When New World School of the Arts celebrated its 10th anniversary it was hard to tell who was more excited: the 17-year-old theater student soaring as high as she could to sing a perfect “Purlie” or the mentor and teacher leaping into the air and punching her hands wildly and crying, “Yes! Yes!” as if she had scored a spot on Broadway.
Actually she had scored parts on Broadway. And on television and on records. The New World teacher and mentor in that 20-years-ago example was Paula Wayne.
Wayne, who died Nov. 9 at her Aventura home at 84 after battling pancreatic cancer, lived to champion others in the arts.
“When she first got here, she was so shy she wouldn’t audition for anything,” Wayne told the Miami Herald in 1997 of that long-ago high-school junior. “Now, look at her. Bringing out that kind of talent is what this school is all about.”
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It’s also what Wayne was about. She made history on the Broadway stage in her co-starring performance with Sammy Davis Jr. in “Golden Boy” in 1964.
In that boxing drama turned into a Charles Strouse/Lee Adams musical, Wayne played Lorna Moon, the love interest to Davis’ prizefighter character. Her warm performances of songs like “I Want to Be With You” with Davis Jr. and the musical itself earned acclaim, scoring four Tony nominations.
But not everyone at the time was on board with the Wayne-Davis romance. The interracial kiss was said to be the first on Broadway, according to Broadway.Com.
Her family calls her a civil rights pioneer.
“She had the strength and the will and the drive to take her talent and become who she became and that led me to try to become and achieve the best we could,” said Wayne’s daughter Laurel Isicoff, chief judge of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court of the Southern District of Florida. Isicoff received the Florida Bar’s Chief Justice’s Distinguished Federal Judicial Service Award in 2017.
“As my children shared at the funeral, Mom said ‘You can be bad and you can be good, but don’t ever be mediocre.’ She actually inspired us to try to work hard and achieve the best we could in our respective lives and fields,” Isicoff said as she left Wayne’s funeral on Tuesday.
She taught and mentored New World students who would go on to win Oscars, Tonys, Emmys and Grammys. Among them, Miami musician Alex Lacamoire, who scored Tony and Grammy gold for his work on Broadway shows including Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “In the Heights” and “Hamilton,” and a 2017 Tony for orchestrating “Dear Evan Hansen.”
In a recent conversation Wayne excitedly told Lacamoire she had already bought her tickets to see her former student’s work in “Hamilton” when the show hits the Broward Center for the Performing Arts stage in December.
On his Facebook tribute to his teacher and mentor, Lacamoire recounted that anecdote and added, “On that call I took a moment to say ‘Thank You’ for all her encouragement in high school, because it meant a lot. I feel fortunate that I got to thank her.”
Lacamoire, 43, played piano for New World School’s presentation of “West Side Story” in 1992, a production Wayne oversaw.
“Even though I was a senior in high school, Paula treated me the way she would a professional or a colleague, and that kind of support empowered me in a way that reverberates in my being to this day,” Lacamoire said in his post.
Wayne was born Nov. 3, 1934, and raised in Mountain View, Oklahoma. There, she discovered she could sing in perfect pitch and had a multi-octave voice. She trained at The Julliard School in New York and became part of the Metropolitan Opera.
She made her Broadway debut in the ensemble of “Ziegfeld Follies of 1957” and scored roles on and off Broadway in “Say, Darling,” “Night Life” and performed on national tours of “Damn Yankees” and “Paint Your Wagon.” She co-starred opposite a teenaged Liza Minnelli in a 1963 Off-Broadway revival of “Best Foot Forward.”
Wayne also appeared on television in episodes of “Hawk,” the mid-1960s Burt Reynolds vehicle and Ivan Tors’ “The Everglades.” She was also the TV voice of the popular pancake syrup character, Mrs. Butterworth.
Wayne’s survivors include her children Laurel Isicoff, Joseph Myerson and Jason Shelley-Beach; five grandchildren and two great-granddaughters; her brothers Jim and George and her sister Mary.
Services were held. The family asks that memorial contributions be made to the University of Kansas’ KU Endowment, 3901 Rainbow Blvd., Mail Stop 3012, Kansas City, KS 66160, to benefit Dr. Raed Al-Rajabi’s pancreatic cancer research. Online contributions may be made at www.kuendowment.org/give. Indicate that donations are for the Paula Wayne memorial.