My mother was 34 years old when she was first diagnosed with breast
cancer. I was five. Spending my first summer at sleepaway
camp, I couldn't even say "breast" without breaking into hysterical
fits of laughter. "Breast" was a dirty word. Nineteen years
later, my sister was diagnosed with breast cancer. She was
25. I was studying English at Columbia University with a self-defined
focus on feminist literature. I developed a theory that the
occurrence of breast cancer in women in the 20th century was a direct
result of a patriarchal conspiracy. My arguments seemed to
fall on deaf ears.
|Shelley and Deborah Levi
My sister was 31 years old when her breast cancer metastasized to
her spine and bones. She would probably have three to five
years to live. Two weeks later, my mother was diagnosed with
a recurrence of breast cancer in her chest. I was 28, and
I was neither young enough to pretend I didn't understand the disease
nor naïve enough to think I could expose a massive conspiracy
and change the world.
I was an executive in the film industry, where everyday I reminded
myself and my peers that although we might experience blows from
our egotistical studio head bosses as earth-shattering, we were
not curing cancer. We were making movies. And, in light
of the health issues plaguing my family, I began to feel like that
was not a terribly significant pursuit. I decided I had to
do something meaningful to celebrate my mother and sister's fighting
Growing up, I had never shared my mother's and sister's taste in
food, clothes, or art. So, we speculated that it was only
by some freak genetic accident that we found a shared loved of musical
theatre. However it happened, our passion for musical theatre
became the force that bound us. After each musical my sister
and I did (whether it was in our house or on the mainstage in college),
my mother would comment on its one great show-stopping duet. She
kept a mental list of those great duets, and insisted that when
I became a big and famous Broadway director, I would have to put
them together in a cabaret in her honor. To Mom's chagrin,
my dream of becoming a famous Broadway director was eventually subsumed
by the film bug, but the list of duets remained.
Empowered by a desire to support my mother and sister, in 2001 I
enlisted my friends and fellow producer Ruth Stalford
to help my mother's dream become a reality. This was to be
no little cabaret. In March of 2002, What A Pair!
a Broadway-caliber production in a 1200 seat house that included
performances by artists as varied as Deborah Harry, Nora Dunn, Joely
Fisher, Lili Haydn, Patricia Heaton, Sally Kellerman, Megan Mullally,
Marni Nixon, Kelly Price, Lea Thompson, and Rita Wilson. 100%
of the proceeds from this event went to breast cancer research,
and, in spite of the fact that her cancer had spread throughout
her body, my sister was there.
The benefit was an unqualified success, but watching my sister's
deterioration made me wonder if the effort had been in vain. Six
months later, my family and I sat at her deathbed, where, at her
request, we watched a video of the musical SINGIN' IN THE RAIN.
Through a delusional haze, a very present smile spread across
her face as Gene Kelly and Donald O'Connor sang their duet "Moses
Supposes" and she said, "This would be a good one". I described that moment to Ruth, and both agreed that
continuing the tradition of "What a Pair!
" (thereby continuing
to fight so that, some day, no one would have to experience what
she had) would be the best way to keep her spirit alive.
Jo Levi DiSante & Ruth Stalford