By Shelley A. Sackett
While most of her 21-year-old colleagues were busy planning their post-college lives, Anita Hollander was undergoing chemo and radiation therapies after her first bout of cancer in her left leg.
When she returned to Carnegie Mellon University for her senior year, she played a cabaret evening of songs by popular singers. A favorite teacher who was in the audience changed the trajectory of her life when she challenged Hollander to use her recent life experience to write and perform her own material instead.
Hollander wrote “The Choice,” about the options one makes when faced with a deadly disease. By the time her cancer reappeared five years later in 1977 – this time necessitating amputation – Hollander was well on her way to creating her show, “Still Standing: A Musical Survival Guide to Life’s Catastrophes.”
The solo 15-song cabaret chronicles Hollander’s story, from her initial diagnosis to the post-amputation continuation of her career as a musical theatrical performer. Each song, packed with humor, intelligence, and musicality, describes resources that helped her endure and persist.
“Sense of humor, great imagination, chutzpah, perspective, family, love, children, art – there’s nothing you have to buy or get,” said Hollander by phone from her Manhattan home. “Anyone who sees the show can use these tools to get through difficult times, obstacles, whatever is in front of them.”
“Still Standing” has played at the Kennedy Center, the White House, Off-Broadway, and in theatres around the country.
The New Repertory Theatre at the Mosesian Center for the Arts in Watertown will present it from Feb. 9 through March 3 during Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance and Inclusion Month.
Since 2009, every February has represented a unified effort among Jewish organizations worldwide to raise awareness and foster inclusion of people with disabilities. Last February, the Ruderman Family Foundation helped finance a performance of the show at Kerem Shalom, an inclusion congregation in Concord.
Hollander is as much a disability activist as a performer. “My whole career is playing roles that were not necessarily meant to be disabled, but I happened to be playing them with one leg,” she said. As national chair of the SAG-AFTRA Performers with Disabilities committee, Hollander keeps a “watchdog scorecard” of disabled people showing up in every form of media. While she thinks film still “woefully” lags behind, she is encouraged by the great strides theater and TV have made over the last 10 years.
Hollander and her three sisters grew up in Cleveland, the daughters of a part-time cantor who organized them into a four-part harmony group that “started singing before we could speak,” she said, doing shows at temple and singing at services. When Hollander married, she joined the Village Temple in New York, where she has been children’s choir director for 23 years.
She and the children collaborate to write songs about holidays and Tikkun Olam (“repair the world”). The kids came up with the idea for “Share the World,” a song that features them saying “welcome” in 20 languages that represent countries where Jews live (it’s available on YouTube).
“Working with the children’s choir has been one of the best things in my life,” she said.
Asked whether she could envision anyone else playing her part in such an intimate autobiographical piece, Hollander said she is writing a new show, “Spectacular Falls,” with the idea that someone else could perform it. However, she added that she is about to do 26 performances in a row of “Still Standing” without an understudy.
“It’s like being out on a wire without a net on one leg,” she said with a laugh.
The Mosesian Center for the Arts is located at 321 Arsenal St., Watertown. For tickets, visit newrep.org or call 617-923-8487.