Reading: Reinventing from a Childhood Dream

Second Acts

Reinventing from a Childhood Dream

She abandoned her childhood passion of singing as a teen. Then midlife brought her back to it.

By Pamela Weiler Grayson

boy enjoying the sprinkler
Photo by Mi Pham for unsplash

My five-decade “love affair” with musical theater is like one of those love stories in which the timing never seems right. Two people who like each other when they are young, lose touch as each goes his/her own way, marry other people, until they eventually find each other again later in life.

Picking Up a Thread From the Past

When I was a high-octane child growing up in Manhattan in the 1970s, my dream was to be a musical theater performer. My friends and I sang and danced around our living rooms, belting out show tunes and putting on skits for our parents and our pets. My father, a passionate lover of musicals, introduced me to Broadway cast albums and took me to Broadway and Off-Broadway shows.

I landed leading roles in shows at school and camp. I wrote songs on both guitar and piano. When I was 13, I begged my parents to let me audition for the Broadway production of Annie. I had a huge, belting voice and naturally curly red hair. But they refused: they were afraid I would actually get cast as Annie and drop out of school. My consolation prize was playing Annie in a cribbed-together camp production.

I never let my parents forget that they ruined my chance to be a child star.

During my college years, I continued performing, took voice and dance lessons, acted in professional summer stock, and joined an all-girls a cappella group. After graduation, I hit the musical theater center of the world: Broadway.

My Teen Years: Failing at Big-time Performing

But  Broadway hit back. Hard. It was nine months of soul-crushing auditions and spending more hours commuting by subway than performing. I knew I had talent, but I also knew I needed outsized ambition and drive, persistence, and patience (something I sorely lacked). I also had difficulty because I felt like I had so little agency over my life. I had no agent and realized that as an actor I would always be waiting for someone to “give me a break.”

Worse, I missed my biggest champion.

My father had died when I was 17. Without his daily support, his constant encouragement about my talent, and his own passion for theater, I let myself get defeated. I bowed out and spent the next few years working in entry- and mid-level jobs at television networks while occasionally singing songs (particularly ones I devised original parody lyrics to), at parties. I moved in with my future husband at age 25 but still felt like a drifter, feeling like I lacked both a creative outlet and financial stability.

Falling For an Acceptable Profession: Law

To solve both problems I decided I needed a graduate degree from the “liberal arts choice of last resort” — law school. My father had been a lawyer. I liked to argue. It seemed like an obvious choice.

But it was a terrible choice. Though I got to perform again — at the New York City Bar Association annual roast of legal heavy hitters! — my litigation firm barely paid enough for the 60-hour weeks I was putting in. After five years, I had two children and broke the barrier as the first attorney at the firm to be allowed to work a four-day week. But the stress of balancing family with a professional life became overwhelming, so I left.

My mother, who had always worked, made no effort to hide her concern (and disappointment) that I was stepping off the track that she, an original working mom (teacher), had laid down for me and expected me to follow in my own hard-charging career.

Stretching for Another Profession: Writing

Once again I was floundering. Looking around, I realized I’d always envied a college acquaintance who worked as a freelance writer. Could I somehow parlay the “Features Editor and writer of my high school newspaper” line on my resume into a job? I decided to pitch magazines and newspapers what I knew best: parenting. At the birth of the Internet, I became one of the original mommy bloggers. My first published piece was about how after my boobs shrunk post-kids, my male gynecologist assured me they would “grow back.” (I’m still waiting for that to happen!)

My essays were eventually published in The New York Times, The New York Observer, and Harper’s Bazaar. My pay never matched the hours I put in, but for nine pleasant years I felt I’d found the exact right balance between creativity and professionalism. I was totally satisfied.

Until the morning of “The Shower Epiphany.”

On that day, instead of singing Broadway standards from my shower songbook, an original — both words and music — bubbled out of me. I sang about what I knew: motherhood.

