A musical about Marilyn Monroe, huh? That must’ve caused a lot of drama.
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).
NOT many people know that an actress named Geralyn Petchel (who was a ringer for Monroe) was originally cast as Marilyn, and was replaced during rehearsals. (Actually, she was replaced 10 days before the first preview!) One of the producers reported to the press that they were recasting the role and demoting Petchel to Marilyn understudy because she had gotten too fat.
Petchel left New York the day she got the news- and hasn’t been heard from since.
(Karen and Ivy… watch out.)
Marilyn: An American Fable was born one day when producer William May was in a taxi riding down Broadway. “I have a vision!” he exclaimed. “Marilyn! Written in lipstick across the Winter Garden!”
The show ended up at the Minskoff. (A new show called Cats had a monopoly on the Winter Garden.)
Music and lyrics to Marilyn were contributed by a dozen or so different writers, none of whom had ever had a show on Broadway before.
During previews, a 29-year-old lyricist was called in to write one number, a song to stand in place of “Diamonds Are A Girls Best Friend”. David Zippel made his (uncredited) Broadway debut, with a song entitled “Cold Hard Cash” (with music by Wally Harper).
According to Frank Rich at the New York Times, “If Marilyn is to be believed, Monroe’s biggest problem was insomnia- an ailment soon rectified when she takes to tap dancing through the streets of New York with fellow classmates from the Actors Studio.”
Indeed, the show was one of the most infamous camp-fests ever seen on Broadway.
Mary Testa played Hedda Hopper, wailing about “Gossip”.
Scott Bakula played Joe DiMaggio, whose main job was to look brooding near the end of each act.
A bubble bath Hollywood fantasy number (what?) found Marilyn in a sparkling bathtub, surrounded by chorus boys dressed up as plumbers in pink overalls, who danced with plungers, calling her “Miss Bubbles”.
In March of that year, another musical about Marilyn Monroe had opened in the West End. London’s version was called Marilyn! and starred Stephanie Lawrence. Marilyn! was less sympathetic and emotional than its Broadway counterpart.
(Fun fact: While a Marilyn: An American Fable poster hangs on the wall of fame at Joe Allen, there is an inexplicable poster of Marilyn! on the wall at Kodama.)
(Second fun fact: When I was 17-years-old, I got a Marilyn: An American Fable bootleg for Hanukkah.)
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.
“A Single Dream” had Young Norma Jean, in Nowhere-ville, sounding like Annie, singing “I make a wish tonight/ Just like the one that I make each and every night/ Perhaps one day when I grow up/ I’ll have them all saved up!” until she transformed into grown-up Marilyn, and we heard, “I don’t know how to get there!” as Destiny assured her “Someday, you’ll get where you belong! Destiny is your guide!”
The musical told the entire story of Marilyn’s life- not accurately, not well, but with lots of sequins and splash.
At one point, Marilyn broke up with one of her husbands by delivering the line: “But you’re Arthur Miller. How can you be so boring?”
“The production surrounding the star looks as if it suffered a bombing raid during previews,” said the New York Times.
Indeed, Frank Rich (and his oftentime theatre pal Wendy Wasserstein) had a private joke that all of the most disastrous Broadway shows they saw together started with an M. Marilyn… Marlowe… Moose Murders. (I suppose Frank saw Miss Saigon with someone else.)
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.
One bright spot in Marilyn was provided by Willy Falk, as one of Marilyn’s fans. Every night, when he entered and sang his big number “You Are So Beyond”, an audience that had been jeering all night began cheering. One critic even noted in his review that he saw audience members wake up from naps just to give “You Are So Beyond” a standing ovation.
As Ken Mandelbaum tells us, Marilyn had “a giddy innocence that was very rare”.
Click here to see Broadway star Jay Armstrong Johnson singing “You Are So Beyond” from Marilyn An American Fable.
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