Interview: Theatre Life with Stephen Cole

The lyricist/performer/bookwriter on his first novel Mary & Ethel…and Mikey Who? and more.

By: Jun. 02, 2024
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Interview: Theatre Life with Stephen Cole
Stephen Cole

Today’s subject Stephen Cole is an accomplished lyricist, performer, and book writer. You can now add novelist to that already impressive list of accomplishments. Stephen Cole’s latest literary endeavor takes us back to the Golden Age of Broadway with his first novel entitled Mary & Ethel…and Mikey Who?. The book is now available everywhere for purchase in both hardcover and digital versions.

Stephen Cole’s writing credits for the stage include The Night of The Hunter, Casper, The Road to QatarAfter The Fair, and Goin’ Hollywood. As a writer of books his works include That Book about That Girl and Marni Nixon’s memoir, I Could Have Sung All Night.

When not writing, Stephen is the head administrator for a very educational Facebook group devoted to lesser-known musicals called Forgotten Musicals. For you musical theatre aficionados, this group is definitely for you.

Stephen’s novel takes us back to a time in Broadway history that just doesn’t exist anymore and that’s too bad. Mary & Ethel…and Mikey Who? makes us yearn for the good old days of musical theatre. You know, before amplification and when shows had ACTUAL scenery. This book fills that void and is an excellent read for sure.

Stephen Cole is an artist living his life to the fullest to be sure. When you love what you do, “The Lord Will Provide” Extra points if any of you get that song reference from one of Stephen’s musicals.

At what age did you get interested in musical theatre?

My mother took me to my first Broadway musical (Hello, Dolly! Starring Betty Grable) when I was nine years old, but I had been listening to soundtracks and cast albums before that. I would say that seeing a live musical at the St. James Theatre began my love affair with musical theatre, but it was also those records: Mary Poppins, The Sound of Music, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Mame, Annie Get Your Gun, Gypsy, I Do! I Do! Etc. etc.  Show tunes filled my heart.

Where did you receive your training?

When I was fourteen, after a year or two of voice lessons (I was a natural singer who at twelve sounded like Howard Keel) I auditioned and won a slot as an apprentice in summer stock where we did one show a week, playing one at night and rehearsing the next during the day. Apprentices also learned to paint the sets, clean the toilets, sing, dance, and act and usher in our costumes. All for free. Besides living on Oreos, it was the best early training anyone could get. I repeated that for the next three summers and became a professional actor. On the job training. The same was true of my writing. I sat down to write a musical at fifteen years old and produced it at Brooklyn College at sixteen, directing, writing, acting and even selling drinks in the lobby. Doing it. This was my training.

What was your first professional job working in the theatre?

That wonderful summer stock gig at fourteen at the Lake Placid Playhouse where we did George M, Cabaret, Fiddler on The Roof, Camelot, Plaza Suite, Do I Hear a Waltz? Blithe Spirit and Dracula, not to mention Sir Slob and the Princess. Other luminaries to emerge from that incubator include Charles Busch, who gave me the impetus to write my first musical.

Interview: Theatre Life with Stephen Cole

Where did the idea come from for your novel entitled Mary & Ethel…and Mikey Who?

Sitting on a beach at Asbury Park, I decided to combine my vast experience in writing musicals and my love of straight prose. I had already written several published non-fiction books including That Book about That Girl and Marni Nixon’s memoir, I Could Have Sung All Night. My short stories were winning some awards and being published so I wanted to try my hand at a novel. Write what you know is the rule and I knew and loved Ethel Merman and Mary Martin. I wanted to write about how the lives and careers of these two Queens of Broadway crossed over the years. Finding Mikey (Michael Marvin Minkus) as a time traveling super fan who could not only be there in the room where it happened but help influence their lives and careers along the way from 1939 to 1970 was a gift from heaven. His story became the main story, but Ethel and Mary provided the fun, glamour and flash of the golden age of Broadway.

From the initial idea to final draft and publication, how long did the entire process of getting Mary & Ethel…and Mikey Who? published take?

It took several drafts (one whole draft without Mikey!) and lots of revisions. I would say five years from the idea to publication. In between came the pandemic when I left it alone and wrote several shorts stories and a whole other novel called “2020.” When Robert Armin of Moreclacke Publishing agreed to not only publish the hardcover and kindle versions but engage the great star Anita Gillette to “perform” the book for Audible, I was thrilled.

