STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: If You've Never Met Marianne Tatum

STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: If You've Never Met Marianne Tatum Not long after the stagestruck begin discussing the inevitable, "Whatever Happened To ..." the name of Marianne Tatum often crops up.

Not long after the stagestruck begin discussing the inevitable, "Whatever Happened To ..." the name of Marianne Tatum often crops up.

It should. Most of us came to know Tatum in 1980, when she came onto Barnum 's busy stage and began singing "Love Makes Such Fools of Us All" -- in Swedish yet, for she was playing Jenny Lind.

Tatum received a Theatre World Award, and stayed with the show for the entire two-year run. Later she had a featured role in The Three Musketeers, and, disastrous though it may have been, she came through with a Drama Desk nomination. Then came the Peter Sellars adaptation of Gorki's Summerfolk in Minneapolis -- "where," she reports, "I got more press than Barnum. My picture was in "Time" and "Newsweek."

Not bad for a woman who, when a teen in Houston, was spending her afternoons after school in her bedroom learning Mrs. Anna, dreaming, "Someday I'm going to do this with Yul Brynner."

The dream came true in 1977, when she was hired as Constance Towers's standby in the revival of The King and I. She did it with Brynner twice -- in rehearsal. "Then," she says with resignation, "Yul Brynner fired me the week before we were to start previews. I did a run-through with him, and the stage manager later told me I was too strong. The next day when I did it, Brynner gave me a smile that said, 'You're going to last five minutes.' "

Margot Moser soon took over, and Tatum had more humiliation in store. "I was in the chorus, and with my six-month rider, they couldn't fire me from that. But I felt killed, especially because I had always adored him."

There was one big consolation. "Richard Rodgers liked what he saw and heard, and he wanted me for Maria in The Sound of Music that was going to happen at Equity Library Theatre. This was the fall of 1979, when he was dying. He'd be dead three months later, but the fact that he made the effort to come made me feel honored. What joy I had seeing him there in the seventh row."

Then came Barnum, Three Musketeers, a marriage to the CEO of the Seeing Eye (Dogs) organization, and a move to pricey Mendham, NJ. Things looked good. Then came a Noel Coward at Delaware Theatre Company, a Tom Stoppard at the Huntington in Boston, and a pregnancy. Things looked better. "I thought, 'All you have to do is put the baby in a backpack, throw a bottle in a sack, and what's the big problem?"

For a while, there was none. She did Elsa in The Sound of Music at City Opera when daughter Mariden was two, and then Gypsy Rose Lee during the tryout of Ain't Broadway Grand. Then she and husband decided to divorce. Love does make such fools of us all.

With all the new expenses, Tatum knew she couldn't rely on waiting for roles. "When we had to sell our house in Mendham," she recalled, "I told the realtor, 'I need something to do. Can I make a living at this?'"

But it was more than that. "Mariden," she says in a strong voice, "had been diagnosed at four with a pervasive developmental disorder, which is under the umbrella of neurologically impaired."

There'd be some changes made. "These children thrive on structure, so I knew it would behoove her -- and me -- if I had a genuine schedule. I had to be home at night, and that doesn't fit theater's guidelines. I had to leave for a few years, until Mariden started feeling safe about who she is. Getting through a divorce is tough for any child, but if I did something like go on tour, it would have destroyed her. I needed to be home in time for the school bus."

Two weeks later, Tatum had her real estate license. She joined Weichert Realtors, and has since sold around $9 million worth of home in the tony New Jersey communities of Mendham, Bernardsville, and Morristown.

It's not as easy as it sounds. "We're up at 6:30, so Mariden can be ready for the bus at 7:30. Then I work on my computer, go to the office, find what houses are available, or hot, and show some to prospective buyers. But I'm always home by the time the school bus comes at 3:45."

Mariden, now 11, is doing well. "She attends a special school," reports Tatum, "and she's very happy. She also teaches me more about life than just about anyone else in my circle. Her vision of life is so simplistic that it constantly reminds me of what's important. We'll be riding along in the car, and she'll turn to me and sigh, and say, 'Mommy, I love you. Aren't we lucky we don't have any problems?' When she looks at someone in a wheelchair, or sees people fighting, she says 'We're so lucky to have each other!' And that's what reminds me, no matter how frustrating my day is, that that's what matters."

But Tatum still had a hunger to perform. She began perusing Back Stage once more, and a couple of months back, saw a casting notice for The Night They Burned Washington , a new play set for an October run at the Theatre Row Theatre. The play, about the British invasion of 1814. "I saw they were looking for someone to play the French ambassador's wife, and I thought, 'Hey, this is something I can do.' "

She didn't get the part. Author-director Mark R. Geisser chose Alison Frasier.

Then Frasier opted to do the new Lizzie Borden musical at American Stage in Teaneck, NJ. Geisser called Tatum. Was she miffed at being second fiddle?

"No," she says with a definite sweep of her head. "I felt great, and grateful. I didn't care how it happened. Tom Hanks was the third choice for the movie of Big , you know."

Geisser's probably happy now. That coquettish yet haughty way Tatum twirls a parasol and waves a fan underlines his character's personality. Her face, framed by glorious auburn hair, is as lovely as a Vermeer. But, oh, those expressive eyes that say to the men on stage, "Come hither -- and do what I want you to do"! Tatum creates a woman who knows she's charming, becomes exasperated when she doesn't get her way, and then steely strong when facing her possible fate. Hear her say, in a naturally effective French accent, "I know my husband loves me, but I don't inspire him." This alone is worth the price of admission.

"I always knew I'd return," Tatum says, "but I didn't know when. I had to wait and feel in my heart that Mariden was ready. Now she's made so much progress, is blossoming, and turning into a beautiful young lady."

Tatum shares credit for her performance with Mariden. "Working with her has made my work so much deeper. The nurturing and pain, the difficulties and accomplishments has given me a new way of finding depth in a character." This week, Mariden will come to see her mother. "I wanted to really get it under my belt, because with Mariden, you never know if she's going to yell out, 'Hi, Mommy!' in the middle." A motherly smile. "She's still very impulsive."

So that's what's happened to Marianne Tatum. And whatever happened to that revival of Kiss Me, Kate ? If Tatum still has the pipes -- and I wouldn't bet against her -- she and Kate could make a nice return together.

Peter Filichia is the New Jersey theatre critic for the Star-Ledger.