Joseph and The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat — An Analysis
Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (1999) is a thoroughly Jewish musical. It was written and composed by Jews, based on a Jewish folk tale, and is riddled with Jewish references throughout the film, many that I will discuss below. You can find more of the fine details of the musical and film production here.
I’ve probably watched ‘Joseph’ fifty times. This was the go-to film to plug into my family’s in-car entertainment system whenever we’d make the long drive from Florida to Pennsylvania or Vermont. My brother and I would stare, watching it over and over again. It’s still one of my favorite films of all time.
Joseph is fun. It includes music from pretty much every genre from Elvis-style Rock, to Country, to Pop, to Reggae. It really had it all.
But Joseph is also a deeply emotional and spiritual film in ways that are not obvious upon first viewing. To a large extent, I will argue that this musical equally centers on the ancient themes of religious persecution, divine providence, and legacy. Let’s unpack it.
Why was Joseph persecuted?
On the surface level, Joseph appears to be hated by his brothers because of their father, Jacob’s favoritism. The film briefly explains that Jacob loved Joseph because he reminds him of his favorite wife, Rachel, who readers of the Hebrew Bible know died in Benjamin’s birth.
But Benjamin is in this film, part of the band of brothers who sell Joseph to the Ishmaelites. It is also not enough to presume that this is a case of creative liberty where ‘in this universe’ Benjamin and Joseph are not full brothers. This is evidenced toward the end of the film when Joseph and Benjamin share a climactic embrace.
No, the reason Joseph’s brothers persecute him is that he is a dreamer of dreams. He has the gift of prophecy, a link to the Divine that the rest of his siblings do not apparently share. His siblings think it’s ridiculous, but also have self-proclaimed anxiety that it is real. If his relationship with God is legitimate, how do they make sense of their own existence? Are they not also Patriarchs of Israel?
The Divine Stage Set
Divine connection/intervention in Joseph is symbolized by the color blue, which also represents darkness, isolation, loneliness, and what is foreign. Blue and white are also the colors of the Israeli flag, two commonplace colors in the film. It is in this blue that God reveals his favor to Joseph.
Joseph and the Holocaust
Through a series of events, Joseph is persecuted time and time again for situations out of his control. He is thrown into a pit by his brothers, then sold into slavery. As a slave, he is pretty much sexually assaulted but gets the blame, and sent into prison (which appears to be worse than slavery).
In this deepest, darkest pit, Joseph unfolds the most emotional songs of the film Close Every Door. Please take a moment to read the full lyrics here.
This song, at first glance, is a song about Joseph’s despair. He has hit rock bottom — literally. And he’s done nothing to deserve this. He is a victim of circumstance.
But the closer you listen to the lyrics of Close Every Door, you realize this song is about more than just Joseph, theoretically thousands upon thousands of years ago. It is about Jews in contemporary times too.
Just give me a number
Instead of my name
Forget all about me
And let me decay
I do not matter
I’m only one person
Destroy me completely
Then throw me away
When listening to Close Every Door from a Holocaust perspective, the parallels seem obvious. Joseph is grasping at straws, trying to find something to hold onto to grant him hope. In his persecuted, wrecked state, he imagines himself surrounded by his descendants — the ones his father told him would be more numerous than the sand or stars.
For we have been promised
A land of our own!
He tries, in all his power, to imagine a world where his descendants live, thrive, and have a safe place far from the persecutions of his current reality — Israel.
A reasonable guess at this point would be to assume that this film would move in a very Zionist direction. We haven’t encountered the Pharoh yet, but based on our interactions with Potiphar, Egyptians don’t seem to come in a positive light.
The genius of this production is that Egypt actually becomes a playground for God’s favor. The set is entirely washed in blue, from the lighting to Pharoh’s hair, to the near-naked bodies of Egyptian women. It appears God is in a most unlikely place.
Joseph has gone through all his troubles to be carefully placed in the hands of a foreign power to help… well, the foreign power. Joseph’s family is still small, while Egypt hosts a much larger population and a more sophisticated economic system.
Joseph, who is both an ethnic and religious minority, is brought into the second-highest seat of power (besides the Pharoh) to survey the land, regulate goods, and culturally transform a people. Joseph’s story, closely resembling a type of ‘American Dream’ is a Jewish Dream. *cue Any Dream Will Do*
Just as in the case of Close Every Door, Joseph has a habit of playing with time. Joseph, at the end of the day, is a prophet and interpreter of things that have not come to pass of yet. He can forsee life, death, and even interceed.
One way the musical plays with these ideas is by combining modern music with an Ancient, familiar story. Another way the musical does this is by introducing a ‘modern woman’ as the narrator of the production. Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat is not, in other words, some Ancient folk tale with little implications for today.
No, Joseph is the story of us. Joseph is able to communicate to us through his dreams, his prophecy, and his lament.
At the close of the film Joseph reunites with his father in a fog of blue. Joseph now dons gold and jewelry, making him virtually unrecognizable to his Father (and earlier his siblings). Even though he appears an Egyptian now, Joseph still makes it clear that he is, within, still a Jew. He still operates within the prophetic context, the context of the divine, the mystical breath of God.
Jewishness can be culturally-focused without being religious (the musical does not directly refer to God). And Jewishness can be religious without being culturally-focused (he is now culturally an Egyptian). In one film, Joseph drives both points home.
The final scene involves Joseph locking hands with the narrator, and embracing two young children which I presume represent his two children with Aseneth. He is then swarmed by the decendents he dreamt of in Close Every Door, forming a Star of David, a symbol undisputably connected with Judaism.
Here again, Joseph, is playing with time. He is able to peer into the future and bridge the gap between Ancient History and today.
I love Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Though it may not be as controversial and juicy as my favorite musical of all time, Jesus Christ Superstar, Joseph warms my heart. It makes me hope. It makes me feel connected to something larger and bigger than myself, in a cheesy way.
If you’ve never watched Joseph, what are you waiting for? Please give it a watch and report back! (You can find a free version on YouTube, but you didn’t hear that from me.)