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Beth Malone on Molly Brown, playing strong historical characters, and coming back to Denver

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For the updated version of The Unsinkable Molly Brown, which will kick off the new Denver Center Theatre Company season this fall, the DCTC has cast Beth Malone, an unsinkable Colorado native, in the starring role. Malone began her career as a teenager playing roles at the Country Dinner Playhouse and has since performed on stages all over the country; she made her Broadway debut in 2006 as June Carter Cash in Ring of Fire and was recently seen off-Broadway at the Public Theatre in Fun Home. After her casting as Molly Brown was announced, Westword caught up with Malone to talk about going for the role of Molly Brown and portraying strong, historical characters. See also: Colorado gets "A Call to Arms" at the Molly Brown House Museum Westword:: You have the lead role in The Unsinkable Molly Brown, and you're from here. How excited are you? Beth Malone: Oh, I'm so excited. I'm excited for a few reasons. First of all, it's a really hard-won role. I had to really be my best. It took me my whole life to be able to walk in and get that role. It's just like everything I have done before walking into that room prepared me to go in there and get that part! The odds are so, I mean, I can't even explain to you how crazily stacked against me, getting that part. I told everybody, oh, I'm going to New York, I'm going to this audition...but it's this really cool thing because as I walked in there, I felt like, oh my God, I have a shot at this. Or at least I'm going to make it hurt if they can't give me this part. And they had it offered to a star, and that person is just not available right now or doesn't want to come to Denver to do it, so it's me!

The response has been really, really fun. It's been fun to have everybody, you know, it's been better than Christmas. People calling me and saying, "Oh my god!" People from high school are getting a group together to come and see it, so that's going to be awesome.

You had to travel to New York for the audition. What inspired you to go for this role?

I had done Annie Get Your Gun a few seasons ago at the Sacramento Music Circus, and I had these crazy reviews and it became this sleeper hit. The whole run sold out. And it's Annie Get Your Gun, so it's like, why is this show so good? It's because this particular kind of a role is just really something in my wheelhouse. The very first thing I ever played was at the Country Dinner Playhouse in Denver, and I played Ado Annie in Oklahoma!. That was my first fledgling attempt at creating a role like this, a person who is rural but smart and kind of clueless but also running the show. So that sort of was my first attempt at creating this type of role.

Last year, I won the Ovation Award in Los Angeles for playing, for taking vintage-y type of musical theater, leading ladies that seem pretty archaic and pretty two-dimensional and fleshing super intense, meaningful life out of them. That's what I do. 'Cause when I got Seven Brides last year, I was like I don't want to do this, but then I was like okay, if I have to do it, I'm going to do it in a way that I'd want to watch. So there was something in there to wring out some meaning for people and for me. So that was what I did. And then, I'm in San Diego right now doing Annie Get Your Gun, and so, my friend Heather was like, you have to go get seen for this [the part in The Unsinkable Molly Brown]. I called my agent and said I want to go in for this.

I had a place in New York all last year and I still had it at the end of the year, so I had a place to stay. All I had to do was get there and prepare for the material, which was a lot. They had you do two scenes and then a song. The song was really intense. In fact, when I walked in to the initial audition, they were like, we know you're not going to be able to do this, but just give it your best shot. I think a lot of people really struggled with that material for some reason, and I'm sure they saw some people struggle with it and some people really nail it. But I had worked and worked on it, I worked my ass off on it, so I was like, I'm just going to stand in the middle of the room and let it fly. I didn't do it that cocky because at the time, I was like, maybe I am going to mess up.

Very encouraging. I know! But I was just like, well I'm feeling pretty much like I'm going to be able to just stand in the middle of the audition room and nail the song right now so I'm just going to try it at least. So I did, and I did nail it. And that was that moment in the room where I felt like, oh, I just changed their perception of me, just now. I just watched it happen. Now they're interested. And then they were like, now read this scene, and they were leaning forward. And their eyes were open. Then they were like, oh! And after everything I did, it was like another victory. Like in a video game when you eat a power pill and your power bar on the side goes up and you can see how much power you have? Brring! I just went up 50 percent! Now read this scene. Brring! Oh, I'm at 75 percent! And you walk into the room at zero. You walk into the room at zero. And I often walk out of the room at zero. I'm just a shitty auditioner, but this audition I really did...I got it.

It didn't happen that easy. They called and said, okay, we want you to come back. So I had to go back to New York and do it again! And they gave me more material. They gave me two more songs and one more scene.

Do you feel like you did as well the second time as you did the first time? I did not do as well. I was a little more relaxed because I have a friend, my friend Jeanine Tesori, who wrote the music to Fun Home..Jeanine Tesori, she is an amazing human being. She co-wrote Thoroughly Modern Millie with Dick Scanlan who wrote the lyrics for Millie and is rewriting the book for Molly Brown. She said, relax when you go in there, they're fans, so you don't have to try too hard. So, I didn't try very hard when I went in the second time. I was like, they like me. I'm just going to go in and be myself. More than an audition, I'm going to treat this one like a rehearsal, and I did. I didn't lean in as much as I should have maybe, and I thought maybe I was just phoning that one in, but I tried. I did. I tried my best, but I just wasn't nervous. I didn't know what to make of my lack of nerves. So you identify with these women, these vintage characters, that you portray?

