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: