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Pamela's First Musical Passes On Wendy Wasserstein's Belief in the "Birthright" of Theater

Lyricist David Zippel and director-choreographer Graciela Daniele finish what they started over 20 years ago with a world premiere at Two River Theater.

Pamela's First Musical made it to its first real stage almost two-and-a-half years after the death of its book writer, Wendy Wasserstein (Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Heidi Chronicles), and three-and-a-half years after the death of its composer Cy Coleman (three-time Tony-winning composer of On the Twentieth Century, The Will Rogers Follies, and City of Angels).

That unlikely debut — a one-night benefit concert in 2008 at New York City's Town Hall — is being followed a decade later by an even unlikelier world-premiere production at Two River Theater, where the musical love letter to the theater has at long last been signed, sealed, and delivered.

Adapted from Wasserstein's 1996 children's book of the same name, Pamela's First Musical joins Wasserstein's signature wit with the story of Pamela (Sarah McKinley Austin), whose eccentric Aunt Louise (three-time Tony nominee Carolee Carmello) celebrates her niece's birthday by taking her to her first Broadway musical.

"We theater people never give up," said David Zippel, the show's lyricist and last remaining member of its original creative team (Zippel collaborated with Cy Coleman on City of Angels). He includes in that expression of fortitude the show's longtime director and choreographer Graciela Daniele, who has also stuck with Pamela since its earliest days and joins Zippel for its long-awaited premiere. It's been an emotional finish line for Zippel and Daniele to cross together, but a fitting piece to carry on the legacy of two artists who inspired belief in the magic of theater.

Lyricist David Zippel (middle) and director Graciela Daniele (right) in rehearsal for Pamela's First Musical with playwright Christopher Durang, who signed on as co-book writer for the musical's world premiere at Two River Theater.
(© John Augustine)

Pamela's First Musical has had a winding journey that began over 20 years ago. David, as a member of the original creative team, can you tell me how the show first came to be?
David Zippel: Wendy wrote this adorable children's book and I read it. When I called her up to congratulate her, I said, "These characters would make a great basis for a musical. What do you think?" She said, "Let's do it!" right on the spot. And then I asked her who she thought would be the best composer for this and she said Cy Coleman, and that was exactly who I had in mind. So we called Cy and he said, "Let's do it!" That was the beginning.

What kind of musical did the three of you set out to make?
David: We always envisioned it as a family musical. We weren't writing a children's score; we wanted to write an adult score. Wendy's intention wasn't to write something that you would want to drop your kids off at, but something you'd want to see with them.

How did you get involved, Graciela?
Graciela Daniele: Both David and Wendy called and asked if I would be interested in directing and choreographing it, and of course I was! I was very excited by the piece and we were ready to go ahead with a production, and then Cy passed away, which was a shock for all of us.

Did work on the show stop after that?
Graciela: Cy's wife had said that if we needed more music, there was a trunk full of wonderful work by Cy that had not been used and we were free to choose anything. So we started working again, and then Wendy got sick. It was a horrifying time. They were two extraordinary artists and wonderful people.

David: Heartbreaking. It was such a happy team.

How did the show remain in your lives?
Graciela: We did a benefit concert…

David: Graciela and I were both mentors for Open Doors, which is the group Wendy started at the Theatre Development Fund to take children to the theater, so we did a one-night benefit for them and Broadway Cares in 2008.

Graciela: I felt, at least we had shown the work to the world. But we thought OK, this is it. Goodbye. We were going to forget about it — until John Dias.

David: Graciela, Wendy, Cy, and I pitched it to John to do it at the Public Theater because John was an associate artistic director there and he loved the piece. But ultimately I think it was too fluffy for the powers that be at the Public. But John never forgot it. A few years ago, he called us and said, "I have a theater now. I'm the producing director at Two River and we'd like to do the show." It took a while to put all the pieces together, but here we are!

Sarah McKinley Austin (Pamela) and Carolee Carmello (Aunt Louise) star in the world-premiere production of Pamela's First Musical.
(© T. Charles Erickson)

What has it been like for the two of you to continue working on the piece without Wendy or Cy? Do you keep their voices in mind as you develop it?
David: They are so here. Last Saturday night was the first preview and I sat across the aisle from Graci. When the curtain came down, I was a little verklempt, so I walked over to Graci…

Graciela: And I burst into tears.

David: So then I lost it. We miss them. But their work and their spirit are so infused in this show.

We all know Wendy's work from her plays, but did she have a special affinity for Broadway musicals?
Graciela: I don't know if it was so much about Broadway musicals, but Wendy was very involved in children — in young people's knowledge about the theater. She said something that I always thought was wonderful: "Every single New Yorker has the birthright of going to the theater." That was Open Doors — an institution to bring young people into theater, Broadway or non-Broadway.

What were your own introductions to theater as children?
Graciela: I started studying ballet in Argentina when I was seven years old at the Teatro Colón. I didn't see really musicals until I was working in Paris as a ballerina and saw the tour of West Side Story. I remember getting out of the theater thinking, "I have to go to New York to learn how to do that" — believing all musicals were like West Side Story [laughs]. That's what made me come to America.

David: I was 7 or 8 and my parents took me to see The Music Man in the round in a little tent in Lambertville, New Jersey. There were barely any sets, but it blew my mind. A year or two later, they took me to see Oliver! on Broadway, and by then, I was totally committed to finding a way to be in the theater somehow.

Do you hope Pamela's First Musical will inspire more children to get involved in theater?
David: It's not just about kids seeing the show and wanting to be a part of the theater. It's about kids seeing the show and realizing that if you can imagine it, whatever it is, you can make it happen.

Graciela: It really is about a child's imagination. This child wants to write, she wants to direct — it's an incentive to any young child that has that kind of call to pursue it, to go ahead and do it.

Howard McGillin and Sarah McKinley Austin in a scene from Pamela's First Musical, running through October 7 at Two River Theater.
(© T. Charles Erickson)