Growing up in Philadelphia, Michael Ogborn often heard women disparaging someone with the curious epithet, “She sits around the house like she’s Marie of Romania.” It wasn’t until his college years that he happened across a picture of a commemorative dinner held in 1926 for a visiting Queen Marie of Romania.
“It always fascinated me how everybody in Philadelphia of a certain age would quote this woman’s presence instead of the Queen of England or somebody more obvious,” Ogborn says. “Philadelphia opens its arms to people we trust, and her visit made the people of the city stand a little taller. The fact that she recognized us was why I think she became part of the phraseology of fishwives and working class women.”
That curious piece of trivia — a one-day visit by an obscure monarch who received the key to the city and a floorboard pried from Independence Hall — stuck with Ogborn through the years, while he was becoming a successful writer and composer of musical theater. It was while writing the six pantos he’s contributed to People’s LightAnd Theatre Companythat he found an ideal format in which to tell a uniquely Philadelphia story, which grew to incorporate Mummers, City Hall and South Philly accents as it became “The Three Maries: A Philadelphia Phable.”
“Something about the style of the panto reminded me of what musical comedies were in the ’20s and ’30s, before the golden age when they were pure entertainment with stock characters,” he explains. “You know when you come into this show that you’re going to get a happy ending. I tried to include all of the things that made me love musical theater when I was a kid.”
Narrated from a Mummer’s clubhouse on Dock Street, “The Three Maries” tells the story of a young woman whose attempts to rise above her modest upbringing, set against the backdrop of the royal visit — a combination of “Cinderella” and “Pygmalion” with more feathers and banjos. “In Philadelphia, you’re not allowed to reinvent yourself,” Ogborn says. “There’s always somebody that’s going to remember you from where you were before. There’s a struggle to remain who you are at the core but redefine yourself in a way that’s honest and earned.”
In the works for a decade, Ogborn is thrilled to finally see his “Mummers musical” coming to the stage. “It’s love letter from the author to the city,” he says, “and a valentine from the city to the world.”
If you go
“The Three Maries” opens in previews at the Prince Theater (1412 Chestnut St.) Dec. 17 and runs through Jan. 10. Tickets are $27-$52 at 215-422-4580 or Princetheater.org.