Friday, October 5, 2012

Why Is "Siren's Heart: Norma Jean and Marilyn in Purgatory" such a Woman's Show?  It's a surprise to me, but our main audience so far has been women over 50 who just adore Louisa and her performance.  Must write more on this counter-intuitive question.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Phone Numbers

For reservations, call Box Office at Actors Temple Theatre (212) 245-6975 or Telecharge (212) 239-6200. Sun 2, Tues 7, Wed 2 and Sat 4:30

How I Wrote “Siren’s Heart: Norma Jean and Marilyn in Purgatory”

I started out, mainly as an exercise, trying to adapt the Marilyn stories of a friend for the stage. However, the stories in Richard Geha’s As Marilyn Lay Dying , while great, proved just too sad and grimly realistic for me - as is all fiction about Marilyn Monroe, which usually takes the "documentary" approach of How It Really Happened. (It so prides itself on exactitude that it sometimes looks like fetish-worship to me.) Anyway, most stories about Marilyn Monroe are inevitably morbid, it seems to me.

I began to wonder whether there might be a Happier, Even Truer Story about Marilyn Monroe, and that’s when our play’s character emerged - Norma Jean as she Might Have Been. A happier, more secure woman who has fulfilled far more of her dreams for herself than she was able to in Real Life - it’s a fantasy we all might have.

Marilyn Monroe is still a Living Icon in the hearts and minds of millions, and in that sense she’ll live forever. In her own time, however, she had the misfortune to be an actual Living Icon, and the weight of living up to that Impossible Ideal of Truth and Beauty crushed her. The Mask of Marilyn Monroe suffocated the living soul beneath it, Norma Jean Mortenson (or Baker, but she favored Mortenson).

"Siren’s Heart" tries not to follow the usual "victim" narrative line; it tries to imagine Marilyn–nay, Norma Jean–as she Might Have Been; rather, as she wanted to be–a happier and a more fully rounded person. The almost platonic love millions of Marilyn-philes have is for that person they sense trapped inside the obvious Sex Symbol stereotype. (As much as they may love the Victim, many love the Stereotype that imprisoned her too.)

They sense the Heart of the Siren, and it’s that living soul our play tries to show. Now at last, Norma Jean’s about over "the mopes", she’s made peace with her vicious super-ego, and she has almost completed the long reading list Arthur left her. She also fights the good fight against wrinkles and cellulite of women her age. She often loses that battle but she continues to live.

In her art, Norma Jean wanted to be more than "Marilyn Monroe," but in her life there was little room for anything else. "Siren’s Heart" tries to imagine the artists Marilyn might have wanted to be–Marie Dressler, Doris Day, Marlene Dietrich–and she notices surprising parallels between her own career and other stars’–George Sanders, Elvis Presley and Bette Davis.
The play tries to be faithful to the facts as we know them, but it does not pretend to be a documentary. (It’s more like expressionism.) Did Marilyn actually sing "When I Fall In Love" to the troops in Korea? No one knows for sure, but if the troops paradoxically were saluting the Girl Next Door–as she would have loved and suspected–then that is the poetic truth of it. That’s the public truth that matters most about Marilyn Monroe. (The myriad "private truths" about her may number in the millions, or they may all be the same.)
She discovered how much more was possible in Korea. For once, she could see the actual audience that adored her–and not the audience-in-her head that hated her–and she thought she understood her potential as an actress and as a person–much more fully.

The Norma Jean we see in "Siren’s Heart" is that more fulfilled person. She’s able to sleep well almost every night, and she no longer needs the uppers and the downers and the rest of the pills. She’s had time to study and learn much of what she wanted to–at last she has some real leisure in her life–and she understands "Marilyn Monroe" as an American icon better than she ever could.
This is the new Norma Jean–free at last. She knows who she is, and she’s secure in that lovely knowledge. She sometimes speaks like a loving mother of her younger self–the mother she never had–because she has finally forgiven her actual mother. In a final scene, we see her empathizing with her institutionalized Mom and trying to portray her with truth and love. It may be one of her best performances as an actress–and as a human being. - Walt Stepp


March 8, 2012. Didn’t realize it until now, but I’ve just written two new songs for the show about the experience of being a goddess - which is not your everyday experience. ( Are there any other songs on this theme? Maybe "Fame" - "I’m going to live forever" - is one other.) This is one reason why I think it’s important to have these unique songs in our show. Being a Goddess - and being crushed by it while also being fantastically empowered by it - is a Main Theme of our play.
What does it mean to be a goddess? I think it means to be an Ideal - for millions of other people. That may or may not coincide with one’s own ideal of oneself , but being the Ideal of Millions usually prevails in real life - especially when it also means millions of dollars. (I’m convinced that Marilyn’s male counterpart, Elvis Presley, offed himself at 42 because he was financially and morally obligated to play into eternity the wonderfully inventive kid he was when he was 21. No one was more alive in 1956, but then the Colonel put that genie in a bottle - and Elvis was an old, old boy when he died.)
Usually for worse, as Fame’s a very dangerous thing, as we’ve learned over and over again

in the fifty years since Marilyn’s Death. More than a few people in show business can handle fame, I hope, but I wonder whether anyone could handle the uncanny, out-of-this-world eminence of Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, Elvis Presley, or - most famous and doomed of all - Marilyn Monroe. (In the play, Norma Jean marvels at the long, relatively happy life of Kim Novak, Marilyn’s closest ‘goddess" rival back in the day.)
"Norma Jean’s Lament" shows that crushing burden of fame, while "Looking At Her" tries to present the fantastic, almost other-worldly allure of it.
(Incidentally, that song was suggested by an essay by Truman Capote in his Music For Chameleons. He tells the story of walking about the City with Marilyn, back in the heyday of the Actors’ Studio - when everybody still smoked a lot. They sound a couple of typical New Yorkers bitching about everybody and everything. When they return to the Apartment (his, I think), Truman hears a long silence from Marilyn in the bedroom. He calls out "What are you doing?" and when he gets up he sees her sitting before the mirror. She replies, "Looking at her.")


