'The Prince of Egypt' musical: Oscar-winner Stephen Schwartz on diversifying the cast for the stage

Ben Falk
LtoR Tanisha Spring, Liam Tamne, Adam Pearce, Joe Dixon & Debbie Kurup in The Prince of Egypt, (Matt Crockett ©DWA LLC)

It’s been 22 years since Dreamworks animation The Prince of Egypt made more than £167 million around the world and won an Oscar for the ballad When You Believe, written by Wicked composer Stephen Schwartz.

Since then, cultural sensitivities have progressed – it’s unlikely a film set in ancient Africa would now star a cast as white as Ralph Fiennes, Val Kilmer, Sandra Bullock and Michelle Pfeiffer.

So when it was decided to adapt the movie into a new stage musical, which is opening in London’s West End this month, the creatives realised they needed to think differently.

“All we did was talk to the casting director and say we want to see people of all ethnicities, all races, bring us as diverse a group of people as you can,” explains Schwartz, who is returning for this production, writing ten new songs to add to the five tracks that featured in the film.

THE PRINCE OF EGYPT has extended its run date by 7 weeks. Telling the epic story of Moses and Ancient Egypt the incredible show has already been seen by over 41,000 people in 20 sold out shows. (©2020 DWA LLC. All rights reserved.)

“And then basically we just cast the people we thought were best for the roles. But because we had a broad field to choose from, we wound up with a very diverse cast.”

Luke Brady, Liam Tamne, Christine Allado and Alexia Khadime take the four lead roles, in the Biblical story about Moses, his relationship with adoptive brother Ramses and his elevation to God’s chosen guy (parting of the Red Sea, Ten Commandments, the plagues, all that jazz) as he seeks to free the Hebrews from Egyptian slavery.

Read more: Mission Impossible 7 hit by virus outbreak

For Schwartz, one of the world’s most successful musical playwrights thanks to iconic hits Wicked, Godspell and Pippin, the show presented him with a challenge – write new songs that people like as much as the ones they know from the movie.

A poster for DreamWorks' 1998 animated film The Prince of Egypt. (DreamWorks)

“[People] do an adaptation and there are new songs and inevitably the initial criticism is always, well, the new songs aren’t as good as the ones in the movie,” he says. “Always. And I’m sure I’m going to hear that. And part of the reason is, everyone knows the ones in the movie…it’s much easier to respond to songs you already know than to hear ones for the first time.”

“Basically,” he continues, “I wrote this score the way I approached the score to Wicked – how do I tell this story, what are the best musical ways of doing so, what are the best songs I can possibly write? The difference between Wicked and this show is that Wicked, when people first come to it, they’re hearing all the songs for the first time. In this show, they’re hearing five songs they already know and then some other songs and inevitably they’re going to think the five songs they already know are better…At least in the beginning, until the cast album comes out!”

Alan Menken, left, and Stephen Schwartz smile for photographers backstage after winning for Best Achievement in Music-Original Musical or Comedy Score for "Pocahontas" at the 68th Academy Awards at the Music Center in Los Angeles, Monday, March 25, 1996. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)

But why has it taken so long to bring to the stage? “When we made the movie, we didn’t think of making it anything beyond an animated feature, it wasn’t as if we did the movie saying, ‘and now we hope it’ll eventually be a stage show’,” admits Schwartz.

“Musicals take a long time. They’re very complicated. They’re very collaborative. [This] show is definitely different from the movie – there are different characters, there are different incidents, certain aspects of what the focus is. It’s definitely its own thing.”

Luke Brady (Moses) and Christine Allado (Tzipporah) in The Prince Of Egypt (A New Musical) by Stephen Schwartz @ Dominion Theatre, London. A Dreamworks production. (©Tristram Kenton 02/20)

Still, while The Prince of Egypt is his primary focus, Schwartz has plenty more irons in the fire. For one, the movie adaptation of Wicked – a show seen by more than 60 million people in 130 cities around the world.

“We have a director (Stephen Daldry), I believe there’s a designer he’s been working with, there’s development of the screenplay and we’re just waiting until we feel we have it right,” he reveals. “There’s no need for us to rush it.”

But is there any casting news? Will original stars Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel be reprising their roles on the big screen? “I think there have been some preliminary meetings and casting discussions,” he says. “I think that doesn’t really make sense until we know what the movie is going to be, it’s just a little premature.”

Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel at curtain call (Photo by Bruce Glikas/FilmMagic)

He’s also waiting on the progress of his new take on A Christmas Carol, tentatively titled Marley, which is written and directed by Bill Condon (The Good Liar, Dreamgirls).

“In the way that Wicked takes the Wizard of Oz story and spins it by looking at it from another point of view, this is a movie that takes A Christmas Carol and spins it by looking at it from the point of view of the character Jacob Marley,” he says. “Bill has written the screenplay and I’ve written songs. I love the project and I hope it will happen, but movies are tricky, you never know!”

The Prince of Egypt, the brand-new musical that officially opens tonight (Tuesday, 25 February, 2020) at London’s Dominion Theatre, has added seven extra weeks to its limited engagement with 100,000 new tickets now on sale to Saturday, 31 October, 2020.

The production, which has already been seen by over 41,000 people at 20 sold out preview performances, has also added an extra show on Tuesday 27 October 2020 at 2.30pm. Additional matinees have previously been added on Tuesday 14 April, Tuesday 11 August and Tuesday 25 August.

Tickets are available via www.ThePrinceofEgyptMusical.com