Broadway interview

How Cole Escola made ‘Oh, Mary!’ Broadway’s hottest summer show

The Daily Beast

June 24, 2024

Cole Escola talks being “paralyzed with fear” as their hilarious Mary Todd Lincoln play moves to Broadway, awards, identity, sitcoms, and writing plays for their favorite actors.

Mary Todd Lincoln—hoop skirt the size of Texas, a petulant scowl twice as wide, and with ringlets like coiled rats’ tails—is heading to Broadway. In Cole Escola’s ingenious, hilarious, ridiculous, and at moments oddly moving 80-minute play, Oh, Mary!, Abraham Lincoln’s wife, who Escola plays, is imagined as a wannabe cabaret star, thoroughly bored by the Civil War and politics raging around her, unaware of her husband’s other possible sexual exploits, and completely oblivious to anyone else’s feelings. She just wants her own show, dammit.

Fair warning to historians and Lincoln specialists: It is based on no known historical facts, whatsoever.

When Oh, Mary! played at the Lucille Lortel Theatre off-Broadway earlier this year it became an immediate hit, first with queer audiences delighting in its cleverly outrageous ribaldry. Then the straights and celebrities descended. There was so much flouncing-in-bustles and feverishly daft melodramatics on such a tiny stage it was a miracle, and testament to director Sam Pinkleton’s ingenuity, that the excellent cast—including Escola, Conrad Ricamora as “Mary’s husband,” Bianca Leigh as her poor chaperone, and James Scully as her teacher—stayed upright.

Such was the reception and hype, a Broadway move was inevitable, and so it is that previews begin Wednesday at the Lyceum Theatre (to Sept, 15). The play, and Escola, have won Outer Critics Circle, Drama Desk, and Theatre World awards (and were nominated for Drama League Awards), with Escola appearing on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, and at the Met Gala in an all-white, made-to-measure Thom Browne outfit.

“I’m almost paralyzed with fear,” Escola told The Daily Beast of the Broadway move, a week before rehearsals were set to begin. “Fear that we are taking advantage of people’s goodwill for us, fear that we are getting too big for our britches, and fear that it’s going to fail miserably. I do have those concerns. Obviously, it’s the same show, and I also love doing it, and I’m really proud of it. But you give the negative voices more room than the positive ones out of hyper-vigilance.”

The play won’t change that much, Escola said; the same cast as at the Lortel will be heading uptown. The stage will only be five feet wider, so the sizing up will be minimal. Yes, the impishly witty Escola said, the intimacy of the show, which only accentuated its sense of anarchic chaos, may suffer in a bigger space, but the show is also “pretty big and broad” in its comedy, so may make “perfect sense” in its new Broadway home. “Or it will make too much sense and it won’t be as funny. I don’t actually know. I’m just sitting here thinking about all the ways it could go wrong.”

Escola’s look as Mary is “like a subset cousin branch in the tree of drag,” Escola said. “The joke isn’t that I am playing a woman—that’s not part of equation for me.” We believe in Escola as Mary, in all her many tempests and vagaries. The skirt has its own “in-built drama,” Escola said. “There’s so much to play with, even when it gets caught on things it’s fun to unhook it, twirl it, maneuver in and out of doors. She has to carry this giant bear trap around with her.”

Part of that hoop skirt’s upholstery was once a corset, until Escola realized they didn’t need to wear one. They were losing their voice because they couldn’t breathe in adequately. Now a waist cincher achieves the desired effect without physical harm.

One exciting possibility is that a bigger space may mean Mary’s hoop skirt will not constantly getting caught on the chair and desk. “I’m excited about the prospect of my skirt being able to clear the furniture from a practical standpoint,” said Escola. There will be “some practical aesthetic adjustments,” to things the production didn’t have the time or resources to do off-Broadway. “It will be just slightly more expensive. I don’t want to give anything away.”

Would it be played bigger on a bigger stage? Escola smiled. “I don’t know how much bigger the performances can get. I think it will be literally an adjustment of tilting my head up six degrees to play to that second balcony.”

