‘Oh, Mary!’ Broadway Star Cole Escola Would ‘Love’ for Pedro Pascal or Tituss Burgess to Replace Them as Mary Todd Lincoln in the Hit Comedy

Cole Escola, the 37-year-old star and writer of the hit Off Broadway farce ”Oh, Mary!,” isn’t letting fame get to their head. (Escola identifies as nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns.) When they’re a few minutes late to a Zoom interview for Just for Variety, they explain it’s because they were busy installing an air conditioner in their apartment. “Yes, I put it in myself,” Escola says. “I’m going to Broadway, but I’m still a person.”

A person who has become the toast of New York theater circles, Escola’s outrageous drag performance centers on boozy, sex-starved wannabe cabaret singer Mary Todd Lincoln, who is cooped up in the White House as her boy-crazy husband, Abraham Lincoln, is trying to end the Civil War. “Oh, Mary!” was the hottest ticket in town throughout its five-month run at the Lucille Lortel Theatre. The play isn’t revisionist history — it’s completely made-up history. However, I admit to Escola that I googled Honest Abe’s widow after seeing the show because I wasn’t sure what might be real.

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“Oh, wow. I hadn’t even considered that,” says Escola, whom television audiences know from “Difficult People,” “Search Party” and “At Home With Amy Sedaris.” ”That I might actually be tricking people into thinking like, ‘Wait a minute — did she want to be a cabaret star?’ Oh, God!”

Next up, Escola wants to get back to writing. “I would love to write something that I’m not in and just be in a rehearsal room as a writer,” they say. “But I love theater. I only want to do theater from now on. I mean, that’s not totally true, but it’s 96% true.”

“Oh, Mary!” opens on Broadway on July 11 at the Lyceum Theatre.

We’re going to get into the show, but we have to talk about the Met Gala. It was your first time going this year. Tell me about getting the invitation. Who invited you? Who did you sit with? Who did you meet that you were just like, “I can’t believe I’m at the Met Gala talking to this person?”

I got invited by Vogue the week before. This whole process has been a tornado of events. I truly just open my email every day and I’m like, “Okay, I need to put my body here at eight. I need to put my body here at 12. I need to put my body…” I haven’t had a chance to reflect on any of this. So it feels like I almost forgot that that happened…A fever dream.

Do you remember walking onto that carpet though? Walking up those steps?

No, I really don’t. I just remember being like, “What part of the museum are we in right now? I don’t think I’ve entered this way before.” That’s what I remember. Like, “Is this the main entrance? I don’t know where I am spatially.”

Are you the type of person when you go into something like that, where you take a moment and you’re like, “Where am I? And how did I get here?”

It’s so annoying to say imposter syndrome, but I feel it’s just so hard to wrap my mind around. I’ve been making my own work by myself for no one for so long now that the fact that I’m doing something that’s being produced, that has PR and producers behind it, is all surreal. That’s another overused word, I guess. But yeah, it’s bizarre.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - MAY 06: Cole Escola attends The 2024 Met Gala Celebrating "Sleeping Beauties: Reawakening Fashion" at The Metropolitan Museum of Art on May 06, 2024 in New York City. (Photo by Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images)
Cole Escola, in Thom Browne, attends The 2024 Met Gala on May 6 in New York City.

You have made a point in interviews to say you did no actual research into Mary Todd Lincoln to write the play.

I’ve gotten some feedback from people that’s like, “Oh, you’ve done no research, and now you get to go to Broadway?” And I’m like, “No, no. It’s not that I didn’t put work in.” This is decades of work and honing and refining to get to this place, but it’s just I didn’t do research because it’s not really about her. It’s about all of us. I’m guilty of being glib like that in interviews for comedy’s sake. But then, I don’t know, it does make me nervous sometimes that I’m too glib, and that people will think that I just farted and now I’m getting to be on Broadway.

Have you heard from Mary or Abe beyond the grave? Do you believe in stuff like that?

I went to the grave of Laura Keene, who was the lead actress and producer of “Our American Cousin” [the play the Lincolns were watching at Ford’s Theatre when the president was assassinated]. To be honest, I feel more spiritually connected to her than the Lincolns. If there’s any ghost that is either protecting or out to sabotage me, it’s Laura Keene.

Has there been talk about either filming “Oh, Mary!” à la “Hamilton” or as a feature film adaptation?

I don’t think it should be adapted for film, but I think I would love a filmed version of it, à la PBS Great Performances. Just so I have for archival purposes, but also so that more people can see it. This is my favorite thing I’ve ever done. It’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me. I want as many people to see it as possible. And that’s why I’m doing it on Broadway, because I, at first, was really like, “No, no, it shouldn’t. We’re getting too big for our britches. Let’s not push it.” I don’t want to invite people in that are like, “Oh, let’s see what’s so great about this,” to knock us down a few pegs, which they have every right to do because we are asking too much of everyone. But I really just want as many people who want to see this show to be able to see it.

Could you see the play going on with someone else playing Mary?

Absolutely. I would love that. I would love to see Hannah Solow, the current understudy, do it. I fantasize about Tituss Burgess — I think he would be incredible. Donna Murphy. Real actors. I would love that.

Have you rehearsed a Tony speech?

No, absolutely not. First of all, the Tonys are in a year. By then, I’ll be back making YouTube videos in my bedroom again, and no one will remember me and George Clooney will win for best lead actor in a play [Clooney is set to make his Broadway debut in “Good Night, and Good Luck” in spring 2025], and I’ll watch at home just like everybody else.

I love that you dropped George’s name, because it’s not like you’re thinking about it.

It’s not like I’m thinking about it at all. Of course not. It’s about the work. It’s not about the awards.

Is there someone you’d like to write something for?

Name an actress over 40, and I want to write for them. I fantasize about so many. So many that have come to see “Oh, Mary!” and then afterwards I’m like, “Oh, good. So they’ll know who I am, so if I write something for them later, they’ll look at it.”

So you’re using “Oh, Mary!” to network?

Yes, exactly. Trying to network with great actresses I admire. I mean, J. Smith-Cameron, Cherry Jones, Tonya Pinkins, Jessica Lange, Frances McDormand, Sally Field, just actresses. I just love actresses.

A lot of people have come to see the show. The night I was there, I saw a photo of you and Pedro Pascal on social from the same day.

Pedro was so sweet. Everyone’s been so nice.

How about Pedro Pascal as Mary Todd?

I would love to see Pedro as Mary. I would love to see him as Abe. Maybe I’ll write something for him and Cherry Jones and Tonya Pinkins. A three-hander.

This Q&A has been edited and condensed. You can listen to the full conversation with Escola on “Just for Variety” above or wherever you find your favorite podcasts.

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