Chanukah, the Festival of Lights, seems tailor-made for a city known for its luminous skyscrapers that glitter and sparkle in the night. For Sean Hartley, the creator of the Chanukah-themed children’s show, “Latkes and Applesauce,” the winter holiday can inspire a new generation of Jewish New Yorkers to connect to their heritage. His show runs for one performance only on Dec. 14 at the Merkin Concert Hall on the Upper West Side.
Hartley, who is not Jewish, grew up in Bryn Mawr, a suburb of Philadelphia with a large Jewish population. He went to college at Brandeis, where he studied theater, and then went on to the Manhattan School of Music to specialize in musical theater.
He founded the Poppy Seed Players in 1991 as the resident theater company of the Kaufman Music Center, where he began bringing in shows related to the Jewish holidays, and then decided to create the shows himself with the help of musicians from the BMI Theater Workshop. Among the many shows that Hartley has developed are “Vashti! The Musical,” and “Young Moses,” both of which will be presented in March.
“Latkes and Applesauce” was first produced a decade ago, after Hartley offered $100 to each of 20 young writers to create an original skit about Chanukah. The show’s sketches are based on a variety of themes; the title song takes place in a 19th-century shtetl, where the iconic combination is improvised as a dish to serve to a visiting rabbi.
Other skits range from a comic look at an Alaskan Jew to a Chanukah version of “American Idol,” to a ballad about a shames (synagogue sexton) named Thomas. (It rhymes.) A cast of five performs all the roles, along with a children’s chorus from the Lucy Moses School and Special Music School at Kaufman.
Retelling the familiar story of the Maccabees, on which the holiday is based, is not as important to Hartley as giving the show contemporary relevance. “It’s about the ways in which tradition lives now,” Hartley observed, “rather than in the past.” That is why, he said, many of the episodes are set in contemporary New York and deal with Jewish children’s relationships to their parents and friends.
“What is it about these stories that inspire us now?” asked Hartley. One song is about a boy who learns to conquer his fear of the dark. “He learns,” Hartley explained, “that he can light a candle even though he’s not a mighty hero.”
“Latkes and Applesauce,” which is suitable for children ages 4 to 11, will be performed on Sunday, Dec. 14 at 11 a.m. at the Merkin Concert Hall, 129 W. 67th St. For tickets, $20, call the box office at (212) 501-3330 or visit www.kaufmanmusiccenter.org.