NEW YORK — In the annals of showbiz, the chance encounter between lyricist Marcy Heisler and composer Zina Goldrich 21 years ago may not rank with Rodgers and Hammerstein's first meeting or Lerner linking up with Loewe. But it could prove to be a memorable moment for American musical theater.
It all began on a summer afternoon when the women spied each other across a crowded room at the BMI Musical Workshop in Manhattan. They were Broadway babies determined to write musicals, and their first conversation went something like this:
Heisler: "I like your dress."
Goldrich: "I like your dress."
They hit it off instantly and spent the next three days walking around the city — sharing life stories, talking about shopping and food, and cracking wise about the state of musical theater. The two formed a deep friendship and soon began one of the more unusual songwriting partnerships in the musical theater world — a duo of women with a decidedly although not exclusively female point of view.
"It was, like, boom!" said Heisler, looking back. "You can't write with someone just because they're a friend. We complemented each other."
And the secret to their creative longevity, added Goldrich, is that "after all these years of work we truly enjoy each other's company."
In the years since, Marcy and Zina — as they are now known in clubs, cabarets and concert halls from coast to coast — have become one of the theater's most prolific and enduring writing teams. Best known for "Taylor, the Latte Boy," a poignant ode to blossoming (and caffeinated) young love popularized by Kristin Chenoweth, their work has been praised by luminaries like Stephen Sondheim, Julie Andrews, Stephen Schwartz, Michael Feinstein, Robert Lopez and producer Daryl Roth. Audra McDonald will record several Marcy and Zina tunes on her next album, and their instantly recognizable songs are staples at auditions from Los Angeles to New York.
But a big break has eluded them. Although they've written some promising shows, none has reached Broadway. To insiders they are one of New York's most respected and beloved duos, one of the few female teams in a field long dominated by men.
Hardly household names, Marcy and Zina by now know the Rialto's lament all too well: No one who works in musical theater is guaranteed a happy ending, let alone a living.
Sometimes, however, magic strikes.
Last year, Marcy and Zina were chosen to write "The Great American Mousical," a satirical homage to Broadway about mice who perform show tunes in the basement of an old theater. Directed by Andrews, the show had a successful workshop at Goodspeed Musicals in Connecticut, and a Broadway or regional production may be in the offing.
Meanwhile, "Ever After," a Marcy and Zina musical based on the Drew Barrymore movie, is aimed at Broadway for the 2013-14 season, according to Tony winner Kathleen Marshall ("Anything Goes," "Wonderful Town" and "The Pajama Game"), who will direct and choreograph.
"Ever After" turns the Cinderella tale on its head, suggesting that a woman can chart her own course without magical birds and pumpkins. The analogy is not lost on Marcy and Zina, who have been waiting … and waiting … to find a slipper that fits.
"We're both Cinderellas who, of course, would love to go to the ball," Marcy said.
Marcy and Zina's songs are laced with what both call "neurotic optimism," a benevolent take on men and women that gently deconstructs the foibles of love. They blend literate and emotionally trenchant lyrics with sophisticated melodies mixing Broadway, jazz, pop and classical influences. Many of them sound like classic show tunes you've never heard before — or new additions to the Great American Songbook that become instantly memorable.
As in "Fifteen Pounds Away From My Love," in which a fatuous man first praises a woman, then lowers the boom:
You're just fifteen pounds away from my love, baby
A touch too much of pie a la mode
You're just fifteen pounds away from my love, baby
You're carrying too wide of a load
If you really want my heart to flip, girl
Put on some size four jeans and make 'em zip, girl
You're just 15 pounds away from my love, baby
You take the cake, baby — you really take it.
Or "Women Want What?" — a galloping tongue-twister with echoes of Cole Porter, in which a man goes mad pondering the female heart:
Women don't actually want what they want
No, women don't want that at all
What they want is what women say they don't want
Give them that and believe me they'll fall
I wanted to give women what women wanted
But when I did women were finding me wanting
So I want to know since I'm still wanting women
What women want — Women want what?
"Marcy and Zina are one of the most consistently clever and funny songwriting teams working today," said Schwartz, the creator of "Wicked," "Pippin" and "Godspell." "It's clear why other songwriters such as myself view their body of work with admiration and envy."
The longevity of many Broadway teams — such as Bock and Harnick, and Kander and Ebb — has traditionally been rooted in mutual respect. Although they might not have been best friends forever, the duos invariably got along.
