Marilyn: A Life On the Stage

Marilyn at the Actors Studio, 1955 (Photo by Roy Schatt)
Marilyn at the Actors Studio, 1955 (Photo by Roy Schatt)

In a thinkpiece for The Conversation, Margaret Hickey – a professor at Australia’s LaTrobe University, which ran an extension course on MM last year – asks an intriguing question: Would Marilyn’s career (and life) have been different if she had acted on stage?

“[The] drawn out Method approach is more conducive to a theatre production (which it was originally designed for) than a busy film set. The intimacy of the method, the focus on self, appealed to Monroe and she threw herself into it.

Much is made of Monroe’s drug addiction and famous lack of punctuality (few consider the similar behaviour of her co-stars and directors). But with the smaller budgets and longer rehearsal time of the theatre productions, she may have been less prone to the crippling anxiety attacks she increasingly suffered from.

Other stars of the era who managed the transition from ‘sex bomb film star’ to stage actor had a very different trajectory to Monroe. Elizabeth Taylor, Jayne Mansfield and Jane Russell, Monroe’s co-star in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, all grew tired of films that focused mainly on their figures and made the switch to stage.

A small role to begin with, an off-Broadway theatre with her Studio classmates, a lengthy rehearsal schedule – it might just have garnered Monroe the respect she craved.”

2016: A Year In Marilyn Headlines

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In January, exhibitions featuring Milton Greene and Douglas Kirkland’s photographs of Marilyn opened in London and Amsterdam. In New York, the Museum of Modern Art paid tribute to Marilyn’s choreographer, Jack Cole. Also this month, James Turiello’s book, Marilyn: The Quest for an Oscar, was published. And Edward Parone, assistant producer of The Misfits, died.

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In February, Marilyn ‘starred’ with Willem Dafoe in a Snickers commercial for the US Superbowl. Monroe Sixer Jimmy Collins’ candid photographs were sold at Heritage Auctions, and the touring exhibition, Marilyn: Celebrating an American Icon, came to Albury, Australia.

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Another major Australian exhibition, Twentieth Century Fox Presents Marilyn Monroe, featuring the collections of Debbie ReynoldsScott Fortner, Greg Schreiner and Maite Minguez Ricart – opened at the Bendigo Art Gallery in March. And Barbara Sichtermann’s book, Marilyn Monroe: Myth and Muse, was published in Germany.

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In April, a special edition of Vanity Fair magazine – dedicated to MM – was published. A campaign to save Rockhaven, the former women’s sanitarium where Marilyn’s mother Gladys once lived – was launched. And actress Anne Jackson – wife of Eli Wallach, and friend to Marilyn – passed away.

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In May, Marilyn graced the cover of a Life magazine special about ‘hidden Hollywood’, and Sebastien Cauchon’s novel, Marilyn 1962, was published in France. Cabaret singer Marissa Mulder’s one-woman show, Marilyn in Fragments, opened in New York, while Chinese artist Chen Ke unveiled Dream-Dew, a series of paintings inspired by Marilyn’s life story. The remarkable collection of David Gainsborough Roberts was displayed in London. Finally, Alan Young – the comedian and Mister Ed star, who befriended a young Marilyn – died.

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June 1st marked what would be Marilyn’s 90th birthday. Also in June, New Yorkers were treated to an Andre de Dienes retrospective, Marilyn and the California Girls. An exhibition of the Ted Stampfer collection, Marilyn Monroe: The Woman Behind the Myth, opened in Turin, Italy. A new documentary, Artists in Love: Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe, was broadcast in the UK, while Australia honoured Marilyn with a commemorative stamp folder, and genealogists investigated Marilyn’s Scottish ancestry.

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In July, the birthday celebrations continued in Marilyn’s Los Angeles hometown with tributes from painter David Bromley, and another Greene exhibition. A new musical, Marilyn!, opened in Glendale. Rapper Frank Ocean appeared alongside a Monroe impersonator in a Calvin Klein commercial. And Marni Nixon, the Hollywood soprano who sang the opening bars of ‘Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend’, passed away.

