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A CurtainUp Feature
An Overview of Wendy Wasserstein's Career
By Elyse Sommer
Check out our Playwright's Album for more famous playwright profiles
Chronology of Produced Plays
Trademarks Of Wasserstein's Plays
Links To Reviews
Quotes From Wasserstein's Plays
Wasserstein will live on through her plays and other writings which include a novel which will be published posthumously. Her legacy also includes the Open Doors program (initially called Wendy's Program) she launched under the auspices of the Theatre Development Fund (TDF) to make theater going part of New York high school students' lives, as it was for her. Her goal was to develop new audience and perhaps even develop new playwrights. The first group, none of whom had ever been to a professional theater came from DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx. Performances were followed by 90-minute discussions over pizza and soda. As the program expanded, Wasserstein's friends came aboard.
A native New Yorker (born in Brooklyn, grew up on Manhatten's upper East Side), Wendy was the youngest of five children of a textile executive. Her mother, once a dancer, enrolled Wasserstein in ballet classes in which she worked hard mostly because her "dessert" was to be taken to a matinee. She had a grandfather who acted in and wrote for Yiddish theater but her move into show business was strictly under her own steam with her interest in playwriting burgeoning while she was a history major at Mount Holyoke College. She later studied creative writing at City College of New York and received her master's degree from the Yale School of Drama in 1976.
In 1999, at age 48, Ms. Wasserstein gave birth to a daughter, Lucy Jane, who is now 7 and was named in homage to the Beatles song "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds." Though she is now healthy, Lucy Jane was born three months premature, and in a New Yorker magazine article Ms. Wasserstein chronicled that ordeal, though the name of the father was never revealed.)
Some of her many close friends in the theatrical world included composer William Finn, playwright Terrence McNally, critic Frank Rich, playwright Christopher Durang, director James Lapine and Lincoln Center artistic director Andre Bishop.
Besides the honors reaped by her plays, she was also awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and eventually served on the Guggenheim Foundation board. She also taught playwriting at several universities.
Her biography, Wendy and the Lost Boys, The Uncommon Life of Wendy Wasserstein by Julie Salomon was published in August of 2011. For our review go here.
Chronology of Produced Plays
1981 (revived in 1987). Uncommon Women and Others. This began as her Yale Drama School thesis and was subsequently expanded and produced Off-Broadway with Glenn Close, Jill Eikenberry and Swoosie Kurtz in the cast. It's a comic look at a group of women who reunite seven years after graduation and recall their dreams of becoming "amazing before 30" was also made into a film that was aired on public television and is still available as a DVD.
Isn't It Romantic, 1980. First staged at the now defunct Phoenix Theater, this was revived at Playwrights Horizons in 1984. The play is about two former college classmates Janie and Harriet, who differ in both personality and appearance, struggle to cement their individual identities in the face of two sets of overbearing parents, while also attempting to maintain their friendship.
The Heidi Chronicles, 1989. Wasserstein's stand-in heroine was art historian and "humanist" Heidi Holland who was swept through the social currents of the 1960s, 1970s and 198s. After opening at Playwrights Horizon, the play transferred to Broadway's Plymouth Theatre. It won the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the Tony Award and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award. Its 622 performance run and many other productions also marked it a commercial success. The role of Heidi was originated by Joan Allen. The decade spanning saga made Wasserstein the most prominent female playwright in America and theatrical chronicler of the women's movement for the remainder of her all too brief life.
The Sisters Rosensweig, 1993. This was a Lincoln Center production that transferred to the Ethel Barrymore on Broadway. This modern day Three Sisters is about three very different siblings coming to terms with their identities as women, Jews and Americans during a reunion in London following the death of their mother.
An American Daughter, 1997. Another Lincoln Center production that opened on Broadway (The Cort). In this play a prominent professor and daughter of an equally prominent American senator finds her world shattered during her confirmation hearings as Surgeon General as a result of the media's close scrutiny of everything about her life. As Wasserstain explained her intentions for this play in an interview, "I started thinking about the politics of the theatre, which often involves an attack on the right wing, and I thought it would be interesting to look inward, to look at liberals, and to say that whatever state we're in, we're not in this state because there are bad guys and we're the good guys. One thing I hope about this play is that it's not clear who are the good guys and who are the bad guys."
Old Money, 2000. This social commentary played at Lincoln Center's Mitzi E. Newhouse. Its characters time travelled between the early 1900's and modern New York City in the course of discovering that some things about society never change.
Third, 2005. The playwright was ill but still in attendance during rehearsals for her last play, again at the Mitzi E. Newhouse. The life of its central character, a college professor named Laurie Jameson, is thrown into turmoil when she accuses a student of plagiarism. Ironically, a character in the play suffers from cancer, though that character, unlike the playwright, recovered. This play also seemed to mark a swing back from the less than positive response to An American Daughter and Old Money. Other Writing
Pamela's First Musical, 1996, a best-selling children's book. which she adapted with David Zippel and the late Cy Coleman into a musical. The Pamela of the book was the author's niece, Pamela Wasserstein.
Bachelor Girls, 1990 (Knopf)
Shiksa Goddess: Or, How I Spent My Forties, 2001 (Knopf)
Sloth, 2005 (Oxford University Press), a spoof of self-help literature
Elements of Style, 2006, Wasserstein's first novel will be published posthumously.
