Strip away the rivers that turn to blood, swarms of locusts, fiery hailstones, a burning bush and the parting of the Red Sea and at its core, new musical The Prince of Egypt is really about family.
Inspired by the story of Exodus, it’s about two brothers born into very different backgrounds, who by dint of fate are brought together only to become sworn enemies in adult life – and it’s about a son separated from his real family, only to be reunited with them later.
So it’s something of a happy coincidence for director Scott Schwartz that his latest show, which opened at the Dominion Theatre last week, sees him reunited with his own father, multi-Oscar-winning lyricist and composer, Stephen Schwartz.
New York native Scott describes it as “a really joyous experience” to work with his father on the musical – based on the 1998 DreamWorks animation – alongside original screenwriter Philip LaZebnik.
“We’ve worked together a couple of times, but it’s a rare occurrence,” the 45-year-old says of his father, who has also won four Grammys and is best known for composing the music for stage and screen hits including Godspell, Wicked
“I have my own career as a director, including shows on and off Broadway and my father has obviously had a very successful career.
“But we’re very close and now, as an adult, we have become friends and real colleagues. In this process, we treat it completely professionally. When we’re in the rehearsal room, he’s the composer and lyricist and I’m the director.”
Scott, who is the artistic director of New York’s renowned Bay Street Theater, credits his father, as well as his mother Carole, a former actress, for exposing him to the arts “from a very early age”.
“It was in many ways unavoidable,” he laughs. “My dad was always writing tunes, and I thought everybody lived in houses where their father played the piano all the time, sang and wrote music.
“I was never pressured by my parents to go into the theatre. I kind of found my way into it. They were certainly encouraging, but I know, had I chosen a different path, they would have also supported that, so it was a choice I came to because of my own love for that world.”
But he acknowledges that Stephen did much to introduce him to the world of the West End stage, after his father’s career brought him to London to work on several musicals, so Scott now feels “honoured and blessed” to be returning to the capital for his latest show.
Having only officially opened last week, The Prince of Egypt has already announced an extra seven weeks to its limited run, which will end on 31 October.
The 43-strong cast features Luke Brady as Moses, Liam Tamne as Ramses and Gary Wilmot as Jethro against visually striking sets and costumes, breathtaking choreography from Sean Cheesman and 10 new songs written by Stephen, together with five from the original animation.
Scott notes that while the production “honours the film”, his musical does not replicate the well-known DreamWorks animation and is “meant for the stage”. He explains: “We’re really trying to use the fact we’re doing this on stage to expand the story, make it richer, [make] the characters and experiences more human.
“The thing about an animated feature, even a great one like The Prince of Egypt, is that you’re limited to about 90 to 95 minutes, while the stage version is a full-length show so it gives the writers the opportunity to go deeper.”
The animation can, of course, bring such events as the burning bush or Moses’ miraculous parting of the Red Sea to life with the help of special effects and artistic skill. I ask Scott how he hopes to reproduce such epic things on stage.
“I don’t want to give too much away, because we have some pretty exciting moments I want people to be surprised by,” he smiles. “But what we have done is develop an amazing language of movement and dance, created by Sean, to relate how there are forces in this world that are greater than any of us individually, that there are miracles. We think we can sort of shape events, but in reality, we’re just a grain of sand.
“The burning bush, for example, is created by our entire cast. There is actual fire in the show and some pretty grand theatrical effects that happen when the Red Sea parts, but it’s all coupled with things the actors themselves are doing.”
Speaking of miracles, one of the most well-known songs from The Prince of Egypt is, of course, Stephen’s Oscar-winning song, When You Believe, which went on to become a global hit for Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey. I ask Scott if he is a believer of miracles.
“I believe there are things in this world we don’t fully understand and there are coincidences in the world that go beyond mere coincidence,” he replies.
“Whether you call that a miracle, or you call that God or fate or the supernatural, I do think there is a world out there beyond our senses that we very rarely, but maybe occasionally, get to experience.
“But I also believe we create our own destinies and we have a responsibility to put good into the world. That is part of our journey on this earth.”
- The Prince of Egypt runs until 31 October at Dominion Theatre. Tickets: www.theprinceofegyptmusical.com