With Love, Dorothy (and Marilyn)

Erin Sullivan as Marilyn (photo by Jason Woodruff)

Actress Erin Sullivan – currently touring the US in her one-woman show, With Love, Marilyn – will also play a supporting role as MM in an industry presentation of a new musical, Dorothy Dandridge: Hollywood’s Sepia Goddess, at New York’s Off-Broadway Theatre on November 13, BWW reports.

Marilyn first met Dorothy at the Actors’ Lab in Los Angeles during the late 1940s. They were neighbours on Hilldale Avenue in 1952, and Marilyn’s vocal coach, Phil Moore, was also Dorothy’s musical arranger. In 1953, as Marilyn filmed River of No Return, Dorothy began a tumultuous relationship with director Otto Preminger. Sadly, Dorothy’s career was ultimately stymied by racism, and in an eerie echo of Marilyn’s fate, she would also die of a drug overdose.

‘Insignificance’ at the Arcola

The first London revival of Terry Johnson’s Insignificance in 25 years has just opened at the Arcola Theatre, running through to November 18. Here’s a selection of quotes from the first-night reviews:

“The case for a revival of Terry Johnson’s flight of fancy on the nature of fame is clear. More so than in 1982, when Insignificance was written, the worlds of celebrity and politics have elided. Fame is political, and the most powerful politicians are the ones with the most followers.

That’s not to say that David Mercatali’s revival is a big, hammer-you-over-the-head Trump metaphor. Its significance is more subtle than that: everyone’s a bit scared and messed up, whether you’re Albert Einstein, Marilyn Monroe or just some random on the street.” – The Stage

“Alice Bailey Johnson is super as Marilyn, intellectually hungry, frustrated as an artist and a woman, the carapace of confidence cracking to show the fragile self-esteem as her voice goes from the sexualised Little Bo-Peep tones to that of a woman trying to make her way in a man’s world under the most male of male gazes. That element of the play shouldn’t be relevant 60 years on from the time in which it is set and 35 years on from its writing – alas, of course, it very much is.” – Broadway World

“Monroe becomes the centre of David Mercatali’s production, lending it a feminist bent, and Alice Bailey Johnson (daughter of the playwright) artfully suggests the way she slips into a constructed identity with coy shoulder-shimmies and flirtatious raised eyebrows. Her legacy, perhaps, is to leave an imprint on her gender – still out-influenced 60 years on.

Mercatali’s production never finds the requisite slipperiness. Since Max Dorey’s suite is so flimsy and fake – its walls wobbling with every knock on the door, its window looking out onto the Arcola’s brick wall – we’re never allowed to forget that this is a fiction being performed. That brings the impersonations into view, instead of the personalities, only serving to up our scepticism. Johnson’s play needs the opposite: a way of persuading us of its possibility until we submit to a fantasy that’s too tantalising to resist. Without that wooziness, it seems strangely flat – a stage show, little more – and so loses the lightness this fancy needs to take flight.” What’s Onstage

“Alice Bailey Johnson expertly captures the essence of Marilyn – her breathy voice, her star quality and her aspiration to be taken seriously, while Simon Rouse is spectacular as the awkward academic, who is baffled yet intrigued to find the movie goddess bursting into his bedroom in the middle of the night. The discussion about the theory of relativity between an eager-to-learn Monroe and a naturally nurturing Einstein is surprisingly joyful. At the heart of the tale is Einstein and Marilyn’s unlikely but believable friendship. Although the setting is fictitious, all audience members will know the four main characters to some degree.

Oliver Hembrough projects DiMaggio’s despair and frustration convincingly, and the way the couple steer Einstein into the role of marriage counsellor adds humour to the sense of desperation. Tom Mannion as the threatening senator Joseph McCarthy is suitably dastardly, especially in his dealings with Monroe. As he manhandles and humiliates the actress who seems unsure of how to respond, it’s shameful to acknowledge that over 60 years later, this behaviour is alive and well in Hollywood.” – Camden New Journal

“This is a play that embraces its surrealism with wanton abandon. Veering between tacky pastiche and weighty meditation – and sometimes both at once – it is something of a curious curate’s egg. The main question that persists is ‘why?’ Why are we being told this tale? The narrative itself seems unsure as to what it is, and this only leads to uncertainty. To borrow from the title, it would be too pejorative and damning to call Insignificance ‘insignificant’, but it stops short of being substantial. It is, however, visually arresting and interspersed with a number of witty, sharp quips to garner a hearty chuckle or three.” Islington Gazette 

“There’s more to Insignificance than a simple rumination on fame and its impact, and it’s these other themes – marital alienation, the intellectual stymieing of women, and yes, the insignificance of celebrity in the face of personal anguish – that this successful production draws out.