The response to Oh, Mary!’s off-Broadway run, the fact it became a phenomenon, was a “huge surprise” to Escola. “I was really proud of it, and I am really proud of the piece itself—separate from the response to it. I was really pleased with the fact that the finished piece matched everything that it fed inside of me about the germ of the idea. As an artist, it’s the first time that’s ever happened. That was exciting to me, but I almost don’t believe the response to it. I’m almost like, ‘Oh this is a case of the emperor’s new clothes, people are lying.’ But that’s none of my business. Let ‘em lie to me as long as they keep coming to see it.”

Escola was aware of the audience changing, from the beginning “when it was like, just faggots. And then by the end it was like straight people that had read the reviews, or heard from their gay friends that this was something they should see.

“Some audiences laughed way more than others. Some are pretty polite and quiet. For some reason that doesn’t bother me as much as I would have thought before the show started. Like, ‘Oh what if this audience is completely quiet? That may make me spiral out of control.’ I really don’t. As long as I feel they’re listening and paying attention, it’s fine. I love hearing the audience’s reactions, even if they are not laughing at everything I wish they were, or not laughing as uproariously as I wish they were. It’s also hilarious when they don’t react. It’s also so short. I think, ‘Well, if they hate it at least they’re out at a decent hour.’”

Escola “absolutely didn’t even consider” Broadway as a “possibility and plausibility. That’s like saying, ‘Do you want to be a supermodel? You can be a supermodel next week.’ It is one of those dreams that probably all performers, all theater performers or all gay people, would of course love to be on Broadway some day, but it’s hilarious that this show is my Broadway debut. I guess I believed that to get to Broadway, you audition for an established playwright, director, and producers in a tested, workshopped piece. It’s hilarious that a stupid comedy where I play Mary Todd Lincoln is my Broadway debut. That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.”

Escola recently searched their email, and found the initial idea for the show they sent themselves in 2009. It reads: “What if Abe’s assassination wasn’t such a bad thing for Mary Todd Lincoln?” In the writing, they worked backwards from that funny springboard. Escola wrote it without historical knowledge because they “wanted to be on the same page” as the audience.

“It’s a comedy. I didn’t want to make too many jokes that were too inside that only history buffs would understand. Also. part of the joke to me is how ahistorical it is. That’s part of the magic of it.”

Unintentionally, Escola may have lighted upon truths about Mary’s life anyway. During rehearsals for the off-Broadway run, a Lincoln-focused museum sent evidence of a telegram Lincoln was once sent asking him to collect Mary from a function where she was “making a fool” of herself. Escola also found out she enjoyed going on shopping sprees, which had angered a population then mired in wartime.

“I wrote it, so of course I relate to what I wrote because it’s about me essentially,” Escola said. “All anybody writes is essentially about themselves.”

Is Mary, Escola in some sense? “Absolutely. All the characters are some part of me, but especially Mary. It’s like me playing out my fear of ‘What if everyone thinks I am obnoxious?’ I care deeply what people think of me, but we all have blind spots, and Mary’s blind spot is played to comedic effect and exaggerated. I am also a wannabe cabaret singing alcoholic, so yeah.”

Escola previously told Vulture they saw Mary as Miss Piggy-like. “The beauty of Miss Piggy, and what attracts me to her, is that she believes she is an ingénue,” Escola told The Daily Beast. “She’s not actually a diva, or she is, but she believes she’s an ingénue. And what she wants desperately is for everybody to see her as an ingénue, but cannot help the rageful, selfish side of her. I so relate to that. I think everyone can. Like, ‘This is a version of me I want everyone to see,’ but meanwhile I am an absolute terror that I think I’m keeping concealed. But I’m actually not. It’s very liberating to play Mary—and fun.”

The character, as extreme as she is, has to “come from a real place, or the audience gets really bored, or really annoyed. Sure, some people see it, and are bored and/or annoyed, but it has to come from a real place, or else it falls apart.”


“Why aren’t they taking me seriously as a princess?”

Escola, now 37, grew up in Clatskanie, Oregon, “in a trailer until I was 5 or 6, and then my dad chased us out with a gun,” they told The New York Times in 2017. “We moved in with my grandma for a while and eventually to government housing.”

