Zoe Fischthal began playing piano when she was in kindergarten and started composing music in fifth grade. After appearing in a variety show at Rachel Carson Elementary, she decided to meld her talents. “Being in a show was really fun and writing was something I really liked, too. I decided I’d never been able to finish a story so maybe I’d be able to finish a musical because it would be more interesting to have a story and music together,” she explained.
Her music was flowing but she was struggling with a script. Her mother, Paula Fischthal, suggested she pick a book that she liked as a writing exercise. A friend introduced her to a book by the late British novelist Roald Dahl. “She did a little research and saw that there was no musical for Roald Dahl’s ‘The Witches,’” Paula said.
Zoe added, “Most of the musicals that I had seen were based off books … so when I read ‘The Witches,’ I thought this would be fun to make into a musical.” The Fischthals obtained limited rights from the Dahl Foundation to use “The Witches” and the rest is playwright history.
At 13, Zoe is ready to kick off her songwriting and playwriting career with two amateur productions of her original musical based on “ROALD DAHL’S THE WITCHES,” which she has subtitled “Fallen to Witches’ Snare.” It will be on stage Sept. 8 at the Arts Barn and Sept. 10 at Shaare Torah Synagogue. Tickets are $10 each.
Now an eighth grade student in the Humanities Magnet Program at Roberto Clemente Middle School, Zoe wrote the music and lyrics for all 12 songs and the script when she was 12. She’s also the director for her hour-long musical, which centers on a young boy named Kat and his grandmother who enter the Hotel Magnificent and a world of evil witches, mice, aristocrats, and a magic potion called “Formula 86.” When Kat overhears the witches’ evil plan to destroy all of England’s children, Kat and his grandmother hatch a plan to destroy the witches.
Zoe said Dahl’s stories captured her interest because “they’re about little kids doing really cool things. Most of the books that I find are more about teenagers doing cool things, so it’s nice to see five- and seven-year-olds getting the same sort of adventures.”
When Zoe became a Bat Mitzvah last November, she earmarked the musical’s production costs as part of her Bat Mitzvah project with all proceeds benefiting the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to finding cures for Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.
She has been a longtime supporter of the organization having been diagnosed with Crohn’s when she was six years old. She said the disease impacts her when she has a flare up, has to stay home from school, go to the hospital, or take medicine, “but most of the time, it’s like a stomachache here and there or a thought every once in a while.” She raises $2,000 to $3,000 each year by participating in the non-profit’s annual Take Steps Walk. In 2016 she was the Take Steps National Capital Area Pediatric Honored Hero, and this year her original design was selected for the walk’s t-shirt.
Mentors have played a significant role in Zoe’s creative process. “She’s always been really musical,” said Paula. “She would hear something and be able to play it by ear, which to me is pretty remarkable.” In fifth grade, Zoe was taking piano lessons at Pritchard Music Academy (PMA) and “didn’t like the Halloween choices for their recital. Becky Pritchard said, ‘Why don’t you write something on your own’ and told her a little bit about how. So, she wrote something and it was really good,” Paula recalled.
Laura Andruski, Arts Barn theatre program coordinator, gave Zoe a book about how to direct. Paula explained, “We were looking for a director and Laura was like, ‘Why doesn’t Zoe direct it?’ Zoe mapped the whole summer of rehearsals to be sure each scene got enough attention and she talked her voice teacher, Jenni McGinnis, into coming once a week to help the kids learn the music. Zoe does community theater, so we talked with director Fred Zirm who helped and gave some advice on the script.” Andruski and McGinnis also assisted with auditions.
PMA’s Music Composition class, which Zoe joined in sixth grade, has helped hone her skills. Her composition teacher, David Lester, has been teaching her music theory “basically so my music will be more technical” and helped her “make sure that the melodies in my musical and the instrumentation made sense and that everything was within the instruments’ ability to play. After finishing the musical, we’ve been working on the different chords and how they affect melodies like augmented versus diminished. So, I’ve been learning how to use the theory to make my music better,” Zoe said.
In sixth grade, her song “Sky and Sea,” entered in the PTA’s Arts Reflections program, won a county and state award. In seventh grade, “Welcome To The Mouse Circus,” from her musical, won a county award through the same program. Becky Pritchard sponsored Zoe for the National Association for Music Education’s 2017 Student Composers Competition. “Fallen to Witches’ Snare,” which was altered for wind ensemble, was recognized as a “committee selected” composition to be performed in Texas in November during a Young Composers Concert.
“I think there are a lot of really talented kids out there,” said Paula. “The difference I see with Zoe is how focused she is. It’s ‘I want to write a musical and OK, I did it’… it’s the drive. When I was 13, I was nowhere nearly as focused … so it’s just really impressive that she has this musical talent and also the drive and focus to turn it into something this big.”
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