By Donalevan Maines
For out ophthalmologist Stewart Zuckerbrod, life is a cabaret—if by “cabaret” you mean treating patients, bringing up twin teenage daughters, and helping friend and songbird Deborah Boily pen a show about music she was born to sing.
The versatile Zuckerbrod has no shortage of ideas for musicals he’d like to write, but the opportunity to collaborate with Boily seemed especially enticing. He’s admired her as a performer since seeing her decades ago—along with other favorites such as Marsha Carlton and Randall Jobe—at Risky Business, a cabaret in Montrose. “I used to go there all the time,” explains Zuckerbrod.
But it wasn’t until recently that Kenn McLaughlin, the producing artistic director at Stages Repertory Theatre, saw Boily perform. “He said, ‘We’ve got to get her to sing at Stages,’” recalls Zuckerbrod, who serves on the theater’s board of directors.
They found an open slot in June, “which was really neat,” the doctor says, “because life has a way of throwing things at you that are time-consuming, so to have this to focus on and know we’re going up in June, I definitely wanted in.”
Zuckerbrod, who plays the piano, adds, “I got out all of these music books and started going through songs. I would suggest some, and she would say ‘yes.’ I would suggest others and she would say ‘no way,’ and then we decided [on an order and] pieced together kind of a narrative.”
Songs I Was Born to Sing is described as Boily’s musical journey “from her first audition in her hometown of Baton Rouge to a stage career in New York City, and across the ocean to Parisian nightclubs where she finds her soul as a chanteuse. Inspired by her idol, Julie Andrews, she performs show tunes from such favorite musicals as South Pacific, The Threepenny Opera, and The Music Man, as well as a few of her signature French pieces and some rarely heard musical gems.”
“She is one of those people you are absolutely drawn into,” says Zuckerbrod. “She has an amazing talent for getting you into the song.”
Zuckerbrod was drawn into theater by a classmate who encouraged him to try out for a production of Woody Allen’s Don’t Drink the Water in their senior year at Lawrence High School on Long Island in New York. “I actually got cast,” he says. “It was the start of me breaking out of my shell a little bit.” Zuckerbrod kept taking bows in shows at college, even though he majored in biology and German. (He was born in Frankfurt, Germany, and lived there for a year on his father’s Army base.)
Recalling his return to Germany in a student-exchange program, Zuckerbrod, who is Jewish, adds, “My grandparents were first-generation Americans; they had escaped from Europe. They were very upset that I went over there, but it was nothing but a good experience.”
Before his trip to Germany, Zuckerbrod saw 1972’s scandalous movie musical Cabaret, which was set in 1931 Berlin as the Nazi Party rose to power. It won eight Academy Awards, including those for Liza Minnelli as a nightclub singer who gets caught up in a bisexual affair with characters played by Michael York and Helmut Griem, Joel Grey as the bawdy master of ceremonies at the seedy Kit Kat Klub, and director Bob Fosse, who set all but one of the film’s musical numbers inside the cabaret. (The notable exception was “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” in which a gorgeous Aryan boy leads outdoor diners in a chilling ode to Adolph Hitler as their leader.) “I took my German host family to see [Cabaret], and that scene was cut out. It was the most amazing thing. I was absolutely shocked.” Zuckerbrod explains that German officials “made a conscious effort not to educate the younger generation about the Nazi era. The reason is they didn’t want to raise a whole generation of young people to think their parents were complicit in what the Nazis did and lose respect for them.”
Similarly, when Zuckerbrod was growing up, he says, “People didn’t talk about homosexuality. People didn’t talk about sex at all.” So he took matters into his own hands by sneaking a peek at his parents’ “hidden” copy of Dr. David Reuben’s best-selling 1969 book Everything You’ve Always Wanted to Know About Sex but Were Afraid to Ask. “It had one page about homosexuality,” he says, “and it said that homosexuals were defective people. It was very negative.”
Consequently, Zuckerbrod says his coming out was complicated. “I have a lot of gay friends who say, ‘I knew when I was six.’ It wasn’t that way with me. I was very attracted to girls when I was young; I also had attractions to boys. The first guy I almost slept with in 1978 was a research-lab partner in college. He was one of the most handsome people I’ve ever met; he made passes at me, but they were very subtle.”
Zuckerbrod moved to Houston to attend Baylor College of Medicine, where he also did his residency in ophthalmology.
“I was a stepparent in a previous relationship, and I loved it,” he says. “When that relationship broke up, I explored adoption. I was always thinking I wanted to have kids. It was a process, and the surrogacy route came up as I was exploring the options.”
His twin daughters, by surrogacy, were born almost 15 years ago. “They will be freshmen at Bellaire High School this fall,” he says. “In Jewish tradition, children are named for relatives, so my girls are Frances and Samara. Frances is into writing and theater; Samara is into sports and art.”
Zuckerbrod helped Boily write Songs I Was Born to Sing because he thinks that artists often “don’t have a sense of their own talent. Debbie is pretty spectacular. She’s amazing. A lot of performers are somewhat insecure, so I think it’s important to be there and accentuate the positive and get them to talk about what they do to get where they are.”
As a writer, Zuckerbrod collaborated in 2006 with director McLaughlin on (Loosely) Lysistrata, a comedy that Zuckerbrod based on German cartoonist Ralf König’s graphic-novel parody of the original story by Aristophanes.
What: Songs I Was Born to Sing
When: June 7, 8, 14, & 15
Where: Stages Repertory Theatre, 600 Rosine St. (off of Allen Parkway, near Waugh Dr.)
Details: stagestheatre.com or 713.527.0123
Donalevan Maines also writes about the Tony Awards in this issue of OutSmart magazine.