Thanks for the mammaries. Breast wishes. Tits a Wonderful Life.
You can cry over breast cancer—or you can laugh. Composer, lyricist and playwright Joan Cushing does both—as well as pens some new tunes—in the first original musical about saving the ta-tas, Breast In Show.
Written by Lisa Hayes, with music and lyrics by Miss Cushing, Breast In Show is The Vagina Monologues taken in a northerly direction, equal parts puns and profundity, in its depiction of breast cancer as experienced by the patients, their loved ones and colleagues, and the medical community which treats them.
Producer Eileen Mitchard started working on Breast In Show in 2009. It is the first original, professional show she has ever done. “Frankly, I was an empty nester with time and resources on my hands,” she said. “I decided that this was my time to do what I wanted to do. I am not your typical Bethesda soccer and lacrosse mom.”
She also wanted to send out a call to action to her fellow baby boomers. “This should be our legacy, to make it part of the national agenda to eradicate breast cancer in our lifetime. We need to make this significant contribution to future generations. I don’t want my daughters and step-daughters to have breast cancer.”
Miss Mitchard originally conceived of the show as a series of vignettes about breast cancer with an anthem at the end. The material came from 50 interviews and emails from breast cancer survivors. “Gathering the stories, I felt like people were handing them over to me, wrapped in a Tiffany box with a white bow and saying ‘Here. You take over.’”
She contacted Miss Cushing about the anthem, and “I told Eileen that if it is going to be a musical, I would do it—for free, but with royalties,” Miss Cushing said. “She said yes and immediately I starting having ideas for funny songs, angry songs, poignant songs.”
Ultimately, Miss Cushing wrote the score out of personal experience. Her husband Paul Buchbinder died in November of 2010 after being diagnosed with advanced pancreatic cancer four months prior. “We were devastated at the diagnosis,” she said. “I dropped everything to take care of him.”
She said the four months were “almost like a gift. It was the most intense and loving part of our 25-year marriage. I had a really great husband.”
After his death, Miss Cushing found out she had plenty to say. “Five or six months ago, I got started again on the musical and I was grateful to Eileen for waiting for me,” she said. “I poured my heart and soul into this project. I feel for the first time ever since my husband died that I am making his life matter.”
One of the characters in Breast in Show is the nurse Desiree, based on Ella Mae Shupe, her husband’s chemo nurse at Johns Hopkins Hospital’s Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center. “He was part of an experimental trial and she treated my husband and me like gold,” Miss Cushing said. “So much of the music is based on our experience at Hopkins—they were our family.”
Other relationships also colored her compositions. “My sister and one of my best friends had breast cancer and have been in recovery a long time. I wrote a number about my friend’s experience—having a crush on her oncologist, which I later learned is pretty common,” she said. “There’s another number based on Eileen’s interviews about a lawyer who doesn’t tell anyone about her breast cancer for fear it will jeopardize her career—the song is about her flipping out and having a tantrum over too much pink.”
Breast In Show is set in the Chemo Café and Comedy Club, which Miss Cushing describes as “a place where people tell bad cancer jokes, get their chemo cocktails, and a drip.” The cast includes Iyona Blake, Kate Guesman, Amy McWilliams, Sandy Murphy, Dan Van Why, and Doug Wilder, performing with a five-piece orchestra.
The patients sit in rolling recliners and their dancing partners are IV poles. “The mother of Joe Musumeci, our set and lighting designer, had breast cancer and she said that when she went for treatment she felt like she was on the move and suggested that everything be on wheels,” said Miss Mitchard. “Her idea worked perfectly for the musical.”
Another suggestion Miss Mitchard green-lighted was hiring Kathryn Chase Bryer as director. “I collaborated with her before on original musicals at Imagination Stage and she is really good with new material,” said Miss Cushing.
From the start, Miss Mitchard said she had it in her brain how Breast In Show would look and feel. “Kate [Bryer], Joan and everyone else are helping to realize my vision. I say that when people are given a chance to do what they do best in an appreciative environment, magic will happen.”
She hopes the magic will last beyond one weekend. Plans for Breast In Show include touring around the country and Miss Mitchard also has starting thinking about what she will wear to the Tony Awards. “Why not?,” she said. “I want this show to go as far as it needs to go, until it starts a groundswell and people ask ‘why are we tolerating breast cancer?’ We need a cure.”
Breast In Show plays at 8 p.m. on October 14th and 15th at the Jewish Community Center, 6125 Montrose Road, Rockville, MD. Purchase tickets at the door or by going online at http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/190095. General admission is $50 and Supporter tickets are $99. A portion of the net proceeds will be donated to three non-profits, Critters for the Cure, METAvivor and The Red Devils. For more information, go to www.breastinshow.org .