From the Fjords to Appalachia: A plucky take on East of the Sun, West of the Moon

Image courtesy of Ars Nova
Only one performance of East o’, West o’ is currently scheduled.

Victoria Hofmo
Brooklyn, N.Y.

Beautiful illustrations of a golden-haired female calmly astride a powerful white bear are ubiquitous and intriguing. But what sparked the imagination of so many artists to depict this scene?

These fantastical images were conjured from the Norwegian folktale East of the Sun and West of the Moon collected by Asbjørnsen and Moe.

This tale has also inspired folks on this side of the Atlantic. The most recent incarnation of the story is being performed at Ars Nova in NYC on June 24.

Founded in 2002, Ars Nova cultivates those “developing and producing theater, comedy and music artists in the early stages of their professional careers,” as stated on their website. Ars Nova describes their services as a “hive of creative activity, both on stage—through developmental programs and performances—and off—through the support and cultivation of a thriving artist community.”

Within this hive, this new rendition of the Norwegian folktale, simply titled East o’, West o’!, has emerged as a full production, transforming this story located in the lush yet stark Northern climes to the American Appalachian mountains. It is being featured at Ars Nova’s annual ANT Fest, a four-week festival featuring new talent within the indie-theater community. Sounds exciting—no?

It also boasts an original score, composed by Michelle J. Rodriguez, a Puerto Rican singer, songwriter, and musical theatre composer based in Chicago, who also performs as an actor in this piece. I had the opportunity to interview Rodriguez about her creation:

Victoria Hofmo: I have read that you work out of Chicago. How did this project debuting in N.Y. come about?

Michelle J. Rodriguez: My director, Sivan Battat, and I are close collaborators on another musical called Jeeraan (“neighbors” in Arabic), but we’ve been working long-distance since I’m in Chicago and she’s based in NYC. So we leapt at the chance to apply to the ANT Fest at Ars Nova as a way to collaborate as writer and director! We applied and were accepted, and that’s how we’re debuting the work at this incredible theater!

Photo courtesy of Ars Nova
Michelle Rodriguez fell in love with this Norwegian folk tale as a child.

VH: How does it feel to be opening your show at Ars Nova’s ANT Fest?

MJR: It feels very validating to be presenting this work at Ars Nova; it’s one of my favorite off-Broadway theaters, and they have incubated and developed some of the greatest names in the business—Lin-Manuel Miranda being one of them!

VH: What made you choose to use this particular Norwegian story?

MJR: As a child, I spent a lot of time at my local library and my school library; my librarians were dear friends, and we would always recommend books to each other. I read voraciously, several books at a time, mostly historical fiction and fantasy.

But my favorite section of the library was the J398.2 section—World Folktales and Fairytales. And I loved the collection of Norwegian folktales set in the freezing tundra and cozy forest cottages. There is a beautiful edition of the original story as collected by Asbjørnsen and Moe that is illustrated by P.J. Lynch that really captured my imagination.

When I thought to adapt a fairytale into a musical when I was a student at Williams College, East o’ the Sun and West o’ the Moon was the first that popped into my mind because of the fierce female protagonist, her perseverance, and her sense of adventure!

VH: Why transform the play to another place?

MJR: I grew up near Seattle, Wash., and in Lexington, Ky. Seattle has a strong maritime and folk music scene, and a neighbor would bring me and my friends to folk concerts at the Center for Wooden Boats. I was learning violin at the time and would exclusively play fiddle tunes at home. When I was living in Lexington during my high school years, I really fell in love with bluegrass music. I had been writing in folk styles for a while, and I felt folk/bluegrass music really suited the sweeping, expansive nature of the story. I imagined what it would be like to re-set the show in a mythic America, turn the white bear into a brown bear, and tell the story with this music that I loved so much, and voilà!

VH: How else has the original story changed?

MJR: The original story ends in a peculiar way—the young woman (whom I have called Ava) travels east of the sun and west of the moon with the help of the Four Winds and washes the Prince’s shirt to prove her worth as a bride. I thought this was a bit dated, so I changed the ending so that she would save the Prince from the troll queen and troll princess with her own wit and cunning instead.

VH: In the credits it says that you created the book, music, and lyrics. What’s “the book”?

MJR: “The book” means that I wrote the spoken words in the script in addition to the music and lyrics. Oftentimes it’s a collaborative process between a composer and a book writer (also called a librettist), but this musical was a chance to try my hand at both.

VH: How did you collaborate with the director?

MJR: My director Sivan Battat is a gifted dramatist with a keen eye for storytelling, magic, and breathing life into new works. I’m always cautious to invite other people into my process, but trusting her with this work has been one of the more rewarding experiences of my career to date! She is always pushing me to be brave with my writing. Our collaborative relationship is built on trust, mutual benefit, and encouragement.

VH: Do you consider this performance appropriate for children?

MJR: There are delights and joys in this production; there are ways that we all delight in magic in a very childlike manner. I think it can certainly be appropriate for slightly older children; however, I wouldn’t say it’s a production tailored towards children.

VH: There is only one performance scheduled in N.Y. Will you be taking the production elsewhere?

MJR: We have already had some interest from possible future iterations—keep your ears open for updates on the show’s future!

VH: Is there anything you’d like to add?

MJR: Telling this story with a multicultural cast was really important to me as a way to push back against the notion that any one particular experience of American traditional music is the most American. I’m a Puerto Rican lady who grew up in Kentucky and fell in love with bluegrass music, after all!

All of our unique experiences make up who we are, and I celebrate that experience of in-betweenness with this show. I could not be more proud to present the show with a racially diverse cast and a crew and production largely made up of women, gender non-conforming people, and people of color!

It’s also a real treat to be performing in the show for the first time. The show has gone through several stages of development, and I have always stayed behind the writing desk. Then for a few years I would perform a few songs from the show in my concerts of my original music, but this Ars Nova production is my chance to really step into the shoes of Ava onstage for the first time!

For those who cannot make it to this production, you can read more about this production and hear some of the music at the following links:

• An introduction to the musical by Rodriguez and Battat at www.youtube.com/watch?v=xpq0CA5qigg.

• Michelle J. Rodriguez singing the title song at www.youtube.com/watch?v=NZsQPJKzujw.

• A trio singing “No Wind” at www.youtube.com/watch?v=1iZROf2RnRY.

This article originally appeared in the June 16, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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