This review is republished with permission from Bob Lefsetz. Read more of his musings on music, theater, movies and more at http://lefsetz.com/. You wont be sorry you did.
Wendy And The Lost Boys by Julie Salamon
Review and commentary by Bob Lefsetz, Sept. 8, 2011
Read this book. Even if you’ve never been to a Broadway play, even if you’re not Jewish. Because you’ll find out what it takes to make it. And the costs thereof.
If you’ve got a well-adjusted family life, you’re not famous. You’ve got nothing to prove. Wendy Wasserstein’s mother married her brother-in-law when her husband died. And didn’t tell the subsequent children. Placed a mentally challenged brother in a facility and barely mentioned him again. But all you need to know is when Wendy told her mother she’d won the Pulitzer Prize, Lola said, “You won the Nobel Prize?”
For some mothers, it’s never enough, you’re proving yourself to them day after day, and you might never win, the carrot might never be yours.
And we’re bombarded with those whose trajectories head straight to the sky. But Wendy’s ascent was more bumpy. She left Manhattan to go to Mount Holyoke, in western Massachusetts, which is a fish out of water story which could inspire a hit play. As a matter of fact, it did! Wendy was always mining her own life for material, thinly fictionalizing that which had happened to her.
And she graduated to a mother who said she should go to law school. Who always wondered when she was going to get married, give her grandkids. Through a quirk of fate Wendy ended up at Yale Drama School. Where the professors pooh-poohed her and she graduated without honors. One of the teachers continued to give her bad reviews, refused to acknowledge her talent despite one major success after another. The prognosticators hate to be wrong. They don’t want to switch horses in midstream. Which is why it’s so hard to win when you’ve been painted a loser, which is why so many successful people are bitter. The only one who believed in them was themselves.
But Wendy could work it. She knew everybody and hooked them up and asked for favors and made sure her name was in the “New York Times”. She set herself up for success, she made sure she was in the game.
And she also made sure she didn’t get sidetracked. She wasn’t going to sacrifice her career for a man, for a family life. It always bugs me when people want it all, a family, a career, success. As you get older you realize it’s almost impossible to be successful in one endeavor. You labor and labor, seeing what you missed recede in the rearview mirror, unable to give up.
And don’t forget, Wendy’s brother was Bruce. The M&A king. She decried his brusqueness and his focus on the material, but she also enjoyed the perks. You see life is complicated, especially when you get closer to your goal. Suddenly, the distance between you and them closes, you’re mingling, do you want what they’ve got, can you get it?
And Wendy always had more questions than answers. Could she have it all? She continued to try and have a baby far into her forties, without a husband in sight. And when birth finally came, she didn’t slow down, she was over-obligated, afraid to miss anything, her daughter would have needed tons of therapy even if her mother hadn’t died.
I guess what I’m saying is if you’re the son or daughter of immigrant parents, if you’re another generation removed, if you’re Jewish, you’ll relate to this book.
The formative years are all in the sixties and seventies, when we were all in it together, when it wasn’t about what you inherited so much as getting by on your wits and hard work. You had to make something of yourself or settle.
Most people settled. They got those big degrees and sold out. They rationalize it by going to the theatre, the ballet, the Oscar-winning movies. But deep inside they treasure those who made it. Because they realize these successes did what they could not, lay it all on the line, with no safety net.
You only get one bite at the apple, you only get to live once. Winning is about losing more than triumphing. The victories only come after an endless string of defeats. The darkest hour is truly just before the dawn, but that dark hour can last years, can even be decades.
Don’t equate fame with success. Anybody can be a household name, just look at “Jersey Shore” or “American Idol”. But to truly have a place in the firmament, you’ve got to labor in obscurity until the mainstream meets up with you, usually by you bending the mainstream just a bit in order for it to finally see you.
You can’t ask for attention too early. And when you finally have those eyeballs upon you, you can’t disappoint. And after all the accolades, you’ve got to earn continued attention, there’s no free pass, oblivion is just one poor effort away. It’s not like being a doctor or a lawyer, where years in the firm count for something.
Then again, they’re ousting partners these days. You think you’re playing it safe, but nothing’s safe anymore.
And we look to artists to illuminate the way. To say that which is uncomfortable, to make us think. You know you’re on the right path when as many hate you as love you. When you don’t compromise to maintain success.
It’s a long hard road few are cut out for. You can read endless treatises, there are charlatans who will take your money, telling you they’ve got the answers, that if you listen to them, you’ll make it.
But this is untrue. Our greatest successes forged their own paths. And it was tough. But we revel in their masterworks.
And yes, Wendy came from a privileged family. So many of our great artists do, they don’t have to work in the mines to put bread on the table. But there’s no entrance requirement, everybody gets to play. You’ve just got to have something to say. And the skill to deliver it.
And maybe Wendy Wasserstein’s plays will fade as time goes on. The Muscular Dystrophy Association made more money from its telethon when Jerry Lewis was gone. Time is a cruel mistress. But Wendy stated better than anyone the human condition of female baby boomers, the tug between domesticity and career. That’s what made her famous.
Not so wealthy. Bruce paid the big medical bills.
So you get to choose who you want to be. Just know that if you’re an artist, you’re on your own, you’re not necessary and no one’s paying attention. And even if you’re a tireless self-promoter, that does not mean the underlying work has value. Marketing and advertising is a skill, but that’s not art.
Very few can do it. It’s available to all, but few are cut out for it.
Read this book, you’ll get an idea of what it takes to make it.
Video of interviews with Wendy Wasserstein by Charlie Rose