It’s the default position for Itamar Moses to say no when he’s asked to write a new musical. That may seem like an odd position to take for someone who won a Tony Award for Best Book for a Musical in writing The Band’s Visit.
“They’re so hard and take so long, and It’s an incredibly difficult form,” he said. “So the bar for me signing onto one is pretty high.”
However, when Children’s Theatre Company approached him with the opportunity to write an adaptation of the 1986 animated film An American Tail, he jumped at it.
“I was in the tank for this one to begin with because of where the movie lurked in my imagination,” he said.
The play is a world premiere, running at the Children’s Theatre Company from April 25-June 18. It’s the story of Fievel Mousekewitz and his family escaping Russia and the cats that terrorize his family.
“Fievel became this iconic character, and [songs like] Somewhere Out There and No Cats in America were sort of burned into our memories,” he said. “And then also as like a Jewish kid, I don’t think I was consciously thinking of it in these terms at the time because I was 9 years old, but I think on some unconscious level, I’d probably picked up maybe from the adults around me how unusual it was for an explicitly Jewish immigrant families be at the center of mainstream American entertainment. They were mice, as opposed to humans. But the Mousekewitzs being at the center gave it this extra electricity.”
Dealing with adapting a piece of well-known intellectual property brings both a challenge and an opportunity. You get some creative license, but can’t afford to mess too much with things that people expect to see.
“You have this starting line in terms of people’s awareness of it and things they love about it, where you start on second base,” he said. “But then the flip side of that is, then there may be things that you have to include or people won’t want you to mess with, that might limit your creative freedom. Luckily, a lot of the time, the things that are most beloved from something are really good.”
Another attractive piece for Moses is the importance and timeliness of the immigrant’s story.
“The themes of immigrants coming here, hoping for a better life and then facing a more complicated, maybe less-welcoming reality than the one they expected,” he said. “But then of forging a path anyway, and being a part of pushing America towards its stated ideals. What a time to bring that story back.”
A challenge of any musical is marrying Moses’ book with the music and lyrics of Michael Mahler and Alan Schmuckler. Moses did work on lyrics some with Mahler and Schmuckler, which he has done on other shows as well.
“When I’m working on a musical, I prefer also to be working on the lyrics,” he said. “In musicals traditionally, so many of the emotional peaks are important story moments conveyed through song. As the writer, you don’t always want to be cut out of those right now on musicals. It’s about how you affect those transitions from scene to song and back again, or weaving scene and song, which is super delicate. It’s one of the hardest things about musicals.”
The Adult Cast of An American Tail the Musical features: Luverne Seifert as Papa/Warren T. Rat, Becca Hart as Mama/Digit, Ryan London Levin as Tony, Kiko Laureano as Bridget, CTC Company Member Autumn Ness as Gussie, Rue Norman as Moe/Cherisse, Deidre Cochran as Henri, CTC Company Member Reed Sigmund as Honest John, Morgen Chang as Qiujin Parent/Dance Captain, CTC Company Member Dean Holt as German Landlord/Official/Police, and Glenn E. Williams II as Ensemble.
The student cast features: Matthew Woody as Fievel, Lillian Hochman as Tanya/Orphan, Monica Xiong as Qiujin, Ines Mojica as Orphan/Ensemble, El Kost as Sigfried/Ensemble, Mabel Weismann as Stu/Ensemble, Anja Arora as Ensemble, Mari Peterson-Hilleque as Ensemble, and Tic Trietler as Ensemble.
The understudies (in alphabetical order) include: Jim Ahrens as Papa/Warren/Honest John Understudy, Samantha Buckley as Mama/Digit/Gussie Understudy, Morgen Chang as Henri Understudy, Adelyn Frost as Student Cover 1, Max Kile as Tony/German Landlord Understudy, Sam Mandell as Fievel Understudy, Ines Mojica as Quijin Understudy/ Quijin Family Understudy, Junia Morrow as Student Cover 3, Rue Norman as Bridget Understudy, Mabel Weismann as Tanya Understudy, and Glenn E. Williams II as Moe/Cherisse Understudy.
Moses said that the question of representation – Jewish actors playing Jewish roles – is important but not the only factor when casting the show.
“I think it’s a really important , especially when you’re talking about marginalized groups and a story in which they are the specific identity that’s part of the narrative,” he said. “My experience has been that if you are willing to take the time to look, you can always find the actors you need. As it happens, we were limited to a pool that’s like 100 percent local. I’m Jewish, Alan Schmuckler, one of the composers is Jewish. And our preference was to like try to cast the core Mousekewitz family with Jewish actors. And it was one of our major considerations. Others had to do with how literally old or tall the actors are.”
Moses is hopeful the premiere in Minneapolis is the beginning of new life for the Mousekewitz family.
“If we had our druthers this is the beginning of a very long and wide-reaching life for the show,” he said. “But you have to take each step at a time are always just figure out how this works and get this first production up. We’re trying to sort of figure out what the next step would be if one is possible.”