The Evolution of “What A Pair!”
My mother was 34 years old when she was first diagnosed with breast cancer. I was five. Spending my first summer at sleepaway camp, I couldn’t even say “breast” without breaking into hysterical fits of laughter. “Breast” was a dirty word. Nineteen years later, my sister was diagnosed with breast cancer. She was 25. I was studying English at Columbia University with a self-defined focus on feminist literature. I developed a theory that the occurrence of breast cancer in women in the 20th century was a direct result of a patriarchal conspiracy. My arguments seemed to fall on deaf ears.
My sister was 31 years old when her breast cancer metastasized to her spine and bones. She would probably have three to five years to live. Two weeks later, my mother was diagnosed with a recurrence of breast cancer in her chest. I was 28, and I was neither young enough to pretend I didn’t understand the disease nor naïve enough to think I could expose a massive conspiracy and change the world.
I was an executive in the film industry, where everyday I reminded myself and my peers that although we might experience blows from our egotistical studio head bosses as earth-shattering, we were not curing cancer. We were making movies. And, in light of the health issues plaguing my family, I began to feel like that was not a terribly significant pursuit. I decided I had to do something meaningful to celebrate my mother and sister’s fighting spirits.
Growing up, I had never shared my mother’s and sister’s taste in food, clothes, or art. So, we speculated that it was only by some freak genetic accident that we found a shared loved of musical theatre. However it happened, our passion for musical theatre became the force that bound us. After each musical my sister and I did (whether it was in our house or on the mainstage in college), my mother would comment on its one great show-stopping duet. She kept a mental list of those great duets, and insisted that when I became a big and famous Broadway director, I would have to put them together in a cabaret in her honor. To Mom’s chagrin, my dream of becoming a famous Broadway director was eventually subsumed by the film bug, but the list of duets remained.
Empowered by a desire to support my mother and sister, in 2001 I enlisted my friends and fellow producers Jody Price and Ruth Stalford to help my mother’s dream become a reality. This was to be no little cabaret. In March of 2002, What A Pair debuted as a Broadway-caliber production in a 1200 seat house that included performances by artists as varied as Deborah Harry, Nora Dunn, Joely Fisher, Lili Haydn, Patricia Heaton, Sally Kellerman, Megan Mullally, Marni Nixon, Kelly Price, Lea Thompson, and Rita Wilson. 100% of the proceeds from this event went to breast cancer research, and, in spite of the fact that her cancer had spread throughout her body, my sister was there.
The benefit was an unqualified success, but watching my sister’s deterioration made me wonder if the effort had been in vain. Six months later, my family and I sat at her deathbed, where, at her request, we watched a video of the musical SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN. Through a delusional haze, a very present smile spread across her face as Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor sang their duet “Moses Supposes” and she said, “This would be a good one”. I described that moment to Jody and Ruth, and we all agreed that continuing the tradition of “What a Pair” (thereby continuing to fight so that, some day, no one would have to experience what she had) would be the best way to keep her spirit alive.
Jo Levi DiSante, Jody Price & Ruth Stalford