I have a lot of affection for the 1998 movie version of The Prince of Egypt. I was brought up on its songs and it taught me about my own religious roots in a moving and informative way. As the DreamWorks film shows, the Exodus is the ultimate story of liberation for Jewish people. Retold annually by Jewish families gathering for Pesach (Passover), it tells the story of what can happen when you believe. The Exodus presents a symbol of hope for every generation of Jews; it is a reminder of our suffering and survival, that although hope is frail, it’s hard to kill. The Prince of Egypt should be about the Hebrews and the forming of the Jewish people; it is our story.
By contrast, Stephen Schwartz’s musical The Prince of Egypt, currently running at the Dominion Theatre, makes the wrong choice at every turn. As a Jewish audience member, I felt uncomfortable watching my heritage dragged through the mud for the entertainment of those ignorant of its inaccuracy and offensiveness.
In an interview with the Mirror in early 2020, Schwartz and his co-writer Philip LaZebnik claimed that they didn’t want to make a “my God is better than your God thing” out of the production, adding that “we didn’t want to do a Bible pageant.” What they appear to forget is that this narrative of liberation has never been mere pageantry to the Jewish people. Moses’s journey is to bring his liberated people the Ten Commandments, allowing them to form their own independent nation. The Exodus is no light-hearted myth for twisting and subverting; it hangs on the nerve-ends of the Jewish experience.
There were so many low-rent moments in this show that it is difficult to know where to begin. For one thing, it glorifies Ramses to the point that it should have been titled The Other Prince of Egypt. It is he, not Moses, who is this show’s hero – his actions excused under the cry of personal insecurity, Egyptian social norms, and pressures of royalty. Of course, Ramses does uphold Hebrew slavery. He doesn’t want to be labelled weak – understandable, right? I think not. This wasn’t the moment to talk about Egyptian cultural pressures: those ruling over empires of enslaved peoples ought not to be given long musical moments for self-justification.
It went from bad to worse. In a manner that I considered highly insensitive, the Burning Bush, representing the embodiment of God, was built on stage by chanting dancers thrusting about in slithers of cloth. The dialogue was inaudible, God’s message abbreviated, and the splendour of this pivotal moment in Jewish history lost. In the scene of the Ten Plagues, the musical paints Ramses as an innocent victim onto whom Moses forces suffering without the chance for repentance. It is a key plot point in the DreamWorks version that Moses approaches Ramses after each plague and implores him to: “Let my people go!” Only when Ramses remains unmoved do the plagues get steadily more and more serious until finally the tenth is reached: the death of the first born.
In this production though, Moses’ crucial plea for his people’s freedom is either skipped or mumbled. To an audience unfamiliar with the Exodus, it appears that Pharaoh was given no chance to reconsider. It is Moses who is left guilt-ridden for Ramses’ refusal to free the Hebrew slaves. This is followed by three songs of sorrow for the deaths of the Egyptian firstborn.While this did have the potential to be a new and interesting angle, it felt disrespectful and undermining to give Egyptian grief three times the stage time of the enslaved Hebrews whose suffering had been unrelenting and excruciating for generations prior.
The real nail in the coffin of this show, however, was the parting of the Red Sea. For some reason, The Prince of Egypt decides to try and reinvent this. The Hebrews are led through the split sea to freedom, but it is by Miriam. Meanwhile, Moses has retreated back to Ramses in the middle of the parting sea to offer his life in servitude. It is Ramses, the wise and fair (!), who insists on Moses resuming his divine duties. Somehow the slave-owner is made into a compassionate voice of reason. To put it mildly, this involves some heavy character reinvention for both Moses and Ramses.
Another stylistic choice worth commenting on was the inclusion of a highly ethnically diverse cast. Like Hamilton, which inserts a mostly African-American cast with a flair for hip hop in the place of old, white, slave-owning men, this felt like tokenistic representation. I was left with the sense that this move was an attempt to make the Hebrew liberation story more palatable to a “woke” audience. It avoided addressing that the Hebrews were, in their own right, already Middle Eastern. There was no need to ignore what Hebrews look like. They certainly were not white Europeans, and the show seemed to forget this. By ignoring the fact that being Jewish is itself an ethnicity, the casting choices made by The Prince of Egypt suggested that Jews are too white to be sympathetic.
The point here is that this rewriting of The Prince of Egypt marginalises Jewish suffering. The Hebrews are consistently sidelined in their own narrative of liberation. For no other ethnicity or religion would this be acceptable, and yet the Jews don’t seem to count. In the midst of the rising incidents of Antisemitism in this country, I worry about the damaging effect this production may have on an already blinkered British population. Of course, this is just one Jewish person’s opinion, but our opinions do count.