Beth Malone, shown front right in a Country Dinner Playhouse production of “They’re Playing Our Song,” will star in the Denver Center Theatre Company’s “The Unsinkable Molly Brown.”
By John Moore
Beth Malone bicycled to a recent New York audition wearing a dress over rolled-up jeans and hiking boots. She was dressed as a quintessential Coloradan for the chance to play quintessential Coloradan Molly Brown in the Denver Center Theatre Company’s upcoming new musical staging of The Unsinkable Molly Brown.
But Malone wasn’t intentionally dressed for Colorado. The Castle Rock native was coming straight from Colorado.
And Malone, it was just announced, has won the coveted title role in this “refreshed” launch of the famous Broadway musical, opening in Denver on Sept. 12. The staging is directed by three-time Tony winner Kathleen Marshall and written by three-time Tony nominee Dick Scanlan.
When she was just 16 years old, Malone landed her (first) dream job — as a hostess at the Country Dinner Playhouse. Two years later, she was starring there in Baby. She made her Denver Center debut that same year at age 18 as the understudy to Mary Louise Lee — now the First Lady of Denver — in Beehive. Malone then made her debut with the Denver Center Theatre Company in 1993 in the world premiere of Jeffrey Hatcher’s Bon Voyage, a musical adaptation of Noel Coward’s Sail Away directed by Bruce K. Sevy. She went on to make her name performing on stages all over Colorado from the Crystal Palace to Theatre Aspen to the Arvada Center, where she played the narrator in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat for five years running.
Malone, a graduate of Douglas County High School and the University of Northern Colorado, is an avid outdoorswoman who spent what she calls her “misspent 20s” racing down Aspen’s ski slopes. She didn’t chase stardom; nonetheless stardom chased her. She won a role in the original cast of the Broadway-bound Sister Act, and she originated roles in off-Broadway stagings of The Marvelous Wondrettes and Bingo the Musical. Malone made her Broadway debut in 2006 playing June Carter Cash in Ring of Fire. And last year, New York audiences got to see a very different side of Malone, who played the lead role in Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron’s tough, acclaimed musical adaptation of Alison Bechdel’s autobiographical graphic novel, Fun Home.
"I’m so happy," Malone said this week from San Diego, where she is starring as Annie Oakley in Annie Get Your Gun for the San Diego Musical Theatre. “It’s going to be a dream come true coming home and playing Molly Brown. I really can’t think of anything better.”
A friend of Malone’s challenged her on that point. “Really?” he said. “That’s the best thing you can think of?”
Her friend is not from around here.
“I said to him, ‘Listen: I get to go back to Colorado … during the fall … and I get to do a show about a Colorado legend … in Colorado … where I am from … during the end of the Rockies season … and at the beginning of the Broncos season. What’s better than that?’ ”
When Malone heard about the Molly Brown audition, she had no expectation of getting the part. “I was going to be up against all of the New York heavy-hitters, and so I knew the chances of me getting this job were just so frickin’ slim,” she said. But her audition, she said, “just felt like a game-changer.
"They had me sing Ain’t Down Yet, and that is a really hard song. But I had worked on it pretty much for two weeks straight, and I thought, ‘I think I’m just going to go for it and see what happens. Because if I fall on my face, what’s the big deal, right?’ ” But instead, she said, “it was one of those really nice moments where you could just feel the shift in the room.”
The creative team had no idea Malone has a Colorado history. “At the end of the audition, I told them, ‘By the way … I drive through Leadville every time I go from Aspen to Denver, and I’ve been to the Molly Brown House on a field trip when I was in third grade,’ ” she said with a laugh.
Malone recently realized her initials are Molly Brown’s initials, inverted. “That’s just another reason I feel like there is a lot of synchronicity surrounding all of this,” she said. “I can’t quite even make sense of it yet. I am not that ‘woo-woo’ kind of person at all, but I this is going to make a believer out of me.”
Beth Malone, upper right, in Country Dinner Playhouse’s “Nunsense,” with Mary Jo Catlett, bottom right.
Here are highlights from our conversation:
John Moore: So what are your earliest memories of the Denver Center?
Beth Malone: Oh my gosh, my mother took me to a production of Picnic when I was a little kid. And Arsenic and Old Lace with Maureen Stapleton. I was just floating on air when I left that place. Those early theatre experiences just carried me through my childhood … and they happened right there at the Denver Center.
John Moore: Your mother is a country singer, right?
Beth Malone: Yes, her name is Peggy Malone. She was a local favorite who performed in bars around Denver throughout the ’70s and ’80s. She pretty much put me through college doing that. She is in Fruita now, and she’s busier than she has ever been. She sings five nights a week. She can barely clear her calendar to come see me in shows because she’s booked solid.
John Moore: Molly Brown isn’t exactly country music, but what is it going to mean to your mom to see you play that role?
Beth Malone: She is so excited, it’s like Christmas.
Malone with Paul Dwyer, Brian Smith and Bill McHale.
John Moore: How would you describe Country Dinner Playhouse director Bill McHale’s influence on your career?
Beth Malone: He was absolutely my father in the theatre. He took me straight out of my parents’ house and put me in his house — which was the Country Dinner Playhouse — and became my dad. He shepharded my young theatrical persona, my life, my career and my sensibility. I still think that it’s the best schooling I ever got, doing eight shows a week, month after month. Those years sitting next to Maureen McHale and Kristie Welborn and Alann Worley in the dressing room: Those were the best years of my life. And it’s very meaningful to me that I am going to be in Denver on the one-year anniversary of Terry Rhoads’ death. I want to be with all of those people on that day.