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August 5th marked the 54th anniversary of Marilyn’s death. Also this month, it was announced that Seward Johnson’s ‘Forever Marilyn’ sculpture may return permanently to Palm Springs. April VeVea’s Marilyn Monroe: A Day in the Life was published, and Marilyn’s role in Niagara was featured in another Life magazine special, celebrating 75 years of film noir.

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In September, Marilyn: Character Not Image – an exhibition curated by Whoopi Goldberg – opened in New Jersey. Terry Johnson’s fantasy play, Insignificance, was revived in Wales. Two locks of Marilyn’s hair were sold by Julien’s Auctions for $70,000. And author Michelle Morgan published The Marilyn Journal, first in a series of books chronicling the Marilyn Lives Society; and A Girl Called Pearl, a novel for children with a Monroe connection.

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In October, Happy Birthday Marilyn – a touring showcase for the collection of Ted Stampfer – came to Amsterdam, while Marilyn: I Wanna Be Loved By You, a retrospective for some of her best photographers, opened in France. Marilyn Forever, Boze Hadleigh’s book of quotes, was published. Marilyn’s friendship with Ella Fitzgerald was depicted on the cult TV show, Drunk History. And on a sadder note, photographer George Barris, biographer John Gilmore, and William Morris agent Norman Brokaw all passed away this month.

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In November, Marilyn’s ‘Happy Birthday Mr President‘ dress was sold for a record-breaking $4.8 million during a three-day sale at Julien’s Auctions, featuring items from the David Gainsborough Roberts collection, the Lee Strasberg estate, and many others including the candid photos of Monroe Sixer Frieda Hull. Also this month, comedienne Rachel Bloom spoofed ‘Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend’ in a musical sequence for her TV sitcom, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. And Marilyn Monroe: Lost Photo Collection, a limited edition book featuring images by Milton Greene, Gene Lester and Allan ‘Whitey’ Snyder, was published.

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Marilyn at Julien’s: Notes On Acting

Marilyn on the set for 'Let's Make Love' (Frieda Hull Collection)
Marilyn on the set of ‘Let’s Make Love’ (1960)

Among the many revelations to be found in the new Julien’s catalogue are a series of notes made by Marilyn on her work at the Actors Studio, where she once played Blanche DuBois in a scene from Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire.

“A black board notebook with red spine containing lined notebook paper with notes in Monroe’s hand. A very large letter ‘M’ is drawn inside the front and back covers. There are multiple notes written in another hand on the first page of the book, but the next page contains notes in Monroe’s hand in pencil with ideas for a ‘Street Car Scene’ reading in part, ‘begin with ? (1st grade happening Mexican boy accuses me of hurting him – having to stay after school it was nite [sic] outside – have place – concern because of Stan K. accusations plus – getting dress for Mitch trying to look nice especially since what Stan K. has said.’ The note also suggests she hum ‘Whispering while you hover near me,’ which is a song standard found in her notebook of standards in the following lot, only the lyric is ‘Whispering while you cuddle near me.’ The front and back of the last page of the book contain notes from acting class, including ‘during exercise – lee said let the body hang’; ‘2 exercises at one time/ cold & Touch/ one might not be enough for what’s needed’; and ‘sense of oneself/ first thing a child (human being) is aware of (making a circle) touching ones foot knowing himself is separate from the rest of the world,’ among others.”

Leaving the Actors Studio, 1960 (Frieda Hull Collection)
Leaving the Actors Studio, 1960 (Frieda Hull Collection)

Marilyn also studied the role of Lorna Moon in Clifford Odets’ Golden Boy, writing her lines twice to memorise them.

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Also on offer is an undated note which reads in part, “keeping all of the changes of pantomime & grimaces etc inside, then it forces the eyes – it all comes through the eyes”; and “Constantly practicing that letting go/ in which you don’t do in life which isn’t necessary or something/ feeling how it feels and practicing that/your spirit speaks.”

Collaborators: Marilyn, Miller and Kazan

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Richard A. Schwartz, a Professor Emeritus at Florida International University and author of several books about the Cold War era, has published a new play, Collaborators: Elia Kazan, Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe. Beginning with the accidental death of a journalist on the eve of Marilyn’s 1956 wedding to Arthur, the action then looks back to their first meeting five years earlier, when he unsuccessfully pitched a movie to studio head Harry Cohn. Marilyn was casually dating Arthur’s friend and creative partner, Elia Kazan, at the time.

