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INTERVIEW: Itamar Moses and (Re-)Creating An American Tail for the Stage

Lillian Hochman as Tanya and Matthew Woody as Fievel in the world premiere of An American Tail: The Musical, which starts previews Tuesday, April 25 at the Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis, MN. Photo by Kaitlin Randolph.

Twenty-five years ago, the Song of the Year at the Grammy Awards was a duet called “Somewhere Out There”. As a single released by Linda Ronstadt and James Ingram, the song went to Number 2 on the Top 40 chart. More than that, the song was the fusion of work by songwriters Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil and film composer James Horner – the pop version of a song originally written for an animated film called An American Tail.

An allegory of sorts of the Russian Jewish experience in America, An American Tail burst into movie theatres on November 21, 1986, soon becoming the highest-grossing, non-Disney animated film of all time. (It held that title for more than a decade, before being dethroned by Anastasia – another animated film starting in the twilight period of Imperial Russia.) The title narrative begins in 1885 in what is now Ukraine, when a band of mice celebrating Hanukah find their village burned by Cossack cats. Soon, the family is off to America, where they live their own version of the immigrant experience.

Starting with a pogrom might not seem an instant recipe for success in a children’s animated film, but the deeper themes and allegories behind An American Tail‘s animal characters are some of the very things that have made it so beloved amongst both children and adults.

Fast forward to present day in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where the Children’s Theatre Company has been rehearsing a new, stage musical adaptation of An American Tail. This twist on the beloved classic begins previews on Tuesday, with the final preview already sold out. Featuring a book and lyrics by Itamar Moses, with music and additional lyrics by Michael Mahler and Alan Schmuckler, An American Tail: The Musical seems poised to become the hot theatrical show of the spring.

Kit Bix caught up with Itamar Moses to talk about writing the stage version of An American Tail and recapturing its magic for a new generation and medium.

Itamar Moses, the bookwriter for the Children’s Theatre Company’s new stage musical adaptation of the classic animated film An American Tail.

Is this your first work made primarily for children?  

Yes, this is my first work made with a Y.A. audience at least partly in mind. But I’m not sure I’d say it’s “primarily” for children so much as “equally” for children — if only because the people who grew up loving the film are now my age, and will no doubt be excited to see it again in this new form. Also, the best material “for children” is always also smart, or funny, or deep enough to appeal to adults as well, and that’s the bar we’ve aimed for here.

Was there anything particular reason why you decided to do a piece aimed at younger audiences?

I wish I could say I was the person who came up with the idea to do this, but I should emphasize that the idea for the adaptation came first from CTC. They were the ones who approached Universal, who own the film, about securing the stage rights to the film and, once they had them, they approached me. But if you’re asking why I said yes, it was a combination of things.

I have a fondness for the source material because I myself was the young child of Jewish immigrants the year it came out — I was 9 in 1986. And also, when I thought about the movie’s themes and story, it struck me as the perfect time to bring it back for a new generation, because it’s about the struggle each wave of new immigrants faces when they arrive here, how America has these beautiful stated ideals that it sometimes fails to live up to, and how the only way to fulfill those promises is through a kind of unity.

It’s hard to think of a more relevant message for this moment right now.

You have written a great many plays and scripts for both for the theatre and for television. Especially outside of NY and LA, many people may know you best for The Band’s Visit, for which you (quite rightly!) won a Tony Award. 

In some ways, there seems to be a sharp contrast between that work and this one. The Band’s Visit can be seen as being about our ability to know a stranger very intimately, even if very briefly – and through that encounter, however brief, to experience deep or intense emotions.    There’s very little plot,  and the action is primarily interior.  An American Tale is much more of a plot-driven work, with a whole lot of action, much of it physical.  Do approach a work like An American Tail and works of yours like The Band’s Visit very differently? Or is the process similar? 

This is a great and very insightful question. The answer is actually that the process is quite similar, because what I’m really doing with each piece is, first, discovering its unique vibe through exploration and trial and error and then trying to let it be as true to itself as possible. So whether the piece is spare and like on story or more heavily plotty, all you’re doing is trying to listen to the piece as it takes shape and let it be what it wants to be as opposed to trying to impose anything.

On the deepest level, dramatic storytelling is always about a deep, structural intuition, about feeling out the way in which the sort of baton of story gets handed forward from scene to scene, from event to event, in your script. The surface manifestation of that can be really different from project to project but that deep feeling of rightness or wrongness as you construct the thing is quite similar.

