Several years ago, you had a little redheaded girl in your theater company who had the spunk and talent to play Annie. Now she’s all grown up – with even more spunk and talent. You’d love to find the right part for her.
Here it is: The Unsinkable Molly Brown, celebrating the woman who saved quite a few lives on the night that the Titanic tanked.
Tammy Grimes, who originated the role in the 1960 Broadway production, told me that her agent pointed out to her why she had to take the part: “This girl is on stage for all but seven pages,” he said. “Anyone lucky enough to play her will become a star.”
Grimes did and won a Tony — albeit for Best Featured Actress in a Musical. “Featured?” you shriek. “She’s on almost every page and she’s featured?!” Ah, but in those days, if you were billed under the title as Grimes was, you were considered featured.
Hollywood knew it was a starring role, which is why Debbie Reynolds was nominated for a 1964 Oscar. And here’s the chance for leading lady to win an award in the mini-Tonys that your neck of the woods annually dispenses.
At the outset, Molly Tobin is a backwoods illiterate teenager. She is, as bookwriter Richard (Thoroughly Modern Millie) Morris described her, “full blown and bubbling over with juices. Her red hair bristles defiantly on her hard head.”
Or should he have said strong head? When we meet her, Molly’s being badgered by her older brothers — a situation with which any younger sister in the audience can identify. They mock her dreams of glory. “Nobody wants me down like I wants me up,” she says in the long spoken verse of her triumphant opening number “I Ain’t Down Yet.”
The “long spoken verse” is not unlike the ones that Harold Hill has in “Ya Got Trouble” and “76 Trombones” in The Music Man, and for good reason: the composer-lyricist of The Unsinkable Molly Brown was the same Meredith Willson. There is a profound difference in his leading characters, however: Harold is a phony with a great deal of surface charm. Molly is completely sincere but is rough as a Brillo pad embedded with burrs.
Molly, unlike those people whom Rose criticizes in Gypsy, can’t be accused as one who’s “got the dream, but not the guts.” She tells her brothers that she could “even be a queen.” And while she doesn’t quite achieve that, she is proposed to by a prince before the show ends.
First, however, she’ll leave home to seek her fortune — which bothers her father who believes that money is the root of all evil. (If he were able to read, he’d know that the Bible actually says that “love of money is the root of all evil.”) Molly’s take: “It ain’t the money I love. It’s not the having it I hate.” (There is a difference.)
So this isn’t Lorelei Lee, although her goals do include such creature comforts as a red house and a brass bed. But possessions are just the start of her wish list. “There’s just gotta be things to see and do more than a bunch of boobs chasin’ a greased pig on a Saturday night.”
Her father must admit that “There was a cyclone the day you was born,” he says. “You must have swallowed the tail of it.” It’s a good line, but the irony is that the first part of is indeed historically accurate; there was a cyclone on that July 18, 1867 day that the real Margaret Molly Tobin Brown was born.
Morris knew how to create a memorable character. When Molly goes to a
Colorado saloon to get a job — and is told by the owner that the best he can offer a free meal — she says, “To hell with your charity.” We admire her for wanting to earn her keep.
So the owner asks Molly if she can play the piano. Indeed she can — about as well as that other liar Fanny Brice could roller-skate. But it’s not just the salary she wants. This young woman has a thirst for learning. And while she turns out to be no Vladimir Horowitz, she certainly has the music that makes customer Johnny Brown dance.
His meat-and-potatoes name is most fitting, for Johnny is utterly unpretentious. This will turn into a thick bone of contention as the show continues.
First, however, Johnny must win over Molly, which won’t be easy. When he takes a liberty, she breaks a chair over his head. Molly is not the love at first sight type. “I ain’t settling for happiness,” she snarls.
Morris was careful to set up that Molly doesn’t want money just for herself: he established early on that she first and foremost wants to take care of her father.
Johnny promises that “I’ll Never Say No.” Willson made it a waltz — which showed that this rough-hewn hillbilly was working hard to be as elegant and romantic as he could be.
Face it: you don’t just need a dynamic Molly; you must have a good, strong, masculine and well-built baritone with great presence. In other words, this musical has two terrific roles.
Actions speak louder than words — and Johnny builds a red house replete with a brass bed — but most importantly, a room for her father.
So Molly falls in love with Johnny when he’s poor — which is significant, lest we think she’s a gold-digger.
