‘Norma Jeane Baker Of Troy’ Reviewed

Norma Jeane Baker of Troy, the new short play by Anne Carson, opens at The Shed in Hudson Yards, New York, tonight. However, with decidedly mixed reviews and reported walkouts at a preview over the weekend, the show is off to a rocky start. In his review for Bloomberg, James Tarmy admits it is “not for everyone.” (I’d be interested to hear what a Monroe fan thinks of it …)

“Neither [Ben] Whishaw nor [Renee] Fleming portrays the title character in this equally hypnotic and exasperating production. Or not exactly. When first seen, on a snowy New Year’s Eve in the early 1960s, their characters appear to be a rather anxious businessman (Mr. Whishaw) and the thoroughly professional stenographer (Ms. Fleming) he has recruited to help him work, after hours, on a special project.

That would be the very script of the show we’re watching, which is indeed about Norma Jeane Baker. If you don’t know that Norma Jeane was Monroe’s birth name, I wish you much luck in following this show. Because that’s only the first — and by far the simplest — of the identities attached to Monroe in Ms. Carson’s investigation of the illusion and substance of feminine beauty in a testosterone-fueled world of war.

Helen is Norma Jeane, while her ostensibly cuckolded husband, Menelaus is transformed into Arthur, King of Sparta and New York (referring to Monroe’s third husband, the playwright Arthur Miller).

Norma Jeane is further conflated with another abductee from Greek mythology, Persephone, especially as she was conjured by the 20th-century British poet Stevie Smith. All these variations on the theme of beautiful women held captive by men echo a phrase that is both spoken and sung throughout this production: ‘It’s a disaster to be a girl.’

Now why, you may well ask, is this a tale to be told by a man? Ms. Carson has said that she wrote this monologue with Mr. Whishaw in mind … His ability to cross the gender divide without coyness or caricature turns out to be an invaluable asset in Norma Jeane.

Mr. Whishaw and Ms. Fleming are, against the odds, marvelous. They somehow lend an emotional spontaneity to ritualistic words and gestures, while conjuring an affecting relationship … As might be expected, Ms. Fleming brings a luxuriant, caressing tone to the song fragments … And though it’s a man who narrates — and tries to make sense of — Norma Jeane’s story, it is fittingly a woman’s voice that supplies the aural oxygen in which it unfolds.

You don’t really you need to know your classics or even your Hollywood lore to grasp the thematic gist of Norma Jeane, which ponders the follies of war-making men and their abuses of women. Sometimes Ms. Carson’s conjunctions of figures past and present can seem too both obvious and too obscure. The show’s surprisingly predictable conclusion lacks the haunting resonance it aspires to.” – Ben Brantley, New York Times

“It is a play formed, we learn in the program, through Euripedes’ Helen, which recast the story of ‘legendarily the harlot of Troy and destroyer of two civilizations’ from her point of view, and her sorrow. In the program, #MeToo and that exhaustingly overused phrase ‘fake news’ are both invoked, as well as Carson’s intention to ‘let dark realities materialize dimly’ in particular sections of the play.

Well, Norma Jeane Baker of Troy can claim success on that score at least. The set, far too far away from the audience, feels like a retreating photograph. On it, you had two otherwise-wonderful performers, Whishaw and Fleming, playing within what first looks like the office of a gumshoe.

It’s New Year’s Eve, turning to New Year’s Day, 1963, with fireworks booming outside like bombs. Whishaw’s character has a mood board of sorts, and—it turns out—is not a detective, but a screenwriter working on a film project that is a meditation on both Marilyn Monroe (who died the previous year) and Helen of Troy.

The script drifts, utterly unmoored, between the two, their lives, ambitions, beliefs, and the men, dramas, and in Helen’s case war. Misogyny, ambition, and marriage pulse as themes.

