In November 2007, Emily Kaczmarek and dozens of other high-school students from throughout the country met with several Supreme Court justices in Washington. Among them was Justice Anthony Kennedy.
“Why is discrimination wrong?” Justice Kennedy asked the students. The students, all seasoned overachievers, struggled to devise impressive, long-winded responses.
No, no, he said. Not complicated. “Discrimination is wrong because it makes people feel bad,” he said.
Ms. Kaczmarek, a strong-willed, softhearted student, who as a youngster in Phoenix handed out envelopes containing cash, information on free meals and lodging to people living on the streets, began singing at 4 years old after seeing “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.” She played leading male roles in “Hamlet” and “Scrooge” at the all-girls St. Mary Academy Bay View in Rhode Island. After graduating from N.Y.U., she decided she would sing for a living and write as a hobby.
One day in May 2015, she received an email from a theater-producer friend, Rachel Sussman.
The email introduced Ms. Kaczmarek, the playwright, and Zoe Sarnak, the songwriter. In the world of New York theater, where everyone knows someone who knows someone who knows someone, Ms. Sussman — “the eternal connector of all good people,” said a friend — knew Ms. Sarnak was looking for a librettist, or scene and dialogue writer, for a short musical on which she was working for the New York Film Academy. She felt that Ms. Kaczmarek, who had since turned her hobby into her living, might be the person Ms. Sarnak needed.
A month later, they met.
Ms. Kaczmarek, carrying a freshly printed résumé, arrived for the meeting in cropped black pants, heels, and a dress shirt topped with a blazer. Business casual.
Ms. Sarnak appeared, waist-length curly hair dripping down her back from a moments-ago shower, wearing M.C. Hammer-style harem pants, flip flops and a flannel shirt. Dive-bar casual.
In the fateful moment of that meeting, Ms. Kaczmarek, ever-linear and logical, dissected the situation.
“Maybe she’s a swimmer?” (no, but Ms. Sarnak did play soccer for Harvard) and “Do I look like I’m trying too hard?”
“Hey!” Ms. Sarnak said, to yank Ms. Kaczmarek from her anxiety-ridden reverie, “What are we going to make?”
Affable, curious, and as a child, intensely precocious, Ms. Sarnak, began writing music in middle school in Princeton, N.J. “She was always the smartest one in the class,” said Annie Knickman Plancher, a longtime friend. At Harvard, Ms. Sarnak majored in molecular and cellular biology, and settled on doing science for a living and making music for fun.
But chords kept popping into her head. The summer between junior and senior years, while working at Harvard Medical School’s lab, she ran experiments, set a timer, then raced over to the only dorm she knew that had a piano. There, until the experiment’s wait time was done, she wrote music. Back and forth each day she went, chemistry and chords pulling her this way and that, until she graduated and said to her parents, “give me a couple of years in New York and we’ll see how it goes.”
The two began working together, until Ms. Sarnak felt safe enough with Ms. Kaczmarek to show her a musical she had written that was close to her heart. The musical, “Afterwords,” found a working home at their respective apartments, both in Harlem. While working on it, they fell in love.
“We would go into separate rooms and she would work on a song and I would work on a scene and then we would have snacks and a drink and those sessions would go until 2 in the morning,” Ms. Kaczmarek said. “And when I didn’t want her to leave I said, ‘O.K., something’s going on here.”
They discovered they liked much of the same music, from Sara Bareilles and Brandi Carlile to “Ragtime” and “Rent.” They walked the city for hours, assuring each another they would descend at the next subway stop, only to skip it to continue the conversation.
One day, Ms. Kaczmarek read a favorite essay to Ms. Sarnak, an intimate piece about hummingbirds and heartbeats by Joyas Voladoras. “It was one of those cinematic moments of me being vulnerable, and she was just getting it, when something intangible is understood by two people and there’s a whoa!” Ms. Kaczmarek said.
Ms. Sarnak marveled at how Ms. Kaczmarek could enter a party knowing no one and leave knowing just about everyone.
On June 6, 2016, after Ms. Kaczmarek’s birthday party at Harlem’s At the Wallace, they landed alone at her apartment. “Yyou could cut the tension with a knife,” Ms. Kaczmarek said. As they sat on the sofa, finally, they kissed.
Ms. Sarnak was 25 when she came out as a lesbian. Even though “it’s a scary thing to do for anybody, theater people in New York make up one of the most diverse and open communities,” she said. “And I give my parents a lot of credit: They never made me feel bad or feel fear. There was a lot of space in my personal and professional life in New York to be who I wanted to be.”
They discussed their attraction, the impact it might have on their collaboration.
“I said to Emily, ‘Well, it would either just be a mess or we would be together forever,’” Ms. Sarnak said.
They worried. Was their romance unprofessional?