Their grandma was very accepting of them growing up queer, they told The Daily Beast. “My little fagginess, or queen-isms, like wearing a dress around the house, didn’t occur to her—or maybe it did and she didn’t show me—as something odd. Everyone else was not harsh or mean, but they were trying to protect me, like, ‘You can’t play like this outside.’ There was bullying, but it was also a super small town—one of those towns where everyone was in everyone’s business.”

Today, Escola describes themselves as “gay and queer, a queen. I’m a fag, all those things. Those are my people.” They came out as non-binary in 2022. “When we were little my two best friends and I called ourselves the Its. That was our group. We’re not boys, we’re not girls, we’re the Its. So many gay people, probably without choosing to use different pronouns, see through the ridiculousness of gender. For me, using they/them pronouns is a clarification of how I relate to gender—and not necessarily an identity.”

Escola said they were “a very serious and sincere child, and then I was sort of laughed at for my sincerity. Just being gay and not realizing it—it’s funny. I wondered, ‘Why are people laughing at me pretending to be a mom? Why aren’t they taking me seriously as a princess? Why are they giggling at me?’ Then eventually I retreated so people wouldn’t laugh at me. Then I really leaned into their laughing. I tried to be in control if it. Any comedy person will try to be in control of the laughs.”

At middle school Escola decided they would try to be funny, and at high school felt like their powers “kicked in.”

At an early age they were not influenced by comedians, as much as melodramas and classic movies. “Pollyanna was huge, my favorite movie when I was growing up. It’s still my favorite movie. The characters are so rich and fun, and the way they interact is so alive and surprising. There’s so much heart in it, and heartache. So, very serious things inspired me.”

In their work, Escola doesn’t set out to ape these melodramas or reference them, “but those are the things that I love. That style probably is just imprinted in my handwriting, so to speak. It’s exaggerated, but also honest—and so much more interesting to me than mumblecore.”

The same with goes for the actors of that era. Escola is presently enjoying unearthing the work of actor Margaret Sullivan. Barbara Stanwyck has long been their favorite.

“I don’t think there’s any Barbara Stanwyck in me, I’m not that kid of lesbian, but she’s my favorite. As a kid, I was obsessed by Billie Burke (Glinda the Good Witch of the North) in The Wizard of Oz, then saw her in Dinner at Eight. I remember being 8 years old, watching it, and it going way over my head and thinking, ‘Why is the sound so bad?’ Since then it’s become one of my favorites.”

Stanwyck, in Escola’s estimation, “is incapable of lying as an actress. Other great actresses of her era like Bette Davis and Joan Crawford are not always better than the bad movies they’re in. Sometimes they’re just as bad as their bad movies. But Barbara Stanwyck, even in the dumbest, most nonsensical churned-out film, always turns in a captivating, honest, engaging, charming performance.”

Escola recalled seeing Stanwyck first in Babyface, in a cinema with other classic movie fans. “Everyone was laughing so much. I realized as a kid that I had always been laughing at the movies, and then as an adult realized how funny they were.” Like Stanwyck, Sullivan is “similarly incapable of lying” in her performances, they said.

For Escola, Oh Mary! itself is “essentially a sitcom. That’s the writing I was raised on, and devoured and binged on. All sitcoms all the time. I loved Newhart. Actually, Julia Duffy, who played Stephanie Vanderkellen in Newhart, was my idol. She came to see Oh, Mary! That meant a lot to me. I also loved Cybill, Mad About You, Bewitched, I Love Lucy, and Fired Up starring Sharon Lawrence. I lived by the TV Guide. I just loved to crack it open and plan my week out. Obviously as a kid I didn’t have it in my mind I could do this some day, but I was fascinated. I would go to school the next day and repeat the lines I heard on sitcoms to no laughs because it didn’t make sense out of context.”


“I thought, ‘I’m not actually an artist. Maybe I’ll be a pastry chef’”

As a child, Escola performed in high-school and community theater productions. They said if they could go back in time and tell their 9-year-old self that they would move to New York some day, “I wouldn’t have been able to believe it. I always wanted to, but the message I was getting from everything and everyone around me was, ‘No, that’s too much, you need to stay here.’”

