It's been a busy year for Beth Malone, the singing actress who played the adult Alison in Fun Home, the award-winning Jeanine Tesori-Lisa Kron musical based on the graphic memoir by Alison Bechdel that played an acclaimed run at the Public Theater and is scheduled to begin performances April 4, 2015, at Broadway's Circle in the Square Theatre. The musical, scheduled for an April 22, 2015, opening night, will be directed by Sam Gold, who helmed the show's Off-Broadway bow. Malone is currently out of town with another high-profile project, a revised version of The Unsinkable Molly Brown, helmed by three-time Tony winner Kathleen Marshall. Malone, who made her Broadway debut in the short-lived Ring of Fire, is starring in the title role of Molly Brown, which has a new book and additional lyrics by three-time Tony Award nominee Dick Scanlan (Thoroughly Modern Millie) and showcases never-before-heard songs from Meredith Willson's catalogue. Performances continue at the Denver Center Theatre Company through Oct. 26. I recently had the chance to chat with the multitalented Malone, who spoke about both recent projects; that interview follows.
Question: Since we haven't spoken before, let's go back a bit. Where you were born and raised?
Beth Malone: I was born in Auburn, Nebraska, [and] I was raised in Castle Rock, Colorado.
Question: When did you start performing?
Beth Malone: In high school, junior high — high school plays…
Question: Were there any actors or singers at the time that you particularly admired, anyone who influenced you?
Beth Malone: It's so funny because in high school we used to watch the video of Pippin, the original Pippin. Do you remember when they went back and did this recording that kind of floated around and everybody saw it? With Ben Vereen? … I just was watching Pippin here…The opening night of the tour is in Denver, right across the street from Molly Brown, so our cast was lucky enough to be able to go the other night. Of course, I saw it in New York, and I saw Patina [Miller] do it, and it was wonderful, but I was sitting in the audience the other night just remembering Ben Vereen's performance. It really was iconic, and it really did change me. I really feel like that was a performance that changed me, just how affable he was and then in the streak of a lightning bolt, he was terrifying. I remember that performance, but it's funny, it has really nothing to do with my life or career. [Laughs.] But I did meet him at the Apple Store in Sherman Oaks last year; he was quite lovely to me.
Question: When did performing change from a hobby to when you knew it was going to be a career?
Beth Malone: I grew up like 30 miles down the road with this old dinner theatre in the shape of a barn, called the Country Dinner Playhouse, and I grew up watching plays there, and it was quite mesmerizing to me. I was very much under the spell of the whole thing, and when I was 16, I became a hostess there. As soon as I got my driver's license, I started driving up there just to watch rehearsals while I filled the salt and pepper shakers. I was obsessed with it from a very young age. I saw "Singin' in the Rain" on TV, and then I was like, "Those are my people!" When it turned serious for me was when I learned that I could belt. I had no idea! I grew up in choir, and you just try to sound like everybody else, you try not to stick out. But my freshman year of college, I literally took a pop-belt class as a musical theatre freshman at Loretto Heights College, and a sound came out of my mouth, and the whole room went, "What?!" And then I knew, "Hey, I'm special! I can belt!" [Laughs.] And it was really, really trendy — to belt was a brand-new thing that was being legitimized at the time, and I was very fancy on the campus after that, and I thought, "I can do this. I always thought I was going to be able to do this, and now I really think I can do this." And then I started auditioning for things and getting jobs, professional jobs instead of going to college, and that's when I kind of knew that I could do this for a while. …
I came to New York at 21, and it just scared the bejesus out of me. And I really had no help. I had no skills, and so I only lasted six months, and then I went home with my tail between my legs, and then I tried it again in a couple more years. But I was literally waiting on line at 6:30 in the morning in the cold waiting for those EPA's at the time. I didn't have an agent, I didn't even know the first thing about anything. The learning curve for me was gradual, but I'm really glad I took those early steps in New York, so that it made my later stabs at New York less terrifying.
Question: Your Broadway debut was Ring of Fire. Do you remember what your first night on Broadway was like, how it either lived up to or didn't live up to what you thought being on Broadway would be like?
