"My Mom is trying to ruin my life!” The phrase has been uttered, screamed and moaned countless times through the ages. And now it’s being sung from the stage of a New York city theatre — by way of Martha’s Vineyard.
On Feb. 16, the WorkShop Theatre Company in Manhattan began performances of My Mom Is Trying to Ruin My Life, a musical theatre adaptation by MJ Bruder Munafo and Kate Feiffer of Ms. Feiffer’s popular picture book for children. Performances continue through March 10. And if the fully-packed house on a recent Saturday afternoon is any indication, book tickets now. The show has already attracted attention from The New York Times and television network NY1.
The show’s Island roots include public workshops produced by the Vineyard Playhouse in 2010 and 2012 following the publication of Ms. Feiffer’s 2009 book with illustrations by Diane Goode. The book was inspired by Ms. Feiffer’s own experience when she arrived at her daughter’s school on an unexpectedly hot day with a pair of shorts for her daughter to change into. The look on her daughter’s face said more than words. And My Mom Is Trying to Ruin My Life was conceived.
Following publication Ms. Feiffer, a year-round Oak Bluffs resident, was in discussion with people interested in adapting the book for the theatre when she ran into MJ Bruder Munafo, artistic and executive director at the Vineyard Playhouse, at the West Tisbury Artisans Fair. Thinking she would like to see the work produced closer to home, she approached Ms. Munafo about adapting the book. It was a natural match. Ms. Munafo has extensive experience with writing, adapting and directing plays for children. Theatre has long been a part of Ms. Feiffer’s life; she remembers doing her homework in the aisles of a theatre while her father, playwright Jules Feiffer, was in rehearsal, and she later worked for a time as personal assistant to the legendary lyricist and playwright Adolph Green.
By June 2010, they had a script. Ms. Munafo remained faithful to the central story but added characters to the world of the main character Emma, including a best friend, a class geek, a skateboarding class clown and the scary older girls who rule the school. Many of the additional roles were created to animate Diane Goode’s illustrations in the book, and also to highlight the Vineyard talent used in a workshop of the script on stage at the playhouse in Vineyard Haven. So many talented children were cast in the show that Ms. Munafo seized the opportunity to write roles for them.
In telephone interviews last week, Ms. Munafo and Ms. Feiffer both recalled that when they saw the story come to life as theatre, they knew what was missing. “When we saw it on stage, we thought it really should be a musical,” Ms. Munafo said. “It just seemed like there were so many places where they could burst into song.” Ms. Feiffer agreed. “Just the title of the book: it begs to be sung,” she said. “There’s so much in it that you can sing about. It explores a very real part of development. I think all of us really felt like this experience could be expanded with music.”
Ms. Munafo brought in composer Paul Jacobs, who had worked at the Vineyard Playhouse on the Rhonda Coullett musical Runaway Beauty Queen. Mr. Jacobs and his wife, the lyricist Sarah Durkee, had written music for PBS children’s shows including Sesame Street and Between the Lions. In an interview off stage at the New York workshop last weekend, Mr. Jacobs said the first song they wrote grew out of “wanting something that would show that Mom is not June Cleaver anymore,” instead celebrating what mothers do to make their children’s lives better. An energetic, peppy number, the song sets the tone for the show — and also ends with Emma’s title exclamation.
Following two years of work, including a workshop presentation on the Vineyard in 2012, My Mom Is Trying To Ruin My Life is now a 12-actor musical with author credits shared by Ms. Feiffer and Ms. Munafo and 11 songs by the Jacobs/Durkee songwriting team. Moments depicted visually in the book are vividly animated through music. Mom and dad sing a harmonica-laden blues number in their jail cell, and Emma and her friends roar around on bikes while singing about Freedomland. In a touching ballad, Emma realizes that she loves and needs her parents more than she knew. The rock beat of the show will appeal to all ages.
WorkShop — a company dedicated to developing new works — chose the show after Mr. Jacobs submitted it through a former student now on staff at the theatre. The show is a work in progress; the New York cast had three weekends of rehearsal under the direction of Debbi Katz. On the second weekend of performances, Ms. Feiffer was found giving notes to her director at intermission, and Ms. Munafo had ideas about revisions. She said she plans to bring the show back to the Vineyard Playhouse in the future.
The eight professional child actors in the cast are led by the expressive, comic, and bold-voiced Lauren Weintraub as Emma. Ms. Feiffer credited Ms. Katz for her work with the cast of seven to 14-year-olds. “Her approach was very interacting, working with them as partners and helping them develop their characters in a way that originated from them,” Ms. Feiffer said. “She really made this a collaboration and the kids took ownership of their characters right away and made them their own.”
For the moment Ms. Munafo and Ms. Feiffer have some time to breathe and reflect on the production. “I want people to walk away with a smile,” Ms. Munafo said. “I think that the play doesn’t take sides. If you’re a mom, you’re going to identify with the mom and hopefully laugh at some of the crazy things you do as a mom. And if you’re a child, you’re going to identify with Emma but hopefully realize by the end how important your family is, and how much you need each other. That sounds pretty simple. It’s a simple message, really.”
Looking at cast and collaborators around her last Saturday, Ms. Feiffer concluded with a smile: “It’s been one, big serendipitous adventure.”