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The Tony nominee talks about starring in the revisal of The Unsinkable Molly Brown
Having been raised in the Rocky Mountain State, Beth Malone grew up on the legend of Molly Brown: the "unsinkable" Titanic survivor who used her Colorado gold-rush fortune to help the poor, spearhead the juvenile court system and run for office before women even had the right to vote. Now the Fun Home star is playing her in Transport Group's production of The Unsinkable Molly Brown, a revisal of Meredith Willson and Richard Morris' 1960 musical that's been more than a decade in the making.
Initially, Malone, 51, didn't see herself portraying Molly Brown because she wasn't keen on Morris' book, which left out all of her achievements and turned her into a bit of a brat. "It's one of those leading lady parts in musical theatre that everybody thinks they want to play, but then when you read it you're sort of like, oh god, this is so dumb!" Malone says.
She wasn't the only one who felt that way. Although Tammy Grimes won a Tony Award for her portrayal of the character on Broadway, and Debbie Reynolds snagged an Oscar nomination for the 1964 film adaptation, the antiquated book prevented The Unsinkable Molly Brown from ever being revived in New York—even Encores! never did it.
But Dick Scanlan, who earned a Tony nod for revamping another Richard Morris musical, Thoroughly Modern Millie, thought the musical could be salvaged. With the blessing of the creators' estates, he completely overhauled the show, retaining only three lines of the original dialogue, adding additional songs from Willson's catalog and rewriting some lyrics. In 2009, he and Tony-winning director-choreographer Kathleen Marshall presented the first iteration of their Unsinkable Molly Brown at the Colorado New Play Summit. Malone came on board in 2014 when the production had its full-fledged premiere at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. She reprised the part at the Muny in Saint Louis, Missouri three summers ago, and now she and the show have landed Off-Broadway at the Abrons Arts Center.
As much as Malone disliked Morris' book, she had always adored the numbers by Willson, who's best known for penning The Music Man. "Even before I knew Molly Brown was on my horizon, I used to put on Tammy Grimes singing 'I Ain't Down Yet' if I ever wanted a pick-me-up," she says. "It's just such a joy bomb. You can't listen to it without being happy by the end of it." When Scanlan's version came across Malone's desk, she was pleased to see that even though it's still primarily a love story between Molly Brown and her husband, there's more context to their rags-to-riches tale, she's more independent and many of her incredible accomplishments are incorporated.
Malone decided to pursue the part, but she was worried she wouldn't get far. "I was doing Fun Home [Off Broadway at The Public Theater] at that time, and people just weren't seeing me as a viable leading lady," she says. "But I went in and I fought for it and changed their minds." Still, Malone acknowledges that for those who know her best for her Tony-nominated portrayal of lesbian cartoonist Alison Bechdel, seeing her—as she puts it—"kissing a boy and wearing a dress" might be surprising.
That's why she's excited for the opportunity to showcase her versatility. "Gender is a bunch of costumes we put on every day," Malone says. "We feel male, we feel female. I'm definitely more fluid than the character of Alison, but since playing that part, it's been really hard for me to get to play anyone who isn't masculine. People keep sending me out for those roles, and that isn't who I am. So it's going to be good for me and my career and my soul to show up as Molly Brown."
In researching the real-life figure, Malone has become an even bigger fan. Visiting her home, which was turned into a museum by the Denver Historical Society, was particularly eye-opening. There she learned more about Molly Brown's social justice work and welfare advocacy, read her correspondence and even perused a handwritten list of belongings she lost on the Titanic. "It seems like ancient history, but really it's just two human lives ago," says Malone. "I was born 102 years after she was. You can see her handwriting. You can hold paper that she held in her hand."
But getting into the proto-feminist's head wasn't always easy for Malone. She struggled when it came to portraying Molly Brown's strong Catholic faith, which features prominently in the show. For Malone, who is a lesbian, religion is a bit of a touchy subject, especially these days.
"Religion has been weaponized and politicized to make a whole bunch of God-fearing people afraid of queers," says Malone. "But Molly Brown was using her religious beliefs as a force for good in the world, and actually living like, what would Jesus do? It's had me look at the whole thing from a different perspective. It has been a real journey. We're taking God back from those who have used religion as a force for hate."
Although this Molly Brown still takes some artistic liberties and doesn't cover her post-married life (which included a 1914 run for U.S. Senate and a late-in-life detour into acting), Malone believes it accurately captures her spirit and feels less like a tall tale. "Those around her turned her into a piece of folklore," says Malone. "She was such a force of nature." But she was also real.
Jen Gushue is a freelance theatre writer with bylines in American Theatre, HowlRound and Business Insider. They are also the Associate Guides Editor for Business Insider's Insider Picks. Follow them on Twitter at @jengushue. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.
Top image: Beth Malone in The Unsinkable Molly Brown. Photos by Carol Rosegg.