As the play progresses, Whishaw, darting here and there, gradually changes into Monroe—via breast and buttock padding, make up and a wig—until finally putting on a dress that recalls the famous flowing white dress Monroe wore in The Seven Year Itch. As Monroe, we hear of the actress’ private pain; there are pills, a champagne bottle that stubbornly refused to pop open (how symbolic that seemed on Saturday night), and then death.” – Tim Teenan, Daily Beast

“Ben Whishaw plays Marilyn/Norma Jeane, or rather he plays a young man in suit and tie (costumes by Sussie Juhlin-Wallen) who dictates a modern update of the Euripides play to a stenographer (Renee Fleming) on New Year’s Eve, 1963. The two of them sit at desks in a very film noir office (set by Alex Eales, the minimal lighting by Anthony Doran) before Whishaw begins to dress up like Marilyn Monroe in The Seven Year Itch, complete with her signature white halter-top dress and ukulele. Ukulele? Maybe Whishaw’s drag persona borrows it from Sugar in Some Like It Hot, but then, inconsistency is Carson’s trademark.

Whishaw’s young man first mentions Marilyn in her preproduction days on Clash by Night where MGM is helping to wage the battle of Troy — even though RKO released Fritz Lang’s 1952 classic.

Whishaw often dictates that Marilyn ‘enter as Truman Capote’ before imitating that writer’s high-pitched voice. This Marilyn also has a young daughter, Hermione, which is also the name of Helen’s long-lost daughter. Marilyn’s Hermione lives in New York City, and occasionally Pearl Bailey makes an appearance there.

Carson plays slow and loose with the Monroe legend, and in press materials, she connects her subject to the #MeToo movement. #WhatAgain? is more like it.” – Robert Hofler, The Wrap

“Carson’s interest in a multitude of genres and in mixing registers is on full display in Norma Jeane. Many of Whishaw’s lines, like “She’s just a bit of grit caught in the world’s need for transcendence,” are gorgeous and heightened, like poetry; the references tossed around range from Persephone to Pearl Bailey; the set is naturalistic, but the action happening on it is mythic and strange. We’re ostensibly watching two people write a play within a play about Marilyn Monroe, but they’re also investigating the Trojan War, and (in Fleming’s case) delivering operatic sung-monologues about rape and Greek tragedy, and (in Whishaw’s case) getting into full, Seven Year Itch Marilyn drag. It’s about gender and pain and war and mythmaking—all interesting, but wordy and not easy to follow. If my attention wandered off at any point, at least the Griffin’s beautiful raised stage and sleek all-black look gave me plenty to appreciate.” – Amanda Feinman, Bedford + Bowery

Anne Carson On ‘Norma Jeane Baker Of Troy’

“It is 1964. An office manager has hired one of his stenos to come in at night and type out his translation of Euripides’s Helen, but his obsession with the recently dead Marilyn Monroe kidnaps the translation.”

Norma Jeane Baker Of Troy, a dramatic monologue starring British actor Whishaw and soprano Renee Fleming, will have its world premiere at New York’s newest arts venue, The Shed, tomorrow (through to May 19.) The Canadian poet Anne Carson has spoken about her inspirations here. (A 64-page edition of the script is published by Oberon Books; you can read an excerpt on the LRB website.)

“Norma Jeane Baker of Troy is a play formed in the shadow of an ancient Greek play by Euripides called Helen. It has long fascinated me how Euripides was able, in the mid-5th century BC, to take an ancient myth and revolve it 360 degrees so that we are looking at the story and its meaning from the inside out. So he takes the myth of Helen, legendarily the harlot of Troy and destroyer of two civilizations, and says, What if we consider all this from the woman’s point of view? His play gives us a Helen who is not a seductress but a rape victim, not so much concerned with sex or self as with longing for the child she had to abandon when she was snatched away from home. The emotional focus of Helen’s character is sorrow for her lost daughter, Hermione. Euripides weaves this emotion onto the broader canvas of the Trojan War and the sorrow of war in general. The #MeToo movement has given us new ways to think about female icons like Helen or Marilyn Monroe, new ways to revolve the traditional male version of such events 360 degrees and find different, deeper sorrows there. At the same time, in Euripides’s play the Helen who went to Troy is a cloud, a phantasm, a piece of fake news. This raises ancient questions, which are also somehow hotly relevant to our own time, the questions What is knowledge? Who is to be believed? How can we ever say that we know anything?”