The Festival of Regrets, libretto for one of three one-act operas presented under the collective title Central Park at the New York City Opera
Also a libretto for an opera with music by Deborah Drattell
The Object of My Affection, 1998, screenplay for a 1998 film about a pregnant single woman (Jennifer Aniston) who shares an apartment with a gay man.
Teleplays (for the PBS Great Performancesseries
The Sorrows of Gin, broadcast in 1979, was an adaptation of a John Cheever story, part ofo a series called 3 by Cheever.. It featured Edward Herrmann and Sigourney Weaver as two of Cheever's Shady Hill parents. That same year also marked the first PBS broadcast of the above listed Uncommon Women ... and Others.
Kiss, Kiss, Dahlings, 1992 a short play which starred Blythe Danner, Cynthia Nixon and Nancy Marchand as three generations of actors in three periods in history includes a scene in which these women are waiting to go on The Charlie Rose Show (Rose is in the play as himelf). The Heidi Chronicles, which Wasserstein adapted for TV in 1995 didn't work as well on the small screen, probably because of a miscast Jamie Lee Curtis. Back to the top
Trademarks Of Wasserstein's Plays
Though Wasserstein examined serious themes, her ability to punctuate her dialogue with punchy, topical zingers she was usually viewed as a writer of comedies. Her bubbly personality and good humor emphasized this image of her as someone who could mix seriousness and laughter in life as well as her work. Thus the sharp humor that permeated her plays, always had a deeper and more poignant undercoat.
Her overall theme was a dramatization of the female experience of her time with all its complexities and occasional detours into absurdity. In her less successful plays the feminist issues tended to overwhelm her characters. Still, even when not at the top of her form, the American women of her generation couldn't have wished for a sharper or more intelligent chronicler. Despite being unfolded on a large canvas, her plays always had a special kind of intimacy, with a strong Jewish/ New York flavor. She portrayed a truly new kind of woman -- smart, funny but also serious, and not afraid to be alone. Back to Top
Links To Reviews
An American Daughter
The Heidi Chronicles (2015 Off-Broadway)
Isn't It Romantic
Third (Lincoln Center premiere)
Third( LA- 2007)
Back to the top
Quotes by and about Wasserstein
Wendy, you are the finest person I know. You are the greatest friend I've ever had - and that I will ever have. You have grown over the years from an insecure mass of giggles and curls and unfocused talent to a strong, powerful, visionary woman. Your plays are distinctive, not really because they are funny or angry or well-observed -- which they are -- but because they approach the world with a tenderness and a longing for a finer life that is the unflinching point of view of the woman who wrote them. -- Andre Bishop, Wasserstein's close friend and mentor, at March 13, 2006 tribute at Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theater.
Being a grownup means assuming responsibility for yourself, for your children, and - here's the big curve -- for your parents. -- Wendy Wasserstein Don't live down to expectations. Go out there and do something remarkable. -- Wendy Wasserstein
Sometimes I want to clean up my desk and go out and say, respect me, I'm a respectable grown-up, and other times I just want to jump into a paper bag and shake and bake myself to death.-- Wendy Wasserstein
Mother never said, 'Darling, please grow up to be a playwright and put off marriage as much as possible!'---Wendy Wasserstein
Being the youngest of four siblings in a family of of very large personalities, humor became my niche, my defense mechanism. -- Wendy Wasserstein, whose plays, essays and speeches were always studded with sharp humor tinged with poignancy.
A play is a piece of art, and art comes from somebody with an urgency. I think that what's great about theatre is you still have the possibility of one writer and one director saying: 'We see the world this way. Here's a point of view. And we're going to throw it out there, and we're not going to do it because we've taken 47 market polls on what the audience wants. We're doing this because this is how we see it.' Theatre isn't prefabricated. It isn't that watered-down stuff. Theatre is about words and craft and a point of view. You miss that in life now. ---Wendy Wasserstein about her profession.
I don't blame any of us. We're all concerned, intelligent, good women. It's just that I feel stranded. And I thought the whole point was that we wouldn't feel stranded. I thought the point was we were all in this together --- Heidi, increasingly saddened to see her ideals, romantic prospects and sense of a feminine community fall away during the success-oriented Reagan era.
A heroine for the twenty-first! -- Heidi (lifting Judy, the baby she's just adopted out of her stroller), in her final scene in The Heidi Chronicles. br>
No matter how lonely you get or how many birth announcements you receive the trick is not to get frightened. There's nothing wrong with being alone. -- Isn't It Romantic.
All I wanted was for that horrid man to say `Saulina Victoria Webb, I include you in my list of all-American greats.' And I hate myself . . . more than I could ever muster up hating him. --Artist Saulina Webby, about the tasteless, crass movie mogul Sid Nercessian in Old Money.
I want you to speak up, dont be afraid to contradict me or challenge the norms of the dominant culture. ---extracted from a lecture given to her class by Professor Laurie Jameson in Third. when someone like me, a Midwesterner, and athlete, on the fence politically, comes looking to you for answers, I am dismissed, even before I ask the goddamn question. And from my point of view, thats how you lost this country. --- open-mike remarks to the students in the dining hall in Third..
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