Fully deserving of her recent nomination for Best Female by stage awards The Offies, Alice Bailey Johnson initially plays Marilyn with speedily unwinding energy … adding in notes of cold anger when she feels like she’s being patronised and scalding sexuality when she reaches the theory’s climax.

All four main actors are excellent at bouncing off each other and maintaining their distinctive characters through Insignificance‘s many threads, spelling out the misfiring interpersonal dynamics between them with real emotion.” – Hackney Citizen

Terry Johnson’s Marilyn: From ‘Prism’ to ‘Insignificance’

Robert Lindsay as Jack Cardiff in ‘Prism’

Prism, Terry Johnson’s new play at the Hampstead Theatre about the twilight years of Marilyn’s favourite cameraman Jack Cardiff, is enjoying  positive reviews. Elsewhere in London, Johnson’s most famous work – Insignificance – will be revived next month at the Arcola Theatre, with his daughter, Alice Bailey-Johnson, playing the Monroe-inspired leading lady.

Poster art for ‘Insignificance’

“Gorgeous photographs of Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn and Marlene Dietrich hang around the garage, and an expensive camera is held up on a stand. There’s a problem though; the device doesn’t work, as it’s missing a vital component, the prism. The prism is a miracle of light, and an object that splits this light into a rainbow of three colours, creating a Technicolor fantasy.

Written and directed by Terry Johnson, the play cleverly weaves together two time periods: the Fifties and present day. Despite not much happening in terms of dramatic action, the text is full of light-hearted motifs and one-liners, keeping the audience engaged. However, Prism also packs a real punch, as it deals with an illness currently effecting a lot of people: dementia.

Suffering from the disease, Jack doesn’t know who he is or who his family are. His son Mason (Barnaby Kay), has requested he write a memoir, however Jack only seems to remember the past without its glory. Riddled with anxiety over the task, he is supported by a carer (Rebecca Night). As Jack, Robert Lindsay gives a masterclass in stage acting. The comedy lands at all the right points and his full embodiment of every Cardiff trait is surreal to watch.” – Alistair Wilkinson, Broadway World

“Cardiff’s memories of his famous subjects – Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart on The African Queen, Marilyn Monroe accompanied by her husband Arthur Miller on The Prince and the Showgirl – glimmer in the air … There’s strong support too from Claire Skinner who gets to impersonate Katharine Hepburn, and from Rebecca Night who is transformed from carer into Monroe and Lauren Bacall. But it’s Lindsay’s night.” – Sarah Crompton, What’s On Stage

“Lucy (Rebecca Night), who’s been hired as Jack’s carer and typist, doesn’t have much of a clue about how to fulfil either role, though she does eventually prove to have a kind of natural empathy for him … Night is also reborn as a shimmering, statuesque Marilyn Monroe, to re-enact an earlier scene she shared with Cardiff as Lucy when the ailing cinematographer imagined her as the Blonde Bombshell on his own casting couch. Barnaby doubles as Monroe’s affronted husband Arthur Miller.” – Adam Sweeting, The Arts Desk

“When Robert Lindsay’s concertedly serene, quietly agitated Jack holds up the refractive optical marvel that was a key component of his adventures in colour – ‘God’s eye’ – it’s hard not to feel a frisson of wonder. Our response to the way the domestic scene that greets him in his converted, memorabilia-crammed Buckinghamshire garage is twisted by his diseased mind into memories of yore is more complex, however. Johnson invites some hesitant laughter as Cardiff talks funny, imagines his local boozer has gone missing and fleetingly confuses his carer with Monroe and his son with Arthur Miller, reliving old conversations. Yet the piece is suffused with real pain, the family torn between despair and indulgence.” – Dominic Cavendish, Telegraph

“The problem is that because Cardiff worked so much with the famous, the play doesn’t inspire the immediate empathy of a work like Florian Zeller’s The Father, with its more mundane hero. If it finally touches our hearts, it is because it reveals the cost to those close to Cardiff of his final decline and because of its recognition that no life achieves a perfect narrative arc, and is instead more akin to shooting a film than watching one.

