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Passing Her Love of Theater to Kids

With her children's book debut, 'Pamela's First Musical,' playwright Wendy Wasserstein hopes to inspire a new generation of theatergoers.

May 05, 1996|Lynne Heffley | Lynne Heffley is a Times staff writer

Wendy Wasserstein, the clever chronicler of boomer angst in plays like the award-winning "The Heidi Chronicles" and "The Sisters Rosensweig," turns her attention to a younger generation in her first children's book, "Pamela's First Musical."

A witty, Auntie Mame-ish account of a little girl escorted by her fabulous ("Ooooh, dahling") Aunt Louise on a fantasy trip to her first Broadway musical, the book takes readers from a pre-show lunch at the Russian Tea Room--where a famous dancer jetes to his table--to a backstage tour after a whimsical, fictional musical about "The Prince of Broadway," starring Nathan Hines Klines.

The book's spirited gouache illustrations by veteran film and stage production designer Andrew Jackness are aglow with soft color. They complement Wasserstein's lively prose, with its wistful nostalgia for a Broadway and a childhood of yesteryear, spiced with a theater insider's tongue-in-cheek references.

Wasserstein, 45, who has played Aunt Louise to her own nieces, said the book came out of a desire to share the passion she has had for theater since she was a little girl.

"I used to take dancing classes on Saturdays, and afterward my mother and my dad would pick me up and take me to Broadway shows," she said in a recent telephone interview. "I always thought Broadway should have dancing men with top hats walking down the street.

"I think when you talk to most people in the theater," she said, "people of my generation anyway, they say one of the reasons they landed in theater is that they never forgot their first musical. There's so much talk of attracting the next generation of theatergoers--I'm trying to inspire that a little bit."

Wasserstein's own inspirations for her story include childhood memories of lots of doll play and books such as "Eloise" and "Madeline."

"All the dolls had characters," she said, "and seeing those musicals, I would come back and make up my own stories. They always had a hundred people in them dancing around.

"I think that's it about plays--they're different than TV or MTV. You're not bombarded with imagery, it's a story being told, and there's an exuberance and a color to it that I think a child takes to."

In the book, Pamela's musical adventure inspires her to dream of "producing, writing, choreographing, designing and directing . . . a cast of thousands, maybe millions." For Wasserstein, opening the door to those dreams is key.

"I think [musicals] do stimulate that in children. Ultimately, to put on a play, you don't need video and cutting rooms--it's still a little bit Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney. My desire was to pass that on."

Wasserstein expresses a great deal of sympathy for creative children, particularly in a time of diminishing arts education.

If you're that kind of child, she said, "you're looking at the world slightly differently than anyone else." In the theater, "a creative child can suddenly have a sense of belonging somewhere where it is important to use imagination.

"You think, 'They're grown-ups, and they get to do this joyous thing and to be paid to do that.'

"I was startled when I realized there was a group of people who were different than my parents or the people who lived around us.

"Not everybody's good at sports," she added. "Not every person who would be a wonderful actor or speaker is necessarily going to be so great on the football field. They deserve a place to be great--or even not great."

Adult readers of the book can look for such humorous verbal and visual touches as theater marquees advertising "Woman in Denial" starring Kathleen Battle-Weary and "Beowolf, a Musical Classic" with Brad and Zasu Pitts, hybrid names such as Betty and Cy Songheim and Bearish Nureyjinsky and the wildly spectacular musical itself, a love story filled with airplanes, pirates, a circus and "a dance to the death."

Jackness' kinetic illustrations--you can almost hear the overture--deserve a great deal of credit for the book's appeal, Wasserstein said:

"Working on this book with Andy [was like] doing a musical. I remember Abe Burrows said about doing a musical that 'you have to have a tree to hang the bananas on.' I feel like I'm the tree, but the exuberance and the life are in the drawings."

Wasserstein, whose latest play, "An American Daughter," will be performed at Lincoln Center next year, doesn't want anyone to think that a Broadway show is the only way a child can experience theatrical magic. A high school musical or a community show can deliver that experience too, she said, noting: "Besides, Broadway musicals are expensive!"

And, the "magic" has more than one dimension, Wasserstein pointed out:

"Plays--whether you watch them or are in them, are where community actually happens. You laugh together, you cry together, you hear a story together. That doesn't happen when you watch TV or see a movie. People are getting up and down, they're leaving the room. . . .

"Theater has to do with who we are as people, with defining that together. I can't think of another place that that happens. It has to do with the joy of life and possibility."


"Pamela's First Musical," by Wendy Wasserstein; illustrated by Andrew Jackness. Hyperion Books for Children, $16.95.

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