Joseph and the Unlikely Scottish Origins Story

As the 50th anniversary tour of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat heads to Scotland, Mark Fisher talks to one of its creators, Tim Rice, about the show's incredible success – and its Edinburgh roots.
Jason Donovan and Jac Yarrow as Pharaoh and Joseph in Joseph and The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat PIC: Tristram KentonJason Donovan and Jac Yarrow as Pharaoh and Joseph in Joseph and The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat PIC: Tristram Kenton
Jason Donovan and Jac Yarrow as Pharaoh and Joseph in Joseph and The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat PIC: Tristram Kenton

It was a staging post in the history of musical theatre and yet the two creative minds behind it were not even there. Fifty years ago this summer, director Frank Dunlop was in the Scottish capital with a show for the 25th Edinburgh International Festival. This was a couple of years before Dunlop became artistic director of the whole event. For now, he was staging a double bill in a big top inside Murrayfield Ice Rink.

It was called Bible One: Two Looks At The Book Of Genesis and the first half was a series of Wakefield mystery plays dating from the middle ages. When the audience returned for the second half, they were treated to the first professional production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. In the cast were Gary Bond as Joseph and Alex McAvoy as Jacob. A decade before Chariots Of Fire, Ian Charleson was also in the company.

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It opened on 21 August, 1972 and The Scotsman’s theatre critic Allen Wright loved it. “Frank Dunlop conjures up the happiest half hour of the Festival,” he wrote. “His production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat bubbles with joy but is so brief one would like to see it performed in triplicate.”

Yet the writers, a 22-year-old Andrew Lloyd Webber and a 27-year-old Tim Rice, were elsewhere. “We didn’t really think anything was going to happen,” says Rice today. “I was on holiday in Corsica. Andrew might have been away as well. We heard that it had got rave reviews but we’d sort of forgotten about it. I don’t mean any disrespect to Frank; we just didn’t think it was anything in particular. I’m not even sure we knew it was actually going on when it was.”

When finally they did show up a week or so later, they were delighted with what they saw. “It was terrific,” he recalls.

By this time, the score had been around for five years in one version or another. For a show that is going strong half a century later – with upcoming dates in Glasgow, Aberdeen and Edinburgh – it had relatively humble beginnings. The commission had come not from some West End impresario but a public school asking for a “pop cantata” for the end-of-term concert.

Writing for the choir at London's Colet Court, now known as St Paul’s Juniors, was a chance for the composer and lyricist to let their hair down. The debut performance in the school hall on 1 March 1968 lasted a full 15 minutes. “We were forgetting all the rules and ignoring what the West End needed,” says Rice. "We thought, 'This is just a bit of fun.' It worked so well that it took us over."

Although not immediately profitable, it led to a record contract, a publishing deal and a manager. "We didn't think, 'This is what we need to do to have a hit show,'" says Rice. "I can remember sitting in Andrew's drawing room, building the title: 'Joseph and His Coat, Joseph and His Amazing Coat…' We were just writing what we liked. And that's the answer: write what you like and stuff everybody else."

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Being custom-built for schools, it did well on the amateur circuit, but Rice and Lloyd Webber had no reason to think it would amount to more than that. Things changed with the Broadway production of Jesus Christ Superstar in 1971, however, buoyed by the popularity of a concept album released the year before.

Producers wondered what else this twentysomething duo had up their sleeves. And it was Dunlop who saw the theatrical potential of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. “Every production since then owes something to Frank,” says Rice. "Even though it was first performed in 1968, the 50th anniversary of the first professional production is just as significant."

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The first thing he did was show it could be performed by adults. The second was to make it dramatic. "He asked us, 'Would you mind if some of the lines I gave to the brothers?' Originally, the whole piece was an oratorio, in the sense that it was to be sung by a choir of children, all in the third person. I can't remember the original lines, but it was something like, 'And Joseph's brothers said…' Now, what Frank wanted was to have the brothers sing the lines. He changed the structure without changing the show."

It transferred to London’s Young Vic and, even at this stage, lasted little more than 30 minutes. “It was rather short,” says Rice. "It's not a long show. If it's done now, as it is on this current tour – which I have to say, in modesty, the audience love – you do get a lot of it twice. They do a Joseph Megamix at the end and one or two of the songs like Any Dream Will Do are sung twice. That's absolutely fine because the punters love it, but the actual piece is probably under an hour long."

Now, as then, the score is always open to revision and evolution. “Who knows what the full show is?” he says. "We are working at the moment on a possible film adaptation, as opposed to the very good made-for-video film with Donny Osmond some years ago. This is yet another interpretation. If that film comes off, we'll probably be writing a couple of new songs for it. Joseph has always got bigger."

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, King’s Theatre, Glasgow, 14–25 June; His Majesty’s, Aberdeen, 28 June–2 July; Edinburgh Playhouse, 25–29 October.