Beth Malone: I do remember it. We were in Buffalo. Ring of Fire was in Buffalo, and we were received like the Beatles. Every time we'd run offstage, Cass Morgan would turn to me and say, "We're the Beatles." [Laughs.] Because the Buffalo audience just ate it with a spoon and would stand up before the lights came down at the end of the show for curtain call. They would be on their feet. It was nuts. When we moved to New York, definitely during the rehearsal process, I felt the tension rise because people started to realize… that we didn’t quite have our sh*t together. And I started to sense, "Oh, the pressure of doing this in front of New York audiences is very, very different." And I started to understand the whole thing, but then, opening night, you're completely oblivious to how the show is going to be received, which is lovely. My dressing room was filled with flowers like I had died or like it was my wedding. It was like as big a day as my wedding day that opening night. I've never felt so supported and held up because it really did take me a long time to get there…. I was working at Waste-Recycling driving a forklift four years earlier. I got flowers from those people. Those people were like, "Where are you?" It was funny because I'm kind of "incognito" in my life, often times wearing a nametag, and then those people say, "What are you doing?! You're doing what?!"
Question: Do you remember anything about that first-night performance — what it felt like being on a Broadway stage? Was it any different than performing elsewhere?
Beth Malone: Yes, very much so because, first of all, the Barrymore is just this gorgeous, gorgeous theatre, and when you look out into that house, you see all of the scroll work, this lovely lace-like scroll work in the balcony and on the boxes on the side. It's such a piece of art, a little architectural gem we were in. … I'm telling you, we did get slammed back in the press, but there were moments of perfection in that show as there are in probably every single show that gets nailed. There were moments of just pure grace in that show, and I was old enough even then. I'm glad it didn't happen to me when I was 20, in that when it did happen, I knew what's happening in the moment. I can be present even in those moments of overwhelmingness, as it's happening now. Even throughout Fun Home, I was like, "Hey, this is what it feels like, this is what 'dreams come true' feel like, this is what a dream coming true is." You know, I'm presently experiencing the "dream coming true" feeling. So that is a nice perk of having a little bit of age on you. [Laughs.]
Question: Tell me what it was like performing Fun Home Off-Broadway — it's such a unique piece.
Beth Malone: Okay, well first I would talk about the building of it because we started up in LuEsther Hall with this script that doesn't resemble this current play at all. Judy Kuhn and I are the only ones left over from that particular reading. We saw a lot of wonderful people come in and out of our piece, and the process of watching this particular piece get built has been life-altering, because it really is recreating a modality of storytelling. To be in the room while they sort of figure that out — these are the brains that you're like, "Oh, there's intellects in New York, but these are the intellect intellects." Lisa [Kron], Jeanine [Tesori] and Sam [Gold] — their brains together, they're like a master race. It's nuts. Sometimes I can't even follow what they're f**king saying. I'm just like nodding and smiling while Jeanine is explaining the theory behind what an opening number does, and I'm like, "Uh huh. Uh huh." [Laughs.] And, you know, I've been in this business a while. I often times feel like I’m the smartest person in the room, which isn't the best feeling. But when you're in that room, I just feel like an infant sometimes.
So that was fascinating to watch them willingly tear up 30 pages that they worked on with their blood and guts, tear it out the next day. Tearing those pages out became more and more painful, and I witnessed that, too. Lisa would come in with this idea. Jeanine and Lisa would have been up all night with it, and then after sitting with it for a day or two … Sam goes, "I just need to say, 'This, this, this, this, this and this,'" and then that goes away, and you know, that was painful. It was painful for us, too, because your brain tries to start to memorize things almost instantly when you're in this workshop situation.
We did Sundance three weeks, too. So we had a version there that we did for the Sundance people after three weeks that is no longer – and then what we did at the Shiva [Theater] sort of resembled that, but not really. And when we moved there, we would get new pages and perform them for people that night. And, sometimes, enormous chunks of text [would be new], and I would be writing it all over the desk, I would be writing it on the walls, on my person, on my hands, just anything to be like, "When that moment comes up, I want to sing these new lyrics. I want to present these new lyrics, so that the writers can see what they have." And it really was an amazing process because it removes your ego from the process at all. You are there to serve these writers, you are there to serve this piece, and literally, it's not just lip service. That is really our job. We just have to get our bodies enough rest and food to get up in front of those people tonight and say those lyrics so these people you revere can see their work. And, the fact that there was an audience sitting there with frickin' Tony Kushner in the audience, and Steven Spielberg, and anyone else you'd ever want to meet was literally irrelevant. I mean, of course, it f*cks with you, and you can't have it be completely irrelevant, but I've talked to so many people that I've wanted to meet, and they're like, "Oh, I saw you at the Shiva." And, I'm like, "Of course you did." You know? "Of course you did, everyone and their mother was there!" [Laughs.] You really sort of just had to set it aside and do the work, and that was the most amazing training of my life. And now, even now as Molly Brown continues to throw changes, and everybody is freaking out going, "How do you do it? How do you do it?!" I'm like, "Oh, girl. Listen. This is nothing compared to doing Fun Home on a workshop contract at The Public in the middle of New York City, where anybody and everybody can buy a ticket and come see your work." [Laughs.]
