Sutton Foster and Marc Kudisch Bang Unsinkable Molly Brown's Tub in Reading of Revised Musical
By Kenneth Jones
The latest step in the development of a new version of the 1960 Broadway musical The Unsinkable Molly Brown, by composer-lyricist Meredith Willson, came Dec. 15 in a Manhattan reading for the producer and creative team, adaptor Dick Scanlan told Playbill.com.
Tony Award winner Sutton Foster played the feisty title lady, a rags-to-riches Midwesterner who married well, fought for social justice and survived the 1912 sinking of the Titanic. Tony winner Kathleen Marshall (Anything Goes, The Pajama Game, Wonderful Town) is the project's director-choreographer, working with Tony-nominated librettist Scanlan (Everyday Rapture, Thoroughly Modern Millie) and musical director/arranger Michael Rafter (Everyday Rapture, Swing!, Millie).
Also in the Dec. 15 reading presentation — the culmination of 29 hours of rehearsal — was Tony nominee Marc Kudisch (Trevor Graydon opposite Foster in Scanlan's Thoroughly Modern Millie) as Molly's strike-it-rich Colorado husband JJ Brown. The principals included Teal Wicks (Wicked, The Blue Flower), Constantine Germanacos (CA TheatreWorks' The Light in the Piazza), Francis Jue (Thoroughly Modern Millie), Zachary James (The Addams Family) and Donna English (Off-Broadway's Ruthless), plus a small ensemble.
A revised version of the fact-inspired show was first suggested to Scanlan by Richard Morris, the screenwriter of "Thoroughly Modern Millie," who penned the original Molly Brown libretto and worked with Scanlan on the stage adaptation of Millie.
"I didn't really bite, and we were busily working on Millie," Scanlan explained. After Morris died, his estate asked Scanlan to look at Molly Brown, but the writer passed on it because he had already spent time happily rewriting a Morris property, and there were other projects to develop, Scanlan said.
Freddie Gershon, the CEO of Music Theatre International (MTI), contacted Scanlan and asked him to take another look at Molly Brown, an underexposed property in the MTI licensing catalog.
Scanlan told Playbill.com, "My involvement was prompted by Freddie Gershon at MTI, to whom 'I'll Never Say No,' as the Molly Brown song puts it. His prompting led me on a journey of research that resulted in this reconceived show. The legend was born in the 1930s [in a book by Gene Fowler], which Richard Morris heard about, but my heart is captured by the historical person."
Straying from the original show's simple rags-to-riches trajectory (which had been based on fanciful non-fiction rather than fact), Scanlan's reconception draws more on Margaret Tobin Brown's full history, from poverty in Hannibal, MO (she lived in a shack, her father was a ditch-digger) to wealth in Denver, her marriage to mine owner JJ Brown, her Catholicism and her lesser-known social activism.
"When I took it on, I kept thinking there has to be a reason why this woman became famous other than the fact that she was very poor and became very rich," Scanlan said. "She was this extraordinarily outspoken, fiery, resilient social activist."
The show covers the period of 1886-1912.
As previously reported, about half the score is from the original musical (fans of the cast album will recognize "I Ain't Down Yet," "Are You Sure?," "Belly Up to the Bar, Boys" and "I'll Never Say No") and the rest of the "new" score is made up songs from the late Willson's catalog. Willson's widow gave Scanlan access to a trove of sheet music, literally pulled from a filing cabinet in the Willson's basement in Brentwood, CA. About 80 songs were considered, with Scanlan matching existing material to his new libretto, which touches on Molly Brown's passion for immigrant rights, labor rights and more. (She was a leader in juvenile justice, Scanlan said, and was one of the first women to run for Congress.)
Scanlan and musician Rafter (musical director of Millie, and a favorite arranger/pianist of Sutton Foster's club shows) experimented with the tempi and tone of the songs and crafted the fresh score. (Although Scanlan is a lyricist, as previously reported, the score songs are wholly by Willson, who is best known for the Tony-winning The Music Man.) Scanlan said he and Rafter marveled at the richness of Juilliard-trained Willson's harmonies and the complexity of the lyric settings.
Scanlan said he imagines a cast of about 20 people for The Unsinkable Molly Brown. For now, a commercial producer is attached and is working toward an out-of-town world premiere to be named.
Tammy Grimes won the Best Featured Actress Tony Award in 1961 for her portrayal of Molly Brown. The 1964 film version of the musical (which included historical elements and new songs — and trimmed numbers from the stage show) earned Debbie Reynolds a Best Actress Oscar nomination. Reynolds toured in the show in her later career.
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