Well, I certainly didn’t start out thinking about Music for Marilyn, but as Norma Jean began to tell her story - and singing bits of the popular music she’d grown up with - I realized I had several songs already written that seemed to fit into her story even more closely.
I’m an English professor at Nassau Community College, and the songs by W.B. Yeats and Gerard Manley Hopkins were composed first of all for pleasure - my pleasure in English and American literature. Years later, it seemed remarkable that these musicalized poems fit so closely with my New Norma Jean. (Or maybe it was not so surprising, since they’re all about themes I’ve long thought about.)
The use of the "Margaret" song (which I wrote thirty-five years ago) came to me while reading in Donald Spoto’s most judicious biography about Marilyn’s miscarriage during the making of The Prince and the Showgirl. ( Most Marilyn fans know about that, but I never did.) The song seemed to me a fine use of Hopkins’ beautiful and most famous poem, "Spring and Fall: To a Young Child" - about explaining mortality to a little girl. (The "Fall is Love / May Love Follow You" refrain is mine, I’m proud to claim, but it certainly would not have occurred to me without Hopkins’ magnificent poem.)

The Yeats songs - my lord, it’s as if almost all his poems are about Marilyn. At least, "The Mask" (performed gorgeously by Louisa Bradshaw, updated musically and beautifully by our musical director, Gregory Nissen, and choreographed wonderfully by Donald Garverick to the most insightful "voguing" idea of our director, Lissa Moira - ah, the theatre) is about the Mask (Masque?) of Marilyn that at once empowered and suffocated Norma Jean.
"And Not My Yellow Hair" ("For Anne Gregory", Yeats’s title) and "Brown Penny" are both gay songs (both in the original and newer sense of the word) about Good Looks, and of course we are still pondering the Great Good Looks of Her. 
I thought "The Shiksa Strip" , by Louisa Bradshaw, Lissa Moira, and Gregory Nissen, might be a little too "dangerous" when Louisa first suggested it to me - I didn’t want to offend the Nice Jewish Ladies who come to Everybody’s plays downtown - but now, as Louisa performs it, it’s clearly a generous-spirited show-stopper ( with Don Garverick’s choreography again).
And a valuable part of our music is that set by David "Zen" Mansley - especially those placards of movie greats that often serve as song cues - and of course the lovely Sound Design

by William Giraldo.

Norma Jean Sings Songs Marilyn Never Sang (original songs)

"Looking At Her" (Words and Music by Walt Stepp)

"Norma Jean’s Lament" (Words and Music by Walt Stepp)

"Brown Penny" (Music by Walt Stepp ; lyrics based on the poem by William Butler Yeats)

"The Shiksa Strip" (Music by Louisa Bradshaw and Gregory Nissen; Lyrics by Louisa Bradshaw and Lissa Moira )

"And Not My Yellow Hair" (Music by Walt Stepp ; lyrics based on the poem,

"For Anne Gregory" by William Butler Yeats)

"The Mask" (Music by Walt Stepp ; lyrics based on the poem by William Butler Yeats )

"If You Could See Me As I Am" (Words and Music by Walt Stepp)

"Margaret, Are You Grieving?" (Music by Walt Stepp ; lyrics based on "Spring and

Fall: To a Young Child" by Gerard Manley Hopkins)

Norma Jean Samples the Greats

"Love Me Or Leave Me" by Walter Donaldson and Gus Kahn

"Black Market" by Frederick Hollander

"When I Fall In Love" by Victor Young and Edward Hayman

"As You Desire Me" by Allie Wrubel

"Happy Birthday, Mr. President" by Patty Hill and Mildred J. Hill

"Thanks For the Memory" by Leo Robin and Ralph Rainger

"Heartbreak Hotel" by Mae B. Axton, Tommy Durden and Elvis Presley

"I Was the One" by Schroeder, Demetrius, Blair & Peppers

"M Is for Mother" by Howard Johnson

"Hail to the Chief" by Sir Walter Scott and Joseph Glassner

"Camelot" by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe

"Mama" by Cesare Andrea Bixio (music), Bruno Cherubini (Italian lyrics) , Harold Barlow and Phil Brito (English lyrics)

"I Wanna Be Loved By You" by Herbert Stothart and Harry Ruby

"We’re Just Two Girls From Little Rock" by Hoagy Carmichael and Jule Styne

"The Ballad of High Noon" by Dmitri Tiomkin and Ned Washington

"Satin Doll" by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn

"Crazy" by Willie Nelson

"Together Again" by Buck Owens

"My Heart Belongs to Daddy" by Cole Porter