The Prince of Egypt Opened in London, but Is It a Hit?
A look at the prospects for the much-discussed Stephen Schwartz musical.
On Tuesday, The Prince of Egypt opened at London's Dominion Theatre to sizzling fanfare and lukewarm reviews. But do reviews even matter when it comes to a show with near-universal name recognition, penned by one of the most popular living composers?
This Story of the Week will look at the significance of The Prince of Egypt, its prospects of success in London, and the possibility that it will part the Atlantic Ocean to arrive in a land flowing with criticism and cash…Broadway!
What is The Prince of Egypt?
It's the stage adaptation of the 1998 DreamWorks Animation film about the biblical book of Exodus. The movie features a cartoon Moses facing off with a cartoon Ramses over the captivity of Israel. The film has become a cultural touchstone for millennials and was the pretext for the most epic riff-off of the '90s, between Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston.
The theatrical Prince of Egypt features a score by Wicked composer Stephen Schwartz, now expanded beyond the five numbers he wrote for the film (there are 10 new songs for the stage show). Philip LaZebnik has adapted his original screenplay into the book of this new musical, which offers a closer look at internal Egyptian politics while minimizing the role of divine intervention.
The stage musical made its world premiere at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley in 2017 before playing runs in Denmark and Utah. The London run began performances on February 5, 2020, having been significantly reworked since those earlier productions.
The lavish staging is by director Scott Schwartz, son of Stephen. It takes place on a tilting stage (set design by Kevin Depinet), with Jon Driscoll's giant projections extending out into the house. Forty-three actors wear 380 costumes (by Ann Hould-Ward), and most of the performers appear in the parting of the Red Sea (facilitated by illusion designer Chris Fisher). If you go to the theater for pure spectacle, this is one to put on your radar.
What are the critics saying?
Of course, not everyone is won over by special effects. The critical consensus in London has been tepid, with reviewers finding fault with LaZebnik's leaden dialogue, Schwartz Sr.'s substandard new songs (not as catchy as the old ones), and Schwartz Jr.'s overwrought staging.
Veteran reviewer Mark Shenton calls The Prince of Egypt, "a biblical pageant that comes with all the weighty, earnest and portentous air of an end-of-year Nativity project, though on a considerably larger budget." According to Clive Davis of The Times, cash cannot compensate for a substandard script and score, and this is "one of those big-budget musicals that is oddly lacking in interesting music." Sniffing at the general cheese of the production, The Guardian's Arifa Akbar describes the setting as "ancient Egypt by way of Las Vegas."
Writing one of the more positive assessments of the show, Alex Wood of WhatsOnStage credits the cast with delivering the production from musical theater bondage, asserting, "It's a sheer force of will by an utterly stand-out cast that ultimately wins the day."
Sean Cheesman's choreography has been the most universally praised aspect of the production, with critics and audiences alike admiring the writhing masses of appendages he has been able to assemble onstage. And really, who doesn't want to see hunky men toiling under the Egyptian sun?
What are ticket-buyers saying…with their money?
The entire preview period (February 5-24) was sold out, playing to over 41,000 people, according to WhatsOnStage. Since this was a preview period of a high-profile musical, some of those tickets were comps for journalists and other industry professionals. Still more were sold to superfans who snagged their seats the moment they went on sale. This is a show that has captured the attention of even infrequent theatergoers, but it isn't clear yet that the bulk of them are translating their interest into ticket purchases.
New York's Broadway League releases weekly grosses detailing the revenue and attendance at each show, but London producers are more secretive. Unless you have a source on the inside (call me if you do!), it's difficult to get that kind of data. However, a quick glance at the ticketing page for The Prince of Egypt shows plenty of open seats for March, and ample availability for the summer. This show is by no means sold out.
And although the London run has been extended by seven weeks, the announcement of that extension coincided with opening night, leading me to suspect that those seven weeks were etched in stone long ago (announcing an extension on the eve of opening is a fairly common strategy by theatrical publicists to make the show look like a hit).
Is there any chance of Prince of Egypt coming to Broadway?
There's always a chance, especially when there is money to be made. But as I explained above, that is not entirely certain just yet.
You might assume that a new musical by the composer of Wicked would automatically be on the fast track to Broadway, but that is not necessarily the case: In 2014, a stage adaptation of The Hunchback of Notre Dame (which Schwartz wrote with Aladdin composer Alan Menken) opened at La Jolla and soon transferred to Paper Mill Playhouse, where it received quasi-ho-hum reviews. That production was also helmed by Scott Schwartz.
While the property has gone on to play a number of well-regarded regional runs (including one in Sacramento starring deaf actor John McGinty), talk of moving it to Broadway has ceased. A recent announcement that Menken and Schwartz are collaborating on the score of the Disney live-action Hunchback made it perfectly clear that the film will not contain any material from the stage venture.
Stateside superfans have plenty of reason to believe that they will one day see The Prince of Egypt in their own land, but those with any doubts might want to book a flight to London this summer. There's definitely an open seat waiting for you.