Marilyn's essence, as recaptured by Reed, was the talk of Broadway last week as Marilyn: An American Fable opened after a less than storybook journey. The critics were scalding about the show. "Incoherent to the point of being loony," snarled the New York Times. But the show's producers vowed to continue—at least for a week—and were mulling over a blitz of television commercials aimed at salvaging Marilyn. "We'll make it," said Reed bravely, at a not-so-joyous opening-night party.
From the start, Marilyn seemed headed for the same star-crossed destiny as MM herself. When rehearsals began three months ago, the title role was assigned to Geralyn Petchel, 27, a Los Angeles singer and Broadway rookie who found herself at the center of a backstage storm. "The show was constantly being changed," recalls Petchel. "There were different concepts of what Marilyn should be—childlike or tough. I was torn in many different directions."
She blames part of the chaos on the large number of producers, a baker's dozen, who couldn't seem to come up with a recipe for Broadway success. Should Marilyn be a rock opera or a musical about Norma Jean Baker's life from age 8 until two years before her death? (The musical format eventually won out.) Finally, after seven weeks of rehearsal, the show's producers unified long enough to fire Petchel, and shortly after that, director Kenny Ortega. Two other cast members were also fired. Thommie Walsh, the Broadway show doctor who saved My One and Only (starring Twiggy and Tommy Tune) during its tryouts, was brought in to do macrosurgery on the wounds. But who would play Marilyn?
Suddenly, someone remembered Alyson Reed, who had tried out for the part months before and been rejected. The call came while Alyson was auditioning for a commercial in Manhattan for Nescafe instant coffee. "I ran 30 blocks to my agent's," she says. "I tried to call everyone I knew along the way, but no one was home."
Reed immediately immersed herself in the charismatic character. She spent a morning looking at old news-reels of Monroe and watching Some Like It Hot but found that her top priority was learning her lines and understanding the part. "I came into the show 10 days before the previews began," she says, "and first I had to go through costume fittings. I basically learned the role in five days."
Because Reed was a much stronger dancer than her predecessor, the choreography was revamped. Her measurements were a more delicate problem. Though roughly the same height and weight (57", 117 pounds) as Monroe, Reed is far less voluptuous. The desired results were achieved not with silicone but with plain old padding. "It's theater magic," says Reed.
Her incandescence as Marilyn also has a touch of magic because Reed insists that she and her heroine have little in common. "I identify with her humor and her bluntness about herself," says Alyson. "But I have a much stronger base than she did. She felt so little self-worth. My frustration as a woman is not being able to say to her: 'You didn't have to feel that way.' "
On the tragic August day in 1962 when Marilyn took her life at age 36, Reed was a 4-year-old in Anaheim, Calif. The precocious daughter of an engineer, she was performing in musical comedies at age 7. "In the eighth grade I was in a Disneyland production of Alice in Wonderland. I only do blondes," she jokes. Alyson even donned a Marilyn wig once and dressed up as the actress for a junior high party. "Everyone was amazed at the likeness," says her mother, Elsie. In later years she made her Broadway debut in Bob Fosse's Dancin', played in Damn Yankees with Joe Namath and performed in road companies of A Chorus Line (she was the lead, Cassie) and Pippin. Reed intends to make sure her newest role won't typecast her. "I would love to grow up to be Dorothy Loudon, to do character work. But I'd also like to sing at the Roseland dance hall in New York and also front for a good country-and-Western band—just for once, a real shit-kicking band."
Until further notice, Alyson is otherwise engaged, undulating across the stage as Marilyn. Appearances aside, she argues that she is not trying to portray Monroe as a sex kitten: "I play it sensual. If I played it sexy, it would be a caricature of her." Besides, Alyson believes that Monroe was far more than merely seductive: She was also a natural wit. "When someone asked Marilyn why she didn't wear underwear," says Broadway's new student of MM humor, "she said it was because she didn't like the wrinkles."
She squiggles across the stage in a skintight, red sequined dress, tossing her platinum mane. The hips swish, and the utterances from the moist crimson lips are breathy, childlike. From the mesmerized audience comes a gasp. She is back, their Marilyn, in the body of Alyson Reed, an actress from almost nowhere, whose onstage resemblance to the late MM is uncanny, even eerie. "I think she was extremely vulnerable, like a puppy," says Reed, 25. "I'm trying to re-create her spirit, her essence."