Discovering A New Way Back into Music

As the bathroom mirrors fogged up, my mind cleared and I was in the midst of a “eureka” moment. For the first time in decades, I knew that I had found my path: I might not be able to perform songs on stage, but I could write them!

Wrapped in nothing but my towel, I ran to my tape recorder. I pressed “record” and sang with a joy I hadn’t felt since I was ten. I sat down at my desk and wrote a few more songs.  

Pamela Grayson

My husband encouraged me to find a professional arranger who would turn my songs into sheet music. “What you have here is musical theater,” he said.

And that was it! After over twenty years in the diaspora, I was back in showbiz!

Over the next few months I added scenes to my songs and, with the help of a friend, connected with Alice Jankell, who would become my partner in musical theater.

Our musical about motherhood dug into the “dark places” that mothers are afraid, or ashamed, to talk about — such as wanting time away from our kids or that, even though we love them, we may not always like our kids very much. A few months later I was accepted into the BMI Musical Theatre Workshop, a competitive, fully-funded, two-year program in musical theater songwriting. At the same time, Alice and I crafted our first actual show, Urban Momfare, about the friendship among three moms dealing with the over-competitiveness of other mothers on New York’s Upper East Side. Urban Momfare went on to win a Best Musical award in the 2014 New York International Fringe Festival.  

We later wrote a second show called “Cicadas, the Musical,” about women in midlife, for Episode 4 (All the Young Dudes) of the digital series The Other F Word. Our latest project is Hillside, a musical located in an assisted living facility that examines the disparities between how the elderly are seen from the outside and how they see themselves. We laugh, that given how long it takes for shows to be developed, by the time Hillside gets produced we may be in assisted living ourselves.

Since giving up professional performing in my twenties, there had always been a gaping hole inside of me that nothing else could fill. Musical theater, which had occupied so much of my life as a child, began to seem like some kind of “Brigadoon” dream, but one that I might never find a way back to. I thought I would have to be content with singing at parties and going to see Broadway shows. I never envisioned that I could actually loop back to my “first love” at midlife.

Reclaiming My Childhood Passion for Good

Since reentering the theatrical sphere, I’ve heard stories of other people who have managed to reclaim a childhood passion in their forties. One is a doctor who became a stand-up comedienne, another is a judge, another is a physicist who is now a composer and a writer (he’s also still a physicist, which is actually kind of annoying!). These people are not just reinventing, but re-reinventing, because they are bushwhacking a path back to their truest and purest selves.

Many times I feel like I’m digging through a concrete wall to get into a room that is already filled with the fresh, eager young faces of newbies ready to do whatever it takes to make it big. But love, age, and a sense of time propel me forward. You can indeed go home again — but it may be through the back door, the window, or by squeezing down the chimney. We may enter that room sooty and soiled, wrinkled and carrying some belly fat, but we are always more than ready to put on that show.

  1. Joni Cherbo

    Pam, what a lovely article. Artistic aspirants are often sidelined. We over produce artists, in particular actors, most of whom succumb to disappointment and financial realities.
    But love is love and cant be denied,(Remember the Chorus Line song, What we did for love! ) it seeps through our pores and finds some outlet, some means of expression.
    I was targeted to be a painter having been recognized as talented throughout my childhood. In college I found the profession socially irrelevant, and painters self-indulgent. I balked and went into the social sciences but crafted out a then nominal field- the sociology of art.
    Now in Florida as a retiree, I have resumed practicing art, taking photography and acrylic pouring. It’s a joy to create again with no goal except creative pursuit. And for socially meaningful work? I certified as a coach while still in NYC and am engaged with Encores, a national organization focused on serving retirees find meaning in this challenging leg of the journey often by addressing critical social needs.
    Life has come full circle; I can now keep both passions up close. It may be, for the fortunate, one of the few benefits of this stage of life.
    Cheers to you. Keep singing and creating.

    • lesley

      We believe some of the best reinventions stem from old loves that you’d tossed aside as a kid.

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