A Conversation With Helene Leonard

Helene Leonard

Frankenstein Follies, a Halloween-themed musical review by the young actors of Stages, A Children’s Theatre Workshop, Inc., is an October tradition at Bay Street Theater. This year, the show turns 25 and recently Stages founder and director Helene Leonard talked about the Follies, how they came to be and the many kids who have taken part in it over the last quarter century.

Was this the first show for Stages?

The very first show we did was Rumpelstiltskin in the summer of ’94 at East Hampton High School. Sybil Christopher, Murphy Davis and Emma Walton Hamilton [from Bay Street Theater] came to see it and invited us to come to Bay Street – and we ‘ve done it there ever since. This is Stages 110th production.

And the 25th Follies. Does it feel like it’s been that many years?

Sometimes it does. Sometimes not. It keeps you young. I still have memories of all the kids … Then I find out they’re 35 years old. I saw one of my kids who did the original Follies in ’94 and she said, “Here are my three kids.”

Because it’s an annual tradition and actors ascend through the ranks, does very performer know every line by heart?

I call it our Nutcracker. It’s the same every year and everyone moves into their position and no one forgets it. You’ll hear little kids doing the Little Red Riding Hood song backstage, and as the younger kids move in, the older kids take them under their wing and put them out in front.

What are the big roles in the Follies?

The monsters are the main roles to fill in — Frankenstein, the Wolf Man, Dracula and the Devil. The show changes with whoever inhabits the role. That’s what’s fun for me, to see how they interpret the role.

Because this is the 25th Follies, you’re inviting back performers from past productions, right?

I’ve invited back anyone who’s ever done Follies in the past. We have 25 alumni coming back on Saturday night to do this show. We did this five years ago and it was hilarious. We had two Frankensteins, four Wolfmen and I don’t know how many brides and Draculas.

You watch these older kids come back and they remember every step. We rehearse for an hour and you never know what’s going to happen. A lot of kids who were in it five years ago are coming back again.

How did the Frankenstein Follies came about.

Jerry Leonard my father, did a special called “Once Upon a Halloween” on tv. It was an original musical and gave him the idea of having a Halloween show every year. He put it together in the ‘70s, but it was very different from what we’re doing.

Your father had a children’s theater near Cleveland, right?

It was called the Heights Youth Theater. He was in business for over 25 years. He passed away very young in 1980. My sister Wendy in Scottsdale, Arizona then did her own follies there. When I was teaching drama at Hampton Day School in ‘92 or ‘93, they wanted an assembly for Halloween. I thought, I’ll take some songs from the follies my sister did and some from what my dad had. When I broke away in ’94 and started Stages, I did that show. Most of the first actors were Hampton Day School kids.

And it grew from there?

At one point there were 50 kids in the show. As the cast and talent grew, I added songs that fit their talent. Now it’s a show I’m not allowed to change. We’ve taken out a few things that were references that once worked but don’t anymore. We had the Spice Ghouls at one point, but no one knows who they are anymore.

I love that the show exposes kids to songs like the Monster Mash and Time Warp from the Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Some of the songs are new to them, but for parents they’re a memory. There’s a reference to Baby Jane in one song, and the kids say “What’s that?” I tell them they have to see that movie. The kids are much more removed from the references now. Some of the songs are ones my dad wrote. For me to watch these kids still responding to his work is great, doing the Pony and the Twist, they love it. They’re not rolling their eyes.

Did any parents ever object to any of the material? I mean, Rocky Horror is a little risqué.

Everybody loves it. I’ve never gotten any criticism on this show. The only thing is parents asking “why isn’t she in this number?”

How instrumental do you think Stages has been in terms of inspiring kids to pursue careers in theater?

I think for some kids it’s been very instrumental. Several are working in theater professionally. For college, it inspired a great many kids, whether they do that when they get out is another thing.

Do you get emotional when you see all the alumni up there on stage?

They remember every step, so of course its heartwarming. When we walked on stage five years ago and did the opening number I burst into tears. They’ve used their theater experience to be lawyers or teachers. It builds their confidence to do whatever they want to do. It’s fun to watch people grow from this experience. I’m great friends with all of them. I don’t have kids, so these are my kids.

Frankenstein Follies celebrates its 25th anniversary with shows at Sag Harbor’s Bay Street Theater on Friday, October 25 at 7:30 p.m., Saturday October 26 at 2:30 p.m., and Sunday October 27 at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $15.

There will be an additional special alumni show on Saturday, October 26 at 8 pm. followed by a Halloween party with beverages, wine, cheese, and Halloween goodies. Tickets for this benefit performance are $35 for adults and $25 for students. Proceeds go toward Stages’ scholarship program. For tickets call 631-725-9500. For information on Stages call 631-329-1420 or visit stagesworkshop.org.