The world premiere of Pamela’s First Musical at Two River Theater in Red Bank, New Jersey, marked the culmination of one of the more excruciatingly protracted gestations for any musical in recent memory. Adapted by playwright Wendy Wasserstein from her 1996 children’s book, Pamela’s First Musical endured a magnitude of adult loss and tragedy on the way to its debut. Its composer, the musical theater giant Cy Coleman, died of a heart attack in 2004 before the show was fully written. Then Wasserstein herself died of cancer in 2006, before ever seeing the work fully staged. Each passing derailed the path of an all-star collaboration for protracted periods of mourning, with work revived again and again by the musical’s surviving creators, lyricist David Zippel and director-choreographer Graciela Daniele.
Their tenacity, abetted by the affection of children and adults alike for the book, has finally brought Pamela’s First Musical to fruition in a delightful production directed by Daniele, currently running through October 7.
“To get a show on requires an engine,” observes Zippel. “Absent Cy and Wendy, I became the engine for the show, with Grazie’s blessing. If it wasn’t for John Dias, however, the artistic director of Two River Theater, and his abiding love for Pamela, I would still be out there, searching.”
“Years ago, ” Daniele adds, “John Dias was a young dramaturg when I was working at the Public Theater. Later he became associate artistic director. John always wanted to do Pamela outdoors at the Delacorte Theater. Which would have been a marvelous, magical thing to do. But it didn’t work out.
Now that he is running this fabulous Two River institution, he was finally able to make Pamela happen. It has been almost unbearably cathartic for David and me.
After Wasserstein’s death, Zippel met with Andre Bishop of Lincoln Center and playwright Christopher During, who were Wasserstein’s literary executors. “I wanted to show them the state of Pamela’s First Musical,” Zippel explains. “Chris responded with some great ideas about improving what we had, and one of the things we decided was that he should join us.”
“I had, of course known, that Wendy was working on Pamela’s First Musical,” notes Durang, a Yale Drama school classmate and collaborator of Wasserstein’s and an intimate friend. “I loved the book, but I didn’t actually see a reading of the show until after she died. In Wendy’s original you never saw the musical that is Pamela’s first musical; you never saw what she saw. I wound up sketching out this whole mini-musical. I also thought: And what if Pamela, in her head, enters into this musical that she’s watching? So now she does.”
Pamela’s First Musical stars young Sarah McKinley Austin as Pamela; Carolee Carmello as Pamela’s dazzling, theater-loving Aunt Louise; Howard McGillin as Pamela’s bereaved father, whose wife (unlike in the book) has died; Andréa Burns as the diva-like star of Pamela’s first musical, Ethel Mary Bernadette; and David Garrison, as the musical’s producer, Bernie S. Gerry.
“One day Wendy and I were talking about Pamela and what she wanted,” adds Daniele. “Pamela says she wants to be a director and she wants to be a writer, and Wendy asked me, ‘Doesn’t Pamela really want to be a star?’ And I replied, ‘No. Pamela would say: I don’t want to be a star, I want to pick the star!’ And Wendy put that in the show; those exact words. Now Pamela gets to announce it every night. I just love that.”