Interview: Theatre Life with Stephen Cole
L-R Mary Martin's daughter Heller Halliday and Stephen Cole with a photo of Mary Martin after a performance of Inventing Mary Martin. Stephen Cole wrote and directed the piece.
Photo courtesy of the artist. ​​​​

Can you please give us a brief overview of the book?

So…it’s 1983 and twenty-five-year-old Mikey Minkus adores Ethel Merman and Mary Martin but lives in his mother’s basement playing records to shut out the sound of her constantly running washer and dryer. When he finds out that Merman has an inoperable brain tumor, he forces himself to take action and goes to find his idol. There at her upper east side apartment he meets Mary Martin who is visiting the ailing Merm and while Mary is in the other room, Mikey wanders into Ethel’s walk in closet and wanders out of the other side…winding up in Sophie Tucker’s dressing room at the Imperial Theatre in 1939 on the night Merman first meets Martin as she sings “My Heart Belongs to Daddy.” From there Mikey is propelling through several portals and time jumps to 1942, 1953, 1959 and 1970 where he meets his younger self and helps him survive a huge life event through the power of musical theatre and Mary and Ethel.

This book is full of theatrical names of the past. Legends like Jerome Robbins, Oscar Hammerstein, and of course, Mary Martin and Ethel Merman are just a few of them. Was part of the reason for writing this book to remind the “new generation” about how Broadway used to be?

If the book reminds a younger generation of the greats of the golden age, my life work will be done. But it was never my specific intention. I wrote the book for me and so many people like me have responded with love and joy. Many of them do not know all the names and personalities, but guess what? I include a handy-dandy appendix entitled “Who’s Who in Mary and Ethel Land.” Short pithy bios give you a sense of who they really were and why they were and are important.

Interview: Theatre Life with Stephen Cole
Stephen Cole and Ethel Merman.
Photo courtesy of the artist.

If someone said to you “We want to see Broadway return to the way, it’s portrayed in your novel.” How would you respond and more importantly, what do you think would need to be done to make that happen?

I would totally agree as I miss the golden age. I was lucky enough start seeing shows while it was still golden…Hello Dolly, Mame, Promises, Promises, Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Annie…Shows with show tunes, both simple and complex, but “theatre music.” From Herman to Strouse to Kander and Ebb to Bock and Harnick to Sondheim…these names conjure up the best of musicals. These were artists devoted to their first love and their craft. How will it return? I doubt that it will except in revival. But if it were to return…if musical theatre audiences were to be given the gold again, fed the steak instead of the hash as it were, producers and theatre owners with the power and money would have to want writers who knew their craft. Alas, Broadway is a business and right now it seems that, as Madam Armfeldt muttered, “The amateur prevails.” Make me king of Broadway and we’ll see something change!

One of your other long associations was with Broadway beltress Dorothy Loudon. Assuming that there is another novel coming, will she be the subject?

I have been toying with a sequel but oddly Dorothy had not come to mind. Chita and Gwen and Mikey Who? was my first impulse, having written a musical (Casper) for Chita and knowing her very well (Alas I did not know or work with Miss Verdon). We shall see. We shall see. I think bringing Dorothy in would be swell (she was a hoot but also a complex person), but Chita and Gwen (and their lives crossed so beautifully) are a bit more well-known.  Meanwhile the end of the first novel does scream for a sequel that would include Mikey having to get the 22-year-old Ethel Merman back to 1930 so she could sing “I Got Rhythm” at the Alvin Theatre and become a star.

Do you have any upcoming projects that you would like to tell us about?

In July of 2023 my partner in crime, the great composer David Krane and I were thrilled to have our musical Goin’ Hollywood premiere in Dallas, Texas to rave reviews and ecstatic audiences and, although a couple of reviews said, “Goin’ Hollywood is goin’ Broadway,” we are now in the money raising stages of goin’ to London! The show is one of those you think they don’t write anymore. But we did. It’s funny, serious and filled with melody, jazz and real rhyme. And…it’s another time travel piece…but this time without Mary and Ethel and Mikey Who? Stay tuned!

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