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How a Musical Helped Make Me the Woman I Am

By: Judith Marks-White 
Date: Oct 27, 2021

How the Broadway production of The Unsinkable Molly Brown changed my life


Welcome to our latest Theatre Lovers essay. Today, TDF member Judith talks about how The Unsinkable Molly Brown turned her into a feminist. If you'd like to submit your story for consideration, email TDF Stages.

I vividly recall when Meredith Willson's musical The Unsinkable Molly Brown docked on Broadway to loud cheers and standing ovations in 1960. The show chronicled how the real-life Molly Brown grew from her smudgy britches into a grand and loveable lady of Denver high society, and her rise to international fame after surviving the sinking of the Titanic. Her humble beginnings were that of an unfiltered tomboy, folksy though feisty as relayed in the opening number "I Ain't Down Yet." She had pure unadulterated chutzpah and watching her on stage was exhilarating.

The '60s were a time of great change, and for us college ladies groping our way through an evolving world, Molly Brown was a marvelous anomaly. The whiff of women's lib was in the air and Molly wore it like an enticing perfume.

The musical's message was clear: No one could keep the high-spirited Molly Brown down. At age 20, I believed I couldn't be kept down, either. I saw the production several times and was always captivated by Molly's unbridled spunk, her refusal to be restrained or repressed. My peers and I were just beginning to get our sea legs and we were awed by this young, larger-than-life rebel who refused to let anyone stand in her way. That included her three strapping brothers, who tried wrestling her to the ground. I felt her pain as I wrestled with my own demons.

Although I attended a women's college a few hours from Manhattan, NYC was an easy train ride away. So, on several weekends during my junior year, I found myself connecting with Molly, even though her story was undeniably antithetical to mine. Growing up, I thought that getting tipsy on Lancers Rosé and blowing curfew was daring. Now on the cusp of adulthood, I longed for the day when I could shed my middle-class mores and explode into the world as Molly did with such guts and gusto. Watching her take charge taught me a thing or two. I couldn't get enough of the Unsinkable Molly Brown, who was fast becoming my role model. My trips to the show were as much about learning to emulate my shero as they were about being entertained.

The Molly I loved was played by the iconic Tammy Grimes, who took the role to magnificent heights and won a Tony Award for her performance. I fell in lust with Johnny "Leadville" Brown, her stage husband and leading man played by the handsome Harve Presnell. This was a guy who understood and embraced Molly's quirkiness, and applauded and supported her unconventional style. Conversely, I was engaged to a boy whose idea of the good life was built on conformity, security and the desire to exceed the Joneses. Johnny Brown was all brass and brawn but still sensitive. My guy was intellectual, a bit egocentric and incredibly boring.

I was a nice girl programmed for my generation's values, but I yearned to break free and tell the world, "Hey, 'I ain't down yet.'" I was struggling to forge my own path, constantly asking myself what I really wanted out of life. I found my answers not only at a liberal arts college but also at the Winter Garden Theatre, where Grimes as Molly strutted around the stage, teaching me how to become my own woman.

One particularly fond Molly memory resurfaces as I rewind the tapes of yesteryear. It was a crisp late autumn Saturday afternoon and the city was alive with the excitement of a new theatre season. I stood at the stage door of the Winter Garden, pen and Playbill in hand alongside other autograph hounds eager to meet the cast. Harve Presnell was the first to burst through the door. He signed every program that was thrust in his face and then quickly disappeared into the crowd. We were told that Tammy Grimes would not be coming out for a while, so the amateurs dispersed, leaving me standing there, a lone fan, not quite ready to give up and abandon my post.

A half hour later the stage door opened again and my red-haired heroine appeared. I was briefly transfixed. Realizing I would never get this chance again, I blurted out bravely: "Ms. Grimes, this is my third visit to your show . I wanted to thank you for being irresistible and luring me back."

She smiled as I handed her my pen and Playbill, which she signed, and then she leaned over and gave me a hug, which I have carried with me to this day.

There have been other Mollys since then. Debbie Reynolds portrayed her in MGM's 1964 film adaptation of the musical. And just before the pandemic, I read about an updated version of the show starring Beth Malone in New York. I understand the desire to reinvent the character for the 21st century and I realize that some of what resonated so loudly for me 61 years ago may seem quaint today. However, the Molly I will always hold dear is the one from my past.

As for me, I grew up and came into my own. I eventually broke off my engagement to the "perfect catch" fiancé, which broke my parents' hearts. Through much sweat and tears, I ended up doing life my way, just like Molly. While I am not saying that I owe my liberation to Molly Brown, her story certainly inspired my trajectory. That's why I owe Tammy Grimes' Molly Brown a debt of thanks. She popped into my life at a pivotal and impressionable moment, and she got me moving and shaking toward my own independence.


Judith Marks-White is a columnist, novelist and freelance writer. She shares her monthly essays in Connecticut's Westport News.

Top image: Tammy Grimes, who starred in the Broadway production of The Unsinkable Molly Brown.

Judith Marks-White is a columnist, novelist and freelance writer. She shares her monthly essays in Connecticut's Westport News.