‘Is Marilyn Meant for the Stage?’

'Marilyn: An American Fable' (1983)
Alyson Reed in ‘Marilyn: An American Fable’ (1983)

I’ve said before that there are so many plays about Marilyn being produced lately that it’s hard to keep track of them all – and frankly, most of them are best forgotten. Marilyn: Forever Blonde, the long-running, one-woman show starring Sunny Thompson, has bucked the trend and become a firm fan favourite. And back in 1983, British actress Stephanie Lawrence gained critical acclaim for her role in Marilyn! The Musical, although the show was panned.

So is Marilyn’s life the stuff that great plays are made of? ‘I think the best way to present Marilyn Monroe’s life is on the stage rather than in a movie,’ says MM biographer Carl Rollyson. ‘Why? Because in this case the right actress can project an image of Marilyn Monroe that is not dependent on camera closeups which keep reminding us the actress is not Marilyn Monroe. In the theatre so much can be done when the audience is not right smack up against the actors.’

As the makers of TV’s Smash try to bring their Marilyn-inspired musical, Bombshell, to Broadway, author Mark Robinson looks back at another ill-fated 1983 production, Marilyn: An American Fable, in an article for Playbill.

“It was never a bad idea to tell Monroe’s story through the conventions of musical theatre. It simply needed to be done in a way that served to honor the icon and the human being behind it. Bombshell, or at least the TV show that was the genesis of its creation, is already a hit and continues to be a subject of intrigue for those who want to see how a mythical fairytale about the creation of a Broadway musical concludes. It’s the inevitable payoff for two season’s worth of devoted viewership. With a strong book, the right casting and a production that delivers all the splash and flash worthy of Marilyn Monroe, all of the other ingredients are in place for a quality musical. This is not Marilyn: An American Fable, where very few things came together to transport us into this Hollywood legend’s life. All signs point to a ‘happy ever after’ for Bombshell.”

‘Marilyn: An American Fable’

Those intrepid producers seeking to bring Marilyn’s life story to the stage (by the dozen, it seems) should take heed of this cautionary tale of an ill-fated Broadway show.

“Many people know that before Smash, there was already a Broadway musical based on Marilyn Monroe’s life – Marilyn: An American Fable, which closed after 17 performances. The show opened at the Minskoff in 1983 with Marilyn played by Alyson Reed (who went on to play Cassie in the A Chorus Line movie, and later, played Ms. Darbus in the High School Musical films).

Marilyn: An American Fable opened with Young Norma Jean singing a tuneful number called ‘A Single Dream’ (that I adore) with a trio of performers simply called: ‘Destiny’. ‘Destiny’ followed Marilyn around throughout the musical, commenting on her choices and generally looking fabulous.

The show was directed and choreographed by Kenny Ortega, and it would be his one credit on Broadway, before moving on to film projects like the High School Musical franchise (for which he brought Alyson Reed along), Michael Jackson: This Is It, and the upcoming In The Heights movie.”

You can read Jennifer Ashley Tepper‘s hilarious article in full at Broadway Spotted.

Why Did ‘Smash’ Crash?

Over at the New York Times, Charles Isherwood explores why, after two seasons, Smash lost its way with the public.

“Why tempt the showbiz gods by calling your show Smash in the first place? A $10 fortune teller on St. Mark’s Place might have steered the producers away from that choice. Perhaps it was hubris of Hollywood players to whom people rarely say no.

Also in the fate-tempting department was the decision to place at the center of the show a musical about the life of Marilyn Monroe. Those who follow Broadway know that an actual musical about Monroe ranks among the most notorious flops of the 1980s, which was a vintage decade for notorious flops. The real Marilyn: An American Fable churned through all sorts of personnel changes and turmoil before opening at the Minskoff and closing after only 17 performances, racking up a total of zero Tony nominations.

Sadly, watching most of the numbers from Bombshell, as the Marilyn musical in Smash was called — and once again, really, ‘bomb’? – I had the uneasy sense that I was discovering just how impossible it must have been to make a non-cheesy musical about such a complicated and celebrated figure. Although Mr. Shaiman and Mr. Wittman are skillful and smart songwriters, their ingenuity was soundly defeated by the inability to avoid all the obvious clichés of the well-worn Marilyn storyline.

Enter Hit List, the downtown musical that was brought into the plot line this season to provide a rival for Bombshell. Exit more credibility. This supposedly edgy show, hatched at a theater modeled on New York Theater Workshop, where Rent began (exterior shots were filmed there), was a flashy pop spectacle that tried with a panting desperation to ride the exotic coattails of Lady Gaga, and of course felt every bit as authentic as a teenager vamping before the mirror.

Tellingly, the funniest Smash joke didn’t happen on the show itself, but on NBC’s late, great 30 Rock. During the finale of that show’s penultimate season, after the travails of Smash had already become fodder in industry circles, Tina Fey’s character Liz gave proof of her unshakeable loyalty by exclaiming to her boyfriend, ‘Hey, I don’t bail, I’m still watching Smash!'”