Entertainers-Corner

Amanda Carr sits down with singer, producer, philanthropist and BWME member Hildy Grossman

Take a look at Amanda Carr’s latest up-close and personal interview. Meet singer, producer, philanthropist and BWME member Hildy Grossman whose show From Bench to Broadway is coming to MIT’s KOCH Institute, Cambridge on December 7th.

Amanda Carr: You’ve spent years creating awareness about lung cancer through music and the performing arts.   What are the main misconceptions about lung cancer and why is it so important that people become more aware of this disease?

Hildy Grossman: The most common misconception about lung cancer is that you must smoke to get the disease. Currently, about 60% of newly diagnosed people are not smokers. Also, the idea is if you do smoke you deserve it. NO ONE deserves cancer. The most incredible fact is this: lung cancer is the #1 cancer killer of men and women—more than breast, ovarian, uterine and colon cancer combined.

AC: Your personal brush with lung cancer was the impetus for your passionate campaign.  But, it was how you finally got your diagnosis that made you realize how limited early detection for lung cancer really is. Can you tell us your story?

HG: I bought a new pair of shoes with very smooth leather bottoms. I took one step on the threshold to my narrow basement stairs and sailed out like a cartoon character—catching myself with my hands on the walls on either side of me. I went to the doctor with a sore wrist and that started a series of mishaps that ended up saving my life. My doctor was out of town. The doctor on call suggested I see a hand specialist who offered to give me a cortisone shot (for no good reason). I went to another hand specialist who said it was his opinion that it was my elbow that was injured and that I needed to see a neurologist to confirm this. After doing painful needle and stimulation tests, he said I didn’t have a problem with my wrist or my elbow! Turns out, he’d done the wrong tests and suggested I get an MRI of my back in case I had a pinched nerve. Even though I thought it was ridiculous, I agreed. The MRI revealed two tiny items of conern, so I had a PET scan which also was not definitive. Finally, I got a CT scan that suggested that the two tiny items were in fact, malignant tumors. I had surgery and thankfully, required no other treatment. My PCP said to me: “somebody up there really likes you!” It’s no accident that the tag line for Upstage Lung Cancer is:

Survival Should Not Be An Accident!

AC: Your organization’s website www.upstagelungcancer.org is a well-designed presentation of your mission and your vision to use performing arts to raise awareness and funding for lung cancer research. When and how did you decide to create the non-profit?

HG: I am a singer with a jazz group, The Follen Angels. I was in the middle of recording a CD when I received my diagnosis and had my surgery. When it was over, I thought, “why me?” Not in the sense that I wished this disease on someone else, but “why was I spared”? Only 18% of people diagnosed with lung cancer survive 5 years. I thought that I might be able to use my music and my experience in the performing arts to raise awareness and help support research. Just like Mary Poppins who believes that a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down, I figured that while most people don’t want to talk about lung cancer, they do love and find inspiration in music and musical productions. And voila…Upstage Lung Cancer was born! We perform two or more major concerts each year, as well as house concerts throughout the Northeast.

AC: How have your theater productions been received in the past few years and can you give us a glimpse of what your audience is in store for at FROM BENCH TO BROADWAY: Songs Where the Science is on December 7, 2017 at 7:30 at MIT’s KOCH Institute for Innovative Research in Cambridge?

HG: Our Fall theatrical productions have been very well received. Over the past 9 years we have payed homage to Leonard Bernstein, Alan J. Lerner, Frank Loesser, Rosemary Clooney and Nat King Cole, all of whom lost their lives to lung cancer. These amazing composers, lyricists, and performers were icons in the performing arts. Our audiences love the music and the professional company we have created to produce these shows. In the last two years, we have varied from the original focus on musical stars who have battled lung cancer. Two years ago, we saluted Frank Sinatra on his 100th birthday and the same last year we did a tribute to Ella Fitzgerald. The idea is that each of these American Songbook exemplars were the greatest songsters of their era. The audiences loved these shows and we sold out. This year, we are celebrating the innovation of Broadway: from Showboat, the first Broadway musical with a story line to modern musicals by Sondheim and Stephen Schwartz who are famous for their innovative compositions and genius lyrics. The opportunity to bring our show to one of the world’s most innovative scientific institutes is just a perfect marriage!

AC: How has this endeavor fueled your personal artistry and what part do you play in these shows? We’re hoping you’ll be singing, too!

HG: Having had lung cancer and survived it has freed me. I’m not always successful at everything I do, but I try to keep things in perspective. In our concert, I am the producer, Artistic Director, and singer in the company. The joy I feel performing and engaging with the audience is one of the best experiences a person can have. Music is the fabric that connects all of us. I love producing a show and choosing music that I know will be loved by everyone. There is no room for a song that isn’t loved by the performer. I will never sing something I don’t adore and enjoy. That love translates to the audience every time.

AC: You realize how important music and the performing arts can be as a tool to de-stigmatize disease. Can you see the progress you’ve already made toward this end? What have been some of the milestones?

HG: That’s a great question. It is difficult to demonstrate a metric for progress in de-stigmatizing lung cancer. I do know that very often after a concert an audience member will tell me how much they loved the show and then say they didn’t know very much about lung cancer. After one concert, an audience member was inspired to go to the doctor with symptoms she had ignored and found that she had kidney cancer. One of the loveliest things I was told occurred after a concert at Lahey Hospital when someone simply said: “ I wanted to take a moment to thank you and the Follen Angels for such a wonderful evening of music and fun.”
On a personal note, when my father was in hospice care, I would play Peggy Lee songs and Big Band music for him. The music spoke to his heart, where words could no longer go.

AC: You are gaining momentum with some of the top Boston based medical and research organizations in the world, along with the support of many local celebrity musicians, actors and media personalities for From Bench to Broadway. Who will be gracing your stage on December 7th?

HG: Joyce Kulhawik, Emmy Award-winning A & E critic has been our MC since the very beginning, along Brian De Lorenzo, “Performer of the Year” and award-winning singer. Other performers this year are Paula Markowicz, actress and singer who has been with our company for 6 years. New to our group are BWME Co-Founder & President Candy O’Terry, who will perform a duet with Sheree Dunwell, Grand Champion of the legendary TV talent show Community Auditions and Michael Hammond, singer, director and choreographer. Well-known actress and performer, Leigh Barrett and WBZ radio personality, Scott Wahle were a part of our cast for 6 years. Recently, we’ve also included actor and singer Davron Monroe, and John King, also an actor and singer. These are all talented, performers and truly generous people.

AC: You are a one-woman tour de force who has moved lung cancer awareness into the spotlight. How can people help you advance your mission?

HG: People can help our organization in so many ways, both large and small. We are always looking for volunteers who are willing and able to assist with tasks like editing material, tech help, event management assistance, PR, marketing, event logistics and more. We welcome anyone who is willing to share their talents and expertise with us. Every person’s contribution makes a real difference and is deeply appreciated!

AC: How can BWME members support Upstage Lung Cancer?

HG: I’d love to see you all at the show! You can purchase tickets for From Bench to Broadway on December 7 at 7:30 by going to our website: www.UpstageLungCancer.org.