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joseph

Like a lot of spirited drivers, I think of the roads as a place where I have primacy above all, where all the other cars are insignificant annoyances blocking what is my rightful path, and around whom I am forced to navigate. (I know, my attitude sucks, but there we are.) So when these annoyances rise to the level where a sub-two hour drive ends up taking nearly three hours — wasting an entire hour of my life! adding a whopping 50% time to a journey! oh the injustice! — and I am still completely relaxed when I reach my destination — not just non-frustrated, non-pissed off, but actually fairly cheerful — well, the cause of this unlikely occurrence deserves some scrutiny.

The cause in this case was a CD I was listening to in the car, after a gap of about two years. It was of the musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and it was not in fact the music that made my day, or even my drive, but rather, the lyrics. Though Joseph is famous as an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, and the music is indeed quite peppy and upbeat, to my mind, it is Tim Rice’s nonchalantly witty lyrics that really make this CD pop. On the one hand they are so conversational that it could be a funny friend telling you a story over coffee, but on the other hand, they are also full of perfectly crafted (and often hilarious) rhymes, vivid imagery and subtle asides.

I sang Joseph, or at least the choral bits of Joseph, in a performance in 2008, and then got to see it at the West End later that year — with the very hot Lee Mead playing the title role, having won the BBC casting show Any Dream Will Do — so I’ve known the music and had the CD for a long time. (In fact, it’s a “practice” CD, handed out to help the singers rehearse on their own.) Even back then, my favourite rhyme was the one Joseph uses when he interprets the Pharoah’s dream to mean that seven years of plenty were to follow, and then seven years of famine: “All these things you saw in your pyjamas, Are a long-range forecast for your farmers.” I think it must take a special kind of brain to rhyme “pyjamas” with “farmers.” It’s also a rhyme that works best with a British accent — “farmers” pronounced as “fahmuhs.”

Other chuckle-inducing moments, some of which I had forgotten, were when Joseph’s brothers describe his body as being “past its peak” to mean that he is dead; when we are told that Joseph’s main concern with being sold as a slave to some Egypt-bound Ishmaelites is that “he didn’t speak Egyptian very well”; when Joseph tells the butler who is in prison that he will soon be set free, to “buttle” as he did before; and when the Pharoah is described as “fairly right wing.” Using “buttle” as a verb is one of many strokes of what I have to call conversational creativity.

Apart from a handful of songs (Close Every Door and Any Dream Will Do, for example), Tim Rice’s tongue is firmly in cheek throughout, and the music follows suit. There is good synergy between lyricist and composer, between words and music. Considering the music on its own, well, Mozart it is not, but it’s just right for its purpose which is to provide light and catchy tunes that the actors can dance to and the audience can hum on their way out. It is not overly complex music and is a good example of why Lloyd Webber’s work never gets taken seriously by the critics, even though he laughs all the way to the bank. Heck, Lloyd Webber even gets accused of plagiarism quite often, but it is undeniable that the music and the words go very well together, and make for a pleasant evening’s entertainment.

And so we come to my final point: that there is a place for this sort of music. Judging the quality of music is a contentious issue. There is music that is simple or complex, that is accessible and popular or obscure and difficult, and there is music that is good or bad. Most of these are subjective terms to some extent, and the last two are the most subjective, however it increasingly seems to me that these adjectives are meaningless when taken out of context. Music that I want to hear while driving in the mountains is not the same as the music that I want to hear while I’m cooking. Music for my daily commute and music for a party are also different. There is a time and place for Palestrina and another for A. R. Rahman, but when I need something funny and simple, and unabashedly upbeat — in a traffic jam, for instance — Joseph fits the bill perfectly.

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