John Moore: I was just looking at picture of you and Terry from Oklahoma, back in the day. Can you even name two or three other seminal roles at Country Dinner?
Beth Malone: I got my Equity doing Baby. I was 19 or 20 and I was playing the lead. For a long time, I would always say that was the highlight of my career. Knowing that I was watching from the audience just two years before. When I was growing up, I would always want to go to the Country Dinner Playhouse on my birthday. Those people were such big stars to me. I was so star-struck by them. And then to be on stage with them … and then to have them become my friends, and ultimately my family … Now that I look in the rear-view mirror, I can say those were the days. Such special, special days.
John Moore: I want to ask you about a night last year, when the local theatre company was raising money to help a mother and actor with terminal brain cancer named Shelly Bordas. The Littleton Town Hall Arts Center was opening 9 to 5 The Musical, and you were performing in the L.A. cast of the same show. So (local actor) Sue Leiser got up and presented Shelly with a photo signed by the cast. along with $150 you had raised from among your L.A. castmates. Why was it important for you to send your support from so far away to a woman you never even know?
Beth Malone: Actors are notoriously under-covered, medically speaking. When you hear the words “starving artist,” it’s not just a phrase. It’s important to rally around people when they really need it. Nothing feels better than to rally around someone and help them when they need it.
Beth Malone in “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” at Theatre Aspen.
John Moore: Tell me about the opportunity Fun Home gave you to show people what else you can do on stage? What was it like for you when people started to look at you as an actress in a different way?
Beth Malone: You know when I said I don’t believe in “Meant to Be?” I don’t. But I do believe in trajectory. A few years ago, I changed my trajectory. I said to myself, “Look, I might be done.” Because there were several things in a row that I thought were going to happen. Right after Ring of Fire closed, I booked Sister Act. So then I was attached to The Break-Up Notebook, (That’s a musical in which Malone played a lesbian Mary Tyler Moore-type character rebounding from being dumped. The producer was Kevin McCullum
(of Rent and Avenue Q) it was going to be a starring vehicle, but when it hit the skids I thought, “Well that was my last shot, really.” I didn’t know what I was going to do next. I have my master’s degree, so I thought about sending out my teaching resume, get tenure, and move back to Colorado. I don’t want to be a commercial actor in Los Angeles the rest of my life. That’s not what I want to do. So I thought, well, if I am going to keep acting, then from now on, I am going to make these bullet points and follow them: Now I will not leave the house for less than this amount of money. Now I will not leave the house unless it is a role I am dying to play. Now I will not leave the house unless it has legs to move forward — with me in it. The days of me running around the country doing theatre for no money are behind me. So then I got a call for this reading of Fun Home at the Public Theatre. I realized right away it was really special, even in its infancy. I thought I will do anything to stay attached to this piece. So no, I don’t believe in “Meant to Be,” But I do believe in hard work and proving yourself. Like once you do get your big chance, I believe that you should work three times harder to prove that it’s not just luck. To prove that you are supposed to be there. That’s how I’ve changed my own life, and my own view of my own self. I am a Capricorn, so I have always taken baby steps forward, and then three steps back, and then baby steps forward, and then three steps back. That’s just the way I am. I don’t believe I belong in that room until I am in that room. So when I do get in the room, I say to myself, “I am going to make it really hard for them to replace me.”
John Moore: That’s the attitude you’ll be bringing with you to Denver, I’m sure.
Beth Malone: I am. I will be leaving it all in the room. I am not hold back. I am not saving for the next thing. I’m leaving it there.
John Moore: I wonder what that 16-year-old hostess who got her dream job serving at the Country Dinner Playhouse would say if grown-up you had the chance to tell her that one day, she will be starring at the Denver Center in the debut of the new The Unsinkable Molly Brown?
Beth Malone: I don’t know if words would come out. I think I would dissolve into a puddle of tears. It’s so emotionally overwhelming to think about that journey from that person to this person.
John Moore: It sounds like you are in for the year of your life.
Beth Malone: I am seriously blown away by life as it is at this point.
The Unsinkable Molly Brown: At a Glance
Lyrics and Music by Meredith Willson
Additional Lyrics and Book by Dick Scanlan
Based on the Original Book by Richard Morris
Directed and Choreographed by Kathleen Marshall
Sept. 12-Oct. 26 (Opens Sept. 19)
This exhilarating refresh of Meredith Willson’s 1960 musical tells the rags-to-riches romance of Colorado’s own heroine, Molly Brown. With a new book by Dick Scanlan (Thoroughly Modern Millie), new songs from the Willson songbook and staging by Tony-winning director/choreographer Kathleen Marshall (Anything Goes), the tempestuous can’t-live-with-him/can’t-live-without-him love story that survived the Silver Boom, Gold Rush and sinking of the Titanic returns to the stage in an all-new production.
Season subscriptions are currently available. Single tickets will be available at a date to be announced. Call 303-893-4100 or go to www.DenverCenter.Org.
Please visit our blog daily at www.MyDenverCenter.Org for ongoing coverage of all the events and programming at the Denver Center.
The Denver Center for the Performing Arts is a not-for-profit organization.
Beth Malone in “The Marvelous Wondrettes” at Theatre Aspen.