‘After The Fall’ in Buffalo

Arthur Miller’s controversial 1964 play, After The Fall, is being staged in the Manny Fried Playhouse through to April 6, as Anthony Chase reports for Buffalo News.

“Many people will have a vague awareness that this is the play in which Miller exorcises his feelings about his marriage to actress Marilyn Monroe. For Post-Industrial Productions, a newcomer on the Buffalo theater scene, taking on this notoriously challenging script, albeit in co-production with Subversive Theatre Collective, is a bold gesture.

The central character, a successful lawyer named Quentin, clearly stands in for the playwright.  He enters talking and seldom stops … In time you might begin to wish that he would quit his whining. And then again, the whining of Miller is endlessly intelligent and nuanced. My recommendation is to settle in and indulge in the luxury of such an overabundance of Arthur Miller.

[Darryl] Hart maintains Quentin’s likability, which is tempered by his cluelessness over why his contrasting wives ultimately come to the same negative assessment of him … Bethany Burrows doesn’t waste a single moment of the delicious role of wife Number Two, ‘Maggie.’ This is the unflattering portrait of Marilyn Monroe, who is both self-absorbed and lacking in self-esteem. Among the several plot threads, the Maggie plot is the most engaging and haunting.”

Ben Whishaw Prepares for ‘Norma Jeane Baker of Troy’

In an interview with The Times, Ben Whishaw reveals more about his intriguing role in Norma Jeane Baker of Troy, which opens at New York’s hottest new arts venue, The Shed, on April 6 through May 19.

“Whishaw, 38, is rehearsing a play called Norma Jeane Baker of Troy, in which he plays a man who likes to dress up as Marilyn Monroe. ‘We just got the costumes,’ he says. ‘I wear a dress that’s a replica of the one she wore in The Seven Year Itch — the white one where the wind comes up. They’ve also given me the bum, hips and breasts. I don’t think they’re as big as Marilyn’s, but they’re proportionate to my body. It’s a strange thing. I’m not playing Marilyn, I’m playing a man who’s infatuated with her. The play is set in the year she died and he’s in mourning for her. Apparently there was a spate of copycat suicides that year.’

To research the role, Whishaw has been reading a book called Fragments. ‘It’s bits of Marilyn’s diary, notes on hotel paper, poetry,’ he says. ‘She writes beautifully. Arthur Miller was here with her when they were doing the film The Prince and the Showgirl, and she opened his diary and read about how disappointed he was with her, how embarrassed he was being around his intellectual friends with her. Apparently this was devastating to Marilyn. All these men say how difficult she was. It makes you want to strangle them. But she really was amazing. She had a lot going on, a lot of sadness on her plate, poor darling. To be a star in that star system and those men.’

If she had been born 50 years later, does he think she would have been part of the #MeToo movement? ‘I’m sure she would have. I’ve been listening to interviews with her. She doesn’t seem afraid of anything.’

Fearless and vulnerable. It’s a contradiction that could possibly describe both of them. ‘Yes,’ he smiles.”

‘Goodbye Norma Jeane’, Reviewed

Goodbye Norma Jeane, the new play about ‘dance director’ Jack Cole and the movie goddesses he coached – set in the aftermath of Marilyn Monroe’s death  in 1962 – has opened at the Above The Stag studio theatre in Vauxhall, South London, and will be playing there until April 7.

“When Marilyn Monroe died, not just Hollywood but the whole world cried the loss of a bright star and famously seductive beauty. For some, though, down with the blonde bombshell went an entire career and a lifelong source of inspiration … It’s particularly interesting how the script manages to reproduce a nostalgic, yet not too sentimental, aura of the ‘baby doll’ culture, through the dialogues and profiles of other notable females in show business.” – Cristiana Ferrauti, The Upcoming

Marilyn Monroe has been endlessly mythologised and it’s difficult to approach her story afresh without it feeling cliched. The linking metaphor – Cole can’t own his dance steps just as Monroe’s image ceased to be her own – is affecting, though. But it could have been integrated into a more detailed exploration of Cole’s own life and his place in the history of dance.” – Julia Rank, The Stage