They had their ambitions. Broadway’s alleys echoed with the work of other duos: Rodgers and Hammerstein, Rodgers and Hart, Lerner and Loewe. All men. It is difficult, if not impossible, to find a duo of female musical genius on Broadway. Here they were, on the precipice of musical history, and they had fallen off it, into love.
In fall 2016, they called the producer of “Afterwords,” Ashley DeSimone, and asked her to meet. When Ms. DiSimone arrived at Indie, a restaurant in the Lincoln Center complex, expecting a business meeting, they were squirming in their seats, anxiety arching their eyebrows.
“I said, ‘What’s wrong?’” Ms. DeSimone recalled. “And they said, ‘We’re dating.’ They were sheepish. They had a commercial producer behind the work; they were trying to do the right thing.”
“I told them I thought it was awesome.”
Ms. Kaczmarek moved into Ms. Sarnak’s apartment in spring 2017. Together they tucked love notes into each other’s suitcases, befriended the bartenders at the Grange in Harlem, and began building a retro-record collection that included the Indigo Girls, the Beatles and Elvis Costello.
Collaboratively, they decided to get married. On a Thursday in October 2017, Ms. Sarnak sent Ms. Kaczmarek off to New York locations that held meaning for the couple. At each location, a friend would greet Ms. Kaczmarek and give her a gift. Flowers in a bright yellow-orange, Ms. Kaczmarek’s favorite color. A box of cannoli. A collage. At the last stop, at the corner of Sixth Avenue and 13th Street, Ms. Sarnak proposed.
The next day, Ms. Kaczmarek took Ms. Sarnak to Grand Ferry Park in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. On a picnic blanket in the park, serving glasses of champagne and pounds and pounds of crudité because Ms. Sarnak eats raw vegetables in quantities that would clean out a summer farm stand, Ms. Kaczmarek proposed to the strains of jackhammers — “New York being New York,” Ms. Kaczmarek said later. They walked over to a bar, Videology There, Ms. Kaczmarek played a video for Ms. Sarnak of friends and family from throughout the world congratulating the pair.
Like every good musical story, their collaboration-turned-romance had its moment of truth: Would their work together be better, or worse, than their work alone?
A few months after their engagement, in February of this year, the answer arrived. “Afterwords” had won a prize that musical-theater makers covet, a Jonathan Larson grant, which was named to memorialize the creator of the Broadway blockbuster, “Rent.”
The American Theater Wing, which produces the Tony Awards, administers the grant; winners frequently land on Broadway.
“Zoe writes the music, Emily writes the book — the dialogue — and theirs is such a great example of collaboration, where the whole is much greater than the sum of the parts,” Ms. DeSimone said.
On Aug. 26, the two women, grinning and gleeful in traditional white, were married by Mary Carmel Kaczmarek, Ms. Kaczmarek’s aunt and a Universal Life minister. Ms Sarnak’s cousin, Jonathan Polonsky assisted in the ceremony, which took place before 160 people at the Brooklyn Winery, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
Just moments before, Conrad Kaczmarek, Ms. Kaczmarek’s brother, had stepped up to the lectern to read the words of Justice Kennedy, written as the final paragraph of the Obergefell v. Hodges decision.
“As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death,” he read. “It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.”
Both brides’ eyes filled with tears.
Their audience exploded in cheers.
ON THIS DAY
When Aug. 26, 2018
Where Brooklyn Winery in Williamsburg, Brooklyn
Sunshine Amid Raindrops Tears fell down Pete Kaczmarek’s face as his daughter released his arm to stand at the makeshift altar beside Ms. Sarnak. A half-hour later, after the room had cleared and staff was setting up for the reception, he talked about the wedding. “A man asked me recently if I was giving away my daughter,” Mr. Kacmarek said, through more tears, though now smiling. “No, no, I told him. I’m getting a bonus daughter instead.”
Brides in White Ms. Sarnak and Ms. Kaczmarek both chose traditional white and ivory for their wedding with matching silver-speckled lace-up flats. Ms. Kaczmarek wore a V-neck Carol Hannah Nolita dress with a full skirt in satin-faced organza; Ms. Sarnak wrote a BHLDN wide-legged jumpsuit and BHLDN crepe maxi. “I didn’t know my matchmaking skills extended beyond theater,” said Rachel Sussman, the theater producer who initially connected the couple. “It was the universe that did it. I just hopped in to help them find each other.”
Words in Waiting After winning the Jonathan Larson Award, the play Ms. Sarnak and Ms. Kaczmarek wrote together, “Afterwords,” was shown at the Village Theater’s Festival of New Musicals, and was work-shopped at the Village Theater’s Beta Series in February for 10 performances. It is now in development, “aiming for both Off Broadway and Broadway,” Ms. DeSimone said.