• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as preparation for a future work on Straub/Huillet's Moses und Aron and a few bits and pieces on biblical studies.

    Matt Page


    Sunday, October 22, 2023

    The Prince of Egypt: The Musical (2022)

    Shot in London's West End, the film of the stage production of the musical of the film is showing in UK cinemas at the moment. It's billing itself with a quote from Stefan Kyrias that "musical theatre doesn't come bigger than this" and even though it's been a hit on the West End where it played to packed out audiences, I'm surprised to see quite such a crowd turn up to see it on a damp Thursday evening in Leicester, with tickets twice the price of watching a standard movie.

    Dreams works' The Prince of Egypt (1998) was a massive hit when it launched 25 years ago. The studio was just starting out, hadn't yet been defined by the Shrek franchise and the promise of The Prince of Egypt was quite something. The blend of traditional hand-drawn animation and restrained-but-tactical use of the emerging CGI made for some spectacular scenery and action sequences. 

    Of course stage musicals, even filmed ones, are a very different medium to cinema and while there was an arena version of Ben-Hur some years ago the director of this musical, Scott Schwarz (son of the film's composer Stephen Schwarz) decided to take things in a different direction. Instead of simply compensating or making-do Schwarz leans into musical theatre's strengths, particularly dance and more expressionistic use of the stage and props. At the same time the stage's backdrops are video projected. 

    Both the choreography and the backdrops produce rather mixed results. The opening number, "Deliver Us!" is strong and merges seamlessly in to "Hush Now my Baby". This ends with an incredible piece of chorography where the dancers reproduce the effects of the waves with incredible grace, energy and unpredictability which is simply astonishing. 

    But then, as with the movie, we're introduced to the adult Moses and Ramses in the chariot racing scene. Yet instead of the whooshing, fast-cut action of the movie, Moses and Ramses are hoisted up by some of their fellow cast members and they bump around occasionally leaning left or right to indicate turning or avoiding obstacles. Compared with the opening number this is a major disappointment. I should add here I know little about stage-musicals or choreography, so if you do know about those things don't listen to me. I'm writing this just as a punter.

    The video backdrops fare likewise, the room with the hieroglyphics, which created such a memorable scene in the movie is decorated entirely differently. This is a wise move because that scene is re-enacted with a mix of minor backdrop motion and (primarily) choreography and it works very well. But the detail of these decorations is nicely executed. At other times if feels much is lost from the days of traditional backdrop being pulled up or down behind the curtain. The changes are smoother, but it feels like the level of artistry has dropped. Also if there's an artistic reason why one of them looked like the screen ratio was wrong (an oval-shaped sun) then it escaped me.

    These are some of the changes the musical (and specifically this production of it) makes to the film. The most notable is a number of new songs which again vary in quality, though they've not had the benefit of a quarter of a century of getting ingrained in my consciousness. There's nothing as instantly transfixing as "There Will be Miracles" (which is still great here), but one or two feel on par. 

    We also lose "Playing with the Big Boys", which I was never particularly enamoured by. This is in part because the twin roles taken by Steve Martin and Martin Short in the movie are condensed into one. Hotep, played with real menace by Adam Pearce also has a greatly enhanced role. Rather than comic relief (although he does produce some, as well as a touch of magic) he's portrayed as more of the power behind the throne. His endorsement of Seti and his father's reign as Pharaoh has proved decisive and can easily be withdrawn. Pearce absolutely makes the most of his build and unsymmetrical features, effortlessly moving between contrasting moods like his voice which performs both some of the lowest notes in the production and some of the highest among the male cast. Apparently he's done Sweeney Todd, my favourite musical, in the past. I wish I could have seen that.

    Another fantastic performance is Christine Allado's as a surprisingly sexy Tzipporah. Exhibiting both fierce and tender sides she is captivating in almost every scene she features in. And again, her role is enhanced from that in the movie where she pretty much disappears once Moses gets God. Here it's her and Miriam that provide Moses emotional support in the latter stages of the film. Aaron is relegated even further into the background. Alexia Khadime's Miriam brings real excellence to her songs, by far the stand-out performer. Luke Brady as Moses are Liam Tamne as Ramses are fine, and their emotional heft grows surprisingly as the film goes on, but it's the supporting characters who really steal the show.

