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Cole Escola’s Twisted History of Mary Todd Lincoln Hits Broadway

Cole Escola’s Twisted History of Mary Todd Lincoln Hits Broadway

Cole Escola’s Twisted History of Mary Todd Lincoln Hits Broadway

The off-Broadway comedic hit Oh, Mary! is moving to Broadway’s Lyceum Theatre starting June 26, and, while it’s gaining a bigger platform, Cole Escola, the show’s star and creator, wants to keep the zany hit show pretty much as is.

“It’s going to be bigger, better, bolder …” Escola says, before dropping the act. “It’s going to be exactly the same … we don’t want to spoil the recipe.”

That recipe saw the play — which had its world premiere at the Lucille Lortel Theatre last winter — sell out and extend twice. Given that the play follows a reimagined Mary Todd Lincoln, depicting her as a petulant wannabe cabaret star with a predilection for booze and, in its absence, paint thinner, the warm reception wasn’t necessarily a given. It even drew praise from Lincoln director Steven Spielberg, Sally Field (who played Mary in the movie) and screenwriter Tony Kushner, who all attended one night.

“I’m shocked. I’m sure the tide will change and people will realize the show isn’t actually that good, and we’ll all be run out of town,” says Escola. “That’s the fear, anyway. It’s what keeps me going.” 

Escola, a nonbinary actor known for their roles on Difficult People and Search Party, landed on the idea in 2009, with the starting point of “What if Abe’s assassination wasn’t such a bad thing for Mary Todd Lincoln?” and an image of themselves as Mary in a hoop skirt and ringlet curls. After mulling it for several years, Escola finally turned to writing the piece during the pandemic, booking a desk at a co-working space in Brooklyn’s Gowanus neighborhood and going in at 4 a.m. when no one was there. The play came pouring out of them in four days.

As Escola has previously said, they didn’t do any research on the actual Mary Todd or President Lincoln (played by Conrad Ricamora). That’s in part because of the nature of the show, which is more focused on Mary’s ruthless pursuit of stardom than on, say, the Civil War — but also because Escola says the character is not based on the former first lady, but on themselves.

“I’ve always loved theater, but I’ve always felt like I’m not allowed to do theater, because I feel like, ‘Oh, I didn’t have the right training’ or ‘I haven’t been doing the right kinds of things to be allowed to do theater.’ So I created a vehicle that opened a door for me into the theater.” 

Cole Escola was photographed June 7th at PMC Studios in NYC.

Photographed by Lia Clay Miller

Escola, 37, attended Marymount Manhattan College for a year, but was not able to afford further study. Seeking a creative outlet, they turned to making web videos, including impressions of Bernadette Peters and Our Home Out West, a 30-minute Western parody featuring Amy Sedaris; eventually writing episodes of TV shows such as Hacks and The Other Two; and performing solo sketch comedy shows. All of that fed into the creation of Oh, Mary!, which is their first full-length play. “It’s just tailor-made to all my favorite things: genre, melodrama, vulgar, stupid,” Escola says. 

Since the play premiered to rave reviews, there’s been a tornado of attention surrounding Escola. That included an invite to the Met Gala, where Escola appeared wearing a Thom Browne getup inspired by Miss Havisham from Great Expectations, which included a white veiled hat and long skirt. Escola is still sorting through how to deal with the attention. “It’s a little scary. I’m trying to enjoy the nice feeling of it, but when I pay too much attention to it, it feels like too much birthday cake, like that feeling of, ‘Well, I have a whole cake, I’m going to eat it for dinner,’ and then I get sort of an ego toothache, ego stomach­ache,” Escola says.

“Luckily, having to do the show eight times a week just knocks everything out of my head,” Escola adds, comparing their performance, in which Mary throws herself across the stage and chases after others, to doing eight 90-minute Barry’s Bootcamp classes a week.

Cole Escola was photographed June 7th at PMC Studios in NYC.

Photographed by Lia Clay Miller

Escola has also tried to see all the Broadway shows from this past season, given the circles they’ll be running in. “I want to be able to say, ‘I saw your show, I loved it,’ or ‘I saw your show, it needs work,’ ” Escola jokes.

While Escola has already started brainstorming their next theater project, they see themselves as more likely to be the writer than the star of it. Says Escola, “My dream is to write for other people in theater and maybe write myself a very small part where I don’t run around or jump or fall or do anything physical.” 

This story first appeared in the June 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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