“Liam Burke’s play is about authority over women’s bodies, yet the story is told from the perspective of a man claiming a woman’s glory. Referred to throughout by her birth name, Norma Jeane, or – patronisingly – as ‘babydoll’, Monroe is a peripheral figure, put down and shoved aside for Cole to remind us repeatedly that she would be nothing without him … His monologue is interrupted by visits from former muses, with Rachel Stanley kept busy multi-rolling them all. These women are brightly painted in clothes rather than character; each silly, frilly, posturing visitor is quickly shooed behind a curtain, simply a catalyst for Cole’s next anecdote.” – Kate Wyver, The Guardian

Rachel Stanley is an absolute wonder playing seven Hollywood icons – Lana Turner, Norma Jeane Mortenson, Ann Miller, Gwen Verdon, Jane Russell, Betty Grable and Rita Hayworth – and bringing each back to life in looks and mannerisms is fine style. And here, please raise your glasses in salute to Giada Speranza and Ryan Walklett for the amazing costumes and wigs that helped Rachel create each character so well.” – Terry Eastham, London Theatre 1

“As much as Stanley brings, charm, wit and energy aplenty, she isn’t afforded enough on-stage time or gritty dialogue for a nuanced portrayal of these groundbreaking stars. Still, her exaggerated flourishes and vocal inflexions are a welcome relief from Cole’s decidedly more one-note monologues, which at times feel a little preachy … the breaks into song and dance are well executed and ripe with nostalgia, while Stanley’s repeated quick changes are a marvel in and of themselves – a stark contrast to the otherwise sluggish pace of act one.” – Jack Pusey, Daily Star

Goodbye Norma Jeane, Hello Jack (and Marilyn)

Goodbye Norma Jeane, a new play opening in the Studio Theatre at Above the Stag in Vauxhall, South London tomorrow, is seemingly not about Marilyn per se (despite the title – well, at least her name’s spelt correctly), but a tribute to her favourite choreographer, Jack Cole – starring Tim English, with Rachel Stanley playing Monroe and other screen goddesses.

“Jack Cole taught Hollywood to dance.

Now he’s writing a weekly column for Dance Magazine. Or trying to. Young men splash and yell in his swimming pool outside, and as the afternoon wears on a parade of his former muses arrives at his front door – Betty Grable, Jane Russell and Rita Hayworth among them. And each is determined to have the last word.

Liam Burke’s fascinating and inventive play shines a spotlight on one of Hollywood and Broadway’s most influential gay heroes, and the actresses he helped transform into cinema’s brightest stars.”

‘All About Eve’: From Screen to Stage

The new stage adaptation of All About Eve, starring Gillian Anderson and Lily James, has now opened at London’s Noel Coward Theatre, to mixed reviews. In today’s Guardian, Jenny Stevens goes back to the source, describing Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1950 classic  as “a perfect feminist film.”

“‘All the wittiest lines in the film belong to the women,’ says film critic Molly Haskell. ‘These women are never just pathetic. Mankiewicz is so fascinated by women and sympathetic towards them: he gives them importance, he gives them idiosyncrasy, he gives them their personalities.’

So many films from that era don’t hold up, but All About Eve still feels radical. It takes the theme of women being silenced, forced to listen to men and learn from them regardless of their own talents, and turns men into the butt of the joke. When Margo throws a birthday party for her partner, the director Bill Sampson, the poison-penned theatre critic Addison DeWitt turns up with a young blonde on his arm, a Miss Caswell (played by the then little-known Marilyn Monroe). Channing suggests Eve and DeWitt should talk about their shared love of the theatre. ‘I’m afraid Mr DeWitt might find me boring after too long,’ says Eve, saccharinely coy. ‘Oh you won’t bore him, honey,’ says Miss Caswell. ‘You won’t even get the chance to talk.’

It is an extraordinary scene, says Haskell, ‘especially when you consider that Monroe’s character is not meant to have lines. She’s meant to be just a bimbo. Yet out of this bimbo come these words of wisdom. Everyone has dignity and authority in their own way in the movie.'”

