If you live in or near New York, get over to the DR2 Theater to see “Dear Edwina” before it closes on April 19. “Dear Edwina” is a musical for kids about manners, but it’s also charming, tuneful entertainment that will not make adults want to drive spikes into their own ears. It is so delightful I bought the album with my own actual money. (You can too — it’s available on Amazon.com and stars a bunch of Broadway regulars including Kerry Butler, Rebecca Luker, Danny Burstein and Terrence Mann.)
I shouldn’t have been surprised to enjoy a kids’ show so much. After all, it was written by Zina Goldrich and Marcy Heisler, a duo so talented they made Junie B. Jones — heroine of the most cloying, vomitous books in the little-girl pantheon — likeable. I’m clearly not alone in adoring their musical version of Junie — it had two sold-out off-Broadway runs at the Lucille Lortel Theater last year.
Now Goldrich and Heisler are back, with an original musical about Edwina, a little girl in Michigan who dreams of becoming a professional advice columnist (a goyish, grade-school Bintel Brief, one might say). But the show’s also about having good values. A lot of the songs are about etiquette: how to politely refuse food you find gross (“Say No Thank You”), how not to behave at a party (“Frankenguest”), how to set a table (“Fork, Knife, Spoon”) and how and why to RSVP (“R.S.V.P.”) (The last is sung in a hammy accent by a character named Jean-Pierre Fromage de la Croissant.) But there are also lessons that made me, as a mom, tear up a little. Edwina wants to be invited to the big Advice-a-Palooza festival because she wants to put her letter of acceptance up on the Frigidaire alongside her higher-achieving siblings’ awards and report cards. But by the end of the show, she realizes that grades and ribbons aren’t true indicators of greatness. She sings, “I like big fat As, but what A can compare to the feeling I’m feeling inside?” Edwina figures out that self-acceptance comes from within, something a lot of women are still working on. She gives us all some terrific advice for our hyper-competitive age: “Don’t think about prizes… just do what you love.”
I recently chatted with Goldrich, an Upper West Side mom of two, about doing what she loves. That includes raising kids in the city. “I don’t see the purpose in living in Manhattan if you don’t take advantage of the fantastic culture here,” she said. “Otherwise, it’s easier to live somewhere else! If it were more important to us to have a beautiful track to run on at school, or a big backyard behind our house, we’d live elsewhere. But we see how the city expands our kids’ minds. Where else can you study Van Gogh in school and then go on the weekend to look at Starry Night?”
Goldrich herself grew up on Long Island. Her father is an OB-GYN and former musician who played at the Village Vanguard and other jazz hotspots in the city. At 5, she started piano with Mrs. Edith Wax (“Put her full name in there! I want to give that woman her due!”), who encouraged improvisation, urging little Zina to play “Twinkle, Twinkle” in the style of various composers — Wagner, Debussy, Mozart. Her family moved to Beverly Hills when she was 13, and her parents continued to nurture her artistic impulses. Her mom found a lyrics-writing friend to pair her with in high school, and her parents encouraged her desire to attend the film scoring program at the University of Southern California and then move to New York City to break into theater. “I felt very supported in a field that is precarious and challenging,” she said.
At the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theater Workshop, a prestigious songwriting program, Goldrich met Heisler. The two began collaborating. “We think of it as a tennis game where Marcy serves first,” Goldrich said. “She gives me a lyric and I start to work on it, and I say ‘Can I have two lines here?’ or ‘Can you make this less wordy?’”
Goldrich, who married an arts-loving doctor (ach, such nachas), chose schools for her kids based in part on their quality of arts education. “Still, it’s my job to follow through on the interest that gets ignited,” she said. “A parent’s responsibility is to facilitate learning more.”
Both her children study piano. “Their talents are different, but they both have talent,” she said. “My son, who just turned 9, has a great ear, and my daughter, who’s 10, has a sensitivity to music that’s incredible. Their personalities are different, and they don’t learn the same way.” She hopes they’ll continue to love music even if they don’t become musicians. “Frankly, it’ll be easier for them if they don’t! But I have a neighbor in my building who’s not a musician, yet every time I walk by his door he’s playing the piano. He plays beautifully. It clearly brings him joy. And I want my kids to have that release.”
She also wants her kids to get a Jewish education as well as an artistic one. “We were to the left of Reform growing up,” she laughed. “We were culturally Jewish, but we didn’t go to synagogue. But my husband is a Conservative Jew — when we got married it was a mixed marriage! But now I’m comfortable with it and enjoy it. Who doesn’t like Shabbat dinner? We belong to a synagogue and the kids go to Hebrew school. We just got my daughter’s Bat Mitzvah date! I got tearful when I opened the letter.”
Raising kids with an appreciation for art and music means fostering an appreciation for the different ways people think and express themselves. “Ultimately,” said Goldrich, “I want to raise caring people. And as a parent, the best thing I can do is to find out what my kids love and make sure they have the tools to pursue that. How lucky am I, in these very difficult times, even not knowing where my next job is coming from, to be able to say, ‘My work makes me happy.’ I want my kids to wake up in the same feeling.”
In “Sing Your Own Song,” Edwina urges kids to follow their passions even if they’re teased for being different. “Use your own voice; your voice is not a thing to be afraid of,” she sings, in Goldrich’s memorable melody. “And when they hear it ring true, there’s not a thing they can do to take away the music that you’re made of. Ah, to be normal, to be a safe and unassuming shade of gray; not too different, not too smart, no more poems in your heart: Do you really want to lead your life that way?”
Goldrich’s kids are lucky to have a mom encouraging them sing their own songs.
Write to Marjorie at firstname.lastname@example.org.