Question: Now, getting to Molly Brown, how did this role come about?
Beth Malone: Heather Lee is my really dear friend in L.A. and is always on the lookout. I don't know how she does it; she must have a Google search set up or whatever – but as soon as the breakdown came up, she called me. She had seen me do Annie Get Your Gun, and, you know, I do a really good Annie Get Your Gun, I have to say — like it's in my wheel house, but it's not something people would know me as in New York. My persona in New York has changed since Fun Home. I think people think I've reinvented myself in this person who I play in Fun Home now, like it's my identity, but it isn't. I'm just an actor, so a lot of what I've done are these vintage-y leading-lady type [roles]. I am a bit of a tomboy and I am a mountain girl. I can climb a tree and shoot a gun and stuff like that. So, when Molly Brown came up, I was like, "Yeah, definitely, I want to go in for it." It took a little bit of convincing to get me in the room, even with the recent credit of Fun Home — it was tough to get because of Fun Home, somehow. Because of my identity with it and my persona in it, but I knew I had this role and I will have it. I knew that at least I could go in there and show them something unexpected, and I did. And that's how it went. And after that first audition – in the middle of the first audition, I felt it happening, sort of. I felt like the possibility of something happening or at least that I accomplished what I had gone in there to do.
Question: Tell me a little bit about working with Kathleen Marshall, what the experience has been like so far.
Beth Malone: Kathleen is just this lovely human being, so spending this much time with her has been a treat. Just like a joy, she's kind of ego-less and very cast-oriented. And, she makes it look really easy. … Our perception is that there was no stress, so if there was stress, they kept it from us. It was so lovely, and she's so smart and just kind and lovely. Because she's a woman and she's a mom, she finds the moments in every scene where there's a little more heart than you would have come to on your own.
Question: How would you describe the character of Molly Brown now that you've played her a little bit?
Beth Malone: She is a do-er. She doesn't think maybe before she does, sometimes, but she launches in 100% to everything, and she doesn’t understand inertia. She's flummoxed by it and frustrated by it. She's flawed; she's not perfect, so it's fun to find those flaws and exploit them because that is ultimately why people will love her. She's a person who can build you a house if she needs to, but she's also someone who will reform government if she needs to. She looks at a problem, and instead of going, "Oh, that's too bad," she says, "Oh, no. That's wrong. No, that's not right, we're fixing that." That's what she does. She's not passive; she's very easy to play. [Laughs.]
Question: Do you have a favorite moment for her in the show?
Beth Malone: Between me and JJ [actor Burke Moses], there are such lovely moments. The moment where it's revealed that he's been sweet on her the whole time — and not her best friend — is a really luscious moment to play, because you have this girl, who doesn't even conceive of the idea that anyone could be attracted to her or want to marry her. I think she's sort of set her sights on finding a rich man, but probably, not a very attractive man, maybe an older man who has some pull. "Once I get to Denver, I'm going to have all these things on my list, and I'm going to attack that with a vengeance and see what I can do about it." That's her goal, but then she marries for love, and it ends up sneaking up behind her and getting her. The actual Molly Brown said, "I wanted to marry for money, but I married for love accidentally." And then, he accidentally became rich. The man she married for love became a millionaire, and she was instrumental in helping him become a millionaire.
Question: Do you know if there are plans to stage this elsewhere following Denver?
Beth Malone: You know, that is the giant question, but if there is, I'm not privy to it. I'm really trying to not even think about it and trying to focus on now. It's easy for me to focus on the now because our current cast is this perfect group of people you want to be out of town with. Well, out of town for me is in town because I'm from Denver, so that's also been a trip. It's been really nice to sort of have the distraction of all of my high school friends and everybody I went to college with and people who I was a hostess with and my parents' friends, and everyone's coming to this. So it's very easy for me to concentrate on the here and now in Denver, in particular. If I was in Atlanta, Georgia, I might have been like, "Oh, I wonder if it's going to move." Even if it moves, who knows when and who knows how old I'll be then and who knows if so and so will get the part. It's just so completely out of my hands. You learn to live like that. [For ticket information visit denvercenter.org.]
Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to email@example.com.
Diva Talk runs every other week on Playbill.com. Senior editor Andrew Gans also pens the weekly columns Their Favorite Things and Stage Views.