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Playwright Wendy Wasserstein Dies at Age 55

CHADWICK: This is Day to Day from NPR News. I'm Alex Chadwick. The noted American playwright Wendy Wasserstein has died. She was fifty-five-years old, and had been battling cancer. She wrote award winning plays that portrayed modern women with modern problems. Her best known, The Heidi Chronicles, is a comic look at a Baby Boom woman trying to balance her personal life with her career. Chronicles won every major drama award, including the Tony and the Pulitzer Prize. Here's Wendy Wasserstein from an interview with NPR a few years ago.

Ms. WENDY WASSERSTEIN (Playwright): Ideas still come from plays. I still think, you know, like a play like The Heidi Chronicles, that idea of the single woman having a baby alone, Tony Kushner's Angels in America, all of those ideas then find their way into the popular culture.

CHADWICK: Wendy Wasserstein didn't just enjoy writing plays, she enjoyed the entire theater experience.

Ms. WASSERSTEIN: I love the theater. I mean, I love going into a room and the lights come down, and people, it's just very exciting to me. And so, the thought that you could do that with your life and someone paid you for it seemed extraordinary to me. When I was in college, I applied to law school and business school, and I went to the Yale School of Drama only because I got in, and I thought, well, I have a shot at doing what I, what seems interesting and let's see what happens.

CHADWICK: What happened was a career that marked American theater with brilliant new plays. Wendy Wasserstein grew up in a middle class Jewish family in New York, her plays peppered with characters based on that experience. Two of her sisters inspired characters in her 1993 Broadway play The Sisters Rosenweig. Here she is, in 1997, speaking to an audience in Washington, D.C.

Ms. WASSERSTEIN: When I came of age in Brooklyn, my mother never said to me, Wendy darling please, please grow up to be a not-for-profit theater writer.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WASSERSTEIN: They never said please, we want you to date actors, have a life that's as financially insecure as possible, and have no health insurance, whatever you do. That was not the case. Although, my parents took me to theater, so in many ways, I think how I hear dialogue comes from that time. And I think, often, parents give their, especially daughters, dancing lessons, acting lessons, in an attempt to make them become well-rounded. Whatever that means. I always thought my well-roundedness went to my hips. And they never made my brother become well-rounded, and he's a very wealthy investment banker. So, who knows what that means.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHADWICK: She left New York to attend undergraduate school at Mount Holyoke, a women's college in Massachusetts.

Ms. WASSERSTEIN: At the time, this was in 1969, and I thought that you had to be someone who wore black and had pre-Raphaelite hair, and the light had to flood in from the left on your lovely face as your tapered fingers sliced an orange. And that was not true. I mean, it doesn't really matter one way or the other. What had to do is content and a voice that were stories to tell, especially stories about women.

And if they were told truthfully, there would be some sort of connection, and it really didn't matter whether the light was flooding in from the left or not, which was very interesting, because I think a lot of especially young playwrights have an idea that you write plays that sound important, which doesn't necessarily have to be the case. In fact, the first plays that I wrote were about my family. I've often used autobiographical material. My friend William Finn, who wrote "Falsettos," tells me that I was very lucky, because I was born into so much material.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHADWICK: Playwright Wendy Wasserstein speaking before a Washington D.C. audience in 1997. She died today of lymphoma. Wendy Wasserstein is survived by her six-year-old daughter, Lucy Jane Wasserstein. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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