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Posted at 10:00 PM ET, 11/30/2011

Sidwell Friends’s secretive traditions revealed in new satiric novel


Sidwell Friends School. (Gerald Martineau/The Washington Post)

Sidwell Friends has always maintained a code of discretion, which is one of the reasons the exclusive prep school attracted students like Tricia Nixon, Chelsea Clinton, Al Gore III, Malia and Sasha Obama and Joe Biden’s grandkids.

It’s rare for any inside gossip to leak out, which makes “The Mother Daughter Show” so unusual. The new novel by Washington lawyer/historian/Sidwell mom Natalie Wexler is set at the fancy “Barton Friends” amid the school’s annual musical variety show performed by mothers of graduating senior girls.

Huh. True that there’s the exact same tradition at the real-life Sidwell Friends?


Natalie Wexler at Monday's book party for her new novel, "The Mother Daughter Show." ( Kyle Samperton)
Indeed, said Ellis Turner, associate head of the school. “Its remote origins go back to 1942 at the Girls’ Athletic Association Sports banquet,” he told us. About 20 years ago, it began to morph into a full-on extravaganza, with professional director and choreographer. Think “Capitol Steps” meets Gridiron Club: Goofy dancing and singing with new lyrics to familiar songs. All the class mothers are expected to perform on stage; we’re told that even then-first lady Hillary Clinton appeared in the 1997 when Chelsea was a senior.

Like most Sidwell parents, Wexler is plugged in to D.C.’s power elite: She’s married to Washington National Opera president Jim Feldman, stepson of philanthropist Adrienne Arsht. Their two children graduated from Sidwell (son in 2006, daughter in 2009), and Wexler worked on two performances: First on the lower-key mother-son show, then on what turned out to be an epic mom-daughter production.

Wexler wrote the script and songs — most of which were cut, same as happens to the novel’s heroine. “I think I wrote the book to recycle some of those songs,” she told us. She meant it as a gentle satire — but with petty infighting, bruised egos, control freaks, demands for Quaker “consensus” and a serial philanderer married to the show’s chairwoman. “This was definitely a worst-case scenario,“ said Wexler. “I wanted it to be funny, so the show had to be a disaster.”

But much of it sounds awfully close to reality, according to another mom from that class: There were so many rehearsals, changes and meltdowns that a line-by-line mediation was finally held before the 90-minute show finally made it onstage.The fallout was so great that the show was significantly scaled back the following year.

“Problems arise year after year,” Wexler told us. “All of these women have teenage daughters going off to college. It’s a very emotional, tense time for most people.”

The brass at Sidwell seems to be taking it in stride. Turner told us Wednesday he just bought a copy of the book but hasn’t read it yet: “We hear it’s a hoot.”

Read also: Obamas pick Sidwell Friends, 11/21/08; Obamarabilia in Sidwell Friends auction, 4/28/09; On Parenting: Natalie Wexler, 11/21/11

By  |  10:00 PM ET, 11/30/2011

 
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