Turning Mah Jongg, the game, into a Broadway musical, is a labor of love

Turning+Mah+Jongg%2C+the+game%2C+into+a+Broadway+musical%2C+is+a+labor+of+love

Jordan Palmer, Chief Digital Content Officer

Watching a game of mahjong can be harder to follow than a hockey game. Both move fast, but instead of following a puck and skaters, mahjong is a blur of hands and tiles. That’s probably why it’s not a spectator sport — until now, sort of.  Because in the works and possibly coming to a stage near you, is the world’s first Broadway musical about mahjong.

“Mah Jongg Mania: A Musical Comedy”

From the creative minds of book and lyricist John W. Davis and composer Paolo Tatafiore, “Mah Jongg Mania: A Musical Comedy” is the story of a young Jewish woman and her cousin who set off to lift the spell cast on a vintage mahjong set they inherit from their bubbe.

For Davis, 73, and Tatafiore, 63, this is their first collaboration, and attempt at creating a musical. The duo began creating this fictional, romantic musical comedy in April of 2021 from opposite sides of the country — Davis worked from Los Angeles while Tatafiore lives in Miami.

Davis is sort of a mahjong renaissance man. Since picking up the game six years ago along with his wife, he has played thousands of games, set up tournaments, and even created and designed mahjong tiles and art.

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“I have administered several (mahjongg) Facebook groups, published an online magazine, MJ DIVA Magazine, with an international audience, did a podcast interview on my work, and created mahjong games used by educators. I own several online stores using my Mahj-art,” said Davis.

Tatafiore is a native of Naples, Italy, and comes from a family of composers, pianists, conductors, and painters. As pianist, he has appeared as soloist and chamber musician in major venues around the world. As a composer, he has recently published a group of piano pieces and a set of variations for Viola and orchestra.

The inspiration, he says, came to him when a song popped in his head while he was driving.

“I thought I could write a song about mahjong. I came home and was immediately able to write down 30 different titles of songs,” said Davis.

He knew he was onto something. Through his magazine, he put out word of his idea asking if anyone knew anyone who could write music. The mahjong community went to work, and soon Davis and Tatafiore were connected.

“Paolo got enticed by the idea because he found mahjong original and theatrically interesting,” said Davis.

“Mah Jongg Mania”: A Jewish game?

“It is impossible to tell the story of American mahjong without its players, who are mostly Jewish women,” said Davis. “But the game has been moving, though, from elderly Jewish women to younger ones and to non-secular players over the past 15 years.”

While not technically a Jewish game, mahjong does have a Jewish connection with historical roots dating back to the 1920s, a time of newfound, mass upward mobility for many children of Eastern European immigrants.

In her book, “MahJong: A Chinese Game and the Making of Modern American Culture,” University of Oregon history professor Annelise Heinz writes, “The National Mah Jongg League was founded by Jewish women, so the game spread through their networks. Jewish Americans were at the forefront of creating these leisure patterns, such as family resorts in the Catskills and other vacation communities. Jewish women were experiencing a widely shared, gendered experience, and the game was part of that fabric.”

“Mah Jongg Mania”: Myra and Maxwell

The main character of the musical is Myra, a woman who rejects her family and Jewish culture. Her antagonist is Maxwell, an out-of-control mahjong set collector.

Myra is joined by Miriam, her cousin, and Yana their grandmother, who wills the tiles to her grandchildren. Other characters include a Chinese carver, a fortune teller, and two dozen men and women who make up a chorus.

“Mah Jongg Mania”: A show in progress

Writing and creating a Broadway musical doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a process that takes time and patience.

“As of June 8, we have two-thirds of the music written and only four more scenes to complete,” said Davis. “Considering that we began our collaboration a little over a year ago, we are pleased with our progress.”

While Davis and Tatafiore continue to work out the remaining scenes, efforts are underway to find a producer for the show.

“Integral to the creation and production of a musical is the search for producers who are interested in getting it on a stage,” said Davis. “We will have our first opportunity to ‘pitch’ our show to several panels at the New Musicals Inc. Zoom conference in July.”

New Musicals Inc. hosts many programs that support new musicals in development. It develops several dozen musicals each year for producers and writers around the country through table readings, workshops, concerts, and occasional productions.

Davis said he and Tatafiore will pitch their show to two panels on the weekend of July 30-31. This means describing the story, sharing samples of songs, and talking about what they need next for productions.

“Mah Jongg Mania”: Sample Scene 

(From Act Two, Scene Two)

Interior Bubbe’s New York Apartment, 2018

Myra, Miriam’s cousin, has just returned to New York for her grandmother’s funeral.

 

MIRIAM

She left the apartment and her mahjong set to both of us, along with this note.

(As Myra reads the note, she imagines her grandmother singing the following.)

SONG: Bubbe’s Gift

 

BUBBE

(Sings)

 

SOME DAY, SOME HOW, SOME TIME, SOMEWHERE

THESE TILES WILL CALL TO YOU

 

AND YOU WILL HEAR

JUST HOW THEIR STORIES GO

 

SOME DAY, SOME HOW, SOME TIME, SOMEWHERE

 

SOME DAY THEY’LL SING TO YOU

SOME HOW THEY’LL SEE YOU THROUGH

SOME TIME THEY’LL MAKE YOU BLUE

 

SOMEWHERE THEY’LL BRING TO YOU

NEW FRIENDS TO MAHJ WITH YOU

AND WHEN THEY DO, YOU’LL KNOW

JUST HOW THEIR STORIES GO

AND HOW TO LISTEN WELL

TO THE TALES THESE TILES WILL TELL

 

SOME DAY, SOME HOW, SOME TIME, SOMEWHERE

THESE TILES WILL TELL THEIR TALES