However, it was Arthur she fell for – it has often been rumoured that he continued corresponding with her after returning to his wife and children in New York. Using a split stage, Schwartz imagines what Arthur might have written to her, comparing his inner turmoil with her heady rise to fame (and ongoing association with Kazan.)

The other main strand of the drama is the very different responses of Miller and Kazan to the red-baiting era. Although it’s clear that both had long since left their youthful dabblings with communism far behind and posed no threat to national security, Kazan chose to inform on fellow travellers in the theatre, thereby saving his Hollywood career, while Miller – supported by Marilyn – refused to ‘name names’, and was ultimately vindicated as a liberal hero. Unsurprisingly, their alliance came under strain, and they didn’t work together again until after Marilyn’s death, on the controversial After the Fall.

The Millers’ marriage is portrayed in two scenes: the beginning is represented by Marilyn’s alleged discovery of unflattering comments in Arthur’s journal, during filming of The Prince and the Showgirl; while the end is marked by another heated argument during production of The Misfits. But that omits a long period of relative stability in Marilyn’s otherwise turbulent life. Perhaps Schwartz could have added a further scene to reveal Marilyn’s vulnerability, and show how painful experiences, like her multiple miscarriages, may have caused her depression.

As it is, Schwartz’s portrayal of a self-destructive Marilyn seems to echo Maggie, the suicidal star in Miller’s After the Fall. He is on safer ground with his male protagonists, and the trial scenes are compelling – perhaps because those events are a matter of public record, rather than private conjecture – and with careful revisions to his characterisation of Marilyn, Collaborators could be a genuinely provocative play.

For those interested in learning more about this topic, Barbara Leaming covered it in detail in her 2000 biography of Marilyn, and Ron Briley’s The Ambivalent Legacy of Elia Kazan will be published next month.

 

Marilyn, Joe, Einstein and McCarthy in Clwyd

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A new stage revival of Terry Johnson’s Insignificance (which was famously adapted for the screen in 1985), starring Sophie Melville as Marilyn, is currently playing at Theatr Clywd in North Wales until October 15, reports the Chester Chronicle.

Insignificance takes four iconic faces of the post Second World War era in America – Marilyn Monroe, her husband, New York Yankees baseball star Joe DiMaggio, physicist Albert Einstein and communist witch-hunter Senator Joe McCarthy – and explores their explosive interaction in an imagined meeting in a hotel room in New York in 1955.

Sophie said: ‘I’m thrilled to wear the white dress and play the part of Marilyn – it’s a dream, it really is. It’s been hard work because it’s the first time I’ve played a character who is a real person.’

‘I’ve tried to take on her quality but at the same time make the part my own rather than try to impersonate her. The main thing was getting the voice right and once I’d got that everything just fell into place.’

The show’s director Kate Wasserberg returns to Theatr Clwyd following her production of [Arthur Miller’s] All My Sons last year.

She said: ‘Insignificance is a play I’ve wanted to direct since I saw it at my local theatre when I was 12 or 13 years old. My dad took me along and thought we were going to see The Kiss of the Spiderwoman but it wasn’t on.

‘Even though I was very young, there are several moments from the play that are seared into my memory. I remember laughing a lot. It’s a play about politics, life, love and the stars. Terry Johnson’s work is incredibly intelligent, it works on several levels at once but, line for line, it’s properly funny. I read his plays and laugh out loud.'”

mailyn.jpg.gallery (1)Lew  Baxter gives Insignificance a rave review in the Wirral Globe

“This latest rather spiffing theatrical production directed by Kate Wasserberg in Mold demonstrates just how on several levels the confrontations and verbal jousting between the protagonists still has potent relevance that surprises and amuses.

It is in many ways an emotional rollercoaster particularly when embracing the emotional fragility and conflicts that shaped the relationship of Monroe and DiMaggio, never mind the manic nature of McCarthy whose demonising of America’s intelligentsia leaves a stain on that country’s contemporary history.

And Einstein, branded a Soviet stooge, was himself vulnerable and is here played with considerable aplomb by Brendan Charleson.

