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The Prince of Egypt trinity

By Gary Susman

NOVEMBER 30, 1998:  Here's the dilemma for the folks at DreamWorks: they have a megabudget, Disney-style animated musical coming out next month based on the Book of Exodus and called The Prince of Egypt, but they can't accompany their picture with the usual Disney-style merchandising that helps sell the movie to families and serves as a cash cow (cash golden calf?) in its own right. After walking on theological eggshells so as to keep the film's content from offending or alienating anyone (a title card at the end of the movie quotes the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, and the Koran to appease the various religions that claim Moses as a prophet), the studio realized it would be inappropriate to turn around and sell, say, Ten Plagues Happy Meals, or Burning Bush Burritos, or SlaveMaster Action Figures.

Still, there's no shortage of tie-in product, in the form of books (some 26 of them) and music. "Because of the content of the film, they [DreamWorks Pictures] didn't want to market or promote the film in the normal way you would an animated feature. They didn't feel it was right," says James Stroud, head of the DreamWorks Records country division. "Yet they did want to keep the quality up, and they did want to reach as many people as they could. So the two ways they decided they would do it would be in publishing and music."

Thus, the film has not one, not two, but three soundtrack albums, all on the DreamWorks label. The Prince of Egypt: Music from the Original Motion Picture Soundtrack contains music that actually appears in the film; the other two have new songs "inspired by" the movie. Soundtrack includes the half-dozen new songs composed for the movie by Stephen Schwartz (Pocahontas) as sung by the film's stars, generous excerpts of the score by Hans Zimmer (The Lion King), and a few radio singles, covers of the Schwartz tunes by pop stars, most notably the Babyface-produced diva summit meeting of Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey on "When You Believe." Then there's The Prince of Egypt: Inspirational (read: black gospel and R&B), and The Prince of Egypt: Nashville (read: white gospel and country), each featuring 17 or 18 genre artists singing songs of faith and uplift

Releasing three albums for one film won't be the company's usual practice, says Jheryl Busby, head of the label's new urban division, whose first release is Inspirational. "This one was a natural because of the Nashville community and the country marketplace, the South, the Bible Belt -- it's a natural thing to fill an inspirational album out of that market, and when you think about what's happening with inspirational music today, the gospel/Christian/secular marketplace. And the score itself is so strong. It just lent itself to three albums."

Stroud says that every musician who saw the film was moved to contribute to the project. "They wrote songs or found songs they could sing that touched an emotion they felt in the film. So the two albums are truly 'inspired by' the film." Of course, as Busby notes, the performers also were aware of the albums' long-term commercial potential. "When we shut it down, there were artists still calling, asking, 'How can I be a part of this?' The rap through the creative community was, 'Boy, this is going to be a big catalogue album.' I think this is going to mark a time in a lot of artists' careers."

The project has been launched with a carefully managed torrent of hype that culminated a week ago Tuesday, when we saw the simultaneous release of the three Prince of Egypt albums as well as Carey's new #1's and Houston's My Love Is Your Love, both of which, in an unprecedented agreement between Columbia (Carey's label) and Arista (Houston's), include "When You Believe." (See "Off the Record," on page 43, for reviews of both albums.) In fact, it's Carey and Houston who are latching onto the Egypt trilogy's coattails, claims DreamWorks Records chief Michael Ostin. "They took advantage of that opportunity. To be quite frank, I don't think either of them had albums planned for this year until this opportunity arose."

Yet despite this celestial harmonic convergence, DreamWorks has also been cautious, almost to the point of paranoia, in protecting against overexposure. On advance copies sent to critics, the label included only snippets of Boyz II Men's "I Will Get There" (which appears in three slightly different versions on the single and on Soundtrack and Inspirational), lest the song be pirated and played on the radio or over the Internet before the official release date. And though Carey and Houston were scheduled to promote their collaboration at a New York press conference last week, at the last minute the event was closed to all but members of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, the organization of self-styled journalists that exists primarily to award the Golden Globes each January.