    The other two changes are around the burning bush scene and the plagues. Here again the choreography does a lot of the heavy lifting, but it feels like too much weight is put on its shoulders. The idea of having a chorus of voices speak as the voice of God is theologically and artistically interesting, but somehow feels underwhelming. In similar fashion the plagues rush by, it's difficult to really discern when one ends and the next starts. Perhaps that's not a major issue, and perhaps the intent is to leave the audience experiencing a degree of disorientation to convey the experience of the ordinary Egyptians, but for me it fell a little flat, that is, at least until the final plague.

     The initiation of the Passover and the death of the first-born Egyptians is always a tricky moment in Moses dramas. How much sympathy can you give to Ramses and the ordinary Egyptians without making God seem like the villain? How much joy can the Hebrews experience without minimising the Egyptian suffering? Here the balance is stuck by the women of Egypt walking on stage cradling what look like their now lifeless babies. Then each in turn shakes out the blanket their baby is wrapped in and it cascades down, but the baby is gone. The blanket is laid out of a block before them and they fall to their knees behind it. It's an emotionally powerful scene, and a reminder of the suffering that happens to the ordinary people, and particularly the women and children behind the scenes of this conflict and countless others up to the present day.

    I must admit I was a little caught off guard by the film's emotional impact on me. I sat on the front row of quite a big theatre and could therefore see even very subtle tears from the performers. This was one of the strengths of watching this as a film. I can't imagine most of these tears would be visible for those watching the event live in the theatre. Of course even though the film was shot while the play was being performed to a live audience, obviously the actors knew that it was also being filled. Were the tears part of their method, or a little extra for those of viewing in close-up ion a big screen.

    With a filmed theatre experience like this, it's hard to know where the line falls between the responsibilities of Scott Schwarz as director of the play and Brett Sullivan's as director of the film. Most of the ones discussed so far will be down to Schwarz, but that still leaves an awful lot to Sullivan. 

    Take for one example the one shot that really surprised me. Presumably it was Schwarz's decision for children of Israel to move down the aisle as part of the Exodus, but presumably it was Sullivan's decision to film this in a panning shot from in front of the audience. As the film audience we'd been aware of the live audience throughout, clapping and cheering in between numbers, for example, but the frontal pan revealed something else: they were all wearing covid-masks. This added a major note to the context of the film. We thought the audience were like us. But they weren't. They were those poor people struggling to put normal life back together again after the worst global health crisis of our lifetimes. Our past selves, perhaps attending a public event for the first time since lockdown. Perhaps nervous (as I was in my first post-covid theatre trip) of catching or spreading something. And that this happened at the moment the Israelites also finally received their (real and far more viral) freedom certainly added something.

    That nuance is made all the more interesting given how the filmed-stage musical compares with the original movie. In the original, Ramses acts the way he does because he feels the weight of his father's warning not to be the weak link, but it's nevertheless framed as Ramses' decisions and the theme of personal responsibilities – particularly the different ways that Ramses' and Moses handle them. Here however, it's different. The musical lessens Ramses' responsibilities for his actions by  putting additional pressure on him. His father's warnings not only relate to maintaining continuity with the past, but also to his present situation and his family's future. Seti's dynasty's hold on power is fragile. He and Ramses rely on the political good favour of Hotep and the priests as well as other Egyptian aristocratic families such as that of his wife Nefertari and the people in general. For a while the emphasis shifts from personal responsibility to problematic power structures.

    As anyone who has seen the musical will know [Spoilers: select text to read] faced with hunting down the Hebrews as they flee across the bed of the Red Sea, Ramses decides to let them go free, his kingdom will survive without them. Hotep and some soldiers charge on in ahead, As a result Ramses survives, and lives to rule without Hotep's malign influence. It's interesting how this changes things. Historically we know that Ramses was capable of political spin, but there's no evidence on the Egyptian side that an exodus of slaves did his rule any real harm. Moreover, in the original story Ramses is the representative of Egypt and is the bad guy. Earlier retellings of the story, including the 1998 film, have maintained that, but sought to makes a key element of the story an Anakin→Vader-type narrative. Now we're back to the uncomplicated bad guy again, only this time he's just an Anubis in sheep's clothing.* It's interesting to see how this appears to favour the benevolence of monarchs above that of priests. [End of spoilers].

    Overall, while it seems unlikely those who disliked the original film will be any more taken with this boomeranging adaptation, except perhaps for Sean Cheesman's at times inspired choreography. But for those who loved the original, or who are just intrigued by fresh adaptations of the biblical narratives, then this is certainly an interesting take on the original, both capturing enough of the essence of the original across the change of medium, while also bringing some fresh and distinctive elements.

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