Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat is not the most well regarded of musicals. Many see it as no more than a patchwork of musical styles, and it is an easy target for musical theatre purists. I happen to love it, and it is the first musical I was ever involved in, sitting by the side of the “stage” in the gym when I was in sixth grade, part of the set crew of the middle school production. Yes, the song list could read “The Rock Song,” “The Country Song,” “The Reggae Song,” etc., but they are all tons of fun and frequently clever. I’ve always thought of “Close Every Door” as simply a powerful ballad of loneliness. I recently realized, though, it actually feels much deeper.
I’m not the first to see the Holocaust themes in the lyrics of this song. The lyrics “Just give me a number instead of my name” and “Destroy me completely, then throw me away” are often cited as obvious references to what it was like for Jews in concentration camps, and I would add just about every other lyric in the song, minus the uplifting “peace of mind” passages. After all, Joseph was only imprisoned in Egypt for allegedly seducing Potiphar’s wife, and he had his dreams to keep him hopeful. When he sings “Forget all about me and let me decay,” he probably doesn’t think that’s a real possibility, like the Jews in the ghettos and camps.
The music of “Close Every Door” also has a hint of hopefulness during the refrain, which somewhat resembles Israel’s national anthem, but it mostly sounds like one of the songs that came out of the ghettos, especially when the chorus of children (in the Donny Osmond home video version of Joseph) starts singing. It’s haunting and lonely. One of the most beautiful songs to come out of the ghettos was “Unter Dayne Vayse Shtern,” or “Under These White Stars.” Some of the lyrics from that, translated into English, are “But in cellars, in holes the murderous quiet weeps” and “I hang – a ruptured string, and I sing to you.” Like Joseph, the singer knows “the answers lie far from this world,” but is desperately confused as to why he cannot find them. “Where are you, where?” the singer asks in “Shtern.” He’s looking for God, and God is not answering, no matter how hard he looks.
“Unter Dayne Vayse Shtern” was written as a poem by Avraham Sutzkever, and set to music by Avrom Brudno for a musical revue in the particularly culturally active Vilna Ghetto. Maria Friedman, who played the narrator in the Osmond Joseph video, sang the song in a musical called Ghetto in 1989, and on her album Now and Then. Joseph is a story about a hopeful time, before the Jews found the Promised Land, and the songs that came out of the ghetto are from a time long since. Chances are Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice knew what they were doing with “Close Every Door.” Because of the nature of the songs they were evoking, though, it is less obvious than the rest of the score, and therefore harder to fully grasp on a first listen, when we are immersed in Joseph’s own troubles. But it adds depth to a musical often seen as frivolous, and which is why it is always good to go back for second listens.
Aaron Netsky writes the 366 Days/366 Musicals blog (http://366days366musicals.tumblr.com). It's only two months in, so there is still plenty of time to catch up on some very interesting and obscure musicals.