From birth to Broadway: The story of how a mother placing her daughter for adoption became a musical
BRECKENRIDGE — Almost 30 years ago, two women gained a daughter in their own way, one through birth and one through adoption. Now, their real, complicated story of all the ups and downs that occur throughout an open adoption process is coming to the stage in the production of “My Real Mother” at the New York Musical Festival.
An adaptation of a bestselling book the mothers wrote in conjunction with the daughter, the festival is an opportunity to present the musical to prospective producers and other industry professionals who can take the work to the next step for a wider audience.
What: ‘My Real Mother’ at the New York Musical Festival
When: Tuesday, July 30 through Sunday, Aug. 4
Where: The Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre, 480 W. 42nd St., New York, NY
Cost: Tickets start at $29.50. Visit NYMF.org to purchase tickets.
In 1991, Summit County local Tina Zimmermann had to decide whether to keep her child — long before the thought of sharing her life with the public entered her mind. The then 26-year-old barber living on the West Coast wanted to be a mother but couldn’t afford to.
So Zimmermann, born in Germany to a German mother and American father, picked Marlene Wagener, then 45, to be the mother partly because she listed German as a spoken language on her adoption profile. But that wasn’t the only commonality that brought them together. Both had lost their mothers when they were young, and both had previous short marriages. Wagener had a hysterectomy after having three children from a separate marriage, but her new husband wanted a child he could call his own.
There were some reservations once Mollie Mish, who Zimmermann wanted to be named Emily, was born. But the adoption went through, and Zimmermann and Wagener started new chapters in their lives as they became only a postage stamp or phone call away.
Zimmermann and Wagener kept in touch throughout the years by sending each other letters and filling pages in journals, which transformed into a book about themselves and the adoption to be given to Mish for her 18th birthday.
“It talks about not only how Marlene and I meet, but also when we’re waiting for Mollie to arrive and all the insecurities she felt,” said Zimmermann, who is now 54, lives in Blue River and has two more biological daughters. “So when she was honest, I had to be honest. I couldn’t just say, ‘Oh, my life is great.’ It was hard and tough. … Marlene is an extremely amazing woman to open her heart as much as she did. I didn’t know what I was giving up until I had the baby in my arms; I had no clue. But she knew what I was giving up because she had three biological children.”
Mish didn’t read it until she was 20, and it wasn’t until friends of Wagener convinced her to turn the journal into a memoir that they pursued publication.
When Mish was 26 — the same age as Zimmermann when she placed her daughter for adoption — she added her own perspective in the epilogue. The book, called “Open: An Adoption Story in Three Voices,” was completed Feb. 14, 2017, the same holiday on which Zimmermann and Wagener first met, and released later in May.
Names were changed for privacy reasons, and the book has sold about 58,000 copies.
“Open: An Adoption Story in Three Voices” by Alaina O’Connell, Alex Porter and Sara O’Connell
Balboa Press, May 2017
232 pages, $17.99
“Every adoption is as unique as the people involved,” Zimmermann said. “There is never one story that’s the same with an open adoption. We got lucky, very lucky, that we had the relationship that we had.”
Yet, at least at the beginning, it wasn’t always a pleasant relationship.
“We put a lot of our underwear out there,” Zimmermann said. “It wasn’t a wonderful, fantastic, happily-ever-after story. It was very hard and sad for me. It wasn’t a happy time in my life at all. But it was very healing to write, and I knew my daughter was going to read this one day.
“I forced their hand a lot,” she said, referencing a time she threatened to take Mish back, which lead to a contract including visits and correspondence. “I don’t think I could heal without seeing her and how great her life was. It would have been a lot harder for me.”
The adoption is finalized only about halfway through the book, meaning much of the story is left to be told. For instance, it goes on to describe how the Wageners struggled blending their family with the older children feeling ignored.
Those complex issues resonated with writer Riley Thomas, who is adapting it into the musical.
Fate blessed Zimmermann when Thomas walked through the doors of her Timberline Barber Shop in September 2017. He was in Breckenridge for the film festival promoting his musical movie “Stuck,” staring Ashanti and Giancarlo Esposito, and he needed a quick haircut before an event. As Thomas sat in the chair with his own adoptive mother beside him, Zimmermann told the story about writing and releasing “Open.”
He read it on the plane back to New York City and knew he had to make it a stage production — and given his background, a musical, to be precise.
“What’s going on in the book is mythic and so beautiful and so sweepingly emotional that one of the best ways to capture that kind of feeling is with music,” Thomas said. “In a straight play, you lose a little bit of that magic because what makes a straight play interesting is different from what makes a musical interesting. The huge emotions that they’re dealing with in the book I felt absolutely required music.”
After a brief workshop at Carthage College in Wisconsin in February, “My Real Mother” is in rehearsals for its “draft two” premiere on Tuesday. Zimmermann and Wagener haven’t had any creative control over the musical nor have the actors reached out to their real-life counterparts, but in a sense, that’s not necessary since all the information is right in the book.
“We’ve been given the best source material an actor could ever ask for,” said Katie LaMark, who plays the book version of Zimmermann, Alex Porter. LaMark recently was in the “RENT” and “Rock of Ages” national anniversary tours. “It’s someone’s diary. We’ve literally been handed someone’s inner monologue.”
The cast also is careful to note that they’re respectfully portraying written characters, rather than impersonating people. Elena Shaddow — who plays Alaina O’Connell, aka Wagener — was Anna Leonowens in a national tour of “The King and I” but has never been in the role of someone currently living.
“I want to be very careful to not try to impersonate or use too much of her real life goings-on in this theatrical recreation of the story,” Shaddow said. “When it comes to theater … it’s going to take on a different feel, and it’s a different story that we’re telling by virtue of the script that Riley wrote.”
Thomas, meanwhile, hasn’t had to take many artistic liberties and mainly stayed true to the source material.
“That’s one of the things that attracted me to it,” Thomas said. “I didn’t really need to invent any drama to make it work on stage. The choices and events in these women’s lives were very theatrical. They were filled with conflict; they were filled with drama; they were filled with choices.”
Of the roughly 20 contemporary songs, audiences are bound to enjoy “Mother of My Child,” the ensemble-favorite showstopper. Thomas’ style has been compared to Jeanine Tesori of “Fun Home” and Jason Robert Brown of “The Bridges of Madison County,” and this powerful duet showcases the tense moment when Alaina and Alex first meet at the adoption agency.
Yet the crew believes the main draw will be the women-centric cast and the unique adoption story rarely seen in popular culture.
“This is an opportunity to really tell the story and really show what it’s like,” said Rachel Hirschfeld, who narrates and plays Mish/Sara. “And I want to really honor that and the people who do choose to adopt, people who have been adopted. I just want to represent it correctly.”
Likewise, director Misti B. Wills’ mother was adopted, and she hopes to do right by the story. “Because it’s about open adoption, it’s fairly new subject matter to be explored from a musical theater perspective. … I feel a kinship with what this story is about, a little deeper than what other directors might find themselves connected to the material.”
Even if the festival doesn’t immediately lead to a larger production, Thomas isn’t worried.
“It has the good combination of timelessness and timeliness that really makes musicals successful,” he said. “We’re not putting this into a drawer after the festival is over. There’s too many people interested in the subject matter and too many people that it speaks to that don’t have anything representing them.”
“I’m psyched,” said Zimmermann, who is making the trip to New York and has never been to the East Coast before. “I can’t wait to see it. It would be great if it can come to Colorado, as well.”
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