May 21, 2008

"Pamela's First Musical" is a Final Gift From--and Tribute to--Pamela's Aunt Wendy

By all accounts, there was no one more beloved in the theater world than Wendy Wasserstein, who died from cancer in 2006 when she was just 55. She won almost every honor a playwright can win—the Tony, New York Drama Critics Circle, Drama Desk, and Outer Critics Circle awards and a Pulitzer Prize. But people also just liked Wendy. I refer to her so familiarly because everybody was on a first-name basis with Wendy, including the New York City school kids she introduced to the theater through the Opens Doors Program she founded in typically open-hearted Wendy fashion.

I never had the good fortune to meet her but I was fond of Wendy too. Her plays tracked the lives of women like me—self-consciously smart and ambitious and a little insecure about it all—from the optimistic college girls of her 1977 play Uncommon Women and Others to the more uncertain middle-aged professor in her final
2005 play, Third. And, as it turns out, we both have nieces—mine Jennifer, hers Pamela—with whom we started sharing our passion for the theater when they were just girls. In 1996, Wendy published “Pamela’s First Musical,” a children’s picture-book about introducing her niece to the theater. When I heard that Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS was staging a benefit production of the musical based on that book, I immediately bought a ticket.

“Pamela’s First Musical,” with drawings by the theatrical set designer Andrew Jackness, tells the story of a suburban girl whose eccentric Aunt Louise celebrates her niece's eighth birthday by treating her to a Saturday in Manhattan, complete with lunch at the Russian Tea Room (changed to Sardi’s on stage) and a Broadway matinee. The book is also filled with playful allusions t
o real-life Broadway celebrities—the musical’s writers are a duo called Betty and Cy Songheim; its producer Bernie S. Gerry (punny jokes for theater insiders and geeks).

It was lyricist David Zippel who suggested turning the book into a musical (click here to find the podcast of an interview he did on the history of the show) and he recruited his frequent collaborator Cy Coleman to do the score. But Coleman died in 2004 and Wendy passed 14 months later. A note in the Playbill for Pamela’s First Musical insists “Before Wendy and Cy died, the music, lyrics and book were done.” The finished product suggests otherwise. But it doesn’t matter. Watching Pamela’s First Musical, Wendy’s last gift to the theater, was truly a one-of-a-kind experience.

And everyone lucky enough to be there knew it was something special. When the house manager spotted a friend in the audience, the woman sitting next to me, he asked her to
give him her Playbill. “We’re running out of programs,” he explained, handing the extra copy to the usher, who hid it under her jacket. On the way in, I had seen people taking extras from the stack by the door—either for the keepsake value or maybe for an anticipated eBay sale.

The show was performed in concert style with the 16-member orchestra sitting on stage in front of a starry backdrop and the actors carrying scripts—which they consulted often. The great Donna Murphy played Aunt Louise (ad libbing totally in
character the few times she forgot a line) and Lila Coogan, one of the young actors in Mary Poppins, played Pamela. Gregg Edelman doubled as Pamela’s widowed father and the show-within-a-show’s leading man, Nathan Hines-Klines (more fun), while Carolee Carmello played both the dad’s new fiancĂ©e and the faux show’s leading lady, Mary Ethel Bernadette (still more).

Other celebrated Broadway troupers—including Sandy Duncan, Kathie Lee Gifford, Joel Grey, Donna McKechnie, Tommy Tune and Lillias White—had cameos as their own come-to-life portraits on the walls of Sar
di’s (Christine Ebersole was listed in the Playbill but didn't appear). Musical writers Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens played the Songheims and New York Post theater columnist Michael Riedel got into the act in the silent role of the dread theater critic Simon Crankley. There was actually a very funny song for Crankley to sing but I don’t know if Riedel chose not to perform it or was asked not to but they finessed it so that the producer character sang it for him. At the curtain call the real-life, and now grown-up, Pamela Wasserstein came on stage to thank everyone for coming.

Walking to the subway after the show, I found myself a few paces ahead of the towering Tommy Tune and the diminutive Joel Gey, on their way to the Sardi’s party and looking like the quintessenial Mutt and Jeff. Several passersby stopped Grey, probably recognizing him as the Wizard in Wicked more so than for his true star turns as the emcee in the original p
roduction of Cabaret or as the cuckolded husband in the original cast of the long-playing revival of Chicago. Tune, passing largely unnoticed despite his distinctive height and equally glittery CV, slowed his long gait until Grey caught up with him. As they strolled, they talked shop. “I’m not as creative when I don’t have a schedule,” I overheard Tune confessing.

The whole thing was a treat for a theater lover like me but I would gladly have traded it to have Wendy still around and chronicling this phase of our lives.


Anonymous said...

I grant Kathie Lee is a trooper, but the others I'd describe as troupers. (Spellcheck is not your friend.)

jan@broadwayandme said...

Anonymous, thanks for reading. And the correction is welcomed too, although I think you're being unfair to poor spellcheck since this is totally a writer's error.

Sarah B. Roberts said...

Jan, It was absolutely special. What a beautiful afternoon. I wish I could rewind and rewind all over again.

Anonymous said...

thanks much, your site helps me decide what i'm going to see. total appreciation!

jan@broadwayandme said...

Anonymous, thanks so very much for this comment. Sharing my love of theater is what this blog is all about and I'm delighted to know that it's being helpful to other theater lovers. I hope you will continue to read B&M and to post other comments letting all of us know what you think of the shows that you see.

Tiger Body Electric Vehicles said...

Hey All, I am searching for the name of an old broadway musical.

"I am American,
I am american
I am american - To have and to hold."
something about a ship ....

and "He can do any thing, any thing he pleases
Anything he pleases he can do"
He can go anywhere anywhere he chooses
anywhere he chooses - He can go!"

thanks - tigerbody at> gmail do com.