When people rise into the stratosphere of fame, as Jaqueline Kennedy Onassis did again and again throughout her eventful life, things take on an air of lightheaded unreality.
Rather than fight it, Gip Hoppe's new Broadway comedy, Jackie, subtitled "An American Life," revels in it. Eight actors recreate the whirlwind of power, personalities, elegance and tragedy that characterized the life of the former First Lady. With gusts of surreal comedy they play more than 100 characters (in 180 costumes and 86 wigs), including Richard Nixon, Marilyn Monroe and the Kennedy clan -- sometimes with the help of song parodies, silly dances and 16-foot mardi gras-style puppets.
But, as in real life, there is a cool, sane presence at the eye of this storm, and that is being provided by Margaret Colin as Jackie O.
"It's great fun to play the humanity -- and the myth," said Colin, who has appeared Off-Broadway in Donald Margulies Sight Unseen and John Patrick Shanley's Psychopathia Sexualis. Colin has done stints in Chicago Hope, daytime TV dramas and even had her own primetime show, CBS' "Leg Work." But she's perhaps best known for playing another presidential consort, Jeff Goldblum's longed-for ex in the 1996 blockbuster film Independence Day.
Colin compared the show to an indoor playground: "It's like Discovery Zone for grownups. It's a spectacle that involves almost every theatrical conceit you can think of. You see bits of vaudeville routines, and influences from 'I Love Lucy' sketches, Marx Brothers routines, and Cirque de Soliel. Many of these are traditional theatrical conceits that are not frequently used -- but they're delicious. You just love being in the theatre when someone has the nerve to try this."
At first glance Colin, with her oval face, big eyes and an alto voice she compares to a "bark," doesn't immediately resemble Jackie. But in the midst of talking about her research into period sound and video clips of her new alter ego, she suddenly begins to morph. The cheekbones rise, the face broadens, the voice rises into a breathy mew, the eyes gather into something between a twinkle and a tear, and, lo.
"What I learned about her is that she created herself," Colin said. "She kept her reputation spotless, she got straight A's, she learned to speak many languages, she made contacts, she took and molded herself as an American woman. She carved a role for herself in Jack Kennedy's world. It truly is an American life: it only could have happened in America. Even as an older woman, after Jack and Aristotle [Onassis], she was still defining herself in her own terms, working long after a lot of other women would have stopped."
Jackie died in 1994. Many of her belongings were auctioned in 1996, prompting a frenzy among wealthy people who wanted to get their hands on something -- anything, it seemed at the time -- with some connection to the three years Jackie and Jack spent in the White House. Jackie: An American Life begins at that auction, as the spirit of Jackie leads the audience on a guided tour through her life.
It's appropriate that Broadway is getting its turn at Jackie Kennedy mythmaking. It was Jackie who, in a Life magazine interview, mentioned that Jack admired the cast album of the musical Camelot, which journalists quickly seized upon as a defining allegory for the Kennedy presidency.
But playwright Gip Hoppe said, "I'm not a person with a lifelong obsession or a Jackie fetish. I just wanted to write an epic stage biography, and sought a subject who would be interesting to write about."
Hoppe originally developed the show and staged it in 1992 for the Academy Playhouse in Orleans, Massachusetts on Cape Cod, where he was in residence, writing a play a year. The play was picked up by Harvard's Hasty Pudding Club, and after a three-year hiatus, was restaged at Boston's Wilbur Theatre last season.
" I had seen a lot of biographies, stage biographies, and I personally read a lot of biographies. I like the forum. At that time there were a lot of stage biographies that were done as one-person shows. There certainly are a lot of wonderful examples -- Barrymore, The Belle of Amherst, Tru -- but there were also a lot of them not. I was getting tired of shows like "Edgar Allan Poe Tonight!" There seemed to be these shows everywhere, and I thought, why not do a big epic biography that would take in the whole life? So I went looking for a subject who would be interesting. I thought Jackie is such an enigma; I knew nothing about her. I never met her. I would never presume to know the truth about her, and neither does the play. There's no "new dirt" or new information uncovered. I took the existing public information about her and sort of shot it through a prism."
Jackie came into Hoppe's life in 1960 when he was just 4. His Wisconsin hometown was one stop in John F.'s presidential campaign against Richard Nixon that year, and, Hoppe recalls, "I vaguely remember them coming down the main street and shaking hands. To us at the time she was this beautiful woman going to live in the White House. Nobody was used to that. We'd had Mamie Eisenhower, Bess Truman and Eleanor Roosevelt. To have that sense of style and this enormously graceful, classic American beauty in a position of power -- at the head of the table, so to speak, for the nation, was pretty thrilling. I wasn't thinking all that at the time, of course. To a small boy, it was simply: 'Ooh, pretty lady.' But I later remember seeing other people emulating her style -- my mother buying clothes similar to hers -- just as everyone else was in the nation. I remember noting that."
Jackie was such a glamour-puss, you'd think it would be an actress' dream to spend evening after evening floating through such a wardrobe of costumes. Guess again:
"Clothes of that period were incredibly confining," Colin said. Those pretty three quarter sleeves are tight -- you can't move! And they were girdled within an inch of their lives. That's the difference between the couture of the '60s and the couture of the '90s: I have power and movement in my clothes now that you couldn't have had then."
What did women do in an even earlier period, when they wore corsets and bustles and floor-length skirts even in the middle of summer?
"They fainted a lot," Colin speculated.
Ironically, it was clothes that gave Colin her first memory of Jackie: "One of my favorite aunts, my aunt Mary, came in one day for an Easter party at my parents'. She was a lady of the 50s, very ladylike. And I remember her saying, "If Jackie Kennedy can wear her skirts above her knee, so. . .can. . . I! " Of course, her skirt was just a hair above her knee. But it's my first remembrance of Jackie Kennedy -- through my aunt, and through fashion."
Colin was too young to remember the agony of the November 1963 assassination of President Kennedy that tore Jackie from her husband and from the whole life she had built for herself. But playwright Hoppe remembers all too well.
Hoppe said the president's death in Jackie's arms in that Dallas motorcade "was devastating. We were Democrats, but my parents always had an enormous amount of fun in my house with the Kennedys, imitating the way they talked, etc. Suddenly, all that was wiped away. I think I was 7 or 8 when it happened. It was the first time I saw my parents crying, weeping unashamedly. There was the sense that someone in the family had died."
Did the recent death of another tabloid obsession, Britain's Princess Diana, prompted any rewrites? "None whatsoever," Hoppe said. "Certainly that situation resonates deeply in this piece. The paparazzi are presented as camera wielding vultures, and there is a sense that she's being hounded by them. But that's always been part of the play. It's about the idea of celebrity, and what being a celebrity means in our country."
Footnote: After years of floundering, trying to find its niche in the Broadway of the 1990s, the old Belasco Theatre has finally found its role: the formerly rarely-booked Belasco has, in the last three years, served as home to star-power tours de force. Ralph Fiennes' record-breaking "Hamlet," Nichol Williamson's "Jack," Janet McTeer's Tony-winning "A Doll's House" and now Colin's "Jackie."