Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.
There’s a song in my head, and it won’t go.
And Jamie McKnight put it there.
McKnight is playing the title role in Joseph and His Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat, Drayton Entertainment’s flagship show that will play at 4 theatres over this season. If you know even a little bit about this musical, chances are you’ll agree with me that this is an inspired choice. Joseph is the first musical co-written by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice to be staged. While it began life in 1968 as a 15-minute pop cantata performed at St. Paul’s Junior School in London, it has since flourished in major productions worldwide. Part of the musical’s enduring appeal is the uniquely catchy songs from a wide variety of musical styles seamlessly incorporated within a tight story of betrayal and redemption. I ask McKnight which most appeals to him, and without hesitation, he replies, “I love many of the repeating melodies in this musical. My favourite has to be, ‘Straaaaaange aaaaaas it seeeeeems . . .’ Know it? I LOVE it.”
Me, too. And so it sits, replaying in an endless loop as I write.
McKnight is a winning Joseph, and not the least because of his voice. Prior to concentrating on a career in musical theatre, he was one vibrant quarter of the operatic singing group The Canadian Tenors (later renamed The Tenors). Since that time, he has played several roles that have leveraged his singing and comedic talents at major Canadian companies including Drayton, Mirvish and Stratford. Among the most well-known is the limber, big-hearted Scarecrow in the stage version of The Wizard of Oz, adapted by Lloyd Webber and which catapulted the then-unknown Danielle Wade as Dorothy into the spotlight. (As it happens, she plays the Narrator in this production and sings the impossibly iconic song that McKnight evokes.)
When I ask him about his career to date and and any advice that has fueled it, he deadpans, “gosh, I’m probably not even conscious of what’s the BEST advice that I’ve received” before mentioning a useful nugget from a friend who introduced him to the notion of valuing “process” over “results”. “So, I try to do that,” he avers. Nor is the value of a solid work ethic or listening to the wisdom of elders lost on him. “Also, I cherish pretty much everything my Dad says, and I’ve heard him say a few times, ‘the harder you work, the luckier you get.’ Makes me smile every time I think of that.”
For someone so accomplished, McKnight is refreshingly humble: forthright, yet self-deprecating in his responses. Peppered with “gosh” and “okay, Jamie” self-talk, they suggest a warm and cheeky boy-next-door likeableness that transfers to his depiction of the ingenuous Joseph. “Eeeeek, I’m sure I’ve said too much already,” he protests goodnaturedly when asked about his interests beyond performing. Well-rounded, with a range of interests outside of theatre, he admits to being a “bit of a gamer” (video games and board games) before emphatically asserting, “’The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild’ will be my next purchase, NO question!”
Given his down-to-earth approachability, this game-ness isn’t surprising. And such relatability should help him stake his claim on an iconic role. With this production, McKnight realizes that he has joined the ranks of the famed Josephs who precede him, David Cassidy, Jason Donovan, Michael Damian and Donny Osmond, to name a few. Not one to rest on his considerable laurels, McKnight instead quips that performing Joseph has uncovered a so-far hidden talent for …“Coat Spinning!”, adding with a wink, “I never much utilized that special skill while a Canadian Tenor.” Rather than elaborate on his own talents, he deflects my question about his depiction of Joseph to the strength of the story itself: “I think, my immediate response to that question would be that I will try to tell the story as sincerely as possible, whatever the themes may be. This may sound silly, but, sometimes, I think it helps to try and forget that I’m on stage as part of a musical, and to just think to myself, ‘OK, Jamie, time to play pretend.’ And hopefully the audience can connect with the story and themes of Joseph.”
And there’s much to relate to. Though the musical’s genesis is the Biblical story of the coat of many colours, and it is titled after Israel’s favourite son, the spirit of the lyric “and it could be you” is explored in multiple ways. At its heart, Joseph is a family story, exploring universal themes of jealousy, sibling hierarchy and rivalry, filial duty and power dynamics. Infused with multi-generic music and witty humour, Joseph is light in mood yet hefty in theme, with ample scope to transcend generations. In fact, the Drayton Entertainment production ingeniously ushers it into the digital age with moments such as the Narrator taking a selfie with Jacob and his brood! “I think perhaps it’s a combination of wonderful music and the storyline and themes that connect to everyone,” McKnight offers. “Who doesn’t love a good forgiveness story?! EXACTLY.”
Still, given Joseph’s immense appeal, McKnight sometimes finds it difficult to escape the pressure and the power of this musical’s iconic and beloved music. “You know, you’re on stage, and about to sing ‘Close Every Door’, and in your head, you start to think, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m about to sing “Close Every Door” right now. I hope I don’t butcher it.’ And then, on the other extreme, he is hit by the opposite, exhilarating realization, “I’m about to sing ‘Close Every Door’. Let’s DO this!’
Indeed – let’s – at Drayton, all summer long!
News You Can Use
What: Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber
Who: Audiences of all ages
Where and When:
Information and Tickets: DraytonEntertainment.com
© 2017 Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya