Divorce can get downright ugly. While many women might find the surprise ending of a 34-year marriage utterly depressing, Ruthe Ponturo, 64, decided to take her divorce to a whole new level. After her husband left for another woman, Ruthe created her own version of break-up therapy by turning the saga (and the sagas of many other women) into a true production. Her Off-Broadway show, Til Divorce Do Us Part, premiered this month.
When did you get interested in theater?
I studied dance and choreography in high school and have been involved in theatre production since then. I also earned a master’s degree in theater from the University of Arizona. Before my ex-husband, Tony [Ponturo], and I moved to New York, we lived in St. Louis, where I taught at Parkway Central High School and choreographed the show choirs, (long before Glee made it hip)! Working in the school’s Grammy-winning music department, I was surrounded by incredible musicians all the time.
Can you give us some background on your relationship with Tony?
We met as pages at NBC in New York City in 1975, and we both worked on the very first Saturday Night Live show. We married in 1976 and moved to St. Louis for his corporate job, as Vice President of Sports and Entertainment Marketing at Anheuser Busch. Tony didn’t have any theatre experience, but we loved going to see shows together. In the back of our minds, we thought we’d move to New York to produce shows together when we retired. We did move back six years ago, and I was just getting settled in my life there when he left me. Ironically, we both have shows on right now! His show, The Bronx Bombers, is a production about Yogi Berra and the Yankees.
Why did you divorce?
Tony and I had a great life together, which is why it was so shocking when he said he just didn’t want to be married anymore. There was another woman. On the day he told me, I said to myself, ‘He is not going to steal my spirit.’ I meant it, so I worked very hard on this show and it’s turned out to be a ton of fun. It’s been great therapy!
What was it like writing a musical without having done it before?
I really didn’t know what was right or wrong, but with the help of my co-writer, John Thomas Fisher, we were able to create a script and score that captured the divorce experience. I wrote most of the lyrics, and John wrote the music. He has worked on many songs, so the collaboration was very easy. If we ever got stuck, we’d say, ‘What would Stephen Sondheim do?’ I’m a huge fan of his. He doesn’t always go for the obvious lines in his work. We didn’t either.
This is not really a musical per se, but more of a musical review, where songs are tied together with letters to Dotty, a divorce advice columnist. One letter reads, ‘Dear Dotty. My husband left me for a much younger woman. Is this what you’d call a cliché?’
There was a first run of the show in 2012. How did that go?
The first run was at a cabaret space. We had eight performances and viewed it as a ‘test-run.’ We decided to turn it into a larger production based on the positive reaction.
How is the new show different?
It’s essentially the same show, but this one is 20 minutes longer, with additional songs and letters. I starred in the cabaret production, but I’m not in the new production since I’m involved in directing, choreography, and production. Acting in eight shows a week would be too much to handle! Also, I didn’t want the story to be perceived as just my story, because it’s not just mine. We incorporated other women’s stories, including some from my friends. Erin McGuire, a fabulous actress and singer, plays me. She’s the perfect fit and makes the audience identify with her character.
What’s your favorite song in the production?
Probably the song called The Best Friend Rag, which is about how your girlfriends and gay boyfriends get you through the slump after your break-up. Who else would stick by your side when you’re crying uncontrollably?! Another song, You Were a Whole Lot Cuter When I Loved You, really resonates with anyone who has been in a relationship. There are 26 songs.
Has Tony seen your show?
He has not.
What do you hope the show will accomplish for others?
I hope the women who see it will feel great about themselves and enjoy the healing power of laughter. You can have a great life—single or not.
Do you have plans to write more shows in the future?
John and I have a couple of ideas that we’re mulling over but nothing is set in stone! We’ve had such a great time working together—it would be sad if we didn’t do anything else!
What do you do outside the theater?
I’m a proud board member of The Humane Society and of Rosie’s Theater Kids, an organization founded by Rosie O’Donnell that teaches musical theater to underprivileged children.