By Cantor David E. Reinwald
I am approaching my d’var Torah this month from a slightly different angle. Instead of focusing on the details of the portion itself, I decided I would rather talk about how this portion and the story it is a part of has affected me. This week’s portion is one third of the story of Joseph. This story occupies more space in terms of the number of portions it consumes than really any other. However, my first exposure to this story was not in the Torah. Like many of you, it was through musical theater. It was Andrew Lloyd Webber.
Go go go, Joe! Okay, now that I have that in your head, there’s something incredibly exciting, while semi-cheesy, about Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. You cannot fail to be caught in the fun, whimsical style of this musical at some point. I remember when it came to Chicago and it was there –forever-. It was at the Chicago Theatre, and Donny Osmond was the star Joseph for the entire time. I don’t think there’s anyone who was living in Chicago at that time that I know that did not see this production. It was a rite of passage, for sure. I also had friends who had sung in the children’s choir, which is a huge part of the show, and I will admit—I was rather jealous and would have loved to have been one of those kids! I mean who didn’t want to sit on the side of the awesome stage and get to sing all the “la la’s” supporting Donny Osmond singing and the strong-voiced, female narrator of the show?
And, then there are the moments in the show that just tear at your heart. There’s the moment of Joseph stuck in the jail cell in Egypt as he pours out his soul in the gorgeous ballad “Close Every Door.” It closes the first act, by the way. And there’s the end, where Jacob finally reunites with Joseph, now together with all of the sons, as he literally lies on his deathbed. No, I didn’t give anything away. It is all there in the Torah! (Well, and then there’s the big dance number at the end to the dance remix of all the songs…)
My one problem with my love for musical theater and for this one, in particular, is that when I took Biblical Hebrew in college and had to actually translate these passages directly from the Hebrew—I couldn’t get away from trying to sort out the details of the story through my knowledge of the musical. There are details that exist in the Torah that didn’t quite make it into the musical. Well, there are also details in the musical that weren’t part of the Torah, but an Elvis-like persona of Pharaoh is a completely different issue (and one that I think is awesome and fun)! Creating a musical from the text of the Torah on one hand is kind of like creating a movie from a book. There are a lot of choices that need to be made—what to include and how to depict it. What do all the characters say—but in this case… What do they sing? Where and when do they dance? How does it all fit together? And, then the biggest question of all, WHY? Unlike a modern novel, though, the Torah tends to be concise in its descriptions and brief and to-the-point in its character’s dialogue. So, creating something extended from the Torah that has dramatic potential creates a whole new paradigm.
I think Andrew Lloyd Webber and his team (including lyrics by Tim Rice) did an outstanding job with this musical. And, in the nineties, when they updated it from its semi-outdated seventies original, it took whole new audiences by storm. I remember even being surprised to learn that this was a Biblical story from the Torah, no less. Really? There are stories in the Torah with this much pizazz? With this much techni-color? Why, of course! Genesis is full of them.
So, if you are a future bar or bat mitzvah student of mine, and you have one of the three portions featuring Joseph, get ready for your first assignment! I will tell you to go and see Joseph (and these days you can rent a movie version of it, featuring Donny, of course!). And, for the rest of you, I expect for you to see it by next week and I want a full report back! Sha-la-la Joseph, you’re doing fine, you and your dreamcoat, ahead of your time!
Question for consideration:
Have you found a modern adaptation of a story from the Torah or the rest of the Tanakh to be one that drew you further into the story? If so, which were they and how did the modern adaptation do this for you?