Three and a half decades ago, Gretchen Cryer and Nancy Ford made history with their small-cast musical I’m Getting My Act Together and Taking It on the Road. Presented by Joseph Papp at the New York Shakespeare Festival/Public Theater, I’m Getting My Act Together was an artistic high point for Second Wave Feminism. It was also a post-Hair milestone in the integration of rock-and-roll and American musical theater. With a run of 1,165 performances, the show remains one of Off-Broadway’s major hits. A few weeks after the 35th anniversary of the musical’s premiere, from July 24 to July 27, 2013, director-choreographer Kathleen Marshall staged a five-performance revival at New York City Center on West 55th Street in Manhattan, wrapping up the first season of Encores! Off Center, a summertime offshoot of the venerable, 20-year-old series Encores! Great American Musicals in Concert.

At the heart of I’m Getting My Act Together is Heather Applegate Jones (Renee Elise Goldsberry in the City Center production), a singer-songwriter celebrating her 39th birthday – or, in her mind, the commencement of her 40th year. Heather has put together a new “act” to mark the occasion. Her manager, Joe, who is also a former love interest, has flown in from the West Coast and, with curtain time at hand, Heather wants to give him a sneak-peak at the confessional songs she’s about to unveil for an audience expecting the low-impact, sometimes platitudinous numbers on which she has built her career.

Joe is aghast at the candor and raw emotion of Heather’s new material. Finding her way after a divorce, Heather is grappling with the degree to which the prevailing culture belittles daughters and squelches women’s ambitions. She sings about the disappointments of her middle-class upbringing in the 1940s and ’50s and the conventional marriage that followed. She’s pained by a sense of having been “put in a package and sold” by the men in charge of the music industry. Joe warns her against going public with this new stuff. He doesn’t believe Heather’s fans are ready to hear what she really feels (and he isn’t ready for it either).

Gretchen Cryer and Nancy Ford freely admit that the themes of Heather’s story grew, consciously and unconsciously, out of their joint and separate histories. Ford, the composer of the duo, is a native of Kalamazoo, Michigan; Cryer, the playwright-lyricist, comes from Dunreith, a small Indiana town. They have been writing together since meeting as freshmen at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana. Upon college graduation, both moved to New Haven, Connecticut, as spouses of Yale Divinity School students.

“We expected to be ministers’ wives,” says Ford.

“I counted on a life of putting on plays in church basements,” adds Cryer. “I was looking forward to that and quite upset when my husband decided not to go into the ministry after all.”

With the men dropping out of seminary, both couples moved to Boston and, later, New York. The women worked in offices, permitting their husbands to pursue theater careers. In time, the wives obtained show-business jobs, as well, with Cryer starting in a Broadway chorus and Ford as pianist for the Off-Broadway revue Brecht on Brecht with Lotte Lenya. Like Heather Applegate Jones, both Ford and Cryer divorced, though at different stages in their lives. Ford and her first husband parted after a relatively short time; her subsequent marriage to the actor Keith Charles lasted 44 years, until his death in 2008. Cryer’s former husband is actor David Cryer (best known, recently, as Monsieur Firmin in Phantom of the Opera on Broadway). She has three children, Jon Cryer (Emmy-winning co-star of the CBS comedy series Two and a Half Men), Robin Cryer Hyland (a singer and songwriter), and Shelly Collins (a make-up artist in film and television). Since the 1960s, Ford and Cryer have made their homes 10 blocks apart, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, friends, collaborators and fixtures in each other’s lives.

By 1977, the pair had written two Off-Broadway musicals, Now Is the Time for All Good Men (1967) and The Last Sweet Days of Isaac (1970). For the latter, they received a Drama Desk Award as Most Promising Musical Writers, a Village Voice Obie Award for Best Musical, and an Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Off-Broadway Musical. According to theater historian Steven Suskin, the team’s Shelter, which played a brief engagement at the Golden Theatre in 1973, was “the first Broadway musical written exclusively by women (other than some pre-war vanity productions).”

In the five years following Shelter, Cryer and Ford produced two albums of very personal songs, released on vinyl by RCA. They toured the United States, performing numbers from their recordings, usually as the opening act for artists with greater name recognition. Their aim was to write a new musical play that would incorporate the kind of intimate material they had been developing; but they were uncertain how to dramatize the themes preoccupying them. Then, during a 1977 gig at The Cookery on University Place, Heather Applegate Jones, soon to be the protagonist of I’m Getting My Act Together, emerged from Cryer’s imagination, not fully formed but distinctive in her embryonic condition.

“In the middle of a song, under the spotlight, with a roomful of people watching, I suddenly knew what the show we longed to write should be about, even what it ought to look like,” says Cryer. “It would portray a woman, a cabaret singer, who wants to change her act, make it say exactly what she feels, what she really feels. But her manager doesn’t like it and wants her to carry on with the stuff that the public already knows.

“As soon as we finished performing our song, I turned to Nancy and, under my breath, I said, ‘I’ve got it … I know how we can do it.’ I even had the title: I’m Getting My Act Together and Taking It on the Road.”

The two writers went to work, fulfilling Cryer’s epiphany. Film producer Craig Zadan, then on the staff of the Public Theater, heard material from the unfinished musical and urged them to keep writing. Zadan arranged a reading for his boss, Joe Papp, who promptly added I’m Getting My Act Together to the Public’s summer schedule for 1978, insisting that Cryer play Heather. Papp asked for revisions; and, at one point, dissatisfied with the rewrites, he cancelled the upcoming engagement. But Ford and Cryer convinced him to give their work another hearing. When Papp arrived late for the fateful run-through, he found himself in the midst of an audience, invited by the writers and already engaged by what they’d been hearing while the on-stage band warmed up. As Heather’s “act” proceeded, the spectators became so fired-up – and, ultimately, moved – that the impresario reversed his decision and rehearsals resumed.

