Directing Marlene

Article excerpt

Sean Mathias talks about bringing the legend of Dietrich to the Broadway stage

"Marlene Dietrich was the original performance artist," declares Sean Mathias. "Without Marlene, you couldn't have had David Bowie or Madonna." The Welsh-born director--best known stateside for his controversial 1997 movie version of Bent--is now helping to bring Dietrich's artistry to a new generation with Marlene, a new Broadway production about the legendary screen goddess and performer.

Mathias was invited to direct Marlene by its star, British theater diva Sian Phillips, who initiated the project after being told by many people that she looks and sounds like Dietrich. Phillips asked Para Gents (who had previously written Piaf) to write the show for her. Then she handed the script to Mathias, a trusted collaborator who has directed her in such productions as an award-winning London revival of Sondheim's A Little Night Music starring Judi Dench. "Working with Sean is wonderful," Phillips says. "He brings vision, wit, and intelligence to all he does."

With Mathias's help, Phillips re-creates a version of the one-woman show with which Dietrich toured the world during her later years, singing the famous standards "Lili Marlene" and, of course, "that song," as Dietrich calls it, "Falling in Love Again."

Mathias says he was intrigued by the impressionistic nature of the piece. Marlene takes place in Paris on the night of a Dietrich concert. The first part is backstage drama; the second, Dietrich's performance. It's part one-woman show, part play, and part cabaret. "It says a lot about what it is to be a woman in a man's world," Mathias explains. "I found it fascinating that Dietrich was such a perfectionist and was driven and motivated all her life in order to be an independent woman."

Mathias has achieved independent success himself since his salad days as an out-of-work actor in the late '70s, when his claim to fame was being Ian McKellen's lover. Mathias is now in a new relationship with a South African playwright, and his career has blossomed. He scored a huge hit on both sides of the Atlantic with his exuberant production of Jean Cocteau's Indiscretions, which was nominated for nine Tony awards in 1995.

And what about McKellen? …