Kathleen Marshall on Bringing Revised The Unsinkable Molly Brown to the Surface

Tony-winning director and choreographer Kathleen Marshall shares the story behind the revised production of the musical The Unsinkable Molly Brown.

Kathleen Marshall
Kathleen Marshall (Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN)

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"There's such a wonderful heart at the center of this show," three-time Tony-winning director and choreographer Kathleen Marshall says. "It's great to take a classic American musical comedy and reinvigorate it. We want people to fall in love with the show in 2014 just as they fell in love with it originally."

Marshall is talking about The Unsinkable Molly Brown, the 1960 Meredith WillsonRichard Morris musical about a young woman who moves to Colorado, finds love and riches, heads off to Europe to join high society and famously survives the sinking of the Titanic. A revised version — the original ran for 532 performances on Broadway, winning a Tony for Tammy Grimes in the title role — begins next month at the Denver Center Theatre Company in (appropriately) Colorado. Marshall directs and choreographs.

Beth Malone, who starred last season in the award-winning Off-Broadway musical Fun Home, is this year's Molly. ( Debbie Reynolds portrayed her in the movie; Sutton Foster played the role in 2010 and 2011 readings.) Molly — which followed Willson's 1957 megahit The Music Man — has a new book by Dick Scanlan ( Thoroughly Modern Millie, Everyday Rapture), a three-time Tony nominee.

How is this Molly different from the first Molly? "We wanted to reinvent it for a contemporary audience and give it a bit more accuracy in terms of her life," says Marshall, who won her Tonys for Wonderful Town, The Pajama Game and Anything Goes. The 1960 Molly, she says, "had a lot of spirit and a wonderful score," but Morris's book "didn't pay as close attention to the realities of her life. We want to concentrate on that a little more, have more depth about her relationship with J. J. Brown, her husband. It's not only a story about her. It's about a relationship and a marriage and how they find each other, how they stick together, how they weather all kinds of storms through their marriage."

Beth Malone

Most of the story will be told in flashback. "We start on the lifeboat of the Titanic in 1912 and go back to Molly's arrival" from Hannibal, MO, where she was born Molly Tobin, "to Leadville, CO, and work forward." Molly Brown was "a pioneer in every sense of the word," Marshall says. "Besides a rags to riches story, it's the tale of a very passionate woman who was very active and very social. She was a laser beam for social injustice and for fairness, and that shows through in everything she did in her life, most memorably as a survivor of the Titanic, when she not only helped the women in her lifeboat, but also represented the survivors and honored those who perished."

Molly Brown also raised money to help impoverished survivors. "She was an amazing symbol of that tragedy."

The score will also be revised — Scanlan was given permission to go through composer-lyricist Willson's songbook and choose additional material. "The songs that people know and love — 'Colorado, My Home,' 'I Ain't Down Yet,' 'I'll Never Say No' — all those beautiful songs are still there. And we've augmented it with songs from his trunk, songs that were cut from other shows — songs that were repurposed. Dick has tweaked a lyric or written additional lyrics so they fit our story better.

"All the melodies are Meredith Willson. His style of writing was Americana at its very best — open and energetic and optimistic, with fabulous marches and waltzes and patter songs and ballads. I think it's exciting to do a show that has this much of America's soul in it."