Go, go, go Joseph: The legacy of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat on tour
Once again this summer, Andrew Lloyd Webber will have three musicals in residence in the West End: joining his longest-running record-breaker The Phantom of the Opera (still at Her Majesty's) will be an indoor run for last summer's Regent's Park Open Air Theatre production of Evita at the Barbican Theatre, and a return season for last summer's London Palladium revival of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.
Both Evita and Joseph have just been nominated for this year's Olivier Award for best musical revival, while Jac Yarrow, the young actor who played the title role in Joseph in his first job just out of ArtsEd drama school and will reprise that performance this summer, is nominated for Best Actor in a Musical. All of that takes place before Lloyd Webber's newest show Cinderella premieres at the Gillian Lynne Theatre in September, with Carrie Hope Fletcher in the title role.
Meanwhile, Lloyd Webber musicals are also the backbone of the UK musical touring industry, with a new tour of The Phantom of the Opera recently kicking off at Leicester's Curve, and Love Never Dies, Phantom's sequel which famously floundered in the West End before being revamped in a new production in Australia that's now heading back to the UK for a tour that will also launch at Leicester's Curve in September. Meanwhile, School of Rock, having just completed its West End run at the Gillian Lynne Theatre is due to hit the touring road next February, launching at Birmingham's Alexandra Theatre, with dates currently announced through to that December.
But all of these will have a long way to go to catch up with the enduring success of producer Bill Kenwright's touring version of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, which wrapped up its latest tour at Wolverhampton's Grand Theatre last weekend. It has been on the road, albeit not continuously, for the last forty years, in a version that has also made occasional forays into the West End, and more than any production has consolidated the show's popularity among audiences throughout the UK.
I caught its last night on Saturday, and it's not hard to see the tuneful and timeless appeal of both this musical and this particular production of it.
Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's youthful musical was the first of their shows to be performed publicly (though it didn't reach the West End until after their second show Jesus Christ Superstar premiered there), and the key to its success is its freshness, vivacity and cheeky audacity. It's a show that tells a familiar biblical tale with plenty of sly humour and style. (Audiences right now can compare and contrast with the leaden storytelling of The Prince of Egypt, which tells another Old Testament story of Moses with hardly a note of humour at all). Yet it needs to be told with sincerity, not a winking knowingness.
Bill Kenwright's happiest and most playful of productions is, 40 years on from its original launch at Cardiff's New Theatre, the most truthful and authentic of any I've ever seen to the show's original conception as a concert pop cantata for a school to perform, and even has a locally-recruited kids choir onstage throughout (generations of school kids around the country will have made their professional stage debuts in this show over the years). Unlike last year's London Palladium revival that recalled that theatre's own annual Christmas panto in its overblown production values, here the musical doesn't require the heavy lifting of spectacle to charm: this is a show that is light on its feet and is performed with effortless grace and enthusiasm by a mostly young cast, some of them like narrator Alexandra Doar and Britain's Got Talent finalist Mark McMullan in the title role actually making their supremely confident professional debuts.
So it's also a production that provides young talent with opportunities to shine. There’s a gorgeous, heartfelt vivacity and spirit to this Joseph, and it becomes a wonderful vehicle to showcase its actors.
Yet there's also a welcome continuity to it, as represented by the presence of Henry Metcalfe in the company as Jacob and Potiphar. Forty years ago he choreographed the first iteration of this production; he now shares the choreographic credit with Gary Lloyd, who has provided additional new choreography. Over the years, he has also appeared as one of the brothers, before graduating to the role of Jacob in recent years. "The fact that I am a father and a grandfather myself really helped in that role," he told one interviewer in 2011.
Now he's 76 - and despite recently suffering serious burns in a car accident, is still with the show. He's also delayed cancer treatment to complete the current tour. It's a show that inspires that kind of loyalty - and the audience repays it (and him) with standing ovations.
That's as inspiring a story as any I know in British theatre. And this production deserves - indeed demands - to be seen on tour again, both for the palpable love that audiences and cast alike bring to it. Yes, shows can be revamped - as witness the recent replacement of the original Les Miserables in the West End with a different touring version - but this production has earned a special place in British theatre history. Like The Mousetrap, it has become an indelible part of it.