Onstage in ‘An American Tail,’ a Family’s Jewishness Comes to the Fore

The 1986 animated feature film “An American Tail” begins with a mouse family, the Mousekewitzes, forced to flee their home after men on horseback (and accompanying cats) set fire to their village in Russia in 1885. They travel to the United States, because, Papa sings, “there are no cats in America, and the streets are paved with cheese!”

At the time, some critics said the film didn’t render the family’s Jewish background sufficiently. In his review, Roger Ebert complained that “only a few children will understand or care that the Mousekewitzes are Jewish.”

In a new stage adaptation of that film at the Children’s Theater Company in Minneapolis, there is no mistaking the Mousekewitzes’ background. The show begins with them chanting the Hebrew blessing for Hanukkah as a menorah is lit. They recite two other Hebrew prayers. There is talk of a “bar mouse-vah” for the protagonist, the young Fievel.

The musical, which is running through June 18 and is recommended for ages 5 and older, also enhances the representation of the story’s Irish and Italian mice and adds mice from Sweden, China and the Caribbean. The female lead, an Irish mouse in the film, is now a Black mouse who quotes “the great Frederick Dormouse.” (Murine puns abound.)

Like other recent historical shows, “An American Tail” sought to prioritize authentic depictions of each character, whether that was racial, ethnic or religious. The show’s creators felt it was important to dive deeper into the Mousekewitzes’ Jewishness and encompass other groups in order to reflect the contemporary understanding that Americans’ identities are not subsumed into a larger one.

“We do have different experiences, and it shapes us differently,” said Itamar Moses, who wrote the show’s book and co-wrote the lyrics to roughly a dozen original songs. (A few were retained from the film, including “Somewhere Out There,” Fievel’s song of yearning that became a hit for Linda Ronstadt and James Ingram.) “The only way a diverse democracy can work is through both acknowledging and honoring our differences.”

Jewishness and antisemitism are also foregrounded in several recent plays and musicals, including “Leopoldstadt,” which follows a family of Jewish Austrians before World War II; “Parade,” which tells the story behind the 1915 lynching of a Jew in Georgia; and “Just for Us,” about attending white nationalist gatherings in Queens.

For “An American Tail,” the artists and the dramaturg, Talvin Wilks, sought to represent the different groups who resided in the close quarters of downtown Manhattan — for that is where the Mousekewitzes arrive — in the 1880s.

“The story that came out in 1986 was not fully reflective of all the immigrant populations that were there and were intrinsic to making New York City what it is,” Taibi Magar, the director, said. “Is it about being woke? Yeah, sure. But it’s also about telling a deeper, richer, more truthful story.”

The concept for “An American Tail” originated with one of its executive producers, Steven Spielberg, and the hero bears the name of Spielberg’s grandfather. By extolling the melting pot theory, the film, directed by Don Bluth, embodied its era’s attitude toward multiculturalism: that immigrant groups would abandon their individual cultures in an effort to assimilate.

“They didn’t want to double down too much on the particularity of Fievel’s ethnicity, because I think they wanted to keep the story as relatable, as universal, as possible,” said Jonathan Krasner, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University.

The decision to adapt the film for the stage arose from a conversation between Peter C. Brosius, the C.T.C.’s longtime artistic director, and Universal, which produced the film. It did not hurt that C.T.C., a past recipient of the regional theater Tony Award, has routinely produced shows that have traveled around the country. “A Year With Frog and Toad,” first produced by C.T.C., made its way to Broadway in 2003 and was nominated for three Tonys.

The C.T.C. matched the songwriting partners Michael Mahler and Alan Schmuckler (who wrote the music and lyrics for the C.T.C. musical “Diary of a Wimpy Kid”) with Moses (a Tony winner for “The Band’s Visit”), and in 2018 they first met to begin developing the story.

In the movie, Fievel is separated from his family on the perilous voyage across the Atlantic Ocean, and ends up in one misadventure after another after he arrives in New York. When a varied assortment of mice fight a gang of cats known as the Mott Street Maulers, they are eventually — thanks to a scheme Fievel comes up with — driven onto a boat headed far away.

“There was an opportunity to understand the points of view of these different groups of mice, why it’s difficult for them to come together, and have Fievel be the reason that they do,” Moses said.

“What do the cats represent?” Moses continued. “In Russia they’re the Cossacks, in Italy they’re the Mafia. They get to America, and the cats have a scheme for exploiting the mice for their labor.”

To bring the story to life onstage, the creators turned to vaudeville, which was coming into its own at the time and place of Fievel’s adventures. They built a small set and cast 20 actors, several of whom double roles. A six-piece band backs the company on 16 songs.

In both the movie and musical, the cats are defeated and the Mousekewitzes reunited. Yet the musical adds a weighty finale, “There Will Always Be Cats,” which supersedes the earlier hope of no cats with an argument for solidarity in the face of eternal oppression — feline or otherwise. “An American Tail,” a positive review in The Minneapolis Star Tribune said, “offers a peephole into a past that doesn’t seem so far away.”

During rehearsals this spring, the show’s musical director, Andrea Grody, hosted the writers and crew for a Passover Seder — a ritual whose message of sympathizing with less privileged forebears is echoed in the final number.

“If we’re not careful,” Moses said, “we can become the cats by not remembering what our ancestors went through.”

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