Definite progress is being made in the theater these days when an out gay actor like Isaac Powell can star as Tony in the Broadway revival of “West Side Story,” while way downtown, at Abrons Arts Center, out and proud lesbian performer Beth Malone, a memorable Tony nominee as dyke cartoonist Alison Bechdel in “Fun Home,” is also playing a traditional “straight” musical role, doing “The Unsinkable Molly Brown,” directed by Kathleen Marshall.
The Transport Group is staging the first New York revival of this show, which opened in 1960, won Tammy Grimes a Tony Award, and was followed by Oscar-nominated Debbie Reynolds in the 1964 film version.
Molly, that legendary Titanic survivor, Denver mining tycoon, and bighearted philanthropist, is a neat fit for Malone, who also hails from Colorado, has always considered herself a tomboy, is active in a number of charities, and, has, indeed, already played the part, in Denver as well as at St. Louis’ Muny Theatre.
“So I’ve got the woman in my bones,” Malone told me. “Everything about the role is as different as can be from ‘Fun Home,’ which really kind of put me on the map, changed my career, and was such a privilege to do, with everything very specific in our collective desire to honor Alison Bechdel. There was something so special about that show, how even when it came out, everything seemed so positive, what with gay marriage and more equality — our fans were beyond devoted as it was life-changing for some of them, and now we’re back in the shit.
“As opposed to Alison, Molly is a much more traditional musical heroine, bigger than life, although Dick Scanlan has completely rewritten the book, basing it more on the reality of her life. Along with the familiar songs from the Broadway show, there are some brand new ones, adapted from the music of Meredith Willson by Michael Rafter. I love my new 11 o’clock number, “Wait for Me,” which uses a melody Wilson composed for a commercial for the [wartime] Chemical Warfare Service.”
Malone has stated that if she must play a traditional girly-girl, she merely channels the hyper-femininity of drag queens.
“I’m still doing that, especially when Molly gets all dressed up in the big red dress for the party scene, and I actually enjoy playing a heterosexual woman,” she said. “I have a great leading man, David Aron Damane, such a beautiful actor, and so big and handsome and masculine yet gentle. I just have to look up at him and done! We’re the couple. My role is a workout, no denying it though, and my body is feeling every bit of it, along with the long schlep from the Upper West Side where I live to the Lower East. But I’m definitely loving it!”
I had to hear Malone’s coming out story, and it was a beautifully funny/ sad account: “I was always the class clown, trying to make girls like me, doing something crazy or stupid to try to make them laugh. I didn’t notice boys at all. They started noticing me when I was in high school and I had boyfriends, but one time in high school after a rehearsal I remember being in front of a pop machine and I had this a-ha moment: ‘You’re gay!’ And I was like, ‘Huh,’ and then, ‘Nah.’ And then for years I didn’t think about it until I was engaged to a boy who I loved but also was in love with this other girl that I was on a tour with in FX, a rock band, which entertained the military at bases all across the South Pacific — Hawaii, Guam, South Korea.
“It was such a weird point in my life. I didn’t know what to do with myself, going out of my skin wanting to do something with this girl, thinking I’m gonna fucking die. But I never did anything with her, never told her because we were on the road together in college, and she had a boyfriend. I was 18.
“I moved to New York after that, still had that boyfriend, but I was also trying to find like a girl to date through the Village Voice back pages. So tragic. I was 20 and had a fake ID and went to these gay bars but I was always wrong place/ wrong time: I didn’t find the right lesbians. It was an epic fail — in New York in my 20s as a lesbian who couldn’t get anything going. I think back on it now: Ohmigod, if I’d just had some skills!
“I went back to Colorado and Michael put a ring on my finger when I said, ‘Yes,’ and I was with him for five years, a long distance relationship from the age 18 to 22. That winter I moved to Aspen because there was this dinner theater where you could make a ton of cash, like ten grand, singing and serving to pay for my wedding [laughs]. There, I met Rochelle Schoppert, who is now my wife. She was this girl who was running the office for the dinner theater. The day I saw her, I clocked her and she asked if I wanted to go skiing and I was like, ‘Okay.’ It was Gay Ski Week in Aspen, so I took off my ring, stuck it in my jeans pocket, went to the opening night, and there she was.
“‘Aha! I knew it,’” I thought and walked across that crowded room and said to her, ‘Hi. I am engaged but I want to have sex with a girl before I get married. Want to?’
“That was it — no game! And she’s like, ‘No.’ But we started skiing together and then kissing a little and I took the ring off and the rest is history. That was 1992 and I’ve been with Shelley 27 years now, Ohmigod!”
Malone totally understands now why she got an initial refusal.
“You know, whiny straight girls who go, ‘Can you help me?’ ‘I’m not here to be your diary entry.’”
Malone describes her partner as a Muggle: “You’ve never read ‘Harry Potter?’ That means she’s a civilian, not in showbiz, which is dreamy. She’s a realtor and a technician who rebuilds pianos, the most industrious person I’ve ever met, never sits still, and thank God, takes care of all my practical stuff.”
Malone’s coming out to her family resulted in her not speaking to her father for seven years, something many of us can relate to.
“My mother is a country singer, ‘Pickin’ Peggy’ Malone, who’s very big in the cowboy culture, which involves cowboy poetry, Native American culture, rodeos, bull-riding — a way of life that is dying out. My Dad is a Fox News-watching, Trump-supporting old racist Irishman from South Boston. He was my hero, my first friend, and he’s fallen so far off the pedestal that I now cannot have a conversation with him. He now has a kind of dementia and I have to attribute some of his toxicity to mental illness and having drunk a ton of whiskey. Being in this play has been an amazing vacation from that, not having to process and suck up all the shit that he says and is and still find a way to love him.
“I grew up in super-white Castle Rock, Colorado, the youngest of four and the only girl. I was his pet plus a tomboy who held his hammer while he did the drill. What did he expect? All he had to do was open his eyes! We got a VCR and he once came in, while I paused it, because I was drawing Cybill Shepherd’s face. I would rent ‘Little Darlings’ from Hy’s Western Wear and Video Rental over and over. Kristy McNichol was magic. I didn’t know what to do with myself but, ohmigod, I want to watch her again and again, Holly Hunter, and Jodie Foster in ‘Candleshoe.’ That’s me! I certainly didn’t identify with Tatum O’Neill!”
Besides all those early idols, Malone says she is in love with her “Molly Brown” cast, and freely confesses to be something of a Pollyanna in her life: “I can find something to absolutely adore about everybody, especially actors. They’re so delectably broken yet optimistic at the same time, ever hopeful, trying to figure it all out and actively engaged in their lives. That never-ending process of breaking it all up until you feel something and then busting it all up and starting over. There’s something so admirable about that, and brave, and weird. Why would you even do that? But the alternative is death. If I was in the suburbs with two cars and three kids I would not recognize myself.”
THE UNSINKABLE MOLLY BROWN | Abrons Arts Center, 466 Grand St., btwn. Pitt St. & E. Broadway | Through Apr. 5: Tue.-Sun. at 7:30 p.m.; weekend matinees on varying schedule | $65-$85 at transportgroup.org/ Two hrs., 30 mins., with intermission