In the new play, Miss Caswell is played by Jessie Mei Li. As you can see below, she looks lovely in the role, but wisely avoids doing a Monroe impersonation. Tickets are selling out fast, but in association with the National Theatre and Fox Stage Productions, a live performance will be broadcast at selected cinemas across the UK and USA from April 11 onwards – pick your nearest venue here.

Thanks to Fraser Penney

Carol Channing 1921-2019

Carol Channing, the legendary Broadway star who originated the role of Lorelei Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, has died aged 97.

Born in Seattle in 1921, Carol and her parents moved to San Francisco when she was two weeks old. Her mother Adelaide was of German Jewish descent and her father George was part African-American (on his mother’s side.) A newspaper editor by profession, George was also a Christian Science practitioner and teacher.

At sixteen, Carol left home to major in drama in Bennington College in Vermont. In 1941, she won her first Broadway part as Eve Arden’s understudy in a revue, Let’s Face It! That year she was married for the first time, to writer Theodore Naidish. They divorced after five years.

In 1948, Carol won a Theatre World Award for her featured role in another revue, Lend An Ear. Stacy Eubank noted in Holding A Good Thought For Marilyn: The Hollywood Years, that on June 16, a little-known starlet, 22 year-old Marilyn Monroe, attended the opening night at the Las Palmas Theatre in Hollywood, where she was photographed with director Bill Eythe and actor Bill Callahan.

Marilyn at the ‘Lend An Ear’ LA premiere, 1948

Illustrator Al Hirschfeld published a caricature of Carol as a flapper in the show, the first of many portraits to come. She even credited his artwork with helping her win the part of Lorelei Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

Al Hirschfeld’s artwork for ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’ (1949)

Jule Styne’s musical adaptation of the 1926 novel by Anita Loos opened at the Ziegfeld Theatre in December 1949, running for almost two years. In her 2002 memoir, Just Lucky I Guess, Carol wrote that Loos had told Styne, ‘That’s my Lorelei!’ after seeing Lend An Ear in New York. Styne promptly wrote a new song for Carol, ‘Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend.’

Carol as Lorelei Lee

In January 1950, Carol made the cover of Time magazine. She was married again that year, to footballer Axe Carson, and they had a son, Channing Carson. After her third marriage to manager and publicist Charles Lowe in 1956, he was renamed Chan Lowe and went on to become a successful cartoonist.

Darryl F. Zanuck swiftly acquired the film rights to Gentlemen Prefer Blondes for Twentieth Century Fox. Carol was duly invited to Los Angeles for a screen test, but it was generally assumed that Betty Grable, the studio’s reigning blonde star of musical comedy, would get the part. In any case, Carol had already decided to take the show to London after the Broadway run ended.

Marilyn in New York, circa 1951

In mid-June of 1951, Marilyn Monroe flew to New York, where she spent several days.  Columnist Dorothy Manners would report that she had been given tickets by Fox to see Gentlemen Prefer Blondes – perhaps as a warning to Grable, who was then on suspension. ‘Physically, Marilyn fits the bill,’ Manners noted, ‘but whether she is experienced enough to take on a top comedy performance remains to be seen.’

In her autobiography, Carol claimed that Marilyn was instructed to see the play every night for a month, which is doubtless an exaggeration given Marilyn’s busy schedule. Chronically shy, Marilyn never ventured backstage. “Our orchestra never saw anyone that beautiful before,” Carol recalled. “For the first time they were all looking at Marilyn instead of our conductor…”

That November, after Blondes finally closed, the New York Post‘s Earl Wilson reported that Marilyn hoped to play Lorelei on the screen. In his 1992 biography of Monroe, Donald Spoto wrote that Fox informed Marilyn the part was hers on June 1, 1952 (her 26th birthday.) Nonetheless, the studio kept up the intrigue for several weeks before announcing it to the press, still claiming that Grable would star, with Marilyn turning brunette to play Lorelei’s friend Dorothy.

