BWW Interview: Maclay Writes the Tale of Heroic Mouse in World Premiere 'Anatole'
Milwaukee's First Stage produces another world premiere musical for young audiences with an adaptation from a classic children's book Anatole. The Caldecott Medal winning picture authored by Eve Titus and illustrated by Paul Galdone has captured the hearts of children for more than 50 years. First Stage transforms the story of the honorable French mouse who overcomes obstacles to become a first class cheese connoisseur while he sings and dances his way through 12 original songs.
First Stage Associate Artistic Director and co-writer of Anatole John Maclay explained during an interview the very magical collaboration that brought the little mouse to the stage with co-writer Lee Becker and composer James Valcq. While the musical story of Anatole might be Maclay's first foray into writing a full-length book musical with lyrics, Becker has written for Fish Creek, Wisconsin's American Folklore Theatre. Valcq has an extensive range of theater experience, including a collaboration with the late AFT co-founder Fred Alley to produce and write the award winning The Spitfire Grill, one of the most produced regional musicals in the country.
With a finely tuned vision for an opportunity to write a musical, Maclay remembers reading the book Anatole to his young son and immediately visualizing where the songs might be placed. Several years before this epiphany, Maclay, Becker and Valcq initially met during a FS production of How I Became a Pirate, and inspired by his son's enthusiasm for the story, he called his two theatrical cohorts that he names ambitious, funny and smart. After the trio agreed on the idea, the three collaborated with FS Artistic Director Jeff Frank and the musical Anatole was eventually christened approximately three years ago.
The heartwarming children's story addresses Anatole with Parisian flair, and as Maclay says a story "punctuated with French phrases," that references Galdone's charming illustrations. Alison Siple designed bright costumes in colorful red, white and blue to add French chic channeling the country's flag. Throughout the creative theatrical process, the goal became to produce a musical that could as Maclay comments, "Entertain me and my seven year old son simultaneously."
In the finished production, the story combines the two Titus books remaining in print, Anatole and Anatole and the Cat, in a tale where the French mouse needs to prove himself to his children so they are proud of their papa and overcome the treacherous cat to continue as celebrated head cheese taster. To add to the anticipation of the world premeire, up and coming director extraordinaire Molly Rhode fulfilled two roles in the production and added her inventive choreography, these touches of genius to the numbers. "Yes," Maclay repeats, "With Molly, even the cheese dances."
"Anatole speaks to a quest to be honorable, " Maclay continues. "And how that journey will be tested." These are ideals that the young and those remaining forever young will be able to appreciate along with the generous sense of humor authors and composers incorporated on multiple levels. With the world premiere only days away, tweaks to the production were still in progress. One song in particular struck Maclay's own son as very funny, and was typical of any tech week in the theater, a song titled "Nothing Ever Could Go Wrong." Maclay smiles and says even his son caught, "This joke that needs no explanation."
Maclay was equally ecstatic when he discovered who would be performing in the musical set amid Brandon Kirkham's playful scenic design. Milwaukee Rep Artistic Associate Gerard Neugent travels to First Stage and endears Anatole to audiences while the talented Karen Estrada stands by his side playing the mouse wife. Rick Pendzich and Drew Brhel contribute their unique comic abilities to this highly accomplished cast almost assuring an exceptional musical that will have a theater life long after the world premiere ends in March.
"We start with what we believe will be the best story," Maclay admits, "to create theatrical magic on stage for the audience. And since Becker and I are both fathers, we were excited about this father Anatole. A little mouse who sees himself through his children's eyes, and desires to be true to himself, living a heroic life for his children."