Literal escape came at 19, via romance. “I fell deeply, madly in love Romeo and Juliet-style with my first boyfriend. He came to New York. I would have moved to a different planet if he had gone there. I would have clawed my way there. It was that kind of young romance. I followed him here, and we had broken up by the time I got here.”

In New York, Escola assumed the artist’s life was a pipe dream. “I thought, ‘I’m just a gay person who loves attention, I’m not actually an artist. Maybe I’ll be a pastry chef.’” They dropped out of Marymount Manhattan College after a year. “I just sort of floundered, and wondered what to do with my life. Acting was always there, and it just wouldn’t let me ignore it or move on from it. I would keep finding a way back to performing and writing.”

Escola performed at the Duplex downtown, and appeared in Bridget Everett’s Rock Bottom cabaret show at Joe’s Pub at the Public Theater, before performing in their own solo show at the same venue.

They also made YouTube videos—under the moniker Very Good Looking (VGL) Gay Boys­—with their friend Jeffery Self (from which evolved the sketch show, Jeffery & Cole Casserole). Escola said they and Self have “the deepest, longest, most rewarding relationships of my life. We were like the Boxcar Children in the woods, acting as if we were living our dreams and all of a sudden we were. It’s a rare thing. Like any collaboration, you both have the same overlapping corner of your imagination that nobody else has access to. It’s like you meet there in the middle of the night, a secret spot, and you both see each other, and go, ‘Wait, you know how to get here too?’ I think I have been throwing things at the wall and seeing what sticks—just trying to find the best vehicle for my ideas.”

Escola began building a TV career, appearing in series including At Home With Amy Sedaris (as Chassie Tucker), Difficult People (as Matthew, Billy Eichner’s extremely despised co-worker), Mozart in the Jungle, Man Seeking Woman, Nurse Jackie, and Big Mouth (as Montel). They were particularly memorable as Chip, the obsessed twink-stalker and eventually imprisoner of Dory (Alia Shawkat) in Search Party, who Chip relentlessly tortured in ever more grotesque ways.

“I felt awful afterwards. I’m not like a that kind of actor,” Escola recalled. “Alia was so good. She would be shaking in terror, crying, cowering away from me, and they’d call ‘Cut,’ and I’d be like, ‘Oh my god, I hurt that poor girl.’ Then I’d come home, eat something, and forget about it. It wasn’t that awful.”

For Escola, Oh, Mary! represents a professional breakthrough. “It feels like all my solo sketch shows, my work in TV writers’ rooms and YouTube videos were all helping me make this piece now. For the past few years I have really been wanting to make something like Oh, Mary!—by that I mean something that matches the idea I had for it.

“As an artist, I have been pretty frustrated making things that didn’t quite meet my expectations artistically. Now that’s over, I have discovered I’m not that good at reveling in it. The week after Oh, Mary! opened, I was patting myself on my back: ‘You go girl.’ But now it’s like, ‘What do we do next? What do we want to do next?’”

Until they know what that will be, Escola hopes they “can be of service to other people for their projects. Being in a writers’ room I like to be in service to someone else’s vision, because the pressure is off me. I’m not in charge of it. That’s a nice feeling.”

The great, central skill of writing comedy, Escola said, is in “trying to stay ahead of the audience, and keeping the story ahead of the audience—and not letting the audience get ahead of the story or the joke. Some jokes and bits in Oh, Mary! are more successful than others. Sometimes the audience gets ahead, and you ask yourself, ‘Why didn’t that get a laugh?’ ‘We need to pick up the pace up on that.’

“It feels like surfing. I’ve never surfed in my life, so maybe I’m wrong. I feel like I’m trying to stay on the surfboard telling the story, and just riding the audience’s reactions—like not even taking them in. I don’t hear a laugh really. I hear sound, and wait for it to crest, and keep the surfboard moving.”