Wasserberg has completely nailed the essence of Johnson’s work, which is enhanced by a really top-notch cast: there is a chemistry that fizzes like a sparkler between all four participants and each has that magnetic attribute that engrosses those watching.

Sophie Melville, relatively fresh out of drama school, is simply sublime as Marilyn … here is – if you’ll pardon the pun – a pitch-perfect portrayal of Monroe’s passionate if rather unsophisticated spouse Di Maggio by Ben Deery.

The play begins, in this instance, with the soundtrack of David Bowie’s ‘Starman’, which under the circumstances is most appropriate … This is the kind of production that emphasises how live, breathing theatre, more so than film, can captivate an audience and keep them gripped to the last fading light.”

‘Marilyn & Sinatra’ in London

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Marilyn & Sinatra, an hour-long play with songs, is playing through this weekend at London’s Jermyn Street Theatre.  Here’s a selection of reviews…

“On the face of it, Marilyn is a gift: the sex symbol, the pills and drink, the suicide, the famous husbands and lovers … But it’s too much of a gift.  Writers and directors seem to feel that all they have to do it to put the life, or part of it, on the stage, and they have a hit show on their hands.” Traffic Light Theatregoer

“There appear to be a number of versions of the story of their relationship, though this play prefers to avoid being unnecessarily sensationalist. It is quite likely, given how private conversations are acted out on stage, that there was a modicum of artistic licence going on – the play never claims to be a verbatim account of who said what and when.” London Theatre 1

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“In his prologue to the audience, the writer and  director, Sandro Monetti, explains that the premise of the show was inspired by Monroe’s final moments spent listening to various Sinatra albums. The overall performance also benefits from its desire to connect with the audience, with the actors interacting with them while they sing hits made famous by both stars.” The Upcoming  

“A palpable lack of insightful direction remains a recurring problem with this show, as each character tends to stand (or sit) around on the side-lines while the other narrates dialogue that is both awkward and awkwardly delivered … Erin Gavin bears a passable resemblance to the star and does vulnerability well, even if her voice has an occasional sharp edge to it that Marilyn’s carefully nuanced delivery never did.” Theatreworld IM2

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“We are presented with two narrations, starting from the first falterings of Monroe’s marriage to Joe DiMaggio. In her spoken role, Erin Gavin captures the breathy, seductive tones that Monroe used on screen, although there is more devotion to the accent than to its volume, rendering some lines inaudible even within the tiny confines of the Jermyn Street Theatre. There are the signs of vulnerability there, despite Monetti’s clunkingly obvious script, and although her attempts to sing the actress’s trademark songs ‘I Wanna Be Loved By You’ and ‘Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend’ are beset with timing issues, one does wish that Gavin (a co-producer of this show) had better material with which to develop her impersonation.” Reviews Hub

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“It’s quite a moving  show … Not really a musical, this little piece is firmly a play with songs. And little is the operative word. It really is very short. Perhaps it would be better staged in a double bill with another short item.” Musical Theatre Review

“Marilyn Monroe’s story has been told on stage hundreds of times in dozens of different ways but her character is always compelling.  The play only just scratches the surface, never really delving deeply into what made Marilyn and Sinatra tick. It falls short of being truly emotional but is entertaining …” Bargain Theatreland

Rehearsing ‘Marilyn!’ in Glendale

Kelley Jakle (MM) and Mark Hapka (Arthur Miller) in rehearsal for 'Marilyn!'
Kelley Jakle (MM) and Mark Hapka (Arthur Miller) in rehearsal for ‘Marilyn!’

Marilyn!, the new musical which receives its premiere at the Alex Theatre in Glendale, California on July 29, is the subject of an article in the Glendale News-Press.

“Tegan Summer, an actor and producer, is a life-long classic film fan, who was intrigued by Marilyn Monroe, from her tragic upbringing to her enormous success in show business.

Summer acknowledged the numerous stories that have been told of Monroe in the past. ‘But this, we believe, is a story no one else has heard, so much so that we also tell the story in a unique way,’ he said.

In writing Marilyn! Summer noted that even at the height of her career, Monroe was severely depressed and longed to go back to being Norma Jean, to return to simpler times. ‘What a dichotomy. That was the theme during my musical. I wrote with it in mind to the extent that I actually split the actresses’ [performances],’ Summer said.

