US: Award-winning children’s book ‘Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters’ comes to life in newly adapted musical

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In 1995, Karen Abbott adapted John Steptoe’s award-winning children’s book “Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters” for the stage. Now, there’s a new musical adaptation of the beloved book at Synchronicity Theatre.

To talk about the story and its newest evolution, director and choreographer Taryn Janelle joined “City Lights” host Lois Reitzes via Zoom along with LeRell Ross, composer and music director, and Bweela Steptoe, daughter of the original text’s late author.

Interview highlights follow below.

Honoring authentic Zimbabwean traditions in a new adaptation:

“One of the things that we really wanted to make sure that we did in creating this adaptation was making sure that we kept the integrity of not only John Steptoe’s idea with the story, but also the place where it takes place, the setting, and making sure that some of the languages we used and some of the ideas that we used are lined up well with the country of Zimbabwe,” said Ross. “One of the things that we were really big about researching is some of the different sayings and wisdom of the areas of Zimbabwe, and honestly, the first song, our opening song, came from a Zimbabwean saying that we found that simply says, ‘If you can talk, you can sing; and if you can walk, you can dance.’ And it was from that, that we created our opening song, and really from there, our spin on Mufaro himself.”

A tale based on Cinderella, newly animated by original music:

“Two sisters live with their father in a village in Africa, in Zimbabwe, and their king is looking for a wife, the most beautiful and most worthy,” Steptoe explained. “It just tells the story of how the two sisters make their way to meet the king, with exciting adventures.”

“In the story, both sisters go on a journey where they’re tested; they have a few trials, and so that song, we found another Zimbabwe saying that in English translates to, ‘Who you are, who you choose to be, becomes your destiny,’” said Ross. “In composing this song, I wanted to create sure that the fact that it is something that is serious, and something that is a test or trial, could be felt, musically, as well as heard through the lyrics. So we did something interesting where the song is written in a time signature that is uncommon. It’s written in a 10/8 time signature, so in some places, it makes you feel like if you’re not attentive, you’re going to miss a beat and you’ll find yourself lost, and I felt that it played so well in the journey of these two daughters and their trials.”

Memories of growing up with an inspired, creative dad:

“I always say that [my father is] an artist first, before anything. Before a writer, he’s definitely an artist,” said Steptoe. “My father went to art and design high school in New York City, and he has been drawing since he was a young child. And so I vividly remember ‘Mufaro’s,’ because after dinner we went on a walk. We went to St. John the Divine in Manhattan – we lived in Manhattan – and he pulled out a pad and was like, ‘Hey, I’ve got a new story,’ and we’re like, ‘Yeah, yeah, that’s nice.’ When you grow up with an artist, you don’t think it’s a big deal… So he pulled this story out, he read it, and we liked it, and we said, ‘Yeah, that sounds good.’ And he was very excited because this was the first time that he was creating a fairy tale.”

“He would often have not just me, but my brother and my family members model for him, and pose for him. So the torturous part was, you’re playing; you’re busy playing, and he interrupts you and tells you, ‘Come here. Hold this. Stand like this. Move like that. Act like you’re happy,’” recalled Steptoe. “My famous story is me, being in Central Park – him telling me to come to Central Park because he needs to take pictures for the book, and having to have a sheet, a bedsheet, wrapped around me in the middle of Central Park, and act like the characters. So when he told me to act angry, that was easy, because I was embarrassed… but I appreciate it now.”

“Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters” is on stage at Synchronicity Theatre Jan. 27 – Feb. 19. Tickets and more information are available at