BWW Interview: Erin Sullivan of Temple Theatre's WITH LOVE, MARILYN
Raised in Wilmington, North Carolina, Erin Sullivan has built her career playing the favorite blonde bombshells of the musical theatre repertoire. Most recently she developed and originated the role of Marilyn Monroe in a new play by Tony Award-winning playwright Mark Medoff, Marilee and Baby Lamb: The Assassination of an American Goddess, which premiered at the Rio Theatre in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Sullivan performed around the country in the National Tours of Hairspray as Amber Von Tussle in over 300 performances, as Frenchy in Grease, The Wedding Singer, and Shrek. She recently appeared in the developmental lab of a new musical Hazel: A Maid in America directed by the legendary Lucie Arnaz and choreographed by Chet Walker. In 2014, she released her first book Theatrical Baggage: A manual, workbook, and A Bible on How to Survive a National Tour and Other Gigs. In the book, she imparts her expertise regarding life on the road to the actors of the next generation, and is available on Amazon.com and at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts bookstore. Sullivan attended the esteemed American Musical and Dramatic Academy. Now, she's getting ready to star as Marilyn Monroe in the Temple Theatre's upcoming presentation of With Love, Marilyn on September 6th.
JK: To start things off, how are rehearsals going?
ES: Oh good. Everything's going really well. We're moving full steam ahead. Yeah, it's going well.
JK: What's it like for you getting to be back in North Carolina to do this show?
ES: Oh my gosh, it's thrilling. I just actually relocated back to the Raleigh-Durham area after being in New York City for almost 18 years. So I am a little bit of shell shock with the adjustment, but I grew up in Wilmington, so I've got my North Carolina home state pride and being back in the area is really exciting. I've only ever gotten to bring my show to North Carolina once before, which was in Wilmington in the fall of 2017, so it was a giant homecoming, which was probably one of the most amazing days in my theatrical career. Getting to perform a piece I wrote on the stage right where I'm performing on. I'm extremely grateful to the Temple Theater for allowing me to make my Triangle debut with my show. And again, it will be only the second time I've ever done it in North Carolina. I think it's gonna be a fun time for all, and Temple is a beautiful venue. So I'm really excited.
JK: This isn't your first time playing Marilyn Monroe. You've previously played her in Marilee and Baby Lamb: The Assassination of an American Goddess, which was written by the recently deceased Mark Medoff.
ES: Yeah, my journey with Marilyn has been kind of an interesting one. I didn't just wake up one day and was like "I'm going to be Marilyn Monroe in theater." I've been doing theater for 30 years and I kind of always was geared to like playing the bombshells and the sex pots and you know, just the vamps in all of the classic genres. I believe it was in 2015 that Mark had written this new play and they were looking to start developing it and kind of start the process because it's a long process with a new work. And I got very lucky and I was selected to read and be Marilyn for Mark's new play. And it was kind of where my real journey with learning about this woman began. Medoff's piece was very dark, it was very truthful. I didn't talk as Marilyn in the show. I may have said two lines in that Marilyn whispery voice. There was definitely more of I guess you could say the Norma Jean. But within working on Mark's show, I learned so much about this woman's life and you know, not only who she was on camera, but everything behind all of the sadness and everything she went through with her marriages and all of her issues with Hollywood and even with her self doubt and her personal defeats and addictions and all of these things that a lot of times we don't like to think about in someone that we idolize. And that's probably why I became really fascinated with her and I was able to learn all these things through Madoff's work. That's kind of where I always love Marilyn, kind of then spawned from my experiences and my knowledge from Medoff's work. I'm no longer associated with Madoff's piece, but the team of producers behind it were like, "you know, you're so good at this Marilyn thing." And they supported me in giving me my own work. So With Love, Marilyn is kind of a beautiful baby gift from Marilee and Baby Lamb which I took what I learned in that office work, combining it then with my musical theater background. So we make a bit more of a lighter piece where I sing 11 songs and it's incorporated into a style where it's had about a 70 minute monologue. I give you the Marilyn that you want to see on camera, but then I also give you the Norma Jean that was going through all the pain and the hurt behind her eyes. So I'd like to take the audience on a very emotional and educational journey about this incredible icon that we lost way too soon.
JK: And Mark Medoff recently passed away back in April this year. What do you have to say in regards to his work as well as working with him?
