When Adventure Theatre MTC’s Caps for Sale, The Musical joins the Women’s Voices Theatre Festival on September 11, it represents an artistic collaboration that spans the decades and is grounded in the close working relationship of the book’s original creator Esphyr Slobodkina and the musical’s co-adaptor Ann Marie Mulhearn Sayer.
“When I first went to Esphyr’s house, she was 85 and her sister was 89 and they were both going on 50,” Sayer remembers. A composer, Sayer was auditioning for the job of setting Slobodkina’s children’s books to music. “Esphyr took a look at me – I’m 6’3” - and said, ‘You’re no beauty but you’ve got something,’ and I thought, ‘Wow this is an interesting beginning.’”
Sayer got the job and created a fully orchestrated treatment of Slobodkina’s The Flame, the Breeze, and the Shadow. A year later, the author approached her with Caps for Sale. “I was one of three people in the world who didn’t know the book,” Sayer admits, though she quickly came to recognize its power. “It’s the simplicity, the humor. There’s a simple evolution of the story line that makes it easy for very young minds to grasp.”
The Adventure Theatre adaptation is scored by William Yanesh, who receives Sayer’s enthusiastic thumbs-up. “It’s much more grand and much more beautiful than I could have imagined,” she says. “The results, I think, will challenge children in ways that raise them up.” She credits co-adaptor and Artistic Director Michael Bobbitt with bringing Yanesh on board. “It’s not in the Barney world,” she says, referring to the purple dinosaur of television fame. “Your children’s ears will be challenged, their minds will be challenged, and their vocabulary will be challenged.”
Bobbitt and Sayer’s adaptation contains a character not in the original Caps for Sale but drawn from Slobodkina’s Billy, The Condominium Cat. Inspired by the artist’s own experience of aging, “Essie” has particular resonance for Sayer, who cared for Slobodkina and her sister in their final years. “I’ve always been drawn to the wisdom of our elders,” Sayer explains. “I couldn’t see this wonderful artist going into a senior home. She was up every morning at five, exercised on her bike, steamrolled through the day, and was in bed at eight.” Slobodkina died just short of her 94th birthday.
Now the Executive Director of the Slobodkina Foundation, Sayer’s voice takes on a gentle missionary zeal when she speaks of the standard Slobodkina set for the rest of us. She hopes that Slobodkina’s productive old age will serve as an example of how rich those years can be. “She used to say, ‘Let’s not be nice let’s be frank.’” Sayer remembers. “That was her philosophy all through her life.”
Sayer also hopes that Caps for Sale, The Musical will have a long life, reaching audiences around the country – and that it will keep Slobodkina in the public eye. “Most Americans don’t realize she was one of the founding members of the American Abstract Art Movement,” Sayer says. “Out of that came a lot of changes in the illustration and stylization of children’s books. This production gives us opportunities to talk about Esphyr far into the future.”
You can catch Caps for Sale, the Musical at Adventure Theatre MTC from September 11 through September 27.