Animal Farm: The Musical
Mr. Levi was on the edge. The previous spring, Seussical the Musical, had been greeted with a disappointingly lukewarm reception. The only bright spots had been the two gifted actors at Madoff Community High School — Jake, who gave an outstanding performance as Cat in the Hat, and Rachel, who wowed everyone with her Barbra Streisand rendering of Gertrude McFuzz —and they had asked Mr. Levi to write their recommendation letters for his alma mater, Tisch School of the Arts. With his two prodigies soon to be leaving him, Mr. Levi would be left with nothing more than a handful of mediocre drama queens in the throes of orthodontic treatment. His last big success was two years prior, when he directed Guys and Dolls, where Jake and Rachel debuted their talents. He knew his funding was going to be cut. Recently, an upstart history teacher had approached board members with a lofty idea – Madoff would join a Catholic football league that played on Thursday nights; they would be able to self-advertise as “more American” for potential applicants while not betraying their strict, Shomer-Shabbos policy that forbade them from Friday night football. Uniforms, helmets, cups, water bottles, and sneakers embroidered with the Magen David— all soon to be coming out of the budget for Mr. Levi’s annual musical.
On top of all of this, his wife had quit her job as singing teacher at Madoff to work for Zionist Samaria Community High School, Madoff’s up-and-coming rival. Zionist Samaria was a settlement of red-brick buildings overlooking Calabasas, and it attracted Jewish children from all across the San Fernando Valley. Lured by their better facilities, a steady stream of teachers and students had started leaving Madoff to start a new life in Zionist Samaria. Mr. Levi went to work every morning sensing a whiff of impending doom in the air; another day, another Hebrew teacher calling it quits.
One day, over tea, Mrs. Levi told him. “Nothing is too big to fail, I can see the four horsemen.”
Mr. Levi had no other choice but to implode. At the end of September, the principal called him in to discuss the spring musical:
“Your budget has been cut. Also, the PTA wants Funny Girl. They say Rachel would be absolutely fabulous for it. It’s her last year, after all. Come on, FUNNY GIRL!”
After the meeting, Mr. Levi drove down Benedict Canyon and went to Samuel French, a theater bookshop in West Hollywood where LA’s aspiring actors and actresses’ scavenged for audition monologues. Searching through the shelves of scripts, he stumbled upon Peter Halls’s musical adaptation of George Orwell’s Animal Farm.
Mr. Levi opened to a random page and began reading:
Napoleon: If we cannot defend ourselves, we are bound to be conquered!
Come on. FUNNY GIRL!
Mr. Levi readjusted his glasses, grinning to himself as he whispered. “Bingo.”
* * *Napoleon's Song
On the dusty day when I was born
I was not very big.
In fact, of a litter of seventeen,
I was the smallest pig.
It was more of a scramble than a birthday
And I came out back to front.
I was the last of the bunch
When it came to lunch
Yes, I was the litter's runt.
But a runt has to fight
For his share of the milk
If he fancies staying alive.
He'll kick with his feet
And cling to the teat
And the runt may yet survive.
And if that young runt
Grabs enough of the swill
Then his bite will be worse than his grunt.
He'll grow stately and stout
With an eloquent snout
But he knows he was the runt.
(His megalomania increases.)
And the runt seizes power
For he knows all the tricks -
Those he bites will never bite back.
And the piglet who once
Was the weakest of runts
Shall be leader of the pack.
* * *
In 1984, British theater director Peter Hall staged a musical adaptation of George Orwell’s Animal Farm in the National Theater London. After touring nine cities in the U.S, Animal Farm the Musical was mostly forgotten. According to YouTube, a few other high schools, camps, and youth theater programs have put on their own productions. A review for a Kansas middle school’s staging of Animal Farm The Musical states:
"Animal Farm," Orwell's fabled approach to the rise and subsequent corruption of the socialist ideal, as a musical?
"I thought it was weird at first," said Hannah Cowger, the 14-year-old Robinson Middle School eighth-grader who plays a buckskin mare named Clover. "I thought it was going to be like, 'La-la-la-la ... communism!'"
Ever since 2008, there have been rumors that Elton John was in the process of writing his very own Animal Farm, The Musical for Broadway. Nine years later, we are still eagerly waiting.
* * *
Four Legs Good
Four legs good
Two legs bad
ALL THE ANIMALS:
Four legs good
Four legs good
Two legs bad
Two legs bad
* * *
As a freshman, my sister Leah was the archetypal overachieving, ambitious teenager. When she walked into Mr. Levi’s office, she was lugging a backpack packed to the brim with two AP textbooks, a schedule planner, a TI-89 calculator, a pair of ballet slippers, and a soggy swimsuit. Leah dropped the backpack in a corner, tied her thick, curly hair into a ponytail, and took a crumpled-up page from her pocket. “I will be auditioning for Snowball.”
Two days later, Leah got a e-mail from Mr. Levi assigning her the role of Hen #2. Her one line – “The clutches are ready for spring-sitting” – immediately became an inside joke at home. In the middle of arguments, discussions about TV shows, or even in the synagogue while praying at services, my brother and I would turn to her and maniacally whisper – “the clutches are ready for spring-sitting.”
The rehearsals for Animal Farm the Musical were awful. Jake was starring as Napoleon, Rachel was playing Snowball, and at some point in late February they succumbed to four years of sexual tension and began hooking up. Due to budget constraints, Mr. Levi couldn’t order the animal costumes he had originally wanted, and had to settle for having every actor dressed in black leotards, holding a pole with a paper mache animal head. Mr. Levi would come in everyday with a new complaint. He would scream at the cast for hours, even unleashing scathing criticism for the two Tisch-bound leads. On particularly unhinged days he would pause scenes so that he could wax poetic about totalitarianism. By the time dress rehearsals began, Animal Farm the Musical was referred to among students and faculty as “the Lion King from hell.”
A month before the premiere, Leah started dating Derek — a quiet, lanky upper-classman with jet-black hair and a peach-fuzz moustache. At lunch, in the middle of eating a chicken pesto Panini, one of Derek’s friends approached Leah. “Derek likes you; he’s just a little bit too shy to say so himself.” After school, he dropped her off at home. That weekend, they saw Harry Potter together at Century City mall.
“Is Derek fine with dating Hen number two?”
“Yeah, how does Derek feel about dating Broadway’s next big star?”
“Do you ever stare into Derek’s eyes and just say… the clutches are ready for spring-sitting?”
“I HAVENT’ EVEN TOLD DEREK ABOUT ANIMAL FARM, OKAY?”
Opening night: Leah stood in front of the bathroom mirror, clutching the metal pole with a hen’s head as she muttered her one line to herself. She had bags beneath her eyes – Animal Farm, AP classes, and her relationship had started taking their toll.
My brother and I sat in the front row, excited to see Leah’s grand debut. “The clutches are ready for spring-sitting.”
The stage was a minimalist rendering of a post-apocalyptic barn, the actors seemed to be having trouble reciting lines while holding their animal-head poles, the ominous, slow songs dragged on – audience members turned to each other, shocked and confused.
Thirty minutes in, Leah marched on stage following the four other hens. In the scene, Napoleon was justifying taking eggs and milk for him and the other pigs. After Hen #1 said her line, Leah gazed into the crowd, frozen. A drop of sweat ran down her forehead. She scanned the auditorium – standing behind the back row was Derek, his jet-black hair sticking out in a sea of blonde moms holding VHS cameras.
Hen#2 (screaming): THE CLUTCHES ARE READY FOR SPRING-SITTING!