The first performance of I’m Getting My Act Together at the Public was May 16, 1978. The musical was slated to play six weeks but, with discouraging reviews from the first-night press, an early closing seemed likely. Papp observed that playgoers were lingering after each performance, debating issues raised on stage. When he offered post-performance “talk-backs” (not yet the widespread marketing tool they have become), Papp transformed Wednesday evenings from empty to full houses.

Ford chuckles when she recalls how, with word spreading about I’m Getting My Act Together, “people pigeonholed it as a feminist show and assumed we were militants.” The collaborators are emphatic that they never meant the musical to be a feminist declaration. “We were writing about relationships between men and women, not about women’s roles in society as a whole,” explains Ford. But the team was in touch, whether knowingly or not, with the Zeitgeist. The play’s finale is a joyous anthem to self-esteem through personal fulfillment, with Heather looking ahead to the more authentic life she intends to forge for herself. How could that have been interpreted, in 1978, as anything other than an expression of Second Wave Feminism? Kathleen Marshall, director of this summer’s revival, was a college freshman when she saw the original production: “I connected to it immediately…I got the cast album and I played it and played it till I wore it out.”

“The world looks so different now,” declares Cryer. “I see men walking around these days with strollers and babies strapped on their backs – especially here on the Upper West Side! Fathers today are involved in raising their children. That wasn’t so in 1978. It means that women are freer to pursue their interests, develop their talents, and have careers in a way that wasn’t possible back then.”

“In 1978, the country was in a transition period,” she continues. “People had been brought up with certain expectations about what it was to be a man, what it meant to be a woman. Suddenly those expectations were being challenged. So many people felt a need to break away from what they’d been taught. Nobody knew how to act for a while; and that turmoil was very evident in the audience at the Public Theater.”

Many spectators shared the discomfort of the on-stage character Joe as they witnessed Heather doing her “strong woman number” and listened to her back-up combo, the Liberated Men’s Band Plus Two, lampoon pop culture’s relentlessly upbeat view of relations between the sexes. “Those Wednesday night discussions,” recalls Cryer, “they were electric; frequently so argumentative. People would even walk out. But a lot of folks came back to see the show again and again with different friends or new dates.”

If Heather’s message proved challenging for some in the audience, Ford’s melodies, in the soft-rock vein of Carole King and Paul Simon, offered mitigating pleasure. Though Heather is the leader of a rock and roll band, Nancy Ford insists she herself is not really a rock composer. “The music turned out a certain way because I was channeling Heather and her idiom, whether that’s rock or not.”

Papp extended the run; and the show was nominated for Drama Desk Awards for Outstanding Music and Outstanding Lyrics. The production transferred to the Circle in the Square on Bleecker Street, where its commercial engagement lasted three years. When Cryer left the cast to appear in the Los Angeles premiere, Ford became Heather in New York. Later, numerous well-known musical-theater performers, including Betty Buckley, Lola Falana, Carol Hall, Heather MacRae, Donna McKechnie, Phyllis Newman, Connie Stevens, and Virginia Vestoff, played the role in New York and other cities.

The original-cast recording, issued initially on the Columbia label, was nominated for a Grammy Award. Additional “cast albums” were released in Danish, Japanese, Swedish, and German, plus a second version in English, featuring Diane Langton and Ben Cross from the 1981 production in London’s West End. Several melodies from I’m Getting My Act Together have been popular outside the context of the show. The ballad “Old Friend”, now identified with Michael Feinstein, Steve Ross, and Ann Hampton Callaway (among others), ensures Ford and Cryer a permanent niche in the American songbook.

The two writers haven’t rested on the laurels of I’m Getting My Act Together. In the 1990s, they wrote two musicals inspired by the companion books of the American Girl line of dolls. Those shows, which premiered in a specially designed theater at American Girl Place in Chicago, were intended as part of an ongoing series. The plan for subsequent musicals faltered when Mattel, Inc. acquired the Pleasant Company, manufacturer of American Girl products. Their recent collaborations include an adaptation of Anne of Green Gables, which had a New York run in 2007, and Einstein and the Roosevelts, a musical fantasy set in the afterlife, produced at DePauw in 2008. They have written a sequel, Still Getting My Act Together, which received developmental stagings in the York Theatre Company’s series Musicals in Mufti and at the Eugene O’Neill Memorial Theater Center in Waterford, Connecticut, and is now under option for a commercial production in 2014.

Why has this vibrant, prolific pair been largely out of the public eye the last few years? Cryer believes it’s due, in part, to an absence of the kind of independent-minded producers, confident in aesthetic judgment and open to innovation, who mounted their early shows. She thinks those producers, from both the commercial and nonprofit sectors, belonged to a species of risk-takers that’s now extinct. Getting My Act Together got produced within a year from the time Joe Papp heard a reading of the unfinished script,” Cryer recalls. “Joe simply decided it ought to happen. No committees, no series of workshops. Usually, nowadays, the time it takes to write something is just a fraction of how long it takes to get the work on.”

Jeanine Tesori, Artistic Director of Encores! Off-Center, notes that audiences are accustomed to the regular Encores! series spotlighting dead writers. With the revival of I’m Getting My Act Together, the initial season of Encores! Off-Center has honored two whom Tesori views as living national treasures. “No team,” she declares, “is more alive than Gretchen and Nancy!” Off-Center and, especially, The Lobby Project, says Tesori, “are designed for artists at all stages of development to meet each other and become acquainted. And that’s as close to Eden as you can get!”

Click here to read the New York Post review of the revival of I’m Getting My Act Together and Taking it on the Road at the New York City Center.

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