Actually, Johnny will be the gold-digger — literally. When he brings home plenty of money from mining some, he goes to bed exhausted and
Molly is left to store the money in a safe place. Here’s the only time we see Molly do something stupid. She puts the sheaf of bills in the stove, and you don’t need me to tell you what happened.
Not many husbands would forgive their wives for causing a $300,000 loss, but Johnny shrugs it off. He goes out and enough gold to make Midas seem like a minimum-wage earner. In fact, making money is such a foregone conclusion for Johnny that there isn’t even a song celebrating wealth — which you hear in such other musicals as The Rothschilds, Grand Hotel, Evita and Minnie’s Boys.
So happy ending, right? No, it’s only Act One, Scene Seven. Now the real conflict starts: Molly wants to rub elbows with the so-called better people, and Johnny is content to keep his feet on the ground. Molly calls on the high-blown Mrs. McGlone the night she’s having a party and makes many a faux pas when greeting the “Bea-u-ti-ful People of Denver.” Your orchestra will have great fun in playing purposely sour notes every time Molly makes a grammatical, pronunciation or social error.
Mrs. McGlone is a nice part for the grande dame of your company. She’s utterly pretentious and likes to throw in a French phrase as often as she can think of one. (We hate her.)
Molly may be a bull in a china shop, but she also takes the bull by the horns in raising money for the church. (You’ll wish your theater company had such a fundraiser.) But the point is not lost on Johnny that they’re not welcome here. He wants to please his wife, but he doesn’t want to lose himself.
So when Molly gives a party in her home and none of the Beautiful People come, she’s open to the Monsignor’s suggestion that they go to Europe for seasoning. He’s not interested. But in the great tradition of musicals, whatever women want, women get.
One of the fears that theater companies have in producing Molly Brown is the scene on the Titanic. Actually, that’s not a problem at all, for we only see a scene in a lifeboat; any rowboat you have hanging around will do. There are two real challenges: first, you must have costumes befitting the swells of 1912. Secondly, you are required to replicate the ornate homes of Mrs. McGlone, done in the best of taste, and Molly’s, which is garishly red. For Act Two, you’ll also need some posh European salons, too. However, if you can seduce a local furniture company to loan you some attractive pieces, you’ll find yourself meeting Molly’s requirements.
Your Molly actually has a greater challenge: she must Eliza-Doolittle herself from ignorant (but not stupid) to gracious and accomplished. Long before the Marines had their slogan “Be All That You Can Be,” Molly was doing just that. That’s why we love her: because she inspires us to do the same.
Your Johnny, on the other hand, need only be himself from his Act One Scene Three entrance to the final scene where the two reconcile after many differences. Yes, Molly Brown carries with it a nice message: always remain loyal and love the person who loved you when you were nothing. These two ultimately do.
And if Molly doesn’t have enough to do, she should also be able to play the piano. Even there she makes a journey: going from plunking out notes with a finger to almost a minute of “The Minute Waltz.”
If you only know the musical from the movie, you’ve missed an even dozen songs. Molly’s tender “My Own Brass Bed”; her gospel-tinged “Are You Sure?” while fundraising; “Bon Jour,” in which she shows her high-class European friends that she’s learned a few words in many languages; and “I May Never Fall in Love with You,” a waltz to that aforementioned prince who wants her to leave Johnny for him.
Johnny, meanwhile, gets one easy-going song, but four big chances to show off that baritone. The biggest showpiece is a soliloquy that may not quite make anyone forget Billy Bigelow’s, but it’s an impressive showpiece nevertheless. Your chorus gets four numbers display their voices.
But in the end, it’s Molly who’ll get the most roars of approval at the curtain call. She isn’t just unsinkable, but also unbeatable, unflappable and indomitable. Best of all, whenever any character in the show criticizes her, she never, ever takes umbrage, but listens carefully so that she can put her mistakes behind her. And if there’s anything anyone in theater should learn, it’s how to take criticism as beautifully as The Unsinkable Molly Brown.
You may e-mail Peter at firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out his weekly column each Tuesday at www.masterworksbroadway.com and each Friday at www.kritzerland.com. His newest book, Broadway Musical MVPs, 1960-2010: The Most Valuable Players of the Past 50 Seasons, is now available through Applause Books and at www.amazon.com.