Jo Levi DiSante, a Hollywood producer, was 28 when her sister’s breast cancer metastasized to her spine and bones and she was given three to five years to live. Two weeks later, DiSante’s mother also was diagnosed, for the second time, with breast cancer. “I was an executive in the film industry,” DiSante wrote in an online bio, “where every day I reminded myself and my peers that although we might experience blows from our egotistical studio head bosses as earth-shattering, we were not curing cancer.”
She felt she had to do something.
Eager to support her sister and mother, DiSante recruited her colleagues and fellow film and television producers Jody Price and Ruth Salford to produce a Broadway-style cabaret to raise money for breast cancer research. Their first “What A Pair” performance took place in 2002 at the 1,200-seat Wilshire Ebell Theatre in Los Angeles, an all-duet show performed by actresses Patricia Heaton, Rita Wilson (whose performance was her first time singing on stage), Megan Mullally and Nia Vardalos, as well as former Blondie lead singer Deborah Harry and other female celebrities from television, film, music and theater.
It was the only “What A Pair” show DiSante’s sister lived to see, but now, seven years later, the benefit concert continues to advance the search for a cure, and on Sept. 26 the latest incarnation will fill the Eli and Edythe Broad Stage in Santa Monica, benefiting the John Wayne Cancer Institute at Saint John’s Health Center.
“It’s so wonderful to be able to use our skills for such a good cause,” said Jody Price, a film and event producer who started her career as a stage and film actress in New York. “We’ve found our outlet, and people in Hollywood really respect what we do because they can’t all find the time to do this.”
Many of the celebrities who have participated in “What A Pair” have returned year after year, performing classic Broadway and film duets such as “Two Girls From Little Rock” from “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” “I Still Believe” from “Miss Saigon,” “For Good” from “Wicked,” and “When You Believe” from “The Prince of Egypt.”
Deborah Gibson, the ’80s teen pop idol who went on to perform on Broadway and in films and television, joins the all-female cast this year for the third time.
“There isn’t one person on Earth who isn’t affected by breast cancer, and I’m no exception,” said Gibson, who will be performing “The Rose” with country singer Deana Carter. “It’s an uplifting, glamorous event to help fight a very unglamorous disease.”
Gibson described the benefit concert as a unique combination of entertainment and fundraising, a fun and clever way for women to support women.
The idea of presenting only duets, and hence the double entendre of the show’s title, came from DiSante’s love of musical theater, which she shared from a young age with her sister and mother. DiSante’s mother kept a mental list of favorite duets and hoped that someday her daughter, then an aspiring Broadway director, would incorporate them into a cabaret in her honor.
“We are three East Coast Jewish women, raised on Broadway shows and a ‘can do’ attitude,” Price wrote in an e-mail, “so when Jo approached Ruth and me, we turned into Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland: We rented ourselves a barn (OK, the Wilshire Ebell) and put on a show! It was a huge success!”
To date, “What A Pair” has raised more than $2 million for cancer research. The John Wayne Cancer Institute and its Breast Cancer Research Program have been the beneficiaries for the past four years, with proceeds going directly to fund the institute’s research into early detection, non-invasive procedures and training cancer surgeons.
This year’s goal is to reach the $3 million mark. Co-founding producer Ruth Salford is confident this year’s show won’t be affected by the sour economy. “I think people are more focused in their giving during these times; instead of giving to five or 10 causes, they’ll give to one or two. Our audience is tremendously loyal and committed. Many have been directly affected by breast cancer and are motivated by their personal gratitude toward Dr. [Armando] Guiliano.”
Guiliano is director of the John Wayne Cancer Institute Breast Center and has often said a cure is not far off, Salford said. “I’ve heard him say, ‘It’s going to be in my lifetime, and I’m getting old.’”
To help bring that about, this year’s show will introduce a few new variations on the format, including several trios, a quartet, a dance performance of the Tyce Diorio-choreographed breast cancer tribute from the show, “So You Think You Can Dance,” and other surprises the producers would not reveal.
Future plans include a show in London and a high school version in March 2010 to raise money for pediatric cancer research.
“What A Pair,” Sat. Sept. 26. 7 p.m. $250-$350. The Broad Stage, 1310 11th St., Santa Monica. whatapair.org.