Curiously, perhaps, for a story so closely identified with the roots of Judaism, the three albums are almost completely lacking in Jewish content (save some Hebrew lyrics in two of Schwartz's songs) and Jewish-identified singers (except for Israeli performer Ofra Haza, who sings the role of Moses's mother on three songs). Ostin says that no one considered increasing the Jewish presence in the music. "It wasn't a conscious decision. We just reached out to the artists that we thought were appropriate. Ofra was someone who was chosen by the composers. She does an incredible job in the film and on the record. But no, we never did consider that. We just didn't feel, based on the songs, and based on the communities we went to on the 'inspired by' records, that it would be a natural fit."

Still, the lyrics on all three CDs go out of their way to be inoffensively non-sectarian -- which, paradoxically, may be the project's greatest drawback: its self-restraint often makes it timid and bland. A listen to Nashville suggests that it's one thing to be reverent; it's another to be stiff (Randy Travis and Linda Davis's "Make It Through"), banal (Vince Gill's "Once in Awhile"), grim (Toby Keith's "I Can't Be a Slave"), or all three (Clint Black's "Slavery, Deliverance and Faith"). Other songs on the album, however, prove that it is possible to be both spiritual and spirited: Wynonna's easy growl on "Freedom," Charlie Daniels's rumbling "Could It Be Me," and the gorgeous purity of Alison Krauss's "I Give You to His Heart" and Beth Nielsen Chapman's "Godspeed."

On Inspirational, which was produced by Buster and Shavoni (who produced last year's smash God's Property Featuring Kirk Franklin), the performances are both worshipful and lively, even hip. "Power," by Fred Hammond & Radical for Christ, is actually funky (and manages to sneak into its lyric the project's sole reference to Jesus). Franklin's "Let My People Go" is a trenchant rap and the only song that explicitly links the enslavement of the Hebrews to contemporary bigotry. Token white Christian rock acts Jars of Clay ("Everything in Between") and dc Talk ("My Deliverer") fit in well with the overall upbeat tone of the CD. In fact, some acts are a bit too trendy (the En Vogue-ish Trin-i-tee 5:7's "As Long As You're with Me;" the absurd Carman's "God Will Take Care of Me"), but most of the songs (Donnie McClurkin's "I Am," Brian McKnight's "Father," and the great Shirley Caesar's "Moses the Deliverer") reveal genuine soul.

Perhaps it's no coincidence that the least inspiring music seems to be on the Soundtrack CD. It's not because the songs are marred by such golden throats as Ralph Fiennes, Steve Martin, Martin Short, and Michelle Pfeiffer, all of whom come off surprisingly decently. (The movie's other speaking performers are subbed in song by such stage-trained vets as Brian Stokes Mitchell, Amick Byram, and Sally Dworsky.) Rather, it's the complex but bleak motifs created by songwriter/lyricist Schwartz and further modified by instrumental-score composer Zimmer. Given the setting, the use of Middle Eastern modal scales and hora-like dance rhythms makes sense (though for triumphant moments like the Burning Bush sequence, the music lapses back into familiar Western harmonies and church-choir arrangements). But most of the tunes aren't memorable or catchy enough to send you humming out of the theater; and at home, without the screen images, they're even less fun. The nadir is "Playing with the Big Boys," a threat sung to Moses by Pharaoh's magicians (comic relievers Martin and Short) that's an unlistenable dirge and a showstopper for all the wrong reasons (lesson from Musical Theater 101: songs should advance the plot). On the other hand, Schwartz and Zimmer get it right with the buoyant "Through Heaven's Eyes" (sung in the film by Mitchell and reprised in an unrecognizable cover by K-Ci & JoJo) and the swiftly flowing "Deliver Us," which neatly encapsulates the first chunk of plot and features a beautiful wailing lullaby from Haza as Yocheved, comforting her baby as she gives him up and entrusts him to the river.

One more song on Soundtrack that isn't in the film is "Humanity," a "We Are the World"-type sing-along written by Buster and Shavoni and sung by everyone they could round up from all three albums. (The song is destined to be a benefit single, with proceeds going to VH-1's "Save the Music" campaign.) Its worthy one-world one-race sentiments, like those of many of the songs in the Prince of Egypt trilogy, have only a peripheral connection to the Moses story, but the title "Humanity" also shows that this song (again, like many of the others) recognizes its target market.

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