King David…..The World Premier of a Failed Musical

 By Arlene Stolnitz

     I am a packrat as you might imagine! Recently, going through some papers I had been unable to discard, I came across a rare discovery of a long forgotten CD.

     Several years ago, knowing my interest in music of Judaica, Rabbi Mark Blazer, a family friend from Temple Beth Ami in Santa Clarita, California had given me a little known and obscure CD of the musical King David by legendary composers Tim Rice and Alan Mencken, well known in Broadway musical circles for productions such as Beauty and the Beast and Lion King.

     Mencken and Rice had been commissioned to write a musical to be performed at the Sultan’s Pool, outside the walled city of Jerusalem. It was originally conceived to commemorate the 3,000th anniversary of the city of Jerusalem and was to be performed as an outdoor event. According to Rice, “When it proved logistically and financially impossible to do it and Disney took an interest, we changed gears… we felt  we’d been commissioned to write it as an oratorio, and still hoped it would be performed as such in Israel….we should have emphasized that more, to avoid being judged primarily as a  Broadway show.”

     With music by Alan Mencken and lyrics and book by Tim Rice, it is the Biblical story of King David based on stories from the Books of Samuel, 1 Chronicles, and includes the Psalms of David.  It was produced on Broadway in 1997 to a lukewarm audience. At the time, it was thought to be of too serious a nature for a Broadway performance.

     Sometimes called a modern oratorio or opera, it is mainly sung and contains little dialogue. The music swings from jazz and pop to grand choral arrangements. A large orchestra and choir are included in the production.

     It was staged in May 1997 in a concert version by Disney Theater Company and premiered in the newly renovated New Amsterdam Theater in New York City.  Subsequent performances were held at the Hollywood Bowl, Atlanta Georgia, and Irving, Texas. But it never quite achieved the recognition it might have deserved. Critical reviews called it “sober and respectful…. with enough information for month of Bible study classes”. The show, lasting two hours and forty-five minutes, was called a “Goliath of a yawn”, even though kudos was given to outstanding performances by cast members and musical arrangements. The cast album, which is the one I have, has been praised.

    The cast of characters included Biblical figures such as Jonathan, Joab, Absolam, Michal, Bathsheba, Saul, Goliath, as well as  a full ensemble of singers, who trace the life of David until his final days ending with the reprise This New Jerusalem  sung by Solomon and company. Numbers include songs such as Israel and Saul, Samuel Anoints David, Goliath of
Goth, Death of Saul, The Ark Brought to Jerusalem, When In Love, Absolam, My Absolam, Jonathan and Samuel and more.

       The lush music is gorgeous and expressive making one wonder why this work failed when, in later years, a production like Miranda's Hamilton has had such success. Could it have been the timing?

     Those interested in hearing excerpts from the production can find selected songs by principal players from the show on YouTube by typing in the title of the show. 

     My dream is to have a full stage production performed, but unfortunately, at this point, the idea seems to be out of reach.