ES: His passing was extremely difficult for me as I was very close with him for the last couple years of his life. Getting to work with him and be mentored with him, and I did call him Pa because was a father figure to me, was one of the most rewarding experiences in my life. Not even just artistically, but as a person, Mark was a genius, and I was constantly in awe. I know, I'm incredibly lucky to have had the opportunity to work under him and worked for him to create with him. I don't even have enough words without getting choked up how much Mark meant to me. I'm very prideful and I take everything that he gave me on stage and off, and I always try to put that into my work and know that the writing world will never be the same. He was a genius and he was one of the kindest human beings I've ever met.
JK: He of course also meant a lot to the deaf community with his most famous work, Children of a Lesser God.
ES: Oh yeah, absolutely. I had the privilege of getting to know quite a bit of the foundation of the people who really helped take that off. I was actually there opening night when they had the revival on Broadway. I was actually babysitting his grandchildren. They were at the show across the street. Mark wrote Children of a Lesser God for Phyllis Frelich. I became very close with her husband, Bob Steinberg, as well during Marilee and Baby Lamb. Really upstanding people, very amazing.
JK: How familiar were you with Marilyn Monroe prior to getting cast?
ES: I was of course familiar. Not a historian by any means, but I knew exactly who she was. I'd been compared to her on some other pieces. I did a couple of Christmas shows where they were like, "Hey! Sing 'Santa Baby' and the white dress." Of course, I've seen Some Like It Hot because it's one of the most brilliant comedic films ever made. So I was definitely a fan of her work. I was very flattered that people were like, "Oh, you're like, you have to this sexuality on stage, it's very Marilyn." And I'd be like, "okay, cool." You know, it's like little toss away comments I get from people over the years that I guess when I really started to go in and break into Mark's work, that's kinda one of those things that made me stand out among other women in on stage as I was just very comfortable with my body and is very comfortable in my sexuality. I guess that's something I had in common with her.
JK: We've obviously seen many different interpretations of Marilyn Monroe over the years. Among them was Michelle Williams' Oscar nominated performance in the 2011 biographical film, My Week with Marilyn. How do you make the role your own.
ES: That's an excellent question. There's so many different things about her too that have so many layers. She actually gives us as artists a lot of great material because there are so many different pieces to her that you're still trying to figure out to this day. I'm not an impersonator, I'm an actress. So I merely try to embody the characteristics that made her so iconic and made her just so addictive to the viewing eye. So I put it in a lot of work with the voice and the mannerisms and her vocal inflections and tambour. I just like to play out her vulnerability. She was such a nervous wreck a lot of the time. That's my favorite part of her is just the realism and making her relatable to any audience that sees me. So that everyone could all relate to her, and it's not very hard. Everyone's gone through heartache and loss. It's just for me feeling that the audience can connect to me as a performer, but also connect to her and be like "Wow, I didn't know that about her. I feel that for her." That to me is my favorite thing. I like to think of what makes me different as a Marilyn tribute artist because I'm not just giving you the fluff and the grandiose. I like to really provide her in a very beautiful light.
JK: Going back to the beginning, how did you get started in the theatre?
ES: Oh my gosh. I started performing when I was about seven years old. I was basically a really hyperactive kid and my mom's like "I don't know what to do with her." So I started doing theater when I was seven and I haven't stopped. I was just a little brat during a school talent show that just decided they wanted to have the featured solo. So I took the microphone off and started belting into it and people were like "She's got a really good voice." My mom was "Okay." So she took me to auditions, I loved it, I've never looked back, and I'm almost 38 years old. So I was a very strange kid where at the age of 11, I knew what I wanted to do with my life. Though sometimes I go back and like, "Oh, I could, I could tell an 11 year old Erin 'Maybe you should've thought that you want to be a doctor.'" So I've, I've been in the arts for 30 years and I love every aspect of the industry. It's a very frustrating industry and it's very soul sucking sometimes. But then, there are moments where it's the most rewarding thing, and I can't think of anything better. I kind of have gotten into directing recently, and I've done some regional stuff. With Love, Marilyn is what makes this piece so special is that I co-wrote the show. With all of my knowledge and I worked with a historian and it's really amazing to have my own piece. It's a labor of love and it's my baby.
JK: Now that you've relocated back to North Carolina, what are your plans for the future?