Unlike many writers who focus on one or the other, you have written both dramatic plays and musicals. What genre did you start with?  Do you find the process of writing, of creation, significantly different for non-musical work or is it basically the same for both?

I started as very much as a playwright, and still consider that my central pursuit, and musicals came a little later. And the process is different on a musical simply because — unless you’re one of those rare unicorns who can write book, music and lyrics by yourself — the initial writing involves more people. It may be that you’re working with a composer/lyricist and so the process involves the two of you working separately while communicating about what you’re doing and then fitting the pieces together, or it may involve be writing full scenes knowing that part of the scene is going to be cannibalized into a song, or it may involve writing a speech or a conversation that was never intended to be in the script and is only being created to give the composer something to cannibalize.

If I’m also co-writing the lyrics, which I’ve done on a couple of projects, including An American Tail, you’re also involved in the songwriting, and so you have to figure out how that’s going to work. In my experience, what works best is having the composers write a musical bed for a song, with some sense of what the hook is, and what the shape of the flow of ideas is meant to be, and then writing lyrics to fit the syllabic rhythm and rhyme scheme that music suggests…and then going back and forth with the composers refining the lyrics together. Occasionally you can write a lyric cold and have the composer or composers try to set it, but this is in my experience less likely to turn out well.

The Marketing Director for The Children’s Theatre described An American Tail as follows: “[T]he original film is a Jewish immigration story, and this new musical stage adaptation aims to represent more of the immigrant communities present in New York City in the 19th century. It also dives more deeply into the Mousekewitz family’s Jewish heritage.” This, perhaps unintentionally, seems to get at a tension in both the original movie and in the current project: should the work emphasize the characters’ Jewishness, or should it focus more on the universal nature of the American immigrant experience?  It would seem very hard to do both.

Others have written about how “universalizing” the Jewish experience can basically erase anti-Semitism as a salient subject.  What do you think?

I think it’s only sounds like a contradiction because of the slightly confusing way those marketing materials frame it — or because you’re slightly misreading them, i.e., your question asks about something slightly different than what the materials you quote actually say. It doesn’t say that our adaptation is “universalizing” the Jewish experience nor that it’s arguing that all immigrant experiences are the same. Rather, it says — accurately I think — that we’re attempting to be more specific about each experience it includes while also including more of them. And there’s no contradiction there. Because I’d agree that trying to “universalize” the Jewish — or any — immigrant experience is a mistake, not just because it’s a form of erasure but also because it’s weak writing.

Generalities always just end up feeling like platitudes. Whereas the more specific and detailed a depiction of something is, the more universal it ends up feeling. So, for instance, we’ve added Hebrew prayers for the Mousekowitzes that are not in the film…and also a character who speaks Cantonese. We’ve added references to the mouse-version of Jewish rituals (the prospect of Fievel having a “Bar-Mousevah” for instance) and also included references to African-American mice “mousegrating” up from the south. We’ve added a German immigrant landlord mouse who extols the virtues of Mauskleindeutscheland. And so on.

The challenge — or rather opportunity — has been to earn all these things by making sure they enrich plot and story, which of course they can and do.

On a somewhat related matter: Roger Ebert’s reaction to the original film was that small children would be too young to appreciate the peril of the pogroms the main characters were fleeing, but, to the extent that they did understand it, it would prevent them from being entertained by the rest of the story. How does your adaptation respond to that quandary: being real enough about the dangers the characters were running from, without taking all the joy out of the story?

I think the movie’s enduring place in the culture suggests that Ebert may have been wrong. More broadly, my sense is that kids actually respond well to things with a little darkness and some real stakes. Look no further than, say, every single fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm.

Is there anything you want the audience to take from the play about the current moment a time when, on the one hand, there is so much controversy again about immigration, and, on the other hand, how anti-Semitism – including right here and not just back in the Old Country – has once again become frequent and visible?

One of the things I’m proudest of about this piece is that think we end it in a place that’s hopeful and determined without being sentimental or unrealistic. So, yes, old hatreds and xenophobias that divide us keeps coming back, or never completely go away, but I think the message of our piece, in the end, is that these things are just going to be cyclical, that the utopian version of what America is supposed to be might not actually be completely reachable — like a distant shore where your boat can never quite land — but that rowing together towards that shore is the best we can do, and worth it.

An American Tail: The Musical begins previews April 25, opens April 29, and runs through June 18 at the Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis, MN.

Kit Bix