Lindsay is amazing to watch. He evokes the casual charm that made Cardiff magnetic to the women he worked with as well as the professional obsessiveness that led him to experiment with prisms and seek to reproduce the textures of a Vermeer or Renoir on screen. Above all, Lindsay’s performance has a humanity that suggests Cardiff’s cinematic memories are accompanied by a spasmodic grasp of reality.

Claire Skinner shifting between Cardiff’s wife and his idealised Katharine Hepburn, Rebecca Night as the carer who becomes his memorialised Marilyn Monroe and Barnaby Kay as the son who turns into Humphrey Bogart and Arthur Miller, also show the pangs of becoming part of someone else’s disordered dreams.” – Michael Billington, The Guardian

“The structure is artful. Rebecca Night reappears as a lustrous Marilyn Monroe, in order to re-enact, word for world, an earlier scene with Jack in which he’d confused his carer, Lucy, with the screen goddess, draped on his casting couch. (Kay is a pompously affronted Arthur Miller). These lapses between precarious present and distorted past take us into the jungle of Jack’s ailing mind, while the doubling and tripling bring home the ache of being mistaken for one of the luminaries in his thronging cinematic memory-bank.” – Paul Taylor, The Independent

‘After the Fall’ in Albuquerque

Arthur Miller’s controversial play, After the Fall, features a thinly-veiled portrait of his marriage to Marilyn (although he always denied this.) A new revival at the Aux Dog Theatre in Albuquerque, New Mexico, directed by James Candy and starring Sheridan K. Johnson, makes the allusion explicit – even putting Marilyn on the playbill, which is bound to attract the curious.

“‘It is no secret that Quentin is Miller and Maggie is Monroe,’ says Cady, ‘even though Miller himself insisted it was no more biographical than anything else he wrote. The presence of the character Maggie is so clearly the ultimate female sex symbol and icon that was Marilyn Monroe, his ex-wife. She had died two years before the play opened in 1964.’

In the play, Quentin is courting Holga, a German woman still struggling with her experiences during World War II. He questions his own ability to truly connect with the women in his life as he tries to decide the future of their relationship. The scenes with Holga take place in the present. However, the memories of his mother, father, brother, clients, partners and friends reassert themselves in his mind where most of the play occurs. They recede and re-emerge as Quentin proceeds from one thought/memory to another in a stream-of-consciousness. The most prominent memory is of his second wife, Maggie, and the dissolution of their marriage. Quentin understands that after the fall from Eden, no one is innocent and, finally, all we are left with are questions – and memories that haunt us forever.

The play implies a search for understanding of ‘responsibility’ toward Monroe, of her inability to cope, and of his failure to help her. ‘But more than that’, says Cady, ‘he must deal with the ultimate question – Can anyone ever help anyone, anywhere—anymore?'”

Marilyn and Jack Cardiff on the London Stage

Jack Cardiff – the legendary cinematographer who befriended Marilyn on the set of The Prince and the Showgirl – is the subject of a new play, Prism, at the Hampstead Theatre in London, as Holly Williams reports for the Telegraph. The  play is written and directed by Terry Johnson, author of Insignificance – the surrealist fantasy featuring a Marilyn-inspired character, which became a successful movie in 1985 – and Cardiff is played by the popular English actor, Robert Lindsay. Prism runs until October 14 – more info here.

“In a garage in Ely, Cambridgeshire, hangs a portrait of Marilyn Monroe. On it she has written: ‘My darling Jack, if only I could be how you made me look.’ Cardiff called Monroe ‘as near perfect as any cameraman could wish for’. She in turn called him the best cinematographer in the world.

The seed was planted seven years ago, shortly after Cardiff’s death following a struggle with Alzheimer’s. The youngest of his four sons, Mason – a film writer/director, named after James Mason – met Robert Lindsay in a local pub, and as their friendship developed, the actor became fascinated by stories of how Alzheimer’s had suspended Cardiff in his glory days as a cinematographer.

Mason showed Lindsay the garage where the family kept all the film memorabilia they’d surrounded Cardiff with in his final years. And when Lindsay spied that signed portrait – and then heard how the frail Cardiff had become convinced that one young care assistant was, in fact, Marilyn Monroe – he knew they had a show. The pair took Johnson to lunch to discuss writing the script; by pudding, he was convinced too.