ES: I only got here in October, so a little under a year now, and kind of starting fresh, which has been terrifying. But stupid me, I fall in love and he's a teacher, so I'm trying to have a normal life. After being in New York for 18 years, it's actually really, really nice. Like I have a little backyard and I have a car and I can drive to Target and put things in a trunk. Things about, like, people who've never lived in New York do not appreciate or understand. I'm just slowly trying to get acclimated into the theater scene here. Even Wilmington is really artistically cultural and less going on in this area, which is another reason I wanted to locate here. So I'm going to start teaching for Theatre Raleigh. I'm very excited about that. I'm going to be, uh, doing their young performer workshops for about ages 11 to 15. I'm really excited because like I said, I've gotten into directing regionally. I've done lots of masterclasses. I taught for five years on the road and being a long term vet. I love working on material, especially with teenagers because they're just so moldable and they listened and they're so excited to be there. So I'm very excited to get to finally meet Lauren Kennedy, let alone work for her. So that's kind of on the docket and, I'm going to be directing their production of Elf the Musical, Jr. So yeah, that's happening really. It's right after Temple. I'm very excited to get to know the folks at Theatre Raleigh. They do some really incredible work and I think what Lauren's brought to the area's been awesome. I'm trying to audition myself for, you know, North Carolina theaters here and just slowly try to introduce myself. I know it's a tough egg to crack and you're the new kid. Because a lot of people have their core company members and they have people they'd like to cast and it's definitely is a tricky situation. Though I'm hoping to gracefully and hopefully get on one of their stages soon.
JK: What are some dream roles you'd love to pursue in the future?
ES: Oh my gosh. I feel like my dream role list shifts with every age that I go through. But still to this day, I want to do Audrey in Little Shop of Horrors more than anything. I love this score, Alan Menken and Howard Ashman are geniuses. I was very lucky that as a young kid, Brad Moran was my dance teacher and he was the original Seymour cover in Little Shop Off-Broadway. I just think it's such an amazing show. Maybe one day I can talk to Lauren (Kennedy), because I really want to do Side Show. I've never done Side Show, but I was very fortunate in New York that I worked at a restaurant called Joe Allen. It's an extremely famous restaurant, where I had the privilege and the pleasure of meeting Henry Krieger and became friends with Henry and I called him Uncle Henry. I just think this score that him and Bill Russell did for Side Show is just outstanding as they wrote such beautiful anthems for women and women duets are really not all over the place in Broadway theater scores. So Side Show is definitely up there. There's a couple roles out there that I'm waiting to age into. I really want to play Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd because I'm a character actress. I'm definitely not an ingénue. I'm not very good at just being pretty. Honestly, there's the dream roles, but also too, the dream is to be a working actor. Sometimes you just didn't have that in the distance, but then you're also incredibly grateful for any opportunity to come your way that you can get on stage.
JK: In conclusion, what advice would you like to give to any aspiring young performers out there?
ES: Well, keep fighting the good fight. The industry is hard and as long as you have a strong support system and you allow yourself to be frustrated and you allow yourself to celebrate that and dealing with rejection and knowing at the end of the day, you know what? Sometimes it's not you. There is that she's a fickle beast. I got very hurt because due to logistics, I had my potential Broadway debut taken away from me because I was not a star. It's the game of the industry is really, it's really cruel sometimes, and that's why I created my own work. I completely support people in creating their own pieces. And I hope that patrons to the theater area know that a lot of times it's artists who keep the creative activity flowing. Don't feel rejected if it was an audition and something you wanted really bad. You never know, you might just be an inch or two tall and they're renting the costumes from someplace else. Sometimes, it doesn't have to do with your talent, and that's why sometimes just having a strong support system and not giving up. Just keep trying and keep studying and keep auditioning because eventually something's gonna stick and it'll be so rewarding and there'll be the best feeling and it'll be worth all the heartache.
JK: Erin, I thank you very much for devoting your time to this interview.
ES: Thank you. I appreciate you reaching out to me and doing coverage on the show. I hope everyone will come out and support. If you're a Marilyn fan, if you're not a Marilyn fan, I am really excited to get the opportunity to bring my show to this area. I think everyone's really going to enjoy it.
Be sure to catch the Temple Theatre's production of With Love, Marilyn on September 6th. For more information, please visit: