It's an ancient, epic tale of brotherhood, slavery, faith and culture, in which divine majesty and supernatural powers meet all-too-human emotions and behavior. The story of Moses and his people's Exodus from Egypt has been retold in many ways, including, this month from TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, as a new musical -- "The Prince of Egypt" -- with songs by Broadway-and-film legend Stephen Schwartz ("Godspell," "Pippin," Wicked," Disney soundtracks and more).
"I think one of the reasons that these stories have lived for so long is that they deal with big events, big emotions and big themes. Those things are ideally suited for musical theater," Schwartz said. "The Prince of Egypt" follows the Biblical character of Moses, born a Hebrew slave, sent down the river as an infant, adopted by the pharaoh's family, then called to turn against his adopted kin and lead his people out of slavery.
"One of the things we've tried to do for the stage adaptation is to imagine and dramatize how real people would behave, react and be affected by the enormous events in the story, so it's not a Sunday-school pageant but a real story of two brothers," Schwartz said. (In that respect, it's perhaps more akin to the friends-turned-foes theme of "Wicked" than his New Testament-based "Godspell.")
The new theatrical version of "The Prince of Egypt" is based on the 1998 hit animated film by Dreamworks (which included Schwartz's Oscar-winning song "When You Believe.") Over the years, Schwartz said, the film company has received numerous requests from theater companies interested in the piece being developed for the stage. Successes with other animated films transformed into stage musicals over the years, including Schwartz's own "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," helped fuel continued interest. Schwartz said he was happy to revisit the work, especially when Philip LaZebnik, who wrote the screenplay for the film, agreed to write the play's book. TheatreWorks' world premiere will be followed by a production with Fredericia Teater of Denmark, in 2018.
Translating the story from screen to stage means that Schwartz was able to add around a dozen new songs. It also means more of an emphasis on storytelling and less on special effects.
"Obviously there are things one can do in film, especially animated film, that you can't do on stage," Schwartz said with a laugh. "On the other hand, there are a lot of advantages to storytelling on stage." There's a kind of "unspoken contract" between the audience and the production, he said, that allows viewers to apply their own imaginations to the work.
"In the movie, (Moses) basically sings one very brief song, 'All I Ever Wanted,' which has been expanded for the show, but he has two new songs that are completely solos for him, he has some songs he sings with Ramses, who also has new material ... there's much more musicalization of the character of Moses," Schwartz said.
The love-hate relationship between Moses and his adopted brother Ramses is a major theme in this telling of the story. Diluckshan Jeyaratnam and Jason Gotay nabbed those starring roles, and both said they were longtime fans of the animated film.
"The film was, let me put it this way, one of the most memorable experiences I've had. I'm crazy about animation movies. It's one of those films that really stuck with me," Jeyaratnam said. He hails from Denmark, and will be reprising his role in the Danish premiere.
"I remember seeing it in the theater, and of course fell in love with the music and the story," Gotay said. "It was my first real introduction to the story of Exodus. It's crazy to be coming full circle."
Gotay, a Broadway veteran, was originally considered for the part of Moses but said he's glad to be playing the maligned pharaoh alongside Jeyaratnam as his co-star instead. "Everyone is kind of blown away by this connection we have," he said. "I think they were really smart in taking into account how the two of us would vibe."
This story, full of plagues, infant death and cruelty, is a fairly dark one, despite its ties to a movie marketed to children.
"When one is dealing with a two-act show there is maybe a slightly older audience and we can go into the characters with more depth and nuance, we hope," Schwartz said. "Sort of by definition, animation tends to be movies that kids go to and their parents take them to, while the best family musicals tend to be things that adults go to and take their kids," he said. "It's suitable and appropriate, and I hope enjoyable, for younger audiences, but it's definitely aimed more at an adult crowd."
"Even though the show has so many epic proportions, it comes down to the story of two brothers. It's a really human story, down to earth," Jeyaratnam said. "I started to discover more and more how much of a human being (Moses) is. He's just a young boy who loves his brother and loves his family, and then all of a sudden he gets the responsibility that in some ways he's been craving, but he has to face all these tough challenges."
"In the film, Ramses is definitely more of the villain. This version of the story humanizes him and gives perspective on why he does what he does," Gotay said. "Everyone is the hero of their own story."
Directing the production is someone close to Schwartz's own heart -- his son Scott, with whom he's worked before, including at TheatreWorks. "We always have a very good time working together," the elder Schwartz said. "I just view him, when we're working together, as a colleague. Our relationship is not forgotten but sort of irrelevant."
Schwartz is humble when discussing his long career. "I'm fortunate enough to be able to choose the projects I work on, things that I care about and interest me, and sometimes something will happen like 'Wicked' where it will transcend the show itself and become a cultural phenomenon. I'm just trying to tell a good story," he said.
Schwartz said he's always enjoyed working with TheatreWorks. "They're supportive, they're smart and they've developed an audience over the course of the years that's enthusiastic about seeing work in progress." he said. "Doing something new is always scary, but it's always exciting. We look forward to sharing it with audiences."
What: "The Prince of Egypt."
Where: Mountain View Center for Performing Arts, 500 Castro St.
When: Oct. 6-Nov. 5
Info: Go to TheatreWorks.