Long before we had the fabulous Mark Shaiman and Scott Wittman (Hairspray, Catch Me If You Can) composer and lyricist of SMASH’s fictional Marilyn Monroe bio, Bombshell; there was the first musical that attempted to recreate her life in Marilyn: An American Fable opening on November 20, 1983. Sadly, it was also one of first big flop of the 1980’s. The show had a book by Patricia Michaels, and music and lyrics by a slew of composers including Jeanne Napoli, Doug Frank, Gary Portnoy, Beth Lawrence, and Norman Thalheimer.
Not to be confused with the West End production Marilyn starring Stephanie Lawrence, this allegedly “authorized” version (officially endorsed by acting coach Lee Strasberg’s wife Anna), while also based on events in the life of screen icon Marilyn Monroe, was a highly fictionalized account, complete with a happy ending; and set on a huge, vacant Hollywood soundstage. The production underwent numerous changes throughout its development period. During rehearsals, original star Gerolyn Petchel was replaced by Alyson Reed, and after previews began, director/choreographer Kenny Ortega (Newsies) was replaced by Thommie Walsh and Baayork Lee (A Chorus Line), although Ortega retained credit in the program. Ten musical numbers were dropped and forty-five minutes of dialogue was eliminated before opening night. Among the characters retained were young Norma Jean Baker, who interacted with her adult self, and a Greek chorus-like trio called Destiny, who provided a running commentary about Marilyn’s worries.
The reviews were fairly scathing for Marilyn, in fact, the New York Times review by Frank Rich started with:
“IF you read all the fine print in the Playbill for ”Marilyn: An American Fable,” you’ll discover that the new musical at the Minskoff has 16 producers and 10 songwriters. If you mistakenly look up from the Playbill to watch the show itself, you may wonder whether those 26 persons were ever in the same rehearsal room – or even the same city – at the same time. On top of its many other failings, ”Marilyn” is incoherent to the point of being loony. I defy anyone to explain – just for starters – why 10 chorus boys dressed in pink plumbers’ costumes sing a song about bubble baths at the climax of Act II.”
After thirty-four previews, the Broadway production opened at the (cursed) Minskoff Theatre, where it ran for only seventeen performances. In addition to Reed, the cast included Scott Bakula (making his Broadway debut) as Joe DiMaggio, Will Gerard as Arthur Miller, and Kristi Coombs as young Norma Jean. Reed was nominated for the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Actress in a Musical. There have been attempts the salvage the material
Click below to watch lost footage from Marilyn: An American Fable in 1983: