Interview: Luke Yankee's Being Me in MARILYN, MOM & ME

Luke Yankee’s Marilyn, Mom & Me world premieres February 16th @ the International City Theatre

By: Feb. 01, 2024
Interview: Luke Yankee's Being Me in MARILYN, MOM & ME

Interview: Luke Yankee's Being Me in MARILYN, MOM & ME

Luke Yankee’s Marilyn, Mom & Me world premieres February 16, 2024, at the International City Theatre. Written by Luke, he also directs the cast of Laura Gardner, Alisha Soper, Jacquelin Lorraine Schofield, Brian Rohan and Noah Wagner.

Thank you for taking the time for this interview, Luke!
What would your three-line pitch for Marilyn, Mom & Me be?

This play is based on a true story about Marilyn Monroe and her intense friendship with my mother, the Broadway character actress Eileen Heckart, during the filming of Bus Stop. In 1956, when Heckart was cast as Monroe’s best friend in the film, Monroe, as the ultimate “method actress,” set out to make Heckart her best friend in real life. 40 years later, Heckart’s son Luke tries to unravel his complex, often volatile relationship with his mother by better understanding her intense friendship with one of the biggest movie stars of all time.

Marilyn, Mom & Me was presented in 2019 and has received readings at the Stella Adler Theatre and the Manhattan Theatre Club, as well as Zoom benefits for the Actors’ Fund and Broadway Cares. Has your script changed any for this world premiere?

While developing the play, I added two characters. The first is Rosetta LeNoire, who ran Amas Repertory Theatre in New York and was a major force in fighting for diversity in the American theatre. Rosetta was my mother’s best friend and was one of the few people who could turn to the flinty Miss Heckart and say, “Heckie, cut the crap!” and get away with it. She serves an important role as a foil and voice of reason to Eileen.

The other character I added is Ella Fitzgerald. Marilyn had a significant impact on Ella’s career, and it was because of Marilyn’s admiration for Ella that she was able to start performing in the big clubs of the day. Not many people know this, and I wanted to draw attention to their friendship.

Interview: Luke Yankee's Being Me in MARILYN, MOM & ME It started when Marilyn’s vocal coach wanted her to learn about phrasing. He instructed her to listen to Ella Fitzgerald’s Gershwin album 100 times. Marilyn did as she was told and immediately became a huge fan of Ella’s work. Monroe would later vouch for Ella to play The Mocambo, the famous Los Angeles nightclub. When the owner of the club rejected the idea (not because Ella Fitzgerald was Black, but due to her size), Marilyn said, “If you book Ella Fitzgerald for ten nights, I will book a ringside table and I will fill the table every night with the biggest celebrities in town.” How could he refuse an offer like that? I spoke to a friend, Geoffrey Mark, a biographer and authority on Ella Fitzgerald, to verify the story. I asked him when this occurred. He got this little smirk on his face and said, “It happened in 1956 during the shooting of Bus Stop, and your mother was one of the guests at The Mocambo.” Well, you could have knocked me over with a feather!  Of course, I had to put that into the play.

How long was the gestation period between the embryo of the idea for Marilyn, Mom & Me and this version of the script?
Since this play is largely autobiographical, you could say the gestation period has been my entire life! My mother loved to tell stories of her experiences on Broadway and in Hollywood. When people pressed her about working with Marilyn during the filming of Bus Stop, she had two sets of stories. One was about this woman who was very unprofessional, showing up late and with a bad habit of not knowing her lines. The other story was about this woman who was so lost, longing to have a child of her own and so desperate to receive love, even with all she had achieved. To the day my mother died, she could never talk about that side of Marilyn without bursting into tears. That, in and of itself, says a lot. My mother was what one would call “a tough customer.”  Nobody else had that impact on her.

After my mother’s passing, I became interested in learning about her relationship with this woman who became one of the most iconic stars of all time. While I was listening to some audiobooks about Marilyn, I began to see similarities between my mother and her, despite these women appearing to be polar opposites on the surface. Both women shared similar wounds, had difficult childhoods, estranged parental figures and tremendous abandonment issues. As a result, neither of them ever truly felt like they deserved a place at the table.

Interview: Luke Yankee's Being Me in MARILYN, MOM & ME Shortly after discovering this, I began to write the play. I holed up at my place in Palm Springs in the heat of August and had the entire first draft written within three days. It just poured out of me. But what started out as a play about my mother and Marilyn Monroe slowly wound up becoming every bit as much a play about our complex mother-son relationship. The story between Eileen and Marilyn intertwines with the relationship between Eileen and Luke.

This is not your first collaboration with International City Theatre. What is it about ICT and its artistic director caryn desai that keeps you coming back?
caryn desai loves the theatre and its practitioners. Every season, she does at least one or two new works, which is very courageous in our current theatrical climate. She treats her artists with great respect, and, since she is also a director herself, she understands the process. Getting a first production can be very difficult. I am so grateful to her for being the one to launch this play. She has been so supportive and really lovely. This will be my fourth production at ICT, and hopefully not my last.

