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Howard Sherman: The incredible 22-year tale of how a new musical finally got to the stage

David Garrison, Sarah McKinley Austin and Carolee Carmello. Photo: T Charles Erickson
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Almost everyone familiar with the process of getting a new musical to the stage will explain how prolonged and arduous it can be. A show called Pamela’s First Musical has had it harder than most, but tonight at Two River Theater Company in New Jersey (September 14), this story of a girl and her theatre-crazy aunt will – finally – have its premiere.

Why is this one musical worthy of note? Because of how public its lengthy journey has been, because of the track records of the talents involved, and because it was struck not once, but twice, by tragedy, already more than a decade ago.

Pamela’s First Musical began as a children’s book by Wendy Wasserstein, published in 1996. Given Wasserstein’s fame as a playwright, and the book’s illustrations by set designer Andrew Jackness, the theatrical story had a serious stage pedigree simply on the page. Its carefree story of an Auntie Mame-like figure was certainly ripe for musicalisation and it was originally developed as a possible project for Disney, with Meryl Streep’s name mentioned for the leading adult role.

By 2002 workshops began at Lincoln Center Theater for a stage version, with Wasserstein writing the book, David Zippel the lyrics and Cy Coleman the score. Director-choreographer Graciela Daniele helmed the project, with a second workshop the following year.

In 2004, Goodspeed Musicals in Connecticut announced the show for the following year on its second stage, but that production was upended when Coleman passed away later that year. In 2006, another production was announced for TheatreWorks in California, but that engagement was suspended upon the death of Wasserstein, who had been ill for some time.

Pamela's First Musical
Sarah McKinley Austin and Carolee Carmello. Photo: T Charles Ericksen

Losing two of the three authors might have been assumed to be the end of the show’s prospects, but come 2008, it resurfaced in a one-day benefit performance at New York’s Town Hall, with Donna Murphy as the ebullient Aunt Louise. After that: silence.

In 2014, The New York Times even did a story about this bereft musical, noting that Two River Theater artistic director John Dias had expressed interest in mounting the show back in 2011. It also revealed that Christopher Durang, Wasserstein’s close friend and co-literary executor had agreed to take over working on the show’s libretto, schedule permitting.

But it is only tonight that the show opens officially, after a handful of previews, with director-choreographer Daniele having stuck with the project for 16 years. The cast includes a number of Broadway veterans, including Andrea Burns, Howard McGillin, and Carolee Carmello. I’m going, in part because I’m a dedicated fan of Daniele’s, in part because I knew Cy Coleman from an earlier project when I worked at Goodspeed, and in part because – having seen that Town Hall concert a decade ago – I just want to see this not-exactly-little show get its moment.

It is of course impossible to know what will happen after that, but I imagine that plenty of the so-called right people will be travelling to Red Bank, New Jersey (a 100-minute train ride from Manhattan) to see Pamela’s First Musical truly on its feet at last. After all, everyone is always looking for the next musical hit, and a piece created by names like Wasserstein, Durang, Coleman, Zippel and Daniele certainly can’t be ignored.

Howard McGillin and Sarah McKinley
Howard McGillin and Sarah McKinley. Photo: T Charles Erickson

As it happens, the timing is particularly fortuitous, because just this week, Be More Chill, a musical that debuted at Two River in 2015, announced that it would be moving to Broadway this spring, following a sold-out Off-Broadway run over the summer. Be More Chill hasn’t had as long a journey as PFM has had, but its progress has also been far from smooth. The show laboured in obscurity after a New York Times review of the Two River production was credited with derailing its future chances. But, thanks to a cast recording, rare for a regional production, it built up a vigorous fan base online, which has been credited with giving the summer production considerable commercial heft – the run was sold-out – and convincing producers to take it all the way to the Lyceum Theatre.

Musicals are complicated beasts to say the least, and there are certainly starts and stops, dead ends and near-misses for countless shows. This week, the spotlight has aligned to illuminate two shows from Two River, but certainly productions from the Old Globe and La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego, or Arena Stage in Washington DC, or Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles have had comparable tales and coincidences at other times, as do many shows that have never really established themselves in the public consciousness. It just serves to demonstrate that whether it takes three years or almost two decades, there’s something to be said for believing that the show must go on. Because sometimes, happily, they do.

This week in US theatre

The band Huey Lewis and the News were huge in the 1980s, propelled by witty videos in the heyday of MTV and songs placed in the hit film Back to the Future. The band’s catalogue has been corralled into the latest box set musical, The Heart of Rock and Roll, which premieres tonight (September 14) at the aforementioned Old Globe Theatre. The book is by Jonathan Abrams and the director is Gordon Greenberg.

At The New Group, Off-Broadway, Edie Falco and Michael McKean lead the cast of The True, Sharr White’s new political drama set in the 1970s. The company’s artistic director, Scott Elliott, directs.

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