Marcy and Zina, however, are crazy about each other. As they shared a bottle of red wine in a Lincoln Center sidewalk cafe, the two chatted about their careers, swapped delicious digs and cheerfully finished each other's sentences.
At first glance, Marcy, with her head full of black curls, blue eyes and brash one-liners, seems more outspoken. Zina, blond and just a tad more reserved, appears introspective. But forget the lazy stereotypes. These two are like a long-married couple, sparring sisters and BFFs rolled into one.
"People ask how we write, where do we do it, and I tell them we're just like most classic writing teams — I'm sitting at the piano and Marcy's at the computer or a legal pad," Zina said. "The only difference is, I don't think Rodgers and Hammerstein ever shared clothes."
"I was lecturing at Goodspeed and someone asked, 'How do you feel about being a woman writer?'" said Marcy, shifting the subject. "I said, 'Well, I'm not changing any time soon.'
"Sometimes people call us 'the Girls,' and I don't think they mean to be condescending," she added. "I just hope ultimately to be defined by our work and not our gender."
Just like any other Broadway combo. But not every team toughs it out for 20 years, through good times and bad, and these women have weathered the changes of life together.
Both single when they met, Zina is now married and the mother of two. Today they're secure in their professional and artistic identities — but that wasn't always the case.
Indeed, they believe a breakthrough moment that helped launched their careers came 18 years ago, during an afternoon drive down Laurel Canyon. They had come to Hollywood pitching songs for children's TV shows, looking for work that promised quicker success than the seven to eight years needed to write and produce a musical.
West Coast producers loved their material, they said, but the two felt like fish out of water as they drove back to their hotel through the canyon. They lived and breathed Broadway. Everything in their creative DNA pointed to a life on the stage. What were they doing in Hollywood?
"We're theater girls, and our hearts and souls were in New York," said Marcy, who flew back to the Big Apple with Zina soon thereafter. "We loved the experience out there but decided to shift the focus from pitching songs we thought Hollywood wanted to hear and instead try to show everybody who we are."
Added Zina: "It was really all about respecting our own voice, staying true to that."
And to each other. Jim Caruso, host of "Cast Party," an open mike at Birdland, said: "It's physically and financially easier to be a team when you're collecting Tonys or Grammys. But Marcy and Zina have a ferocious allegiance and loyalty to each other. That's who they are as people."
Marcy, born in Deerfield, Ill., on Chicago's north shore, showed an early gift for singing and writing. She joined the Chicago Lyric Opera at 9 and entered Northwestern University as a drama student. Deciding that her talents lay more in theatrical writing than performance, she transferred to New York University's dramatic writing program. Years later, she would win the Edward Kleban Award for Broadway's most promising musical theater lyricist.
Zina, born on Long Island, grew up in a house filled with jazz musicians, thanks to her dad, a physician who played trumpet with Mel Lewis, Thad Jones and other legends. Her talents for composition blossomed when the family moved to Southern California and she began writing songs with other kids at Beverly Hills High. Zina attended UCLA, wrote songs for Disney, studied film scoring at USC, moved to New York and played the piano in the orchestra for Broadway shows including "Avenue Q," "Oklahoma!" and "Titanic," the last of which she also conducted.
The duo has won a clutch of honors, including the Fred Ebb award for aspiring musical theater songwriters, and their stock rose dramatically when Chenoweth sang "Taylor, the Latte Boy" on the old Rosie O'Donnell show. They were stunned in 2009, however, when a San Francisco production of "Ever After" was abruptly canceled by producers. It was later optioned by new backers.
Now, after more than 20 years of ups and downs, Marcy and Zina may finally be ready for their close-up. Marshall is confident the two are bound for Broadway, saying "Ever After" "sounds like a lush Lerner and Loewe score, a Rodgers and Hammerstein classic with brilliant lyrics."
Andrews flatly predicts: "Marcy and Zina are on the cusp of hitting it big. Great talent wins out — and they've got it."
If praise were prophecy, the team would have an office filled with Tonys. But passion is the fuel that keeps them going. Once, during a chat in his townhouse, Sondheim advised the women to focus 100% on their art. Put a Post-it on your head reading: "The Work Is All," he said.
"We took that to heart," Zina said. "He was so right." Whether they reach Broadway or not, she added, they'll keep working — fools for love, no matter where it leads.
"I already won when I said 'I like your dress,'" Marcy said. "Our voices get out there in a form that's true, and I realize that can be rare in life. How lucky can you be?"
INTERACTIVE: Christopher Hawthorne's On the Boulevards
Depictions of violence in theater and more
PHOTOS: Arts and culture in pictures