During the opening performance of Marilyn: Forever Blonde, actress and singer Sunny Thompson faced a tough crowd.
The play opened in Hollywood, Calif., across the street from Marilyn's Walk of Fame star. In the audience sat former producers, co-stars and friends of Marilyn. The pressure was on for Thompson, who personifies the iconic blonde in the one-woman play about Marilyn's life.
"It was terrifying at first, because there were so many people who came to the play who knew her and worked with her," Thompson said. "I thought, 'Gosh, can we open it in Dayton, Ohio, where they don't claim her?'"
Opening in Hollywood was Thompson's husband's idea. Greg Thompson, the show's playwright and producer, thought that if the play was true to who Marilyn was and authentic to those who knew her, they would know they had created something successful.
The play got positive reviews and approval from the audience. Now, Tucsonans will be able to see Thompson as the legend when Marilyn: Forever Blonde makes its Old Pueblo debut this week.
Instead of portraying her as an overtly sexual movie star, the play, brought to Tucson by Invisible Theatre, seeks to expose the woman behind the icon. Set during Marilyn's last photo shoot before her death, the play uses only quotes from Marilyn, as well as 17 of her songs. Marilyn reflects on her life, from her childhood in nine foster homes, to the studio system that controlled her life and work, to her loneliness as she grew older.
"We can see, through both the music and her own words, how she, at the end, was all alone, and really questioned what it would be like to do it all again," said Susan Claassen, artistic director of Invisible Theatre. "I think that audiences know only Marilyn as an icon rather than Marilyn the person."
Thompson was initially hesitant to take on a one-woman play about such a larger-than-life woman. Her husband had been asking her for years to consider starring in the play, and she took on the role reluctantly.
Stephanie Shine, artistic director of the Seattle Shakespeare Company, was asked to direct the play. Shine's previous work made her an attractive candidate.
"Shakespeare is very gritty and sexy. ... I knew (Shine) wouldn't be afraid to explore Marilyn's sexual appeal, and that's a part of Marilyn, a distinctive part of her," Sunny Thompson said. "To leave that out would do (Marilyn) severe injustice."
Beginning in the fall of 2005, Shine and Thompson began researching every aspect of Marilyn, scouring books, movies and audio recordings for glimpses into her life. The two women discovered a strong individual, a marketing genius, a hard worker and a performer who never thought anybody was beneath her; her work was meant equally for truckers and millionaires, Thompson said.
Marilyn was a career woman of the 1950s who did whatever it took to get ahead--which could mean sleeping around.
"She looks at it as, 'Well, this is what it takes. Nobody ever got cancer from sex,' and we say that in the play," Thompson said. "It's a means to an end."
As Thompson immersed herself in Marilyn's life, she had to recast herself physically as Marilyn. For the "external work," a professional was called in: Jimmy James. A drag artist who famously impersonated Marilyn in the 1980s, James showed Thompson how to walk, talk and look like Marilyn.
"It took him eight hours to do my makeup for the first time," Thompson said. "It's more like painting a canvas than makeup."
At the end of the week, James gave Thompson his blessing. After all of the careful study of Marilyn's internal struggles and external beauty, Thompson took the stage as Marilyn. As a result, audiences will be able to see Marilyn's rollercoaster life and early death depicted in a novel way.
"It's definitely a play that hits the highs and understands the lows," Claassen said. "But it's definitely hopeful."
The play is also very funny, Thompson said, thanks to Marilyn's wit.
"It is tragic in the end, no doubt about it, but it's tremendously funny, in a glamorous way," Thompson said. "It's true to Marilyn."
Invisible Theatre's presentation of Marilyn: Forever Blonde will take place at the Berger Performing Arts Center, 1200 W. Speedway Blvd., at 8 p.m., Saturday, Jan. 10, and 1 p.m., Sunday, Jan. 11. Tickets are $42. Rush tickets, subject to availability, will be available for half-price a half-hour before curtain. For more information or reservations, call the Invisible Theatre box office at 882-9721, or visit IT's Web site.