Yeah, and you know what, Molly Brown is like the mother lode, literally. To use a mining term, she is the mother lode of these types of characters. I haven't ever played Molly Brown or even seen a production of Molly Brown. The initial musical was really dated. Did you ever see that movie with Debbie Reynolds? It's just like this cartoony, two-dimensional, Technicolor...you have to really be stoned to watch it. So I was like, oh my god, and the songs are crazy but they're really fun. And there's this dance number that's crazy fun in it...it's not in the production as of now, but they may restore that. That's why Dick Scanlan is rewriting it. Actually, he's putting in facts.

Molly Brown isn't just some cartoonish character. She's a person who really had some meat on her. She got the mines unionized in Colorado. That's the big thing that she did, and all kinds of stuff, and that whole Titanic thing. But she really did revolutionize Denver society, and she really did go to Europe and learn French and become a lady from literally nothing. It's going to be interesting. Have you ever been to the Molly Brown house in Denver?> I went when I was in third grade on a field trip, but that's it. And then, up in Leadville? Keep reading for more from Beth Malone. I lived in Aspen a ton of years and I lived in Snowmass about half of my life. So I am a Colorado resident. I'm just not a Denver resident a lot of the time. I'm like a half-Aspenite. Not in the way you'd think. So we go back a lot and if you ever drive from Aspen to Denver you have to go through Leadville! You have to go through Leadville a lot, and that's where most of the show takes place, which is so fun. I'm going to have to go revisit all of it, and look at it with new eyes. Think: What would it be like to really walk up this hill and come upon this town and think, I have to stay here. Is that how you're preparing for the role? Is there any other research you're going to do? I'm going to read every written word that's been written about Molly Brown between now and then. That's what I do. Not that it will even translate into anything or find its way into the show, but sometimes...like I did with Fun Home, I read every single written word Alison Bechdel ever wrote. I watched every video blog she ever put online. So that in rehearsal, if there was ever a time when things came to a standstill and the creatives got stuck on something, I could at least say something intelligent. Like, well maybe we should try this. And sometimes it worked! It's just good to have all of that arsenal under your belt when you're out there, especially when you're creating something new.

Molly Brown is as much of a new show as you can imagine with existing material. There's going to be remnants of the old show in there, and of course the character is Molly Brown, and she's going to be as fun as you've ever known a Molly Brown to be, but other than that, it's going to be a new show. Not one scene I auditioned with could I recognize from an existing script. It's all revised. All of it. Every word of it is reimagined.

That's got to be really exciting, to be part of shaping that new story. It's my favorite thing. I've workshopped and taken in five shows, and it's my favorite thing to do. I love being written for...that's not it. I love being the one in the room while it's being created. I love that process. I was in the original cast of Sister Act, while they were creating that. That was a monster already in process because a) it came from a movie that was already a hit and b) the character that I had played never said any words, anyway. But the way that the thing shaped out, I definitely had a hand in helping and seeing what this character was and how she impacted the heart of the show.

I just love that process because you don't know on day one, and by the time you're done with the run, even during the run of the show after audiences have already sat in their seats and seen the show, the show is still shaping itself. I love that. It feels alive to me. It doesn't feel static.

And Molly Brown is a musical and a love story too, right?

Yeah, and I don't even know who I'm playing opposite. And yeah, it's a musical. The music is Meredith Willson's. They've taken a lot of songs from the trunk, like songs that didn't get used in this or that, and they are kind of dusting them off and making changes to them. They're adding a bunch of songs, but it will still be a Meredith Willson score, but it will be songs that were never in the show before.

It's going to be a labor of absolute love. Absolute joy.

I can't wait to see it.

Me, too! I can't wait to get to that first day of rehearsal. I can't wait to get to walk into that complex for the first time and be like, oh my god! This is the very first-ever professional job I did in Denver right after I left my freshmen year of college. I got into Beehive. But I was an understudy. You know who else was an understudy? Mary Louise Lee, who is the mayor's wife. She and I were understudies at Beehive. Walking from the parking garage into the complex after seeing a bunch of shows there as a kid and the magic of going to the Denver Center and everything, I was just like this is really, really something! Now to be able to go, yeah, I'm coming home, I'm going to do the Denver Center...it feels very circular to me. It feels really right.

And this role seems perfect for you. Where do you see yourself going from here?

Well, from here, I'm going to Paris next week. Then, when I come back, I have to do South Pacific in Sacramento. And then I get a week off. Then I'm in Denver and doing Molly Brown through the fall. Then, the creators of Fun Home have written me and said, please don't make plans for later winter, spring. Because the show is going to Broadway. They're very happy for me to have booked Molly Brown, but they still are like, yeah but we still get you for Fun Home.

That's a really good feeling also, and I'm just like, of course! I've put in so many years of Fun Home , only a massive plague could keep me from doing Fun Home when it moves to Broadway. Nothing's going to stop that. The show goes, I'm going. I don't care if I'm playing Evita in the second revival of Evita, I'm going to go do Fun Home. It's a glittering, beautiful, perfect, little jewel of a theater piece. And it comes along once in a lifetime. That's what I'm doing. I have Fun Home on the horizon and my whole world is Fun Home when I'm doing Fun Home. After Fun Home, who knows? An actor's life is so crazy because usually you have no idea what your year is going to be like. Even if you know what your year is like, you don't know what next year is going to be like. And I kinda love that. I'm never stressed about it because I always know something great is going to happen. It always does. Usually.

Beth Malone will star in The Unsinkable Molly Brown which will open the season at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts on September 12, and run through October 26. Tickets go on sale July 7; find more information here.

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