Remembering ‘Marilyn! The Musical’

Must Close Saturday: The Decline and Fall Of The British Musical Flop, a new book by Adrian Wright, covers the short-lived 1983 show, Marilyn!  The Musical. It failed to win over critics and closed after 156 performances, but its talented star, Stephanie Lawrence, won critical acclaim and that year’s Best Actress award from the Variety Club of Great Britain, as well as a nomination for the Society of West End Theatre awards (now known as the Laurence Olivier awards.)

“The show was intended as a tribute to another popular icon who died young, but it failed to capture the public imagination,” Michael Billington wrote in The Guardian. “The one person who emerged with credit was Stephanie Lawrence. She not only captured the externals of Marilyn Monroe – the wiggle, the walk, the passionate pout, the vocal breathiness – but conveyed the carmined innocence and soft vulnerability within. It should have been her passport to fame but the show failed to live up to its star.”

Her performance is fondly remembered by Monroe fans, and in 1995, she released an album, Marilyn: The Legend, featuring songs from the musical as well as covers of Monroe tracks. Stephanie, who also starred in more successful musicals including Evita, Starlight Express and Blood Brothers and acted on film and television, died suddenly in 2000. Michael Billington described her as “an actress of rare glamour” and “a pillar of British musical theatre”, who nonetheless “never fully achieved the 40-carat stardom that came to her no-more talented peers.”

‘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.”