May 18 perf an ambitious fund-raiser

NEW YORK — It’s the world premiere of a musical by marquee writers; the cast is crammed with Rialto stars; and the top ticket price is $1,000. But no, it’s not Broadway’s latest wallet-buster: It’s “Pamela’s First Musical,” a long-gestating tuner whose first public performance will be a benefit produced by Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS.

The May 18 perf is not only one of the charity org’s most ambitious fund-raisers, it’s also a new lease for a show drowning in sorrow. Composer Cy Coleman and book writer Wendy Wasserstein both died without seeing it produced.

The project began near the start of the decade, when lyricist David Zippel approached Wasserstein about turning her children’s book “Pamela’s First Musical” into a television tuner. They tapped Coleman to write the score and then collectively realized the story, about a young girl whose eccentric aunt takes her to a Broadway show, would work better on stage.

At first, things went well: Two workshops at Lincoln Center led to a planned production at TheaterWorks in Palo Alto, Calif. However, Coleman died of heart failure in 2004, and the production was postponed for a year. Then Wasserstein was diagnosed with lymphoma, which took her life in early 2006.

That put the tuner on permanent hold, until Zippel decided to mount it as a benefit for Open Doors, a mentoring program Wasserstein co-founded to pair arts professionals with groups of high school students.

For assistance, Zippel turned to Tom Viola, exec director of Broadway Cares, who quickly agreed to produce.

“Wendy and Cy have been a part of Broadway Cares since the earliest days,” Viola says. “For us to have a chance to work with them again, in a way, is incredibly gratifying.”

Mounting a new musical has placed heavy demands on the org, but Viola says the $120,000 budget is on par with events of this size. He predicts the show will raise up to $150,000 above expenses. (Part of the proceeds will go to Open Doors.)

As for seeing the piece without his co-writers, Zippel says it’s “bittersweet, but there are a lot of people involved who have a lot of history with the project, so it’s also very exciting.”

Among the vets is director Graciela Daniele, who helmed both Lincoln Center workshops. For the current benefit, her cast includes Donna Murphy, Christine Ebersole, Carolee Carmello, Donna McKechnie, Kathie Lee Gifford, Sandy Duncan, Robert Klein and Tommy Tune.

All that wattage could catch a producer’s eye, but Zippel is cautiously optimistic about “Pamela” landing its first real production.

“Our intention is just to deliver, just to do it, and hopefully the musical will find a life after this,” he says. “This won’t necessarily lead to the next step, but hopefully there will be one.”

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