For Beth Malone, "Butch Is A Beautiful Thing" — What This Fun Home Star Learned Playing Lesbian

Playbill Pride   For Beth Malone, "Butch Is A Beautiful Thing" — What This Fun Home Star Learned Playing Lesbian
 
Fun Home Tony Award nominee Beth Malone opens up about portraying Broadway's first openly butch lesbian protagonist, how the role affected her personal life and how the showbiz machine tried to stifle her own gay identity as a young actress. 

Beth Malone and Emily Skeggs in <i>Fun Home </i>
Beth Malone and Emily Skeggs in Fun Home Jenny Anderson

Fun Home is Malone's first return to Broadway in nearly a decade. Her last stint was the 2006 Johnny Cash jukebox musical Ring of Fire, a short-lived run that never quite caught on with audiences or critics. Though Ring of Fire marked her Broadway debut, her return with the acclaimed, Tony-winning Fun Home stands as an entirely new Broadway introduction for the actress.

Not only was it the perfect time for Broadway audiences to embrace a musical with its first lesbian heroine, it was also the right time for Malone – an out and proud lesbian – to take center stage in character and in life.

Beth Malone
Beth Malone

As part of Playbill's 30 Days of Pride, we interviewed Malone, who talks about the pressures of bringing a downtown musical from the non-profit Public Theater to Broadway's commercial sphere and the impact the show has had on her own life.

You've had a long time to live with Fun Home in its various stages of life. What's the experience been like taking it from the protected downtown world at the Public to this level of high-profile, national exposure?
Beth Malone: The journey, when you go with a musical, it is a rollercoaster of emotions and you have to just "keep yourself." I journal every day just so I can keep a handle on all of the psychosis because there's a lot of expectations that start to happen. People have a lot hopes and a lot of of money at this level so you're like, "Oh, my God, now it's people's money!" Before, it was a labor of abject love. There were a lot of fancy, fancy people who came but [director] Sam Gold kept insisting it was a rehearsal, no matter what. No matter who was in the audience. An exploration. The integrity remained intact at that level for a really long time, even up to opening night of this entity that you're seeing now on Broadway, and that is how we've remained sane. I keep saying, I could never have walked into an audition and gotten this job. I had to build it slowly in order to handle what's happening right now. It's like a lobster boiling. You put a live lobster in cold, cold water and then you slowly turn up the heat. Incrementally, each incarnation of this show has become more and more intense and visible and I never would have been able to manage it unless it happened slowly, step, by step, by step.

Gay men are so visible in the theatre industry as far as the stories that they have been able take ownership of and tell onstage. Has the experience of playing this ground-breaking character and bringing Alison Bechdel's story to life affected you personally?
BM: I feel like presenting as semi-butch in this and not being able to take the wig off and walk out of the theatre at the end of the night has been incredibly empowering, and surprisingly, it has really pervaded every aspect of my private life. I walk through the world with this gender presentation right now, and it has helped me to understand more about a huge subsect of my people that I don't identify with normally. Gay men have every kind of... If you go to P-Town on any weekend, it's like, "Oh, Cubby Bear. We get it!" But lesbians, we have a lot of subsects, too, and we definitely seem to segregate ourselves. I don't know what I am. I'm like a soft butch, sporty, something, I have no f*cking idea how I am identified, honestly! But being this, it has been a blast, but it also has shown me how discrimination works, especially for lesbians who present as butch and how you don't enjoy the favors that society affords pretty girls. Pretty girls get easier access to things in society. And when you present as a no-make-up-wearing-short-haired-baggy-clothes-wearing dyke, you don't get doors held for you, let's just say. And that's been very interesting.

Malone and Emily Skeggs in <i>Fun Home</i>
Malone and Emily Skeggs in Fun Home Photo by Jenny Anderson

What does it mean to you to play this kind of character? It's one of the first times we've seen a butch lesbian depicted onstage who isn't some kind of sight gag or part of a joke. Alison is a full-on hero.
BM: It has been profound in this way. When Sydney steps out and sings "Ring of Keys" or when I say the word "butch," I say it with the color of, like I'm saying the word supermodel. Because from my lens, the word butch is the most beautiful adjective I can come up with. "Oh my God, she was an old-school butch!" Like satisfying words coming out of your mouth. Still, it gets titters because the word "butch" is a punch line. For every other show that has ever existed, "butch" and "dyke" have been a punch line for the end of a gay man's joke. So now we are taking that word, like the word queer, we're owning it and saying, butch is a beautiful thing. When Sydney starts to sing about seeing this, there's a laugh about the ring of keys, but the worm has turned by the end of that song and people are wrecked because they realize that she's seeing something beautiful. To watch the audience make that transition within 18 bars of music is profound. It really is something, and it never ceases to move me while I'm onstage. I get to watch it every night.

We're living in a time where there's increasing opportunity, not just for out LGBT actors, but also for the ways characters onstage can be portrayed and reflect the individuals who inhabit them. Did you ever get negative comments or advice people in the industry about how you presented?
BM: Oh yeah, I've gotten a lot of advice. I went through grad school and we had a showcase, and it was all about trying to get the branding just right and then "release," because you can only "release" once and you want to do it right. There was a lot of, "Let's just not own your shit. Let's just try to... You're going to be the scrappy best friend! We're going to have to get a dress that you can actually wear that makes you feel okay." I remember I went to a manager meeting, because right after showcase I had done well enough where I had a lot of heat when I popped out initially in 2000, and this manager handled Rene Russo and gorgeous women. He looked at me, and he was sizing me up like a piece of meat and the way my eyes moved and my face moved, I was outing myself. In the middle of the meeting, I just got up and I looked at him and I said, "I'm not pulling this off am I?" And I shook his hand and I walked out. Because I cannot pull it off. I cannot pull it off and be honest. I have to be who I am, and when I started moving my identity in the direction of actually being myself, as myself as I can be, that's when my life opened up. That's when my career opened up. That's when I started working on projects that I actually cared about, and it's been an amazing thing. Why didn't I think of this earlier? It's a crazy thing to try and live your life trying to fit into some mold. It's really not sane after you think about it.

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Is that advice you'd give your younger self?
BM: Oh my gosh. I can't, because now lesbian actresses have started to write to me and say, "Thank you for being so present. Thank you for being so out, and it's my story and you're inspiring to me." And I think, "Well, I'm so happy, but I'm not sure you're going to get work because there is a lot of fear and prejudice. I'm not sure this isn't going to hurt you, but all I can say is, I hope you live a happier life, but it may not make you a more working actor." So I don't know, you know what I mean? I don't know what to say. I want to say, "Yay! Let's make art together!" The only reason Fun Home itself can be a mainstream Broadway show is because of the fringe work of my sisters that came before me, like the Five Lesbian Brothers, doing this downtown theatre that was so edgy and it was happening in the margins. The margins had to exist for a really long time before it incrementally crept toward the center. We're still left of center, people are still like, "The audacity of this show! How audacious that it could be a lesbian leading lady. How unheard of!" But it's a Broadway show and that makes it right in the middle of the mainstream. Right now, the Supreme Court is arguing for our rights as human beings, and I'm going home to my wife tonight who I married in a court of law in New York City. This is a time in our lives. This is quite a time. This is quite a season. This is quite a year and a decade and I'm proud to be part of it and I'm so proud of my President. I'm so sorry, I don't want to make it political but I am so proud of my President, and I feel like he's heroic in being verbally open about homosexuals in a lot of ways. I know that he hasn't been a perfect President, but there are things about him that make him an exemplary human being. I love that he's my President because he represents my heart.

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