“SHE WAS MY BEST FRIEND for 27 years.” That’s how Jeffrey Sanzel, artistic director of Port Jefferson’s Theatre Three, described musical director Ellen Michelmore, who succumbed to cancer in May. “She was this pixie, so friendly and welcoming. She was one of those musical directors who could immediately understand everything you put in front of her. She could teach everyone—from the most skilled musician to an 8-year-old beginner—with equal sensitivity and insight.”
Michelmore had already been at Theatre Three several years before Sanzel was hired to run the venue’s children’s theatre in 1989. He liked her immediately and asked her to play Rapunzel. “She was very shy and acting had never crossed her mind,” Sanzel recalled. “But she took to it and embarked on an acting career on top of her incredible musical career.” In fact, last season’s One-Act Festival saw Michelmore, already ill and on chemo, playing a duck in Patrick Gabridge’s Quack. “She was extraordinarily brave. You [could] see the heart, soul, innocence and humanity of who she was.”
The loss of Michelmore is devastating for both Sanzel and the theatre as a whole, which begins its 47th season this month. “We’ve been talking to musical directors and we’ve had different people since Ellen,” Sanzel explained. “But everything was under her guidance; she’d work directly with them, hire all the musicians and supervise.”
Sorrow notwithstanding, the shows go on and Theatre Three’s new season will offer a range of productions, from pop musicals (Saturday Night Fever) and the Long Island premiere of the revue Respect: A Musical Journey of Women, to light comedy (Sylvia) and a new batch of one-acts.
Perhaps most interesting for Sanzel is a revival of his own play, Where There’$ a Will, which he hasn’t touched in three decades. “I wrote it when I was in college. I staged it and then it sat in a drawer until last fall. I read it and thought, ‘this is still fun, let’s do it.’” But not without major rewrites, of course. “I’ve learned a lot in 30 years about what works and what doesn’t, where to trim and where to revamp.” The comedy follows a group of down-and-out show folks who are each given a big check to change their lives.
It’s another reminder that change is inevitable, whether it’s a bunch of new cast members expected for the annual Christmas Carol or the challenge of moving on without Michelmore. “Literally hundreds of people came to her wake. We honored her two years ago. Hundreds of people came and spoke about her or sang songs from shows she had done. Truly, she touched thousands of lives.”