When the news broke on June 23, Hedda Hopper wrote that Carol had responded with a 200-word telegram to Fox, while Grable denied asking Zanuck for the part. Marilyn was now the studio’s rising star, but as Stacy Eubank observes, she was still on a standard contract and would cost Fox far less than either Grable or Channing.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was a golden opportunity for Marilyn, and a huge success when it opened in 1953. “I was heartsick over the whole thing, of course,” Carol admitted, and she also felt that Jack Cole’s flamboyant choreography “completely upstaged” the lyrics.

Carol with Yvonne Adair as Dorothy

“I do think it was one of her best movies,” Carol reflected on Marilyn’s performance. “Not funny, however. They didn’t use one word of Anita’s original book, which was hilarious and which was what constantly kept the stage musical on a higher level. Anita didn’t write the musical’s book. So where they didn’t insert the original book it was mundane. It was the stock formula for a dated Broadway musical. I followed Anita’s original Lorelei character ferociously…”

“You can cast Lorelei two ways,” Loos explained. “With the cutest, prettiest, littlest girl in town, or with a comedienne’s comment on the cutest, prettiest, littlest girl in town. I wrote her as a comedy, and Broadway is attuned to satire.” Carol’s broader interpretation was perfect for the stage, whereas Marilyn brought a softer, more innocent quality to Lorelei.

During the 1950s, Carol replaced Gracie Allen as a comedy foil to George Burns. “Finding roles that suit the strange and wonderful charms of Carol Channing has always been a problem to Broadway showmen,” a 1955 cover story for LIFE read. “She looks like an overgrown kewpie. She sings like a moon-mad hillbilly. Her dancing is crazily comic. And behind her saucer eyes is a kind of gentle sweetness that pleads for affection.”

Her next great role was in Hello, Dolly! (1964.) She befriended Broadway newcomer Barbara Streisand, only to lose out again when the younger actress was cast in the film adaptation. A registered Democrat, Carol campaigned for Lyndon B. Johnson and was a favourite of his wife, Lady Bird. In 1966, she won the Sarah Siddons Award, and finally achieved movie stardom alongside Julie Andrews in Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967), winning a Golden Globe as Best Supporting Actress, and an Oscar nomination.

In 1970, Carol became the first celebrity to perform at a Super Bowl halftime. Three years later, she was revealed to have been on disgraced president Richard Nixon’s Master List of Political Opponents – which she quipped was the highest accolade of her career.

With Peter Palmer in ‘Lorelei’, 1974

The 53-year-old revisited her early success in Lorelei (1974), a reworking of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes featuring songs cut from the original play, and broke box-office records by selling out for six consecutive days in just 24 hours. She also frequently appeared on television, including a 1987 Jules Styne special in which she performed ‘Little Girl From Little Rock.’

Carol Channing in 2013

In 1998, Carol separated from her husband of forty years, Charles Lowe. He passed away shortly afterwards. She would marry once more in 2003, after rekindling her romance with high-school sweetheart Harry Kullijian. He died in 2011. Carol maintained her faith in Christian Science, followed a strict organic diet and swore off alcohol.

Marilyn (left) and Carol (right), by Al Hirschfeld

A much-loved resident of Rancho Mirage, California, Carol had a star dedicated to her on the Palm Springs Walk of Stars in 2010. She returned two years later to honour Marilyn Monroe, praising her “brilliant and unique” performance in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.  Carol also attended a farewell party for Seward Johnson’s giant sculpture, ‘Forever Marilyn‘, when it left Palm Springs for the East Coast in 2014.

A Night With Marilyn and Diana

Two of the last century’s most iconic beauties, Marilyn and Princess Diana are the dual subjects of The Princess and the Showgirl, a new performance piece reflecting on the pressures of fame. The show is part of A Night With Thick & Tight, a triple bill created by dancers Daniel Hay-Gordon and Eleanor Perry, to be staged in the Lillian Bayliss Studio at Sadlers Wells from January 17-19 during the London International Mime Festival. (The title is, of course, a pun on The Prince and the Showgirl, Marilyn’s only film made in England.)