MORE THAN MEETS THE BLONDE: Erin Sullivan returns home to ILM stage to portray sex icon in ‘With Love, Marilyn’
Former Wilmingtonian Erin Sullivan knows a thing or two about being typecast. It’s been an ongoing battle from the onset of her acting career—one of which began in Wilmington, NC, more than two decades ago. She always was cast the sexy blonde.
“Finally, I embraced my sexuality in the production of ‘The Sunshine Boys,’ as the sexy nurse, with our unforgettably gifted, the late Lou Criscuolo [founder of Opera House Theatre Company], and the amazing Tony Rivenbark [executive director of Thalian Hall] back in 2001,” Sullivan remembers. “I realized then how comfortable I was being in my own skin, and how it made me different from a lot of the other budding actors. I committed to the niche I had fallen into and ended up booking regional work that kept me employed for a decade.”
Her résumé grew throughout her teenage years in Wilmington, with roles like Baby June in “Gypsy” and Ursula in “Bye Bye Birdie.” Once she moved away, she took on larger touring productions like “Hairspray” (Amber Von Tussle) and “Grease” (Frenchy, Cha Cha understudy). In 2012 she returned to Wilmington to take on another well-known blonde, Elle Woods—a character who proved her intellect as powerful as her cute matching pink outfits—for Opera House Theatre Company’s musical adaptation of “Legally Blonde.” “I’m known to play that style of woman,” Sullivan continues. “But I always wanted to expose a bit more depth and personality.”
In that realm, she connects with her current role as America’s prime sex icon, Ms. Norma Jean, in the original show, “With Love, Marilyn,” which tours through Wilmington this week. “You can say I relate to Marilyn,” Sullivan tells. “It’s as simple as, ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover!’ I want people to look past my blue eyes and blonde hair at what I can achieve.”
“With Love, Marilyn” found its roots in 2015 when Oscar-nominated and Tony and Olivier award-winner Mark Medoff (“Children of a Lesser God”) asked Sullivan to take on the iconic blonde in “Marilee and Baby Lamb: The Assassination of an American Goddess.” They premiered the show in Las Cruces, New Mexico, to rave reviews the same year. Sullivan became inspired to pen her own cabaret-style tribute, “With Love, Marilyn,” after an audience of Broadway elites praised her portrayal.
“I was approached by those producers with the simple phrase, ‘You are really good at this ‘Marilyn’ thing,’” Sullivan details.
The play covers Monroe through all of her loves: the men in her life and the adoration of and from her fans, as well as her career as a model, singer and actress. The show features 11 of her tunes, arranged by Henry Aronson. Famed ones like “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” and lesser-knowns like “You’d Be Surprised” will be heard.
“When we began to explore the concept of the show, I focused on how to marry her card catalog into a love-letter-style monologue,” Sullivan describes. Her current favorites come in the show’s finale—a medley of “Do It Again,” “I Wanna Be Loved By You” and “Bye Bye Baby.”
“We knew we needed an uplifting closure, as we know how her story ends,” Sullivan says. “I didn’t want to ignore the inevitable, instead celebrate it in an angelic state.I want to share her accomplishments, her losses, her pain, her happiness—all the things you love and all the things you didn’t know—through her eyes.”
Not a tribute performer or impersonator, Sullivan threw herself into the research of Monroe. She received help from Samantha McLaughlin, the cofounder of the All About Marilyn Organization, an historian who helped keep the integrity of the script by sharing details, like how her name change came about, her first date with Joe DiMaggio, how Arthur Miller proposed, and even the number of people she stood in front of when singing “Happy Birthday” to President Kennedy. “It’s as factual as it can get,” Sullivan tells.
Sullivan also studied Monroe’s speech in movies and interviews, in order to detail all the minutiae between her personas—to expose the magnetism that catapulted the star’s iconic status. She researched connections upon connections, of all people associated with Monroe. “I’ve watched her body language and how she moves,” Sullivan says. “I pay attention to how comfortable she can be on camera, and then the archived moments in which she looks so painfully out of place and sad. I’m not her—no one will ever be her. I’m simply paying homage to the best of my ability to a woman who should always be remembered.”
Sullivan finds Monroe so relatable because of her vulnerability and appeal to basic human nature. But what the public often doesn’t see is her savvy as a woman who worked in an industry not always on the side of females.
“Marilyn was a smart cookie,” Sullivan tells. “She played a very smart game to get ahead. She was never a dumb blonde. I believe her brilliance was her downfall. The entertainment industry is a bloody battle. She did what she had to do to get ahead—while she, with the studios, basically created an alter ego that made her famous, yet never really knowing who she was.”
In the end, Sullivan wants her performance to be a part of the preservation of Monroe’s legacy—from the painfully flawed to the pioneer. She wants to continue telling her story with all of its ups and downs.
“Women in power is something I am passionate about,” Sullivan says, “and even though Marilyn’s been passed for so long, I hope she can see the fire she started: creating honest and good work.”
Sullivan knows first hand on and off stage as much is true. She published a book about it, even, in 2014, entitled “Theatrical Baggage: A Manual, Workbook, and Bible on How to Survive a National Tour and Other Gigs.” “Success isn’t just Broadway,” Sullivan says. “It isn’t just having your movie on a screen. It’s feeling creative and fulfilled and being truthful to the work you stand behind.”
Recently Sullivan began taking “With Love, Marilyn” on the road. She played the Klein Memorial Auditorium in Bridgeport, CT, last month for audience members who were alive during Monroe’s heyday—who watched her films during their theater releases and saw her win a Golden Globe.
“Backstage they said I eerily brought her back to life,” Sullivan notes. “There was also a group of teens involved in the theater community in Bridgeport that attended, all of whom were stunned. I am a product of Thalian Association Children’s Theatre, and I saw myself in these growing artists.One sweet girl said to me, ‘I had no idea that’s who she was. I’m going to spend the rest of the night on Google and Amazon buying her films so I can learn more. I felt my job was done!”
That Sullivan is bringing her own success back to Wilmington full circle is its own meaningful trophy. She calls it a dream come true, really—one that will bring with it lots of emotions, especially now since one of her early ILM mentors, Criscuolo, has passed away.
“The last time Lou saw me perform was between 1991 and 2001,” she notes. “I did over 85 productions in Wilmington. I missed my senior prom doing ‘Guys and Dolls.’ I remember vividly the morning before the closing matinee, I got to the theater early so I could walk through the entire audience and touch every seat at Thalian. That was a religious moment for me; a memory I knew would carry more weight for me than a prom photo. No one loves Thalian Hall more than me; this is my home, and this theater community is my family.”
With Love, Marilyn
Fri., Oct. 13, 7:30 p.m.
Thalian Hall • 301 Chestnut St. www.thalianhall.org
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