice version is a case of dramatic license, of course. When I mentioned the discrepancy to Rabbi Arthur Zuckerman, whose son Amitai plays Joseph's brother Naphtali in this production, the rabbi made me realize that the Potiphar incident was only one of several places in which the musical's story veers from that told in Torah. 

Some other examples: In the musical, Joseph is sold by his brothers to the Ishmaelites who take him to Egypt. In Genesis 37:26-28, the brothers put Joseph in a pit, and plan to sell him, but the Midianites pull Joseph out—and they sell him to the Ishmaelites. A small point, perhaps, but the sin of selling Joseph into slavery had not been committed by the brothers.

In the musical, Benjamin goes along with the brothers on their trip to Egypt to find food during the 
famine. In Genesis 42:13-16, we learn that Benjamin actually had remained at home with his father in Canaan but was subsequently brought to Egypt on Joseph's command.

In that the J*Company is part of the Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center, I wondered whether it had any obligation to the Torah account.

The company's talented director, Becky Cherlin Baird, wrote back to me: "...My answer to your question is very brief as that type of question has come my way during other shows. I am a Professional Artistic Director and I direct shows that are true to the story, script and original production. I believe that the JCC is a place for theatre to be seen in its truest and most professional light by youth performers from all areas of our city/county. Theatre is art and art can be thought-provoking, therefore I am thrilled that it brought those questions to your mind.."

Zuckerman responded in a telephone interview that he really enjoys the J*Company production, which in terms of content he compared to a "Purim shpiel." He reminded me that in the upcoming holiday, some very religiously observant people purposely will imbibe alcohol to the point that they cannot tell the difference between the sayings "Cursed be Haman" and "Blessed be Mordechai." 

When people dress up for Purim shpiels, or reenact the Book of Esther, which is the basis for the holiday, no one insists that the productions be verbatim transcripts from the Tanakh.. Why, he asked, should Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat be any different?

Furthermore, Zuckerman advised me, there is a debate in the Talmud over whether it is better to teach children a lot about Torah, albeit with some inaccuracies, or to teach them only a little but with perfect accuracy. Like Baird, Zuckerman believes that by getting people thinking about issues, the production—even if inaccurate—serves a valuable purpose.

I can't disagree with Baird's belief that any production J*Company does should be "true to the story, script and original production"—even if the original production exhibited no similar  restraint concerning its own source material.  Nevertheless, I have a suggestion to make for the next time that  J*Company or some other Jewish group performs Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.

In recognition of the importance of Torah to Jewish culture and understanding how impressionable young viewers may be, I believe it would be helpful to include in  the printed program a simple disclaimer, perhaps to this effect: "The plot of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat is based on the biblical story of Joseph, but it also is different from it in some important ways. The original story may be read in Genesis 37-47:27." 

Even better, in my opinion, would be to have one or several of our local rabbis prepare an essay—which could be made available to the audience as a handout—covering not only the discrepancies between the play and the Torah text, but also elucidating some of the important moral lessons taught by the musical.