Donny Osmond in "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat."
Donny Osmond in "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat."

Drama, intrigue, fashion: The story of Joseph has it all

The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.

Genesis 37:1-40:23

I’ve admitted before in these pages that I have a young kid who loves the musical “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.” I’m not sure what he finds most compelling about it: the catchy music, the dramatic story or the dark, emotional scenes of family dysfunction. He’s definitely into the dreams. And the coat. Who doesn’t love the coat — or at least the idea of the coat? Not sure a rainbow swing coat is a great fashion idea.

I can sort of understand my kid’s excitement, though; I played Jacob in my third-grade all-girl school play. I was wise. I had a long gray beard. I learned a lot of unusual color vocabulary words. I had no idea then that decades into the future I’d become a rabbi, spending time each week contemplating the character and history of Joseph’s relatives. But maybe that was part of the inspiration?

After third grade, some years went by before I encountered the musical again. When I was in college, I won a ticket to London from the campus travel agency. No sooner had I landed at Heathrow than I saw an advertisement for the London Palladium’s production of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.” I was thrilled! I convinced my travel buddy to go with me. I remember seeing the show in one of the biggest theaters I’ve ever been in. It was quite a spectacle.

Last year, during a rainy pandemic afternoon, we turned on the TV, and lo and behold — there was the musical again. Joseph was played by none other than Donny Osmond.  I hadn’t seen him since the Hawaiian Punch commercials of my youth. We turned on the movie, and my son was instantly enthralled. He wanted to understand if Joseph is still alive today. He was trying to figure out the timeline of the guy dressed in a caftan and surrounded by sheep. I told him that Joseph lived in ancient times, but that he is very important to the history of the Jewish people.

Imagine our excitement when we met someone who arranged the music for a recent revival of the show. Last summer while in New York, we visited some friends who work in the theater world. One of the guys who came to dinner had arranged the music for a new production of … “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat”! I asked him if he’d play a song or two for the show’s biggest fan — and I pointed to my kid.

“Sure, I’ll play!” said our new musician friend, and he sat down at the piano. The next 15 minutes were glorious. My son was riveted. Not only were we listening to his favorite musical — live! — but it was being performed by a Broadway pianist. Spectacular! We listened, rapt.

The Joseph story is a pretty great story. But what inspired Andrew Lloyd Webber to invent a musical version? I guess all the elements of good theater are there: (almost) murder, fashion, scandal. It has as much drama and intrigue as any contemporary story. Not to mention, it’s the foundation story of the Israelites. Had Joseph not been sold into slavery and landed in Egypt, had his brothers and all descendants of the 12 tribes not followed him there, had Joseph not had a dream about the fat and skinny cows … Dayenu! We never would have ended up in Egypt as a people. Had we not ended up in Egypt as a people, we could not miraculously have been saved from slavery with dramatic passage through a parted sea. Dayenu!  And we wouldn’t be the Jewish people now.

The story of Joseph’s life, in many ways, foreshadows the story of our people’s journey.  Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers. He understood what that felt like. The compassion he gained from his own tragic experience helped him to have empathy for his brothers when they reentered his life. Hundreds of years later, the entire Israelite population in Egypt was enslaved by the Pharaoh. Because of our own history of slavery, the Jewish people understand the importance of freedom today.

The experience of Joseph and the Israelites continues to inspire us. The value of freedom is deeply ingrained in us. And it is our obligation to help bring freedom to all who are enslaved.

Rabbi Jessica Zimmerman Graf
Rabbi Jessica Zimmerman Graf

Rabbi Jessica Zimmerman Graf is the senior rabbi at Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco. She is a participant in the AJWS Global Justice Fellowship, which inspires, educates and trains American rabbis to become national advocates for human rights.