Ellen Macales (yes, she is also Avital’s mother) is the talent behind the musical arrangement. Thirty years ago she was directing musical theater in New Jersey. After serving for eight years as musical director for the Plays-in-the-Park theater company, Ellen waved goodbye to a part of her life that was particularly dear to her. “When I became shomer Shabbat, weekend performances were out. Now it’s time to come back as a musical director,” she says. Then she shows me how she divided the harmonies for sixty-five women and introduces me to the world of counterpoint, where singers don’t sing the same words at a given moment.
Immersing the Audience
So what did it really feel like – back there in Canaan? The cast traveled to Eretz Bereishit, an activity center twenty minutes outside Jerusalem, to learn about that. Here, they walked the walk and talked the talk, wearing clothes from Biblical times, riding the 4×4 of the times (camels) and herding sheep.
Most of the show remains true to the words of Tanach. “It’s not only about entertainment, it’s also about education,” says Sharon. “And that’s why some of the songs, like Sa Na Eineicha, are a word-for-word translation of the words in Bereishit.” Then she laughs and shares a writer’s secret. “When we had a choice of interpretations, we did choose what was most convenient,” she says. “Like with Hagar at the well. Some commentators say there was one angel; others say four. By choosing the opinion that says four, we were able to give out more parts.”
However, there are a few places where the script deviates from the Biblical narrative. And there are good reasons for that. How do you explain to an audience what idol worship is? Despite what most of us think, idol worship is alive and well today. In order to make it real, Sharon and Avital decided to cast a Mesopotamian idol into a modern day role – enter the American talent show where the winner is idolized by the crowd. Sounds familiar? In the musical, one idol claims to makes rain, another money. And while the audience knows that the idols aren’t doing what they claim, they cheer them on anyway.
The second place where the script deviates is in Act Two where a Mesopotamian Reality Show comes to the desert to meet Avraham. Reality shows typically document supposedly unscripted real-life situations. It’s no different here, where TV host Rock Babel (aka Debbie Hirsch) attempts to present Avraham to the desert dwellers.
Talking to G-d
Now back to talking to G-d. There are several points in the Biblical text where G-d speaks to Avraham. In writing the show, Sharon and Avital came up with different ways to represent these divine moments. You’ll hear the chorus saying, “And G-d said…” You’ll hear the cry of a cello. A beautiful solution. Because music expresses what words cannot.
But Avital had another challenge. What does a person look like when talking to G-d? “I had no role models!” she point out. “You can’t close your eyes either, because the audience wants to see your eyes. So do you your eyes dart like when you’re talking on the phone? Do you fix your gaze on a particular spot? I realized that there is, in fact, nothing to look at and that the idea of an invisible G-d is actually the whole point of the whole show.” So what’s Avital’s answer? Wait and watch!
The story of Avraham and Sara is a story that speaks to everyone. “Avraham, the man of faith and lovingkindness, is close to the heart of all of us who have overcome any sort of challenge, including all the immigrants here in Israel,” says Sharon after we have carried the life-size sheep and the shepherds’ sticks into the OU Center.
“Faith is our signpost in life. Avraham is the man of ultimate faith: he manages to maintain a sense of hope as he waits long years for a child,” says Avital.
I sense that there is much more behind Avital’s words.
“Writing this show was therapeutic for me,” she continues. “Especially the song Stardust, where Sarai looks up at the stars and wonders when she will have a child. My single friends and I also wonder when our waiting will end.”
I ask for a preview and Avital’s magnificent voice soars through the room:
“Remember that time after decades had gone by
And another empty evening lay before us?
We looked up once again at the darkness of the sky
And we searched for a glimmer to console us.”
“Soon,” we sighed, “very soon.”
So if you’re looking for a top-grade combination of art and inspiration, make sure you’re in the audience.
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Music or Lyrics First?
“What comes first when you write a song – the melody or the lyrics?” I asked Avital.
“The space between having an idea of what I want to convey and the final product is mysterious and sometimes even agonizing,” she says. “I should start with the lyrics because they are the content of what I want to say. But, sometimes when I write a lyric, I already know what the rhythm, musical style and color will be. So I guess they come together.”