Beth Malone’s Stunning Ascendancy

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“Unexpected.” That’s the word writer and lyricist Dick Scanlan uses to describe Beth Malone, the woman set to headline his new take on The Unsinkable Molly Brown. Directed by Tony winner Kathleen Marshall, the reimagined (and relatively unsung) work by The Music Man’s Meredith Wilson bows in September at the Denver Center Theatre, and Broadway producers are already signing on to the promising collaboration.

Malone has had an unexpected year. She spent a cold winter in New York working on “a labor of absolute love,” a play she was certain would reap no money or big commercial success. Then, Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron’s Fun Home turned into a critics’ darling and a surprisingly hot ticket—one the Public Theater is now aiming toward Broadway. Malone subtly grounded the twisted-family-dynamic musical, crowning a striking trilogy of actresses embodying Alison Bechdel, the lesbian cartoonist whose memoir sparked the show. “To have Fun Home turn into this thing, where the world sort of went for it,” Malone says, “[is]a stunning turn of events.”

Going from low-key gay androgyne to belting diva would seem a stretch. Beth MaloneSo Far, her alternately hilarious and heartbreaking autobiographical show, highlighted the actress’s essence: “part dude, part lady…full-time lesbian.” Lately, though, she’s had a run of classical musical-theater ladies: “Once people got wind that I have a knack for flipping them a bit, my phone started ringing off the hook.” When she got cast in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers in LA, “a lot people were like, ‘What!?’” Malone says, with a laugh. “‘She could be one of the brothers.’”

Her recent take on Annie Get Your Gun in San Diego got the kind of rapturous reviews that, as she puts it, “could have been written by my mother.” July brought South Pacific in Sacramento, a warm-up to rebooting the misunderstood dynamo Molly Brown. It has been deeply satisfying for Malone to, as she says, “find the humor and the power in these women that have been marginalized. My challenge with these old pieces of musical theater is to try to make them into something that I’d want to watch. If I can do that, I find that it revolutionizes the piece. Because usually these women are very two-dimensionally written; they’re not that smart or funny. All the women I know are smart and funny.”

Another word Scanlan uses to describe his upcoming leading lady? “Transformational.” Not only can she convey great delicacy, but also she can as easily evoke its opposite—a quality he sees as ideal for a self-inventing heroine. “When you cast someone who’s very singular—and Beth is really singular—who she is and her approach to the role will inform then how the role evolves,” Scanlan says. “That’s what you want; you want someone who’s bringing that to the table, because that becomes very exciting.”

There seems to be no limit to the transformations Malone will bring to the myriad roles that are sure to come her way. “I’m not saying ‘never’ to anything anymore, because life has been so surprising in the last few years,” she says. “I can’t say, ‘No, that won’t happen,’ because anything, literally, can happen now.”

This article originally appeared in FourTwoNine’s 3rd issue

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