How often is it that an author sees her work adapted for the stage? And set to original music and lyrics? And choreographed for a cast of kids and adults? And given a world premiere in New York City?
Not often, but that was the case on April 10th, a week and a half before Passover, when author and Memphis native Anna Olswanger watched as the Poppy Seed Players combined not one but two of Olswanger's written works — Shlemiel Crooks and "Chicken Bone Man" — on the stage of Merkin Concert Hall inside the Kaufman Center, a cultural organization specializing in music education on Manhattan's Upper West Side. The title of the show, borrowing from its source material: Shlemiel Crooks.
That title suggests a Yiddish comedy of errors, and it is: a story inspired by Olswanger's great-grandfather and involving a couple of incompetent thieves named Bert and Ernie, a St. Louis liquor store, some cases of Passover wine, a botched robbery, a talking horse, and last, not least, the ghost of Pharaoh. When it appeared in 2005, it was recognized as a Sydney Taylor Honor Book, and Olswanger became a Koret International Jewish Book Award finalist.
"Chicken Bone Man" is something else: a story set in Memphis in 1927 and narrated by a dog named Jerry. It was inspired by the author's father, Berl Olswanger — Memphian, musician, bandleader, composer, and music-store owner — who, in the story, dreams of becoming a bluesman in a city that prides itself as the Home of the Blues. That story went on to win Olswanger the second annual F. Scott Fitzgerald Short Story Contest in 1997, and both stories — Shlemiel Crooks and "Chicken Bone Man" (and their author) — were the subject of a Memphis magazine profile in 2005. That's where Olswanger, who today lives in the New York area and works as a literary agent, described her theatrical ambitions, years ago, in London (after studying painting and communications at Rhodes College and after earning a writing degree from the University of Memphis). Her frustration led her to try her hand as a children's book author.
"It was a revelation," Olswanger recalled in that magazine profile, on the subject of children's literature and illustration. "I realized these books were little 'theaters' between covers, with set designs, costumes, and dialogue. ... I had been trying to start a theater in London but couldn't get any funding. ... What I couldn't accomplish as a playwright I realized I could do in a book. It brought everything together for me." Except for the music.
That's why, a couple years ago, Olswanger brought the idea of staging a musical version of Shlemiel Crooks to Sean Hartley. Hartley — composer, lyricist, and writer — is director of the Kaufman Center's Theater Wing and its Poppy Seed Players, a professional theater troupe that performs for children and their families with an emphasis on Jewish-American culture. Hartley and his collaborator on the script, Bob Kolsby, decided to combine Shlemiel Crooks and "Chicken Bone Man." Wendy Gross Baker directed the show. And Scott Ethier composed the music, with lyrics by Clay Zambo — eight tunes in all, with an additional song: Berl Olswanger's own composition, "Chicken Bone Man," from the late 1950s.
Anna Olswanger, in an email, described the show as "pure fun." Hartley described it as "light and sweet, zany but warm" and told the Jewish Standard, a New Jersey newsweekly, in March that he'd like to make Shlemiel Crooks a new Passover tradition for his troupe. Audience members at the premiere agreed. "Absolutely enjoyable" is how one of them described the show to Olswanger. "Adorable," said another. "My 6-year-old daughter is continually singing your father's song," wrote a third.
That came as a pleasant surprise to Olswanger: "I was thrilled that a piece of ragtime-flavored music my dad wrote 60 years ago could appeal to a modern audience, especially kids."
But on April 10th, that was a New York audience. What about bringing the show to a hometown stage in Memphis?
"I'd love to see that happen," Olswanger said. "When Shlemiel Crooks came out in hardcover in 2005 and in paperback in 2009, I never imagined that it would become a musical with a premiere in a New York City theater. Anything seems possible."
But as Olswanger told the Jewish Standard: The collaboration shows "the creative things that can be done when you let go. It's not my baby anymore. It's our baby."
"Over the generations my family can claim nearly every psychological aberration: narcissism and nymphomania, alcoholism and anorexia, agoraphobia, manic depression, paranoid schizophrenia. There have been thieves, adulterers, sociopaths, killers, racists, liars, and folks suffering from panic attacks and real bad tempers, though to the best of my knowledge we've never had a barn burner or a preacher."
But that family did have its barnstormer. He was Dean Swift Faulkner. His brother was William Cuthbert Faulkner. And Dean Faulkner Wells, the author of the above quote, called the latter "Pappy." That's because after Dean Faulkner died in an airshow in a plane given to him by his illustrious brother — four months before Dean Faulkner Wells was born — Pappy is what the Nobel Prize-winning author became in the eyes of his fatherless niece. He helped raise her. He paid for her education. He gave her away in marriage. And their relationship is described in Every Day by the Sun: A Memoir of the Faulkners of Mississippi (Crown).
Wells is already the author of The Ghosts of Rowan Oak and The Best of Bad Faulkner, and she founded, with her husband Larry Wells, Yoknapatawpha Press. Oxford, Mississippi, is still her home, which makes her an expert explorer of the changing culture and society of that remarkable Southern town. Explorer too of the Faulkner family's checkered history. The voice in this memoir, however, is very much the author's own. "Now I am, one might say, the last primary source — and I don't like anything about it," she writes.
Meet the woman behind the voice when Dean Faulkner Wells signs copies of Every Day by the Sun: A Memoir of the Faulkners of Mississippi at Burke's Book Store on Thursday, April 21st, from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m., with a talk and slide show beginning at 6 p.m. For more information, call the store at 278-7484.