Pondering sitcoms today, Escola wondered if “coastal elites” turned on the genre after Will & Grace. The shows Escola loved so much in their youth were popular with everyone, they said, so maybe the time is ripe for the return of the smart sitcom. “I hope Oh, Mary! can show what that could look like. Obviously, I don’t think anyone will buy a Mary Todd Lincoln sitcom.” A pause. “Though never say never.”

The Golden Girls still stands the test of time, I said (a dedicated repeat viewer). Escola agreed; their favorite episode is “Journey to the Center of Attention” (season 7, episode 19), where Dorothy becomes popular with the patrons at local bar, the Rusty Anchor. Blanche tries to compete with her. “Even the ‘B’ story is funny,” Escola said. “It’s so character-driven, and there’s a great physical bit with a microphone cord. It’s just peak Golden Girls writing, and one of my favorite pieces of comedy. I’ve never worked in a network writers’ room, and I hear so many horror stories—‘It’s 15 hours day in that room, and everyone is humiliated and eviscerated’—but if an episode like that can be the result, you can’t say it doesn’t work well at least sometimes.”


“This is a gorgeous little peak for me, then I’ll go back down”

“As terrified as I am, I’m really trying to enjoy this moment,” Escola said of the buzz and plaudits around Oh, Mary! “I’m having this peak career-wise before I go back into my gay shadows of the entertainment industry, and I’m begging friends to see my solo shows.”

Do they really think that’s likely?

“Everyone has peaks and valleys like that,” Escola insisted. “I hope I don’t have to beg people to come see me. I’ll never beg, I’ll just hope they’ll come. I’m not old, but I’m 37 and I have seen enough of the industry to see how there are ebbs and flows. It’s not like everything I write is going to be on Broadway, or be made into a movie. I am willing to accept this is a gorgeous little peak for me, and then I’ll go back down, and go up a little, then go down really low, and then might go up again.”

Fame is “a little uncomfortable,” Escola said, “but I also know it goes away—and also I’m just so sick of talking about myself. But there’s also that classic actor and writer show business thing of ‘Everybody look at me, now don’t look at me.’ I know the minute this goes away, I’ll be like, ‘I take it back. Let me back on The Tonight Show please.’ It gives me the feeling of wanting cake for breakfast—a just too-much-sugar, toothache sort of feeling.”

Escola said they don’t have anything planned for after the run of Oh Mary!, though working on it had made them realize “I really love theater. I’ve realized I have more fun and feel like I work best in mediums where words and dialog are most important. Film and television are visual mediums, and words are less important in them, at least in the way I write.”

Escola would like to carry on working in theater, writing a play for others, or one with only “a small part” for themselves. “I would love to write a play for really great actresses—Jessica Lange, Cherry Jones, Tonya Pinkins—actresses that have given performances that I want to return to over and over again.” Escola also has “a tiny germ of an idea for a romcom, and I’d love to write a sitcom. Actually, I have a 3-camera sitcom idea,” though superstition around speaking too soon prevented Escola from revealing more.

Their personal life is “in shambles right now. I’ve had, like, three very harrowing, upsetting tragedies befall me during the run of this play, that have made the highs of doing it very high and the lows of my life have been very low. I won’t elaborate—you’ll have to wait for the memoir. The play was like a refuge, and the thing that got me out of bed.”

Therapy has been “useful, yes absolutely, but between press and therapy I feel all I do is talk about myself. It’s that too-much-cake, toothache-feeling again. At the end of day, I ask myself, ‘Did I ask any of my friends how they’re doing today? Maybe I should.’”

Despite the rave reviews and general hype for Oh, Mary!, Escola is not thinking ahead to next year’s Tony Awards. “I’m not letting myself get into that. First of all, it’s a year away. all, over. With awards generally, I should say they don’t matter. But because I’ve worked so hard on Oh, Mary!, and because it’s meant so much to me artistically, and because I feel I have never broken through with something of my own, it is nice to feel appreciated and seen in that way. I don’t want to cling to it and get too used to it, but it is nice—I will say that.”

How “nice” is actually echoed in the closing moments of Oh, Mary!, in which—well, we won’t spoil it, suffice to say that Mary’s hoop skirt billows magnificently free of any obstacles.