New Zealand Arts Festival Apologizes for Removing 'Israel' From Lyrics of 'Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat'

The show’s famed lyricist, Sir Tim Rice, complained on Twitter when ‘Children of Israel’ was replaced with ‘Children of Kindness.’ Wellington festival coordinator says original wording has been reinstated

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Tim Rice, right, with Andrew Lloyd Webber in 2014.
Tim Rice, right, with Andrew Lloyd Webber in 2014.Credit: Evan Agostini/AP

After angering renowned composer Sir Tim Rice by removing the word “Israel” from the lyrics to a song from "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” the coordinator of a New Zealand arts festival has apologized for her “unfortunate and regrettable error” and will return the reference to Israel to the biblical tale of Joseph.

The coordinator of the festival for the past 30 years, Mary Prichard, told Haaretz that in the wake of the controversy, “action has been taken over the weekend to ensure that the original song words are all reinstated, with immediate effect.”

Prichard said she “must take full responsibility for this unfortunate and regrettable error. You have my complete assurance that this was an unintentional and innocent error on the part of one of my team, and I apologize for it. The person concerned, and myself for that matter, are religious people and would never consider intentionally doing anything racist or anti any religion."

She added that throughout her years of running Artsplash, she has “always included children of all sorts of backgrounds including Jewish [ones].”

The conflict between the famed lyricist and organizers of the Artsplash festival in Wellington played out on Twitter, after a local resident pointed out that the phrase “Children of Israel” had been amended to “Children of Kindness” on song sheets distributed to the schoolchildren performing “Close Every Door.”

The well-known song’s original chorus, sung by Joseph in an Egyptian prison, goes: “Children of Israel are never alone / For I know I shall find / My own peace of mind / For I have been promised / A land of my own.”

The concerned resident, Kate Dowling, tweeted her unhappiness over the lyric change to Wellington City Council and to Rice, displaying a screenshot of the altered song sheet. “Why opt to do a Jewish-themed song then remove the Jewish-themed lyric?” she complained.

The plot of the award-winning musical – first staged in 1970, and produced thousands of times since – is based on the biblical tale of Joseph’s “coat of many colors” from the Book of Genesis. The song “Close Every Door” is frequently observed to seemingly reference the Holocaust, with lines like “Just give me a number instead of my name” and “Destroy me completely, then throw me away.”

Rice expressed his consternation in a tweet to Wellington City Council, making it clear that as far as he was concerned, permission was not given for changing the song's lyrics. In another tweet, he thanked Dowling for alerting him to what had happened, saying, “This is a totally unauthorized change of lyric,” adding, “plus it’s a terribly drippy and meaningless alteration.”

'Error in judgment'

City hall soon responded apologetically to Rice, promising to “rectify” the situation. “A community coordinator made an error in judgment which we will rectify before the school kids perform in Sept.,” they wrote, humbly adding, “Sorry, we love your work.”

Rice is one of the world’s most successful lyricists, collaborating with Andrew Lloyd Webber on “Joseph,” “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Evita,” and he is also famous for his work on Disney classics with Alan Menken (“Aladdin”) and Elton John (“The Lion King”).

He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1994 and has won countless awards for his work, including Grammys, Tonys and Oscars.

The issue might have been resolved with that exchange, but on Sunday came reports that Artsplash had decided not to restore the song’s original lyrics. Instead, the song – and others from “Joseph” – had been removed from the program of “fun and easy-to-sing music by well-known composers” set to be performed by the schoolchildren.

A local Jewish blog called Shalom Kiwi reported that Prichard, a City Hall employee and Artsplash coordinator, said she changed the lyrics because she was “looking after kids from all countries,” she didn’t want “trouble” and just wanted to “keep life simple.”

The blog editorialized that pulling the songs was “appeasement by unilateral censorship; cultural cleansing in the name of diversity. It is a pre-emptive move to expunge that which apparently could cause offence. This emboldens the minority who believe that society’s values and practices must be shaped around theirs and that freedom of expression must be sacrificed to protect their feelings. It is tolerance of intolerance. That is fascism, not freedom. Maybe it’s just a few beloved songs in a children’s show this time, but once cultural censorship has begun, where does it end?”

Rice, for his part, once more turned to Twitter to express his unhappiness. And Wellington City Council worked once more to appease him, tweeting, “Apologies again – we’ve told the organisers today that the original songs must go back in the programme. This will happen!”

The local dispute comes on the heels of a major and extended diplomatic crisis between Israel and New Zealand, sparked when New Zealand cosponsored a UN Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements last December.

For three months after UN Resolution 2334 passed, bilateral relations were frozen almost completely. Israel’s ambassador was recalled to Jerusalem, while New Zealand’s ambassador to Turkey – who also doubles as its ambassador to Israel – didn’t make a single visit to the Israeli capital because he was informed that no government officials would meet with him.

A breakthrough was only made last week, when talks between the countries finally bore fruit and the Prime Minister’s Office announced Israel’s ambassador would return to Wellington after a six-month absence. His counterpart in New Zealand sent a letter saying he regretted the damage done to the bilateral relationship and would welcome the return of Israel’s ambassador.