Have you worked with any of this show’s cast or creatives before?
Three of the actors – Laura Gardner (who plays Eileen), Brian Rohan (Luke) and Alisha Soper (Marilyn) – have been with the production from the very beginning and have done all the readings and workshops. They are all brilliant. By this time, we have a kind of shorthand, which really helps on a tight rehearsal schedule. I’m able to say things like, “Darling, remember the wonderful choice you made on that line for the workshop in Austin? Do that!” Noah Wagner (who plays Joshua Logan, Arthur Miller Laurence Olivier and several other supporting roles) was in a few of the initial readings. He has had leading roles in two of my other plays and I am thrilled to be working with him again. Jacquelin Lorraine Schofield (who plays Ella Fitzgerald and Rosetta LeNoire) is new to me, and she is magnificent. She nailed it right off the bat. All of these actors know that a great deal of this play is the story of my life, and they treat it with great reverence and respect. That is extremely touching to me.

You were only two years old when Marilyn passed away. Do you have any memories of her in your infancy?
I remember my mother’s feelings towards her. One of the things I talk about in the play was this deep river of sadness that would overtake my mother whenever she spoke about Marilyn. I think it came from a feeling of wanting to save her, and yet knowing she couldn’t. No one else ever had that impact on her. In many ways, that became the genesis for the play.

Interview: Luke Yankee's Being Me in MARILYN, MOM & ME Was your childhood full of your mother’s acting colleagues in and out of your home?
It was! I have written a very successful memoir called Just Outside the Spotlight: Growing Up with Eileen Heckart, which was published by Random House. Mary Tyler Moore (who was a close family friend) wrote the foreword. In it, I talk about my rather unusual childhood, with Ethel Merman teaching me how to make a martini at age 10, Paul Newman showing me how to upstage my co-star in children’s theatre when I was 11 and doing phone interviews for Variety and the New York Times at 13 the night my mom won the Oscar. At the time, I took it in stride, but looking back, I can see there was a real “Auntie Mame” quality to it all! My mom was great friends with people like Teresa Wright, playwright Robert Anderson, director Morton DaCosta, and Millicent Martin. From the time I was little, I was sitting in the corner of the living room during cocktail parties listening to all their showbiz stories and soaking them up like a sponge. That became the foundation for my book.

How old were you when you realized that your mother was a famous and respected actress?
I think I was somewhere around seven or eight before I realized the other kids in the neighborhood didn’t sit around on Saturday nights watching their mothers on The Mary Tyler Moore Show or Gunsmoke. There’s a moment in my memoir, Just Outside the Spotlight, where I talk about my mother introducing six-year-old me to Santa Claus and Soupy Sales in the same day. If she knew them, she had to be special!

You have an MFA in playwriting and screenwriting, and you also studied acting at Juilliard. What made you transition from acting to writing and directing?
Like so many playwrights and directors, I started out as an actor. I performed in regional theatres for a few years, but when I started directing, I felt like I was really wearing shoes that fit for the first time. I assisted and was mentored by some brilliant directors: Hal Prince, Brian Murray, Ellis Rabb and Gerald Freedman. The same is true for me with playwriting. I recently wrote a book called The Art of Writing for the Theatre, which includes lots of practical information as well as interviews with 18 playwrights, librettists and critics – everyone from Marsha Norman and David Henry Hwang to Ben Brantley and David Zippel. Each of those interviews was like a master class for me. One of my plays, The Last Lifeboat (about the aftermath of the Titanic disaster) has had over 70 productions. Seeing my plays performed all over the world is incredibly gratifying.

Your mom, although enigmatic about her time with Marilyn, was generous with the stories of her fellow actors. What story was the most memorable in your youth?
There are so many! That’s why I wrote a memoir, two one-man shows, and now, Marilyn Mom & Me. With all the people I had the privilege of meeting over the years, one that meant the most to me was Marlene Dietrich. She was a friend of my mom’s, and I met her backstage when I was 15 after seeing one of her many farewell tours. She was so regal – and such a star! She held my hand the entire time she was chatting with my mom, and she was wearing so much perfume, I smelled like her for three days. I would get the hall pass to go to the boys’ room and take a whiff of my hand just to relive the moment. For obvious reasons, I call that chapter in my memoir, “Smelling Marlene Dietrich.”

Interview: Luke Yankee's Being Me in MARILYN, MOM & ME Is there a new script percolating in your creative brain?
There are always new projects percolating. I have a fun, film noir radio play (intended to be performed live) called Confessions of a Star Maker which recently had a very successful benefit performance in Palm Springs. I’m hoping to do a reading of that in New York sometime soon. A few months ago, I reread Ted Chapin’s wonderful memoir, Everything Was Possible. It’s based on the journal he kept while he was the “go-fer” and assistant to Hal Prince and the creative team of Follies. I was an assistant on Grind with Ben Vereen, Light Up The Sky with Peter Falk and Nancy Marchand, Brigadoon with Tony Roberts at New York City Opera, Real Estate with Sada Thompson, and The Circle with Sir Rex Harrison, Glynis Johns and Stewart Granger. I kept journals on each of these projects. Ted’s book really inspired me to dig out these old notebooks and see if I might have a book or two in them – or perhaps a play.

What’s in the near future for Luke Yankee?
There is considerable interest in Marilyn, Mom & Me by several New York producers, which is very exciting. And I’m currently the Head of Playwriting at Cal State Fullerton, and I teach musical theatre at Chapman University, so that certainly keeps me on my toes.  My one-man show, Diva Dish, about my experiences growing up as a showbiz kid, is booked on a couple of international cruises this summer. My life is rich, varied, and anything but dull!

Thank you again, Luke! I look forward to experiencing your show.

For tickets to the live performances of Marilyn, Mom & Me through March 3, 2024; click on the button below: