By Melissa Arnold
Twenty years ago, Theatre Three’s Artistic Director Jeffrey Sanzel wrote a Halloween play for children with sweet, goofy characters and an encouraging moral lesson. This October, the Port Jefferson theater will present an updated version of Sanzel’s original show, “Pumpkin Patch Magic,” featuring all-new music and lyrics by Jules Cohen. I sat down with Sanzel and Cohen to learn more about bringing the show to life again.
Jeffrey Sanzel has written or adapted more than 100 plays in his 28 years at Theatre Three.
What inspired you to write this play?
Jeff Sanzel: This goes back many years. We’ve actually done “Pumpkin Patch Magic” twice, with the original performances happening 20 years ago. (My writing partner and I) were looking for a new Halloween show and decided we wanted the theme to be based around the saying, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” We always want to have a moral underpinning for our stories. So we created this world of Halloween with all the characters you’d expect — witches, ghosts, gnomes — and their different skills and limitations. For example, there’s a witch who can fly and a witch who can’t. It’s very funny.
How do you go about developing a show like this?
We talk about a theme, and then work on characters. I usually sit down and think about the sort of direction I want the story to go in, and from there I’ll start writing … there are usually 15 to 20 pages that never make it into the show — it’s just about getting the ideas going. If we’re doing an adaptation, I’ll read as many different versions of the story as I can to help flesh out how I want to tell it and what kind of message we want to convey.
Can you summarize the story?
These characters are the ones who are responsible for getting pumpkins into the pumpkin patches all over the world. There are two groups involved: the overachievers and the underachievers. Some of the characters are limited in what they can do, and they’re always being reminded of how they can’t do as much as others. The story is told by a fairy, Loquacious Chattalot, who tries to encourage them, but it backfires and they give up. But in the end, it’s the limited ones who end up making it all happen successfully.
How did you come up with the name Fairy Loquacious Chattalot?
I’m a big fan of Charles Dickens — we do “A Christmas Carol” here at Theatre Three every year — and Dickens-style names always tend to stick in my head. The characters’ names really reflect who they are, and that is definitely true for this fairy. She’s a very nonstop talker, and that’s where I got Loquacious Chattalot.
For what age group is this play recommended? I would say it’s best for ages 3 and up.
It’s very entertaining, fast and colorful. It’s not scary at all — in fact, it’s very silly. The humor is very goofy, and the show is extremely family-friendly. All of our children’s shows are meant for the whole family to be entertained.
Are children encouraged to come dressed in their Halloween costumes?
Absolutely! We love when the kids show up in costume; it’s so much fun. And if you stay after the show, the characters will come out [in the lobby] to meet the kids and have their picture taken.
Why should parents bring their kids to see the show?
Children’s theater is the greatest way to introduce kids to theater, and the earlier on they’re exposed to it, the more they can develop an appreciation for it. Seasonal shows like this one are a lot of fun and the message for this show is so important — keep trying. You can learn, you can make a difference and there’s nothing you can’t do.
Jules Cohen has written music for dozens of shows all over the country, but now he fights breast cancer as an oncologist at Stony Brook University Hospital.
Are you a native Long Islander?
Jules Cohen: I grew up in Poughkeepsie, and after college I lived in Manhattan for 20 years. I moved to Suffolk County six years ago to work at Stony Brook.
You studied music in college, but now you’re an oncologist. What led to that change?
I have a bachelor’s degree in music and a master’s in music composition. I hoped to make my career as a musical director in theatre and a songwriter, and I did that for several years working with several reasonably high-profile directors. But it’s difficult to make a living in those fields, as you never know where your next job will come from. I had to move all over the country — I’ve worked in Vermont; San Francisco; Louisville, Kentucky; and in New York City. I knew that if I wanted a more stable life, I needed a more structured day job. Music and theater could always remain a hobby while I did other work. My initial thought was to become a psychologist, so I went to medical school, and once I got there I found I really gravitated more toward medical oncology.
Was the transition difficult for you?
Once I decided to go to med school, I pursued it wholeheartedly and didn’t find leaving the music and theater career difficult. I’ve always played the piano and am working on jazz piano now. That satisfies the musical part of my brain.
What inspired you to get involved with composing for ‘Pumpkin Patch Magic’?
I have two young children — a 5-year-old and a 10-year-old. I’ve always taken them to basically every show at Theatre Three, and it got to the point where the actors all knew Emma and Oscar. They really watched them grow. I decided to see if I could get involved, and I met Jeff in the lobby one day. He suggested I collaborate with him on one of his kids’ shows, and a few weeks later he emailed me the script for a Halloween show he had written years ago. From there I worked on updating the score, one song at a time. My kids love Halloween, so they’re very excited, and my daughter is very into musical theater — she loves to give her input.
What’s involved with writing a song? What is the process like?
Writing lyrics was relatively new for me, but I really enjoyed spending time working on the rhyme and wordplay. That process develops a sense of rhythm, and from there I start thinking about pitches. You flesh it out a bit at a time, eventually developing chords and a melody line, then adding little embellishments and intricacies. It’s really not magic or anything — as they say, it’s 10 percent inspiration and 90 percent perspiration.
How would you describe the music for the show?
It’s definitely heavily influenced by jazz, and the whole score is written for keyboard. Who are your musical influences? I really enjoy musicians in both jazz and theater, and the intersection between them — George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Frank Lesser, Thelonious Monk, and Charlie Parker are some of my favorites.
What are you most looking forward to about the show?
I’m very excited to hear my songs performed by real actors and singers, to see them come to life onstage. I’m hoping that people will appreciate it and that they leave tapping their feet. I know that I’m pleased with the songs — they are fun and clever.
“Pumpkin Patch Magic” or “If At First You Don’t Succeed” will run from Oct. 1 through Oct. 29 on Saturdays and Sundays at Theatre Three, 412 Main St., Port Jefferson. All seats are $10. For more information or to purchase tickets, call (631) 928-9100 or visit www.theatrethree.com.