Under All That Hair, the Women of Broadway's Steel Magnolias See Themselves as Sisters

News   Under All That Hair, the Women of Broadway's Steel Magnolias See Themselves as Sisters
In the upcoming Broadway production of Steel Magnolias, Robert Harling's play set in a Louisiana beauty parlor, actress Christine Ebersole will get her hair washed on stage at every performance.
Playwright Robert Harling and Christine Ebersole of Steel Magnolias.
Playwright Robert Harling and Christine Ebersole of Steel Magnolias. Photo by Aubrey Reuben

"Washed and set and put under the dryer and taken out and teased and sprayed eight times a week," she told Playbill.com on Feb. 15, the day after the first rehearsal. "I'm praying that my hair does not fall out!"

The Tony Award-winning actress of 42nd Street, who plays M'Lynn in the warm comedy, asked, "Do I get extra pay for that? Hazard pay? I’ll have to look into that…"

The other ladies in the ensemble get wigs to work in, but not Ebersole. Nevertheless, Ebersole, Rebecca Gayheart as M'Lynn's daughter Shelby, Lily Rabe as newcomer beautician Annelle, Marsha Mason as crusty Ouiser, Frances Sternhagen as Clairee and Delta Burke as parlor owner Truvy are sisters under all that hair.

After just a day together — including a dinner at which they got to know one another off-stage, and a script read-through at which they cried — the women of Steel Magnolias said they felt a bond.

The revival begins Broadway performances March 15 toward an April 4 opening at the Lyceum Theatre. Jason Moore (Avenue Q) directs. "It's kind of like we always knew each other, it was weird," Ebersole said. "It's kind of a sisterhood. It's kind of fun, it's like a big slumber-party kind of feeling. There's a dynamic about it that's powerful."

The dinner party thrown by the producers was a bonding experience.

"We all were talking about things that were so intimate to us, as if we had known each other for years," Sternhagen said. "I think the men who were there were kind of stunned."

At 22, Lily Rabe, the daughter of playwright David Rabe and actress Jill Clayburgh, is the youngest in the all-female company.

"Sitting at that table, it was amazing," Rabe said. "These women have such history and have had such rich lives. I realized how young I am. I feel already like I've been around them much longer than I have."

Like Rabe, Gayheart is making her Broadway debut with Steel Magnolias.

"These women are really incredible, I hope they all rub off on me because they are so talented and amazing," Gayheart said.

What lured Marsha Mason ("The Goodbye Girl") away from her home in New Mexico, where she runs an organic medicinal herb farm/business called Resting in the River?

"Being given the opportunity to play a real character part like Ouiser, and to be part of this group — to be in an ensemble," she explained. "I really like the ensemble experience. Also, playing a part that was older than myself — 'aging up,' as they say. I wanted to be able to move into character parts earlier. I had to talk them into it, but I'm here! They weren't sure about me doing Ouiser because they thought I was too young…"

The 1987 play, originally seen in a popular Off-Broadway run, exploded in regional theatres and became a starry hit Hollywood movie. Harling jumped into a film career, writing screenplays including "Soapdish," "Laws of Attraction" and "First Wives Club."

The intimacy of the story told in Steel Magnolias is what attracted the actresses to the project. Harling placed his one-set play in Chinquapin, Louisiana, a stand-in for his hometown of Natchitoches, where his sister (a big fan of the color pink — or "blush and bashful," as she says in the play) yearned to be married and have a baby despite a serious illness. Shelby and M'Lynn are based on Harling's sister and mom.

The production remains set in 1987. "It's not a work in progress," Harling told Playbill.com. "The play came from...a very particular instance at a moment that was very special to me, about the death of my sister. I don't wanna mess with it."

When it was an Off-Broadway hit 18 years ago, there was talk of moving the play to Broadway, but Harling said "because the story was so special to me, and it was a celebration of my sister's life…I would much rather it run longer in a smaller house" than fizzle out in a bigger theatre, where it would have been more costly to run.

It was producer Roy Gabay's idea to produce it on Broadway this time around, and Harling liked Gabay's ideas. And he liked the notion of Tony Award-nominated director Jason Moore staging it.

"Jason has this fresh, exciting, ingenious vision," Harling said. "And he's from Fayetteville, Arkansas. He knows these women, he knows this territory, he knows this world. We were in sync. Who could say no?"

What attracted the actresses to Steel Magnolias?

"It's a great story," Ebersole said. "It's something that has universal appeal. The characters are well-defined, and it has a depth and a range of emotion…it has a core of humanity that everyone can identify with."

Sternhagen added, "It's a play about people who have known each other for years, and it has great warmth and positiveness and humor — a lot of humor. These people in the play are so basically giving to one another…"

Producing partner Robyn Goodman said, "When Roy Gabay asked me to partner on it, I said, 'Let me read the play.' I remember seeing it and loving it, but that was so many years ago. I sat down and read the play and I was blown away by it, for many reasons. Not only the laughter — it's hilarious, as everyone knows — but it's a play about how to experience life and how to grieve, as well, and about a community of women, which you rarely see on a stage in New York. Very few plays address that. I got very excited about the roles we could cast for women."

Goodman continued, "It's about how women love each other and support each other and make each other laugh and scream at each other."

All of the characters, except Annelle, are based on women Harling knew in his hometown, although he was nervous that he'd insult some for portraying their less flattering sides.

"I didn't tell people who the characters were based on," Harling said. "They knew it was my mother and sister, because the events were well-known in my community, but I didn't want to say, 'This crotchety old witch is based on you.' I didn't want to say that. But what wound up happening was, I'd go back and every woman in town was saying, 'He based Ouiser on me! He did. I'm Ouiser!' I thought, well, OK, nobody's gonna sue me."


Steel Magnolias concerns the gossip and affection swapped at a beauty shop as the daughter of a beloved customer heads toward marriage and motherhood. Prior to its long run at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, Steel Magnolias originated in New York at the WPA Theatre.

The 1987 Off-Broadway play blossomed in regional theatre and became a starry hit movie (with Dolly Parton as Truvy, Sally Field as M'Lynn and Julia Roberts as Shelby).

Steel Magnolias is produced on Broadway by Roy Gabay, Robyn Goodman, Danzansky Partners, Ergo Entertainment, Ruth Hendel, Sharon Karmazin, Susan Dietz/Ina Meibach, Michael Galvis/Billy Huddleston, and Elsa Daspin Suisman/Martha R. Gasparian.

For ticket information, call (212) 239-6200.

Clockwise from top left: Delta Burke; Marsha Mason; Frances Sternhagen; Rebecca Gayheart, of <i>Steel Magnolias</i>.
Clockwise from top left: Delta Burke; Marsha Mason; Frances Sternhagen; Rebecca Gayheart, of Steel Magnolias. Photo by Aubrey Reuben
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