From children’s book to Passover production

From children’s book to Passover production

Poppy Seed Players to premiere 'Shlemiel Crooks,' the musical

Fair Lawn resident Anna Olswanger believes that any gift she has as a writer is due to her father’s sense of music.

“Words are like music,” she said. “They have to flow.”

Indeed, for the children’s book author, so strong is the connection between words and song that when she discovered a cache of music written by her late father, she set herself the goal of creating a children’s book for each piece.

Anna Olswanger

Olswanger – whose 2005 “Shlemiel Crooks” became a Sydney Taylor Honor Book, Koret International Jewish Book Award finalist and PJ Library book – told The Jewish Standard that even with that book, “I always thought there could be music.”

Two years ago, she approached Sean Hartley, director of the New York City Kaufman Center’s Poppy Seed Players, suggesting that he consider turning the book into a musical.

“I really liked it and I wanted to find out more about her writings,” said Hartley. “She sent more pieces, including unpublished stories about her father. I loved those too.”

After what Hartley called a “long process,” he was able to commission both scriptwriters and songwriters to create a musical based on several of those works.

“Anna was great and gave us carte blanche to do what we wanted,” he said, noting that she didn’t see the drafts of the script until a reading of the piece last spring.

“I think she was surprised but happy,” he said. “There are so many changes when you turn a book into a piece for the stage.”

The collaboration shows “the creative things that can be done when you let go,” said the author. “It’s not my baby anymore,” added Olswanger, a literary agent with Liza Dawson Associates. “It’s our baby. Luckily, being in publishing, I knew that already.”

A scene from “Shlemiel Crooks.”

In addition, she said, working with the scriptwriters was “not really hard. I was lucky. These are good people. The goal is to have a fun musical for kids.”

“Shlemiel Crooks,” the light-hearted story of a robbery gone wrong, is based on a true story, she said. In researching her family history, she came upon a 1919 Yiddish newspaper article detailing the botched robbery of her grandfather’s liquor store. Using a “fun, intimate voice” to tell the story, which is liberally sprinkled with Yiddishisms, Olswanger describes the unsuccessful effort of two crooks – goaded by the ghost of Pharaoh – to steal a community’s Passover wine.

“What appealed was the unique, colorful voice she used in writing about it,” said Hartley, noting that he was particularly drawn to stories about Berl, Olswanger’s father, narrated by his dog Jerry. Indeed, his production of “Shlemiel Crooks” combines the book with a Berl story, “The Chicken Bone Man,” with Jerry narrating throughout.

“Chicken Bone Man,” which won the F. Scott Fitzgerald Short Story Contest, is about the author’s father, who dreams of becoming a blues piano player.

“I liked the fact that [the stories] were about real people, her father and grandfather,” he said, noting that the original idea was to incorporate her father’s music. In the end, only one of his songs was used in the production.

The Poppy Seed Players – who recently performed their “Poppy Seed Purim” for the 20th year – will offer Olswanger’s story as their Passover play this year, presenting the first performance on April 10. Hartley said he hopes the show will usher in a “new Passover tradition. It was interesting to do a show about Passover that isn’t just telling story again,” he said, describing the work as “light and sweet, zany but warm.”

The Kaufman Center, founded in 1952, houses Merkin Concert Hall, the Lucy Moses School (a community arts institution), and the Special Music School, a public school for musically gifted children. The Poppy Seed Players, the center’s professional theater troupe in residence, create and perform musical shows about Jewish and American culture for children and their families. The group performs annual shows for Chanukah, Purim, and Passover, as well as additional shows on occasions such as Tu B’Shevat.

Wendy Gross Baker will direct “Shlemiel Crooks,” with musical direction by composer Scott Ethier. Songs are by Clay Zambo and Scott Ethier, and the script by Bob Kolsby and Hartley.

“Shlemiel Crooks” has captured the imagination of other artists as well, said Olswanger, noting that she has been approached by a well-known Bergen County puppeteer interested in creating a show based on the book.

The New York premiere of “Shlemiel Crooks” will take place at 11 a.m. at Merkin Concert Hall, 129 West 67th St. A book signing with Olswanger will follow the performance, and free “Shlemiel Crooks” bookplates will be available for every child who attends.

Tickets for the show, appropriate for children ages 4 to11 and their families, are available by calling (212) 501-3330 or visiting

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