Sandy Rustin Fleischer, 35, of Maplewood remembers dropping off her oldest child for his first day of preschool at Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel in South Orange.
“I was struck by how emotional it was to leave him there and how fast time had gone,” she said.
That moment became “Prayer for Ellie,” a song about a mother dropping her daughter off for the first day of kindergarten. For many, the song is a highlight of the musical Rated P for Parenthood, playing at the Westside Theater in Manhattan.
Rustin (as she’s known professionally) wrote the book and cowrote the music for the series of musical comedy sketches — her first professional foray into writing — which had its premiere at South Orange Performing Arts Center last May. Picked up by the Manhattan theater, it runs through April 8.
Rustin, a member of TSTI, met with NJJN at Village Coffee in Maplewood. Bubbly, earnest, and talkative, it wasn’t hard to see how this suburban mom — a Chicago native who trained at Northwestern University — could easily take the material of motherhood and create a musical.
“Once I opened the floodgates, I realized it was a creative outlet I could use at naptime, bedtime, and on weekends,” she said.
A member of the Upright Citizens Brigade sketch comedy troupe, her performing credits also include Modern Orthodox at the New World Stages, I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change at the Westside, and Neil Simon’s Hotel Suite at the Roundabout, all in New York City.
She’s a player in Don’t Quit Your Night Job, a Manhattan variety show, and is part of Improv Everywhere, the guerrilla theater troupe.
It was after her son was born that Rustin decided she wanted to take a break from the long hours and late nights that theater demands.
“I wanted to be home at bedtime,” she said. She was doing voiceovers and commercial work when “Prayer for Ellie” inspired her.
Initially, she said, “I thought I was creating a one-woman show.” When she had 50 or 60 pages written, she showed it to some of her show-biz friends, including Dan Lipton and David Rossmer, music writers whom she described as “two straight, single men with no kids who couldn’t be farther from being suburban dads — but they’re both smart and funny.”
The two Bergen County natives loved her work and agreed to write the music. A director Rustin had previously worked with, Jeremy Dobrish (a Maplewood dad whose children attended the preschool at Congregation Beth El in South Orange), also got in on the show. The four formed a partnership.
“Three Jewish kids wrote the musical, and there’s an undercurrent of Jewish family life in the show,” Rustin said. “I feel what’s reflected in the show is the life I grew up with and that I’m living now. I identify so strongly as a Jewish woman, it can’t help but come out in the show.”
‘Celebration of family’
Despite the Jewish values she believes have seeped into the show, she said, it’s a show “for everyone, and we intentionally tried not to focus on one specific culture.” She also called it “a celebration of family and the funny, heartfelt things that happened to families.”
Rustin grew up in Glenview, Ill., attending B’nai Jehoshua Beth Elohim in Deerfield, and went to Reform Jewish summer camp in Oconomowoc, Wis. Camp friends have come to see her show, based on a promise they made to each other at 15 that if any of them made it big, they would all come to New York to see the show.
Rustin and her family — husband Evan Fleischer and sons Isaac, six, and Charlie, two — enjoy traditional Shabbat dinners when everyone is together. She said she’s even tried her hand at making hallah, although, she added sheepishly, “I think I need a lesson!”
The New York Times called Rated P for Parenthood “sweet and wistfully funny,” although another critic carped that the play is “relentlessly upbeat.”
But Rustin doesn’t mind. While she acknowledged that she does have “negative experiences,” she added, “That’s not what this show is about. It’s 80 minutes of entertainment.
“There’s value in escaping all the things that happen within parenthood that are not what we celebrate.”
She said she loves to watch the audience reacting to the show. On one recent night, she observed a couple she pegged as being in their 50s, listening to one of the actors sing a love song to his wife. “The couple was holding each other. The man was sobbing. He took off his glasses, and they kissed at the end. To have that kind of impact on people — it’s an incredible experience,” said Rustin.
Now that the show is winding down, she is looking forward to spending lots of time with her kids, and, well, yes, maybe writing during nap time.
Getting home for bedtime didn’t exactly work out the way she had planned.
“But it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” she said. “I couldn’t turn it down!”