I saw the mini-Ws' school production of Joseph and his Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat last night and it was a great hour of foot-tapping entertainment. The kids did very well in terms of performance, but it did strike me again just how fabulous the writing of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice really is.
Generally, life in the early 1970s was pretty bleak. It was Life on Mars and That's Life and, if you were very lucky, The Good Life. The Webber and Rice rock opera phenomenon was different. The roots of shows such as Joseph and Jesus Christ Superstar actually stretch back to the end of the swinging sixties, but they were tailor-made to inject some belated hippy joie de vivre into that dismal period dominated by Ted Heath, Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan.
The music is exuberant, accessible and borrows from a range of different genres. The lyrics are genuinely funny and are based on that unshakeable 60s principle that no subject is too worthy or important to avoid humorous treatment or satirical commentary. Even much-loved Biblical stories can be turned into song-and-dance routines.
Somehow, bringing Old Testament characters into 1972 works so much better than setting a Shakespeare play in the First World War, doesn't it? It's just a lot more fun.
"Potiphar had very few cares. He was one of Egypt's millionaires. Having made a fortune buying shares in... pyramids."
This was an era when organised religion was trying very hard to be cool. If Jesus were here today, what would he think of us? What would he say to us? Would he, like, dig the scene, man? Books such as Carl Burke's Treat me cool, Lord epitomise the desire to marry traditional religious values with a world of Flower Power and protest. The Webber and Rice musicals reflect this changing environment, even if the writers are not consciously trying to promote any religious message.
One final observation. In the 70s, anything was a potential musical. If someone had asked for a show about Jesus and his apostles, we'd have been taken fishing on the Sea of Galilee and Webber and Rice would have penned "Any bream will do".
It was a glorious, if rather crazy, era. And we're still the richer for it.