There can be miracles, when you believe…
We could all use some miracles right now, but an original cast recording from The Prince of Egypt will have to tide us over in the meantime. The recording features the cast of the West End production, which opened in London in February but is currently on hold due to the coronavirus crisis. The full album will be available from Ghostlight Records on April 3, but EW has an exclusive listen to the cast's take on the Oscar-winning tune "When You Believe" below.
The Prince of Egypt, which began its life as a 1998 animated film, tells the story of Moses (Luke Brady), as he grows from the brother of future Pharoah Ramses (Liam Tamne) to his destiny as the savior of his people, delivering them out of Egypt to the Promised Land. After years of hunger for a stage adaptation and numerous workshops and stages of development, the musical premiered to rave reviews last month.
The original film won the Oscar for Best Song for the pop version of "When You Believe," featuring Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey. Stephen Schwartz returned to write the music and lyrics, bringing over five songs from the DreamWorks Animation film, as well as writing 10 new songs. Original screenwriter Philip LaZebnik also reprised his role on the project, writing the book for the stage adaptation.
Though the show is currently on hold, producers decided to move forward with releasing an original cast album, sharing the new piece of theater with listeners as what Schwartz describes as "a gift for Passover and Easter." Ahead of its release, we called up Schwartz to discuss The Prince of Egypt's journey from the screen to the stage, why he can't seem to stop writing religious musicals, and what his hopes are for the show's future.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: It’s been more than 20 years since the film, and a stage version has been in development for a while. Can you walk us through the evolution?
STEPHEN SCHWARTZ: There was a lot of interest from various theaters and church groups and schools that had theater departments and regional theaters around the world. Several years ago, it must have been almost 15 years ago now, I was working on a project in Denmark and learned that there was a pirated stage version of Prince of Egypt that was being done in a town in Sweden, not far from Copenhagen. And so the book writer, Philip LaZebnik, and I drove over to see it. They kind of made up their own version based on the dialogue from the movie, and they used songs in the movie. There started to be a bunch of these, and DreamWorks was receiving requests very frequently for a stage version. Finally they decided, maybe we should develop this for ourselves. So they enlisted Philip and myself to try to write a stage version. It went through several developmental stages — readings and a workshop. All of that led us finally to the West End production. We hope and expect this is the definitive stage production.
How did you tackle expanding the score? Were there songs you’d cut waiting in the wings?
We did experiment early on with a couple of songs that were cut from the film, but ultimately we didn't really go with them. They didn't seem appropriate to the show either. Ultimately, the the rest of the score is basically a new score written from scratch. I did go back and review my musical research that I had done originally — listen to a lot of it and try to enter the world again. For this, we decided to use more of the authentic instruments of the area and try to write some things geared more towards those instruments. Our orchestrator, August Eriksmoen, did a lot of research into those instruments, and they're heavily incorporated into the score.
When you were hitting on the sound overall, both back then and now, what were some of your inspirations, particularly in terms of setting or religious context?
I listened to a lot of music of the area, both Hebraic and I got a recording of purportedly ancient Egyptian court music — though how they know, I have no idea. And even street pop music from Egypt, which I liked very much, and Hebraic and Israeli folk music. Ofra Haza, who sang in the original movie, I listened to her recordings just to try and get a whole sound in my head and try to write within that sound, but write the way I do.
Was there a particular instrument or sound that you became obsessed with or were really excited to use in the score?
I really liked the percussion sounds, and one thing we did for for the show was rather than use a normal drum kit, we actually made a drum kit out of authentic drums of the area. So rather than a bass drum or a kick drum, there were the more ethnic drums: doumbeks and riqs and things like that. We had our drummer use those, and that's heavily featured in the score.
With "When You Believe," Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey leave some huge shoes to fill.
Yes, they did. I admire the bravery of Lexi [Khadime] and Christine [Allado], who sing it, but they're such amazing singers that they they really do their own version beautifully.
Can you tell us about adapting it for the stage and how you arrived at this new version?
It is basically the version that appears in the film, which is slightly different than the pop version, because for the pop version we we took out the Hebrew interlude and added a bridge. But there's a big storytelling journey within the song because it starts at the moment when Moses is at his absolute lowest point, which is after the death of the firstborn. He feels himself responsible for the death of his brother's son and all the firstborn of Egypt. He's in a very low place of despair and despondency. Through this song, [he realizes] that whatever else has happened, his people are now free. Through their joy, he's able to literally walk again. One difference in the stage show is that the very last line of the song belongs to Moses, as you hear. That emotional journey is more vivid and more focused on in the stage version than in other versions.
You've written one of the most famous religious musicals ever, Godspell. How did this compare as a project, and why are you so drawn to mining the Bible and religion for songwriting?
They're great stories. First of all, there are big events and big characters. They lend themselves to both theatricality and to music. But beyond that, the emotional content of these stories deals with big ideas and issues that we struggle with and contend with in our lives every day. Godspell is inherently about "Always treat others as you would have them treat you," and The Prince of Egypt is about "How do we deal with forces larger than ourselves, greater than ourselves, and what is our responsibility to one another?" Those are always rewarding to grapple with as a writer.
What was the most challenging song to crack?
There were a few that I found difficult. There's a new song, which is a celebratory song, in the second act called "Simcha," which is the Hebrew word for "celebrate." Just figuring out how to do something that was celebratory and uptempo with plagues and things about to happen was challenging, but I think we did finally solve that. And, actually the first song for Moses, the so-called "I want" song, "Footprints on the Sand," that was challenging. It's been in the show from the beginning, but, in the writing process, just trying to figure out how to express what it was he wanted before he knew what he wanted. And before he knew the truth of his own existence and background, that that was tricky.
We often see The Ten Commandments on TV this time of year. Is this near-Easter album release on purpose?
Absolutely. It's not only purposeful, it's the reason it's coming out now — as a celebration, first of all, for Passover, because after all, this is the Passover story. And then Easter as well. The show is on hiatus in the West End, so first thought was, "Well, why bring the cast album out when the show isn't there right now?" But then we thought of it as a sort of Passover and Easter gift. It would be nice to have it out there and share the story through the music.
The West End production is on pause, sadly, but when things do go back to normal, what are conversations like? Are there plans to aim for Broadway after London?
There was a lot of excitement around the show. We were getting wonderful audience response and doing quite well, so there was discussion about what was next. My hope and expectation is when the show reopens, if we can continue as strongly as we were before the shutdown, then obviously those discussions will take place. The timing that we were perhaps looking at at one time will be different now. But the truth is we just don't know right now. What's going to happen with live theater? When it's going to come back? Will it come back as strongly? Will it take a while? We have no way of knowing that, and so all decisions about other productions are a bit on hold right now. But we're very excited and proud of the show. When it's safe for people to come back to the theater, we look forward to sharing it with them.
How do you think Broadway and theater will weather this storm? A shutdown of this nature is unprecedented in the age of modern theater.
It's completely unprecedented. But I think there's a deep human need and desire for a collective experience, and a live collective experience, which is what the theater offers. There's something about the liveness of being there, and being with fellow human beings experiencing it and being part of it, that will always be something that people will want to experience. There have been pandemics before and ones that were more serious, going all the way back to the plagues that shut down Shakespeare's theaters. Yet theater survives because, I think, it's a basic human impulse.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.