When Wendy Wasserstein won 1989's Pulitzer Prize for The Heidi Chronicles, her mother was understandably verklempt: "The Pulitzer Prize? When do you get to go to Sweden?" Wrong award, Mrs. Wasserstein, but it did get her to the Tony podium.
It was a sprawling feminist cavalcade from 1965 to 1989 — and the big winner in her 11-play career. Welcoming it back to Broadway for the first time in a quarter-century were—no kidding — some 900 of her nearest and dearest. Beloved is not the word that quickly comes to mind for theatrical movers-and-shakers. It is for Wendy.
With humor, insight and sensitivity, she wormed her way into our hearts and just stayed there, never left. If you did a slow, sentimental pan March 19 around the Music Box Theatre, you'd think it was another gathering of Team Wendy, ready to celebrate the wit and wisdom of Wendy Wasserstein and wishing she were there.
She died Jan. 30, 2006, from complications of lymphoma at the too-young age of 55, and The New York Times marked her passing with a front-page obit by Charles Isherwood. A playwright concerned with women's rights and values, she was the voice of her generation, and that voice hasn't been stilled by the passage of time. "I think the play is even more timely," contended Andre Bishop, who taught her how show folk drink coffee (by pulling back the tab and attaching it to the top of the paper cup) and who commissioned The Heidi Chronicles for Playwrights Horizons.
"I did not know that would be true. In fact, I thought it would be the opposite. It was always a play that looked back — in 1989, it looked back — but 25 years later it seems more poignant than ever because we know how far those women in the play have come and how far they haven't. We didn't know that in 1989. We thought it was all going to happen to everyone — all of us — and a lot of it has, and a lot of it hasn't."
Heidi 2015 is rather fittingly filled by Elisabeth Moss, who, as Peggy Olson in seven seasons of "Mad Men," has soared from secretary to copy chief of Sterling Cooper Advertising Agency. ("Go, girl," you can almost hear Heidi say.) The actress has said that Peggy, who made those bold moves in the '50s, is something of a big sis to Heidi.
"I think they're both feminists, both very strong women," Moss said. "Heidi's a lot more self-aware, more self-analytical, than Peggy. She has a sense of humor about herself and can verbalize her feelings. That's never been Peggy's strong suit."
Heidi's pick of men would make any self-respecting female pick up the placards. These range from "a charismatic prick" named Scoop to "a small noise from Winnetka" who becomes a pediatrician and — darn the luck! — homosexual.
Jason Biggs, who plays the womanizing Scoop, had to think about it but believes he may be the only actor in the "American Pie" film franchise to venture on to Broadway. This is his third time out, and "it's getting harder," he admitted. "As I get older, I'm not as naïve. If you start out young and dumb, that actually works in your favor, but, as you get older, you have a deeper appreciation of what you're doing."
Being a man in a Wasserstein play has its responsibilities, he felt. "They're very few men, but the men who are there are so incredibly important. Wendy had wonderful relationships with various men in her life. Scoop, as I understand it, was an amalgam of people — the same with Peter—and we've talked to some people we think the characters are based on. It has been a real treat to sorta pick their brains a little bit."
The Heidi Chronicles, With Elisabeth Moss, Jason Biggs and Bryce Pinkham, Opens on Broadway; Red Carpet Arrivals, Curtain Call and Cast Party
The other man (who's equally not an option) — Heidi's gay soul-mate, Dr. Peter Patrone — won Boyd Gaines a Tony for the original production and Tom Hulce an Emmy for the TV-movie version. The role's current interpreter understands why.
"I know Wendy wrote some of her best friends into this character," Bryce Pinkham advanced. "Chris Durang, Andre Bishop and William Ivey Long were all friends of hers and, in some way, helped create Peter. They definitely were intellectual matches for her. Heidi and Peter play verbal tennis. They're really perfect partners for each other. I think Wendy is very generous with the character because she cares so much about her friends. A lot of the fun stuff she wrote came from her friends."
Durang, himself a Tony-winning playwright as well, pleaded guilty as charged: "When Peter meets Heidi at the dance, the dialogue is about the same as when I met her at Yale in my third and last year in the playwriting program and her first. We were in a class together. I could tell it wasn't going to be a good class because I'd been there a while so I thought to myself, 'She looks so bored. How? How did she get it so fast?' When class was over, I said to her, 'You must be very smart to be so bored so quickly.' She laughed and laughed, and that was the beginning of our friendship."
Another playwright, William Finn, had his memories, too. "We talked about working on things," he said. "She'd come to my shows and tell me what lines to change, but I wouldn't go to hers and tell her. They were all perfect. She was only the greatest."
Choreographer-actress Mimi Lieber — wife of the play's original director, Dan Sullivan — recalled meeting Wendy the first day of rehearsal for a Heidi tour Sullivan was directing. "I didn't know her at all, but, out of nowhere, she came up to me and said, 'Let's go to lunch.' On the way back to rehearsal, a bird pooped on my head. I was mortified, but she thought it was the greatest sign for our show. 'It's good luck!'
"It was, too. Years later, after Dan and I got together, she said, 'I always threw a good mixer.' Joan Allen and Peter Friedman, who are no longer together, were the original Heidi and Scoop. Tony Shahloub and Brooke Adams got together on the show. So did Boyd Gaines and Kathleen McNenny. That's a lot of happiness due to our Wendella."
Jessie Mueller, newly Tony-ed for playing Carole King in Beautiful, loitered in the lower lobby just out of the limelight after the show while the cast met the press. "That's my guy," she said, pointing to a member of the ensemble, Andy Truschinski, who juggles four small roles in the show. Career-wise, Mueller will be going from King to Waitress, a Broadway hopeful that will be trying out in Boston this June.
Truschinski is one of four debuts in The Heidi Chronicles. Another one, Elise Kibler doesn't bring it up. Her bio just says she's "a female with brown hair and a strong immune system."