In the production, Kelley Dorney plays Norma Jean Baker, and Kelley Jakle, star of Pitch Perfect and Pitch Perfect 2, plays Marilyn Monroe.

‘A lot of people think she was the movie star, but we don’t really focus on that side of her. All the things that are happening around her, that is the story we’re telling, and I think our version is extra special, because we look at (her) as Norma Jean and Marilyn, [both] happening at once,’ Dorney said.

The Alex Theatre is just the beginning for Marilyn! Prospect House Entertainment has plans in the works to take the musical to Beverly Hills, Las Vegas and China in the next year.

Summer also partnered with Hollygrove, Monroe’s former orphanage in Los Angeles. A portion of the proceeds from the musical will be donated to Hollygrove.”

‘Marilyn!’ Musical Preview in Glendale

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As I have often observed on this blog, plays about Marilyn are becoming a staple of fringe drama. Few have managed to rise from obscurity, but MARILYN! – a new musical previewing for one night only at the Alex Theatre in Glendale, California on July 29 – has impressive credentials, as Broadway World reports.

“The one-evening-only July 29 event, celebrates the life Marilyn Monroe with a short documentary film featuring Monroe’s former boyfriend Bill Pursel, Monroe’s Bus Stop co-star Don Murray, Monroe author, Michelle Morgan, President of ‘Marilyn Remembered’ Greg Schreiner, and Actors Studio classmate, James Karen, among other key figures.

Audience members will be treated to an exclusive collection of Monroe’s artifacts from Schreiner’s personal collection at a pre-show reception. But the highlight of the evening is the world premiere of the full length musical MARILYN!, which chronicles the star’s childhood and tumultuous path to stardom with stirring and emotional songs …

Prospect House Entertainment is also pleased to announce a collaboration with Hollygrove, formerly Los Angeles Orphan Home, where Marilyn Monroe stayed as a child. Hollygrove will receive a percentage of the event’s proceeds in perpetuity. MARILYN! additionally holds the distinction of being produced with the blessing of the Marilyn Monroe Estate.

MARILYN! Is set in the present day – Michelle is a young journalist from England researching Marilyn Monroe to commemorate the actress’ 90th birthday. She visits Charlie Page, one of Marilyn’s drivers, who is now living a life of solitude. Two stories emerge as Charlie bonds with Michelle he recalls Marilyn Monroe’s phenomenal life in flashback and reveals the real reason behind his living as a recluse for over forty years…

MARILYN! stars Kelley Jakle (Universal’s Pitch Perfect and Pitch Perfect 2, Spring Awakening in Concert) as ‘Marilyn Monroe’; Kelley Dorney (PBS Concert Special: A Tale of Two Cities) as ‘Norma Jeane’; Samantha Stewart (CBS’ Days of Our Lives) as ‘Michelle Morgan’; and Marvin Gay as ‘Charlie Paige’.”

‘Marilyn in Fragments’ in New York

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Marilyn in Fragments, cabaret singer Marissa Mulder’s one-woman show (first seen in St Louis in March), is now playing selected dates at New York’s Laurie Beechman Theatre, and has won a rave review from Stephen Holden of the Times.

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“In Marilyn in Fragments, a compressed one-hour show at the Laurie Beechman Theater on Tuesday evening, the rising cabaret singer Marissa Mulder wove passages from Monroe’s diaries and 20 songs into a compelling portrait…

Ms. Mulder delivers a theatrical monologue in a stream of consciousness while her brilliant accompanist, Jon Weber, speaking only a few words, plays the role of sympathetic therapist. Their rapport is distilled in a rendition of Tom Waits’s woozy barroom song ‘The Piano Has Been Drinking (Not Me)’ …

Ms. Mulder, wide-eyed and curly-haired, makes a bewitching and slightly scary Monroe, whose name is never mentioned in a narrative devoid of gossip and name-dropping … Her infatuation with movie stardom is reflected in a rendition of ‘It’s Only a Paper Moon’…

Marilyn in Fragments does not aim to please. This downbeat psychological portrait is uncomfortable to watch because the rawness of the performance is so believable … Trent Reznor’s ‘Hurt’, the song that sums up the show’s X-ray vision, captures its barely suppressed anguish and despair…”