I just finished listening to The Prince of Egypt original London cast recording in honor of its 2020 Grammy nomination for Best Musical Theater Album, and it was a disappointment. This album marks the first recording that includes new songs written specifically for a full-length stage production.
Like typical Disney (ish) movies, the 1998 animated DreamWorks movie included a handful of songs, including an Academy Award-winner, so the idea of an expanded score in the vein of Anastasia or The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which got their full-length cast recordings in 2017 and 2016 respectively, has always held great promise.
Stephen Schwartz’s music opens with the fittingly dramatic “Deliver Us,” the showstopping opener from the movie that perfectly sets the scene for the danger around the birth of Moses and his mother’s life-threatening risk of sending her baby son up the river to escape being murdered by the Egyptian soldiers.
In the movie, and even moreso in the London cast recording, this song does the difficult job of conveying the weight and longing on the shoulders of the Hebrew people during that time without adding a hint of melodrama. Is there a better song that grasps the plight of the Children of Israel and their descendants? Unfortunately, the rest of the score hardly lives up to the scene set by the poignant anthem.
Schwartz’s sometimes phrenetic score channels the other Stephen (Sondheim) at times and sits in a poor man’s Hunchback of Notre Dame at others. The music is hardly recognizable as a Schwartz, but if anything, it’s much more Children of Eden than anything else, with tiny glimpses of Pippin and Godspell, and no sign of Wicked.
Schwartz does what has become a custom for bringing animated musicals to the stage and weaves in recurring musical themes throughout the show, adding a little spark to a few numbers. He most notably assigns themes to characters, like “All I Ever Wanted” for Moses and Ramses and “Deliver Us” for the Hebrews.
The new “I want” song, “Footprints on the Sand,” offers potential for a soaring ballad but hardly moves past the low energy of its first verse as it sets up shop in a ‘90s soft rock genre. In Schwartz’s defense, Luke Brady (Moses) hardly captures the full scope of the song as he strains for the highest notes.
An expanded version of “All I Ever Wanted” brings me the closure I always longed for to one of the most disappointingly short songs in musical history (alongside “History Has its Eyes on You” from Hamilton and “Heaven’s Light” from The Hunchback of Notre Dame), although Brady’s jump to falsetto at the end very literally ends the song on a bad note.
Liam Tamme’s less labored vocals as Ramees bring the conviction the score needs and offers some bright spots in a lackluster album. The painfully slow “Make it Right” might not really go anywhere musically, but the descanting and key changing allow it to limp along, carried by Tamme.
Whereas Brian Stokes Mitchell’s robust rendition of “Through Heaven’s Eyes” was a highlight of the film’s Grammy-nominated soundtrack, the London production’s peppy interpretation, sung by Gary Wilmot, highlights the plotlessness of the filler tune.
The new expanded arrangement of “The Plagues” may be the only other song in the album that improves on the film besides “All I Ever Wanted,” heightening the intensity to match the moment in the story by interweaving themes from multiple songs. Though, fans of the movie’s “Playing with the big Boys” will be disappointed to hear that song is cut entirely and only briefly alluded to in “The Plagues.”
As a fan of the original book on which this story is based, I cringe at some of the extra-Biblical changes to the story, particularly when it comes to the character of God. The movie took some liberties, and from what I can tell from the lyrics alone, it sounds like the stage version takes those further.
The whole piece has the lame lack of polish usually associated with a concept recording of an unfinished musical, and the new songs sound pulled out of Schwartz’s idea folder from the ‘80s rather than painstakingly workshopped as I have no doubt they were.
“When You Believe,” one of the greats from the movie- what am I saying? There are, like, three songs in the movie, so they’re all the greats- already had its rousing choral interpretation we’ve been waiting for when Pentatonix featured it on their Christmas album in 2018. If you’re looking for a recording of “When You Believe” that evokes inspiration and passion with multi-part harmony, stick with Pentatonix.
The grand finale centers around the iconic moment when the Hebrews walk on dry land through the parted Red Sea after an intense chase by the Egyptian army. The triumphant miracle gets boiled down to a slow reprisal of “Footprints on the Sand” between Moses and Ramses that begs for some swaying and hand-holding.
For fans of the movie looking for bigger and better The Prince of Egypt songs, this is not the album to look in. I hope Schwartz will be struck by some inspiration before transferring to Broadway, and perhaps then we will get some new keepers.
One thing I can agree with Schwartz on is that there weren’t any lines memorable enough in the closing numbers of the acts to give them any names besides “Act I Finale” and “Act II Finale.” I’ll expand on that and say I feel the same way about all of his new songs.