She was the wife of one of the most famous gunslingers in the history of the Wild West, but today few have heard of her. Josephine Marcus escaped her Jewish family in San Francisco and married Wyatt Earp, whose extraordinary legend she helped to craft and perpetuate. In “I Married Wyatt Earp,” an all-female musical now running Off Broadway, she finally gets her due.
Directed by Cara Reichel, the 11-woman musical puts in the foreground the essential role of women in creating the tumultuous world of the Wild West. With book and lyrics by Sheilah Rae and Thomas Edward West, and music by the award-winning composer Michele Brourman, “I Married Wyatt Earp” seeks to dispel the image of the Western frontier as an exclusively male preserve, a place dominated by bands of men who fought endless bloody battles over territory and treasure. Carolyn Mignini (“Tintypes,” “Fiddler on the Roof”) stars as Josie, with Heather MacRae (“Hair,” “Falsettos”), Anastasia Barzee, Carol Linnea Johnson and Cara Massey featured in the cast.
Of all the women on the Western frontier, Josie was one of the most remarkable. Her Prussian Jewish immigrant parents, who had moved to San Francisco from Brooklyn in 1879 by sailing around the Cape of Good Hope with their 10-year-old daughter and her siblings, were certainly no strangers to adventure. But no one could have predicted that just eight years after their arrival on the West Coast, Josie (who was also known as Sadie) would run away from home to join a traveling Gilbert and Sullivan company in a production of “H.M.S. Pinafore.”
Josie wound up in Tombstone, Ariz., just as the frontier town was exploding with population because of a silver strike and boiling over with violent conflict between cowboys and lawmen like the five Earp brothers — conflict that culminated in the infamous shoot-out at the O.K. Corral. After a romance with a deputy sheriff named Johnny Behan, Josie fell in love with Earp, who was to be her mate until his death almost half a century later.
Wyatt Earp has been the subject of dozens of books and films, most of which make him out to be a hero who tamed the lawless Western frontier. In reality, Wyatt was (much like his close friend, the tubercular dentist Doc Holliday) not above profiting from illegal behavior, and he became a bona fide outlaw when he made up his mind to avenge the murder of one of his brothers and the crippling of another.
“I Married Wyatt Earp” premiered five years ago at the Bristol Riverside Theatre in Bucks County, Pa. It originally took place only during the Tombstone years, but it now covers two time periods — the era during which Josie met and married Earp, and, four decades later, as she battles Allie Earp (played by MacRae), the wife of her husband’s brother Virgil, over whose version of the past will govern the making of “My Darling Clementine,” John Ford’s 1946 western about the O.K. Corral battle.
Rae got the idea for the musical by reading a book on pioneer women that contained a memorable (if unauthenticated) picture of Josie, clad in a revealing skin-tight dress with a plunging neckline, her eyes blazing and her long dark hair spilling down behind her shoulders. Fascinated by Josie, Rae then read her memoirs, which were published by Glenn Boyer in 1976, more than three decades after her death. Heavily edited and rewritten by Boyd, they tell the story of the childless couple’s many hair-raising adventures, from the first few exhilarating years in Tombstone to their involvement in the Klondike gold rush in Alaska to their prospecting for silver in the deserts of Nevada.
While some accounts of Josie’s father describe him as a middle-class baker, Rae’s research indicates that her family was quite well-to-do, boasting Jewish theatrical producer David Belasco as a next-door neighbor. Her parents belonged to a Reform temple, but were quite assimilated into San Francisco society. In that place, Rae believes, Josie felt constricted. “She was a square peg in a round hole,” Rae told The Jewish Week. “She wanted space where she could feel alive.”
Brourman’s songs have been recorded by Michael Feinstein, Olivia-Newton John, Sheena Easton and many other celebrated singers. Her score for “I Married Wyatt Earp” is inspired by Aaron Copland’s soaring music about the frontier. As Brourman put it, “Josie couldn’t live in a corseted world. She needed to live in wild places. Tombstone was filled with desperadoes and opportunists. She was totally happy there.”
Brourman said that she “tried to evoke the vastness of the West and the spirit of all the people who went there — their audacity, strength, and courage, as they struck out to make a better life.” She calls it a story about “what women were willing to do for love.” The women in the piece are all what she calls “fierce, colorful and delicious.”
Ann Kirschner, dean of the William E. Macaulay Honors College of CUNY and author of “Sala’s Gift,” based on a cache of letters her mother wrote while she was imprisoned in Nazi slave labor camps, is writing a book about Josie. In doing her research, she has, like Brourman, been struck by the difference between the perspectives of pioneer men and pioneer women. “For men, it’s an epic voyage of exploration. For women, it’s about the pragmatic realities of life — keeping your children safe and healthy, getting your clothes clean.” Women have often been “rubbed out of the picture” of the Western expansion of the United States. But by looking at the experience of a woman like Josie, Kirschner said, “you see the birth of the West through a different lens.”
West, a playwright and librettist who also co-wrote “Off the Wall at Sardi’s” with Vincent Sardi, remarked that Josie “saw herself as a central figure in her own drama — she was larger than life.” He views Josie and Wyatt as illustrative of the “whole American notion of being able to reinvent yourself — the Earps were constantly doing that.” Indeed, he pointed out, Josie was largely responsible for Wyatt’s prominence in American culture. “She peddled his stories to the movies and created a myth around him. She spent her later years cultivating that legend.” West suggested that Josie’s “marriage” to Earp, which may never have taken place in any legal sense, is thus as much about her decades-long connection to his legacy as it is about their actual relationship.
Josie’s attitude toward the truth is perhaps best summed up in the closing line of Lawrence Kasdan’s 1994 film, “Wyatt Earp,” in which Kevin Costner, playing Earp, says to Joanna Going, playing Josie, “Some people say it didn’t happen that way.” She responds, “Never mind them, Wyatt. It happened that way.” Or as a newspaperman tells Jimmy Stewart in “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” directed by Ford in 1962, “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
When Earp died at the age of 81, Josie was too stricken with grief to attend his funeral, at which Western stars Tom Mix and William S. Hart served as pallbearers. Earp was cremated and his ashes were interred at the Hills of Eternity in San Mateo, Calif., a Jewish cemetery where Levi Strauss is also buried. Fifteen years later, Josie’s ashes joined him and there they remain, bound together in death as in life.
“I Married Wyatt Earp” runs through June 12 at 59 E. 59 Theaters, 59 E. 59th St. Performances are Tuesday-Thursday evenings at 7:15, Friday and Saturday evenings at 8:15, and Sunday afternoons at 3:15. For tickets, $25, call TicketCentral at (212) 279-4200 or visit www.ticketcentral.com.