There is a famous anecdote that perfectly characterizes Sue Mengers, Hollywood’s first super-agent who represented some of the silver screen’s leading lights in the 1970s and ’80s.
Mengers reportedly was on the phone with Barbra Streisand, perhaps the most glittering of the glitterati the agent represented. Streisand was upset and felt threatened by the Charles Manson murders, victims of which included Sharon Tate, the actress-wife of director Roman Polanski.
“Don’t worry, honey, stars aren’t being murdered,” Mengers said. “Only featured players.”
Mengers was brash, crass and crude. She also was known for earning millions of dollars for her clients, an A-list that included Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, Robert Redford, Mick Jagger, Cher and others.
She was the first female agent to emerge on the Hollywood scene, and her rise is chronicled in I’ll Eat You Last, screenwriter John Logan’s 2013 one-woman comedic homage to the German-Jewish immigrant who took on all comers and generally won.
Local theater companies Theater RED and the newly minted Untitled Productions are joining forces to produce what principals believe will be the Milwaukee premiere of Logan’s 75-minute opus June 29 through July 1 at the Kimpton Journeyman Hotel in Milwaukee’s Third Ward.
The production marks the start of Theater RED’s sixth season but is the first outing for Untitled Production. Its founder Eric Welch serves as director.
It’s also the first one-woman show for Marcee Doherty-Elst, Theater RED’s co-founder.
Mengers “was a woman who was going to succeed at all costs, a ground-breaking female with 1 million percent drive who knocked over anyone who got in her way,” Doherty-Elst says. “I am absolutely terrified.”
Doherty-Elst knew nothing about Mengers until Welch introduced her to the play, which ran on Broadway in 2013 with Bette Midler portraying Mengers.
“I’m a huge Bette Midler fan and loved the idea of doing something that had been done by the Divine Miss M,” Doherty-Elst says.
Welch was attracted to the work primarily because of the Streisand connection.
“Anyone who knows me, knows I am a huge Barbra fan,” says the Racine native and actor. “I thought the show was so funny and witty, but also had heart. Sue is the kind of person I’d want as a friend.”
Mengers moved to New York from Germany with her family at age 8. She knew German but refused to speak it, learning English by watching Hollywood movies, which accounts for the fact she had no real accent, Doherty-Elst says.
An only child, Mengers developed her aggressive style due to her mother — whom she described as “a gorgon” — and her traveling salesman father, who committed suicide in a Times Square hotel room. In her biography, Mengers called her father’s act “redundant.”
“She says her father died from ‘thwarted dreams’ and completely blames her mother, whom she hated,” Doherty-Elst says. “The suicide had a profound impact on her, which is why she worked so hard to achieve her own dreams and those of her clients.”
The play is set in Mengers’ living room, where the agent awaits a confirmation call from Streisand, whose lawyers told her earlier that day that the star was firing her.
With nothing to do but wait, Mengers commences a conversation with the audience, reliving her life and sharing insights into her character.
The play’s set replicates a Kimpton Journeyman hotel suite, with front row VIP seating on soft chairs and sofas designed to serve as an extension of Mengers’ living room. A raft of tables and chairs provide cabaret seating behind the VIP section, with some additional stools near the bar in the back of the house.
Welch will serve as Mengers’ butler, an unscripted role designed to make initial stage announcements and lay out the rule of the performance. Those rules include the ability to make trips to the bar, some on the character’s behalf.
“Once Mengers sits down she never gets up,” Doherty-Elst says. “There are a number of spots where she needs something, and it’s up to me to convince an audience member to run and fetch it.
“If I can’t do that, then the show doesn’t go on,” the actor quips. “I’ve never seen a show like this before and I find the improv aspect both exciting and terrifying.”
Mengers “swore like a sailor.” So, the actor found curses creeping into conversations with friends and colleagues.
“Those are Sue Mengers spillover moments,” she says. “I don’t think I am cool enough to pull off profanities, which makes her a tough character to do.”
Despite her acerbic nature, Mengers was intensely loyal to friends, both Doherty-Elst and Welch say. They also believe her story is one of female empowerment in a male-dominated time and industry.
“I feel there is a lesson here,” Welch says. “Follow your dreams. Don’t give up. Be you without regrets. That’s how Sue lived her life.”
Doherty-Elst agrees: “Sue said, ‘You want to be a thing? Make yourself that thing.’ That’s a powerful, uplifting message.”
“Maybe she doesn’t always take the path we would, but she knows what she wants and goes for it,” the actor adds. “And don’t worry about what other people think. She didn’t!”
I'll Eat You Last, a joint production by Theater RED and Untitled Productions, takes the stage for three performances June 29 through July 1 at the Kimpton Journeyman Hotel, 310 E. Chicago St., Milwaukee. Tickets are $20 each and available at www.theaterred.com.