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Oh, Mary!'s Cole Escola is bringing 'the gay shadows' to Broadway

Oh, Mary!'s Cole Escola is bringing 'the gay shadows' to Broadway

Oh, Mary!'s Cole Escola is bringing 'the gay shadows' to Broadway
Emilio Madrid

Conrad Ricamora as Abraham Lincoln and Cole Escola as Mary Todd Lincoln

With Oh, Mary! becoming a surprise sensation, writer and star Cole Escola prepares to take their madcap play about Mary Todd Lincoln to the Great White Way.

In Oh, Mary!, President Abraham Lincoln (Conrad Ricamora) has his hands full with the Civil War — as well as the antics of his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln (Cole Escola), an alcoholic who is less concerned with a divided country than with dreams of becoming a cabaret star. But Lincoln’s eyes keep wandering from the task at hand to his handsome assistant, Simon (Tony Macht). Anguished after seducing Simon, he prays to God to make his gay desires go away.

Escola — who penned Oh, Mary! in addition to starring as the first lady — has been on those pray-the-gay-away knees before. “I did that,” they confirm. “I would pray — not to be[come] straight because I was like, Well, that’s a really tall order. So I sort of compromised and was like, Just make me bi, please.”

Eventually, and somewhat surprisingly for Escola, God did answer their childhood prayers. Escola — a writer and actor known for roles like “The Twink” on Search Party, Matthew on Difficult People, and Chassie Tucker on At Home With Amy Sedaris — came out as nonbinary in 2022. “I find myself attracted to a wide range of genders now,” they attest.

And just as Mary pined and connived for in the show, Escola is now a star. Oh, Mary!, which ran the first half of 2024 at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, became the hottest ticket off-Broadway. Crowds and celebs — including Lincoln’s Steven Spielberg, Tony Kushner, and Sally Field, a onetime Mary herself — flocked to the West Village venue nightly to see one of the most outrageous (and queerest) takes on a presidential assassination to ever unfold onstage.

In promotion of the show, Escola has appeared (in costume!) on Late Night With Seth Meyers and even attended the Met Gala (in Thom Browne beekeeper-chic, carrying a basket of flowers from Amy Sedaris). Oh, Mary! has garnered critical acclaim and honors from the Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Awards. And it’s now headed to Broadway. A celebratory video featured none other than Cabaret stage legend Joel Grey ferrying Escola uptown via a yellow taxi to the Lyceum Theatre, where it will run July 11 to September 15.

“People can brag like, ‘Oh, it lost some of its magic from downtown’ — the way they do with all shows that transfer,” quips Escola, paraphrasing their farewell message to Lucille Lortel’s closing-night audience. “And I just hope that it can be as good or better in the new venue.”

Cole Escola as Mary Todd LincolnEmilio Madrid

Oh, Mary! emerges in a time when productions like Starz’s Mary & George and Apple TV+’s Dickinson revisit and (re)queer historical figures. However, Escola admits they did no research in penning Oh, Mary!, a concept they had been toying with for some time that finally flowed onto paper during lockdown. “I just wrote what I know, which is messy gay people,” they say. “So it wasn’t like, Let me turn history on its head. It was more like, What’s a fun frame for what’s in my head.

“All of the characters are actually me, like aspects of myself…I think that’s probably true for any writer,” Escola continues. “They have to connect to all the characters that they’re writing. So it has to have some piece of them. And then, of course, once an actor gets their greedy little paws on it, then it becomes theirs.” This isn’t a bad thing. “Conrad’s Abe is so much richer and deeper than what I imagined,” they gush. Directed by Sam Pinkleton, Oh, Mary!’s hilarious cast is rounded out by Bianca Leigh (Mary’s chaperone, Louise) and James Scully (John Wilkes Booth, who is also Mary’s acting coach). All will move on to Broadway.

Escola compares the show’s success to the “great days” dreamed by Mary in the production. But admittedly, they’re having a hard time processing the sudden glare of the spotlight. “I tend to be very pessimistic and not let myself enjoy things,” Escola says. “I’m trying not to ruin the joy for myself and just enjoy this moment while it lasts because I know it will end, and then I’ll go to the back of the line again and wait for my turn…. I’m sure this time next year I’ll be calling you being like, Please will you do a story about this new tweet that I have that I’m working on?

“Don’t look to people in show business as role models…. There’s something inherently wrong with people who want this kind of attention,” they add. “It’s that Chicago thing of, none of us got enough love in our childhood.”

In their childhood, Escola recalls being called “gay” as an insult since age three — hence the aforementioned prayers. “I understood that it was [deemed] bad to be gay. I also didn’t want all of the bullies to be right,” they recall. In high school, the Oregon native was drawn to the stage and starred locally in musicals like Les Misérables and Little Shop of Horrors. They came out as gay at age 17 and “told everyone all at once” to avoid leaks and keep control of the public narrative.

In their coming-out journey as nonbinary, Escola recalls a eureka moment occurring around age 12 when they stumbled across a book called A Child Called It. While they never read the publication — it’s likely a 1995 memoir by Dave Pelzer about surviving an alcoholic mother’s torture — the title and “it” pronoun stuck with them.

“That’s me. Not a boy. I’m not a girl. I’m it,” they recall thinking. “So then me and a couple of my friends used that pronoun with each other for fun secretly. And then I sort of forgot about that until the nonbinary identity started to become more a part of pop-culture conversation.”

“I lost my sponsorship with Sprite,” Escola jokes on the reception to their coming out as nonbinary. They then quote “that old chestnut” from Dr. Seuss: “Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind.”

Escola cites their friends and longtime fans as “those who matter.” For around 15 years in New York, they staged shows not dissimilar to Oh, Mary! in venues like Joe’s Pub and the Duplex gay bar; they’re still in “awe” that this particular wigged spectacle struck lightning.

“I’ve been performing in what I call the gay shadows, which is my sweet spot,” they say. “I love performing for faggots and queer weirdos who understand where I’m coming from and what I’m doing. I’m glad that I’m getting more mainstream success — just financially, I’m glad. But I just wanna keep making stuff that they like.”

“I say that and then three years from now, I’ll have a daytime talk show, and I won’t wanna talk to any one of you,” they laugh.

For now, Escola is focusing on Oh, Mary!’s transition to Broadway — but don’t expect a starry film adaptation or a Marvel acting debut anytime soon. Their dream is to return to writing. And they have a message for all those folks in the “gay shadows.”

“Please don’t turn on me. I promise I’ll make stuff that everyone hates again soon.”

This article is part of Out's July/August issue, which hits newsstands on July 2. Support queer media and subscribe— or download the issue through Apple News, Zinio, Nook, or PressReader starting June 18.

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Daniel Reynolds

Daniel Reynolds is the editor-in-chief of Out and an award-winning journalist who focuses on the intersection between entertainment and politics. This Jersey boy has now lived in Los Angeles for more than a decade.

Daniel Reynolds is the editor-in-chief of Out and an award-winning journalist who focuses on the intersection between entertainment and politics. This Jersey boy has now lived in Los Angeles for more than a decade.