In 1998, DreamWorks SKG released The Prince of Egypt, blending computer and traditional animation with songs by Stephen Schwartz and a Hans Zimmer score, to tell the story of Moses and the Exodus.
Even 25 years later, it stands as one of the best Biblical films, including earning a thumbs-up from the notoriously hard-to-please Catholic League.
Along with the Bible, The Prince of Egypt owes a fair amount to Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 epic The Ten Commandments, while — based on a suggestion from DreamWorks co-founder Steven Spielberg — emphasizing the brotherly relationship between Moses and Rameses.
This gives the story its emotional heft, as Moses’ duty to God clashes with his love for his brother, and with Rameses’ duty to his father.
From Film to Stage to Digital
In 2020, Schwartz (Godspell, Wicked) brought the story to life onstage in London’s West End (without Zimmer’s score), directed by his son Scott Schwartz, with book by Philip LaZebnik, and choreography by Sean Cheesman.
Now, starting Dec. 5, The Prince of Egypt: The Musical — featuring five songs from the movie and 10 new ones — is available for digital rental and purchase on several platforms, including Amazon, Google Play and YouTube.
How Different Is the Stage Version of The Prince of Egypt?
The musical departs from the film in several ways. As noted above, some songs are gone, and new ones are added. Also, many of the overt references to God are removed, and there’s a new, very different ending.
And, no, that doesn’t mean we get anything beyond the parting of the Red Sea, where the animated film ends. Without giving it away, it’s something else altogether, and comes neither from history nor the Bible.
The reworking overall reflects a greater ambiguity about the Exodus, probably a nod to the increasing 21st Century ambiguity about everything.
On a stylistic note, while the movie’s look evoked Ancient Egypt, the musical’s costumes aren’t very historical. This is especially true of the Egyptian outfits, which evoke something, but hardly Ancient Egypt.
Parents take note: There’s minimal actual staging, replaced by bodies of actors entwined and piled up to represent buildings, the Nile, the Burning Bush, etc. They don’t wear much, and there’s a lot of writhing.
Take a look:
How Did Critics React to The Prince of Egypt: The Musical?
Reviews were definitely mixed, from both audiences and critics. Many audience members loved the show — it’s always a different experience, seeing something live — while others had issues with the changes in the story.
The U.K. Guardian summarizes many of the critics’ comments:
The staging, which is multi-layered and at times stretching out into the auditorium, might ironically be part of its problem. Scott Schwartz’s production is stuffed full of imagination but it is so excessive and outsized that it overwhelms the emotional drama, sucking away any intimacy between the actors.
It has a thumping, big stadium feel in its sound and visual effects, and the best known songs – When You Believe and Deliver Us – still stand out, but almost all the others are drowned out by the scale of everything else on stage, while humorous lines from Philip LaZebnik’s book that worked well in the film fall flat.
What Does Stephen Schwartz Have to Say?
Recently, journalists had the opportunity to do a group interview with Schwartz. Here’s some of what he had to say (edited for space and clarity):
I wanted to know about what faith elements he wanted to add or change in adapting the story to the stage — and what rethinking he’s done since the ’90s:
I think adapting any story, but particularly something as well known as a Biblical story, the team has to ask itself, what is this about to us? What is the story? What are we using this well-known story to explore?
And in the case of Prince of Egypt, and particularly in regards to your question about faith, it it was very important to all of us that this not turn into a story about my god’s better than your God.
We really wanted not to fall into that, but … really to tell a story about empathy and how to overcome conflict through understanding each other. Yeah. And obviously, the Moses story, a young kind of playboy who has everything and then has it all taken away from him and realizes he has a much higher calling in this world.
And the personal responsibility and the weight of that was also something we wanted to explore, because it’s a journey that in not as grand in a way, but nevertheless it’s a journey that we all take. So I think those two aspects were very important, then and remained important as we approach the stage show.
In my second question, I pointed out that Ancient Egypt (a particular interest of mine growing up) is seldom put on screen except in context of a Bible story — as a villain. The Prince of Egypt humanized Ramses and Egypt, so I wanted to know what further thoughts Schwartz had for the musical:
Yeah, I thank you for pointing that out. I think the show goes further in that direction. For instance, there were a couple of characters in the animated feature who were comic characters, and it kind of made fun a little bit of the polytheism of their beliefs. That was eliminated from the stage show.
Yeah, and we tried to, as I say, not make this a story of my god’s better than your God. And I think, Kate, went, hopefully we succeeded in going even further in that direction than what you’ve said in the animated feature.
On this musical coming to global audiences in the middle of the conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza:
Well, unfortunately it’s a little bit more current than I wish it were, because of the really terrible things that are happening right now in the Middle East. This obviously reflects the story of Prince of Egypt, with the conflict between Moses and the Hebrew tribes, and the Egyptian tribes under the rule of his brother, Ramses, there’s that conflict.
The thing that happens obviously, in Prince of Egypt is that these two brothers who love each other and come into conflict because they represent these two different peoples, ultimately find a way of reconciling with one another, and that’s obviously to be hoped … that’s the ultimate goal, clearly in the terrible things that are happening right now.
So, if in some way, this story gives both hope and perspective to what’s going on, than that’s a contemporary ramification of this show, which obviously was originally created a long time ago from a story that was created thousands of years ago.
On his view of what religion is:
When I did Godspell years and years ago, the thing that was most meaningful to me in that show, and a line that continues to resonate in my head and just haunt me, is when the character Jesus says, “Always treat others as you would have them treat you.”
That’s the basis, I think, of all religion at its core. Once you take out the deity of it, really what we should be living through, and I’m sorry to get preachy, but it is so important, is if we would just treat everybody else the way we would like to be treated, we’d be living in a much, much better world.
Here’s one number that was also in animated movie. In the musical, it comes after a new song from Moses, in which he agonizes about the death of the firstborn of Egypt, and questions God (not mentioned by name) and his own responsibility for it:
Image: L-R: Ramses (Liam Tamne) and Moses (Luke Brady) in a scene from The Prince of Egypt by Stephen Schwartz and Philip LaZebnik @ Dominion Theatre. (Taken 06-12-2021) ©Tristram Kenton
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