"I remember one baby grabbing onto the side of his crib, jumping up and down, just like any baby anywhere in the world, but he was crying out 'Ima, Ima!'" she said. When the mother leaned over to pick him up, Levitin noticed her tattoos, especially the one on her forehead.
"That was one of the things they would do to avoid persecution -- tattoo a cross on their forehead," she said.
Levitin is the author of more than 40 books for children and adults, and she understands what it's like to be a refugee. Although she was only 4 years old when her family escaped Nazi Germany, she has strong memories of her childhood. As a result, Levitin said, she's "always been mindful of how it feels to be a stranger; how it feels to be persecuted."
When she read about Israel's rescue of Beta Yisrael (black Jews from Ethiopia) and Operation Moses, the secret airlift that brought thousands of Ethiopian Jews to Israel in the mid-1980s, she immediately felt an affinity with their plight. So she went to Israel to observe firsthand the results. Seeing that mother and child in Netanya was a pivotal moment: They represented "the perfect joining of two cultures," she said, and she felt compelled to write about it.
The result was her young adult novel, "The Return" (1987), which won numerous awards, including the National Jewish Book Award in Children's Literature and the PEN Los Angeles Award for Young Adult Fiction, and it has become a staple in school curricula around the country. On June 5, the book's dramatization -- replete with songs and dance -- will premiere at Santa Monica's Edgemar Theatre as part of the Festival of New American Musicals.
The show, directed and choreographed by Tony-nominee Donald McKayle, with music by William Anderson and lyrics by Levitin and Myla Lichten Fields, tells the story of a handful of villagers from northern Ethiopia and their hazardous trek to Sudan, their departure point for Israel. As seen primarily through the eyes of Desta, a 12-year-old girl, the story illustrates the prejudice and persecution that drove the so-called "Falasha" (a derogatory term meaning "strangers") to risk attack, disease and starvation in the hope of escape.
Despite her prolific and successful career as a writer, Levitin said that she's always felt "light opera/opera and stage musicals are the most complete artistic renderings of a story." But it wasn't until she saw dances (choreographed by McKayle) during a 2000 benefit for Sudan -- at which readings from her book about modern-day slavery in Sudan, "Dream Freedom," were also performed -- that Levitin seriously considered creating a musical herself. Impressed with McKayle's work, she asked whether he thought "The Return" had potential as a stage musical.
"It's a tremendously rich and dramatic story and has all the elements that make for good theater," said McKayle, who has choreographed more than 90 works for dance companies around the world, including many that have become classics in modern dance. Convinced it was an important story to put on stage, to get it "into the public mind," he agreed not only to choreograph but also to direct the production.
Levitin then turned to a longtime friend, composer Anderson, for help with the music.
"I knew I couldn't pay much, so I asked Will if he might know a student who'd be interested in working on the score." Instead, after reading the book, Anderson decided to write it himself. The result is, according to McKayle, "rhythmic, rich and full of texture, which is a tremendous asset in creating dance."
Anderson asked Levitin to write the lyrics, and she was surprised at how much she enjoyed the process. She'd written some poems before, but this was different: "I could hardly stop; the words just kept coming out of me," she said.
Unlike a book, which can use interior monologue and narration to convey emotion, Levitin believes writing for the stage requires "emphasizing emotion in a song -- music always brings it out in a deeper way."
When writing lyrics, Levitin first thinks about the universality of what she wants to convey, then begins "with just one line that is true for me," she said. For the song Desta sings just before she and her siblings leave their village, "How Can I Say Goodbye?" Levitin drew upon a lesson she learned in her own childhood: "Once you are forced away, there is always an echo of something that was left behind."
Like many of Levitin's works, "Return" is ultimately a study of fear, courage and faith, of prevailing against all odds. Children and adults, Levitin said, need the same kind of inspiration; she believes her "stories of purpose" can make a difference.
"Everyone deals with adversity, everyone has problems," she said. "And we're all afraid. But the question is: What are you going to do?"
"Return" opens June 5 at the Edgemar Center for the Arts, 2437 Main Street, Santa Monica. Show times Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings are 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m., June 5 through June 29 and July 10 through July 20.
For more information, visit http://www.returnthemusical.com