A re-re-told story: Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat – the book

It was a pleasant surprise to find, quite by chance at the library, that there was a book version of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Which makes the book a re-re-telling: a book based on a musical based on part of a book (Genesis 37, 39-46 in the Torah and Bible)… which is, in turn, based on oral tradition. So maybe this should be called a re-re-re-telling?

Anyway. The musical is a mega-hit (Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, enough said); how could I resist?

“I realize that without the music a vital element of the work is missing, but arrogantly I like to think that the words on their own are still capable of providing entertainment, and there is no question that Quentin’s paintings do. Anyway, there is nothing to stop readers singing the words aloud if they are unable to appreciate the story without Andrew Lloyd Webber’s melodies. Alternatively, look upon this book as a way of joining Joseph silently – something, I am glad to say, that few theatre audiences have done so far.” [from Tim Rice’s Foreword, written in 1982]

Quentin, by the way, is Quentin Blake. Another solid argument for picking up the book – even if Yash hadn’t pointed out to me that Joseph on the cover looks like Howl, as in Howl of Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones. (Howl is a good reason to read anything.)

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat book cover
Item one: is this not a fantastic cover? Item two: See? Joseph looks like Howl, in ’80s clothes.

*Cough* It might be advisable to avoid reading this book in public, however, unless you are very comfortable singing aloud around strangers, and/or in a place where doing so is acceptable. The skytrain is probably not one of them.

Needless to say, I enjoyed that journey nope that wasn’t me on the skytrain of course not immensely. Readers who know and love the musical will not be able to resist singing aloud; those who like the songs but prefer not singing will be able to hear the voices of the characters in their heads as they read the text on the page.

And here we run into a few problems. The text layout has some odd, not to say awkward, line breaks, starting with the opening of “Joseph and Sons,”* which has at least one word from each phrase/musical line bumped to the next line on the page. This problem crops up throughout the book, and while I appreciate that whoever put the words on the page probably intended to give Quentin Blake as much space as possible for his paintings, the effect is awkward and unnecessary; a matter of millimeters, or merely narrowing the outer edge of the page margins, would have had a much more pleasing visual effect.

The other main problem is the volume of words. Don’t get me wrong – I smile at Tim Rice’s lyrics and have been singing them around the house every single day since I borrowed this book weeks ago. But the sheer number of lyrics it takes to tell a story means that there are lines and lines and lines of (size 12) print on a page with really only one overall illustration. The time it takes to read the words, even without singing them, and the time it takes to examine the illustrations, are hugely disproportionate. I found myself becoming impatient, and I am not a toddler. (I mention this because, as anyone who reads to toddlers knows, when a small child becomes tired of looking at the same illustration, that child will flip the page over and forcibly resist any attempts to turn the page back, even if the adult reading the story did not get even half the words read. Which makes for very disjointed narratives at times, depending on the words-pictures balance of the book and on the child’s patience at that particular moment.)

More trivial oddities of the book retelling include the general lack of punctuation, most noticeable in a few sentences that seem to be in fact two or three sentences are visually one; the occasional missing line (although I appreciated the attempt to cull repeated lines and phrases, which work wonderfully in song but poorly in spoken poetry); and changes in voice, which is not really an oddity but a method of reducing the jumps between speakers (er, singers?) in a medium that works better with one narrative voice, rather than the exchanges between brothers, narrator, and Joseph that the musical uses with such comedic effect.

That said, the chance to relive the musical was a pleasure, as were the illustrations. The musical is a comedy, and Quentin Blake’s paintings pick up on the humour of the narrative. Little Benjamin is a scrawny little twerp who spends most of his time gawking at whatever his brothers are doing or watching. Or maybe he isn’t a twerp – maybe Benjamin is more plainly the youngest and seemingly least important brother who, pushed to the sidelines because of his age and comparative physical uselessness, watches his big brothers, unable himself to become a player rather than a tagalong and observer. Joseph is an oblivious idiot with movie star looks, almost a Goldenloin in naivety, a Cinderella whose self-absorption instigates her siblings’s cruelty. (Which is to say, Joseph is depicted much the way I’ve seen him played – big grin for that.) Joseph’s brothers do not share his curly blond hair; they have haystacks in varied hues and builds of varied kinds, very much the type of roughs or country hicks in looks and temperament.

The illustrations both add comic details – look for the goat’s expression when Joseph first dons his coat – and nod to the theatre: while the brothers tell Jacob that Joseph has died, there are three groups of brothers spread across the two pages. The first group, on the far left, are clearly acting the role of tale-bearers and horrified brothers to the audience of their father. The group on the far right, farthest from Jacob, is the largest group and obviously hamming it up in dramatic stage poses expressing grief. Of the two remaining brothers in the middle, Benjamin stands clueless, watching his his eldest brothers perform before their father, and Issachar, on his knees, looks directly at the reader with a subtle smile on his big-eyed, woebegone face. The scene could be taken directly from a stage set.

The book was published in 1982 and the illustrations reflect that – see Joseph and his brothers’s attire, for one, and the white leisure suit (? I think?) that Pharaoh wears, not to mention the huge gold chains around favoured persons’s necks. The girls who praise Joseph upon his ascent to Pharaoh’s right hand man are definitely modeled after fanatical devotees or movie stars. And, since this is the 80s, every character is white.

This is a book aimed at an audience who loves the musical – for fans of the show to sing read to themselves, and to sing read to children who are too young to care for the physical form of the book and really just want to hear a parent’s voice.

* The songs titles aren’t printed in the book.

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