North Carolina actress Erin Sullivan will perform in her show, “With Love, Marilyn” on Friday, Sept. 6 at the Temple Theatre. For ticket information, call (919) 774-4155 or visit www.templeshows.com.
By Corbie Hill
For all her fame, Marilyn Monroe was desperately lonely.
Monroe, who was born Norma Jeane Mortenson, had a rocky upbringing. Her mother was committed to a mental hospital at a young age. As for her father, she never knew who he was. Young Monroe was raised in foster care and bounced from family member to family member. As an adult, then, all she wanted was a good home life, says Erin Sullivan.
“That’s what I think hurt the most,” Sullivan continues. “She was the most famous person in the world, but she was going to bed by herself, and unfortunately for so much of her life abusing pills and alcohol and trying to fill that void of true loneliness. [In 2019] it’s more verbal with people who are expressing depression and expressing loneliness. Back then, you just hid all that stuff.”
This educates Sullivan’s performance in “With Love, Marilyn,” which comes to Temple Theatre Friday, Sept. 6 at 7:30 p.m. Sullivan recently moved to the Triangle after 18 years in New York City, where she was in a number of shows, touring professionally in Hairspray, Shrek, The Wedding Singer and Grease. “With Love, Marilyn” is special to this seasoned actor, who co-wrote the show and is one of its producers. It’s important to Sullivan to present Monroe’s complexities. She doesn’t dwell on the darkness, sure, but she doesn’t run from it, either, when she plays one of the most famous women in 20th century cinema.
“I’m not a theme park impersonator,” Sullivan says. “I don’t stand out on Hollywood Boulevard and take photos with people. I’m an actor.”
Monroe performed live all of twice. “With Love, Marilyn” was written as the dress rehearsal for the fictional third show — the one Monroe never got to do. She was friends with Sinatra and the Rat Pack, Sullivan points out, and was in talks to do a Las Vegas show. Sullivan even has the date — “With Love, Marilyn” takes place in July 1962, mere weeks before the star’s death. The show is comprised of 11 songs — some famous, some obscure — which are integrated into stories about Monroe’s short but fascinating life.
“She was incredibly smart and she does not get a nod of recognition for that,” Sullivan says. “In my piece, I want to establish that she is a strong, smart confident woman who has a rattled and rocky foundation.”
While Sullivan didn’t experience the rocky upbringing Monroe did, she has experienced her share of show business frustrations — the biggest one of which led to the creation of “With Love, Marilyn.” Sullivan was born in Connecticut and was bitten by the theater bug at 7. By 9 or 10, she had her first Broadway audition. When her family moved to Wilmington, Sullivan got deeply involved in its theater scene, acting in more than 100 productions in eight years.
This was the ’90s, and Wilmington was booming with regards to the performing arts. Hit teen drama Dawson’s Creek filmed there, and Sullivan connected with top-notch resources. As a kid, the money she made acting went right back into dance classes. When she missed school, it was for exciting reasons.
“You couldn’t have gotten more involved in the [theater] community than I was as a teenager,” she says.
When Sullivan graduated high school and started at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York, she already knew how to navigate the city and its theater world, having already experienced it as a child living in Connecticut. This was one fewer thing to learn, but there were still hurdles aplenty.
“New York is an extremely difficult city, and as much energy as she gives you, she also takes,” Sullivan says. Maybe life is different for actors whose wealthy parents pay their rent, she wonders, but that wasn’t her experience. “When they say the struggle is real, it is! You are constantly working to make ends meet on top of getting up at 5 a.m. to go to an audition. It’s extremely exhausting when it comes to just pursuing your craft.”
Beyond that, the theater industry has changed since Sullivan moved to New York in 2000. Most frustratingly, plays no longer make it to Broadway unless they’re packed with celebrities. Requiring actors to already be famous creates a Catch-22, making it nigh impossible for working actors to get their break anymore. The hardest day of Sullivan’s career, in fact, was the day she learned she had lost a coveted role for that reason.
So she followed the advice she gives younger actors: “If they’re not going to let you perform, create your own work,” as Sullivan puts it. “Don’t sit there and feel sorry for yourself because that’s not going to help anything.”
This is why “With Love, Marilyn” is so special to Sullivan. She’s been doing her show for about three years, putting it on four or five times annually. It’s a good pace for Sullivan, in particular because it gives her time to hire local musicians. At Temple Theatre, for instance, she’ll be working with in-house musicians, but this will also be the first time Sullivan works with an in-house musical director and technical director (usually she travels with her own). Sullivan is admittedly excited, and she hopes her show ignites in her audience the same fascination she feels for Monroe, whose complexities are often overlooked and whose relevance has not faded.
“Especially right now, with the #MeToo movement, I feel like her presence is very strong because she was one of the first women in Hollywood who played up her sexuality, but then she wanted to form her own production company because people didn’t take her serious,” says Sullivan. “She was kind of a pioneer in saying ‘f__k you’ to men in the early 1960s when it came to her career.”
Corbie Hill is a journalist and editor who lives on three wooded acres in Pittsboro with his wife and daughters. His work has appeared in the News & Observer, No Depression, StarTrek.com, Bandcamp Daily and a host of other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @afraidofthebear.