Joseph & the Technicolor Dreamcoat

A new look at a very old fashion statement.

Print this page Print this page

In one of the most dramatic moments in the Bible, Judah boldly confronts the prince of Egypt, who has just accused Benjamin of grand larceny. Judah, still unaware the prince he is talking to is his brother Joseph, desperately begs him not to incarcerate Benjamin: “For how shall I go up to my father without the lad, lest I see the evil that will overtake my father?" (Genesis 44:34).
joseph and the technicolor dreamcoat
An artistic representation of the suspenseful scene in Andrew Lloyd Webber's and Tim Rice's Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat adds a multicultural and playful tone. "Oh no, not he. How can you accuse him is a mystery. Save him. Take me. Benjamin is straighter than the tall palm tree," sings the chorus of brothers in the song “Benjamin Calypso.” The brothers, morphing into whimsical Caribbean dancers with accents to boot, claim that their younger brother is "honest as coconuts,” and try to convince the prince that they are to blame: "Sure as bananas need the sun, we are the criminal guilty ones."

Not only does the technicolor Joseph script change the tone of the biblical narrative; it also invokes artistic license and modifies several important details. But the play, which was originally written for a primary school audience in the late 1960s, and has since been performed countless times in educational settings and on Broadway, mostly conveys the narrative thrust of one of the greatest stories of parental favoritism, sibling rivalry, and rags to riches. 

What is a Technicolor Dreamcoat?

According to Genesis 37:3, Jacob made Joseph a k'tonet pasim because he loved him more than any of his other sons. K'tonet is the same word used to depict the fur garments that Adam and Eve used to clothe themselves when they realized, post-sin, that they were naked, and it is the same root used to describe the High Priest's robe. Coat is a valid translation, but pasim is a harder term to define.

According to the medieval French commentator Rashi, the word refers to the garment's woolen material. Rashi cites references to karpas (wool) in Esther 1:6 and to a k'tonet pasim, a woolen coat, in Samuel 2, 13:18. A midrash that Rashi cites claims the word is an acronym for Joseph's troubles: Being sold as a slave to Potiphar in Egypt by the Sokharim (merchants), Ishmaelites, and Midyanites (thus PSIM). Nowhere does Rashi suggest the coat was colorful.

According to Genesis, Joseph's father actually made the coat himself. However, in the song "Joseph's Coat," the narrator sings, "Jacob wanted to show the world he loved his son. To make it clear that Joseph was the special one. So Jacob bought his son a coat, a multi-colored coat to wear." There is also no biblical account that backs up the play's characterization of the coat having "golden lining" or that "a king would stop and stare."

Surely a title like "Joseph and the Troublesome Woolen Coat" would not be the stuff of musical theater, but it would have been a title more in line with the biblical narrative. 

The play also veers from the biblical account on a number of other details, confusing the order of Joseph's brothers, mischaracterizing Joseph's dreams, and more. Despite the play’s inconsistencies, though, it has educated many people about the biblical narrative. Rice claimed in a 1981 newspaper interview that many of those who grew up in the early 1970s also learned about the Bible from another Webber-Rice production which came after Joseph, Jesus Christ Superstar.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Menachem Wecker

Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com. He lives in Washington, D.C.