Ah, The Prince of Egypt. DreamWorks’ greatest animated achievement, a true masterpiece. Who could hate it? With beautiful animation, a stellar story, and songs that make you want to get up and sing, this movie has ensured its place in my heart as one of the best animated films of all time. And naturally, with a stage adaptation in the works, I’m very interested in seeing if, how, and when it ever makes it to Broadway.
Of course, I’m not alone in that. Over on BroadwayWorld’s message board, there is occasionally the random spark of discussion over the stage musical’s productions so far: Was this production any good? Will this be the set they use if it goes to Broadway? What are the new songs? Did they change the book much? For the most part, reading people’s opinions on this is interesting, but there was one bit of discussion I noticed that rubbed me the wrong way. At one point, someone mentioned that, if The Prince of Egypt were to finally make it to Broadway, then the production team should seek to minimize the religious themes throughout the work. Someone else chimed in that the movie isn’t about religion at all, and that it’s just a “story of two brothers that happens to have a religion story as the background.”
Now, I’ve discussed religion in theatre on The Theatrical Board before in a piece on Jesus Christ Superstar. To sum up, I said there that a musical focusing on a story in the Bible isn’t necessarily intended to be religious depending on the angle that the production team went with. Jesus Christ Superstar, for example, follows the events of the Four Gospels, but it does it in such a way that both places Judas as the sympathetic protagonist and calls to question whether or not Jesus was truly the Son of God, both of which are narrative choices that are understandably troublesome to many Christians. But being controversial was the goal for Superstar from the beginning. The Prince of Egypt? Not so much.
The Prince of Egypt is a film that benefited greatly from its creative team meeting with religious experts all over the world in order to ensure that the final product was as respectful of people’s beliefs as possible. Not only did they interview Christian scholars and leaders, but they also took the liberty of gathering insight from Jewish and Muslim experts, too, so that the film had a very well-rounded view on Moses and the Exodus story that included non-Christians who revere Moses. The movie even opens with a disclaimer, saying that while certain liberties were taken with the narrative in order to adapt the story to the screen, it’s understood how much the Exodus story means to faithful people worldwide. It’s safe to say that, while there are indeed atheists and people of non-Abrahamic religions who enjoy this movie, the goal first and foremost was to deliver a product that is special to people who appreciate Exodus through a spiritual lens.
So...why, then, should a Broadway production go against this goal and actively seek to eliminate the very core of what made the original film work so well? If you’re adapting something from screen to stage, the aim should be to capture the heart of the film while also adding enough new things to the piece in order to warrant there being a stage production in the first place. Unlike Jesus Christ Superstar, which aimed to be a “story from the Bible” with non-Christians as the focus audience, The Prince of Egypt took great pains to be a “story from Scripture” with Jewish people, Christians, and Muslims as the focus audience. The only reason to remove religion from the piece in its stage adaptation would be to “stick it” to the religious people who love the film, and that just seems unnecessarily mean-spirited to me.
You can be non-religious and still enjoy The Prince of Egypt. But please understand that this particular take on Exodus is meant to cater to religious audiences, and it’s only fair to expect that a potential Broadway production will do the same thing. If there are people on BroadwayWorld who wish to see an adaptation of Exodus that removes religious themes (which, granted, would be very difficult, considering the events in the story), then they can feel more than free to create one of their own.
(Image from The Prince of Egypt [1998, DreamWorks])