Cardiff also adored her, admiring with a cameraman’s eye her beauty. ‘She had a classically sound bone structure,’ he once said. ‘But I had to be careful about her nose, so delightfully retroussé. For if the key light was too low, a blob would show up on the tip.’ Prism shows the pair getting close during a photo shoot – ‘art’, as Cardiff also liked to say, ‘is an intimate thing’, although in reality their relationship probably never went beyond mutual affection.”

‘Some Like It Marilyn’ in Canberra

The sheer number of Marilyn-themed plays being produced around the globe at any given time is astounding. Unfortunately, many seem poorly conceived, so I don’t always mention them here. However, Some Like It Marilyn – a tribute show first staged in 2010, starring Australian actress Lexi Sekuless – could be something special, reports the Canberra Times. (You can book tickets here for this one-off performance on Sunday, September 10.)

“The show features hit songs from favourite Monroe movies including ‘Two Little Girls from Little Rock’ and ‘Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend’ from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), and scenes from Bus Stop (1956) and Some Like it Hot (1959). Those who loved her and sometimes loathed her – such as co-stars Jane Russell and Tony Curtis, baseball legend Joe DiMaggio and director Billy Wilder – are quoted and an excerpt from her third and final husband Arthur Miller’s autobiographical play, After the Fall, is featured, building up a picture of a complex woman with a difficult relationship to the stardom she seemed to both crave and dread.

‘When she was married to Joe DiMaggio he wanted her to be Norma Jean [her real name] and she wanted to be Marilyn Monroe – with Arthur Miller she wanted the reverse,’ Sekuless says. ‘So many books have been written about her – I feel everyone wants a piece of her. They all want their filter to be the true one.’

By relying mostly on reported and published words from Monroe and others, and the songs and scenes from movies, Sekuless wants the focus to be on the star’s persona and her talent rather than on what she calls the ‘salacious’ aspects of her life such as her relationship with US president John F. Kennedy or the conspiracy theories surrounding her death.”

‘Bus Stop’ Stage Revival in Maine

Another stage revival of William Inge’s Bus Stop has just opened at the Acadia Repertory Theatre in Somesville, Maine. Director Andrew Mayer outlined the differences between the play and Marilyn’s 1956 movie to readers of the Mount Desert Islander.

“‘This play is as good an American play as has ever been written. It depicts characters one doesn’t often see on the theater stage: cowboys, a nightclub singer, waitresses and a bus driver, Kansans, Missourians, Montanans. It shows them in their own world, with all the dignity, flaws and humanity of each on full display. And while the play has the (highly unconventional!) love story between Bo the cowboy and Cherie the nightclub ‘chanteuse’ at its heart, it gives plenty of stage time to the rest of the characters as well. Inge’s genius is in making these characters compelling and recognizable to everyone, while keeping the play deeply rooted in its Midwestern milieu. It’s not just a masterpiece, but a distinctively American masterpiece!'”

Saturday Night With Marilyn in Moraga

Marilyn at the Golden Globes, 1962

Filmgoers in the San Francisco Bay area will celebrate Marilyn’s life and career at Moraga’s Rheem Theatre on Saturday July 15, for an evening including movie clips, Marilyn Wines, a lecture by Derek  Zemrak and music from Patti Leidecker.

‘Bombshell’ Headed for Broadway

After a hugely popular, one-off benefit performance in 2015, plans to bring Bombshell – the fictitious Marilyn musical from NBC’s Smash – to Broadway for real are now taking shape, as Greg Braxton reports for the L.A. Times.

“Craig Zaden and Neil Meron, the award-winning producing team behind the Oscar-winning Chicago and NBC’s live versions of The Sound of Music and The Wiz, are joining forces with NBC Entertainment Chairman Robert Green late for the project, with an opening date yet to be determined. Greenblatt has extensive Broadway experience, producing the musicals Something Rotten! and A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder.

Created by Theresa Rebeck, who also served as showrunner, Smash premiered in 2012 to critical praise. The Times’ Mary McNamara called it a ‘triumph.’ But after a strong start, the series ran into rough creative waters, including exaggerated side plots and strange song breaks. Ratings fell. When Smash returned for its second season, Rebeck and a number of characters were gone. But Smash still was canceled.

The appetite for the show has never died, Zaden said, and has found new life on Netflix. ‘It’s more popular now than when it was on the air.'”