In the vague outline of his career, Meredith Willson reminds one of Mel Brooks: they each launched their Broadway careers with a blockbuster and Tony-winning success, Willson with The Music Man and Brooks with The Producers. Both shows not only had long original runs, successful national tours, and film versions, but, revivals and regional productions galore. (Yes, next Fall’s Music Man with Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster is going to be impossible to get into.) But the problem with starting one’s Broadway career with a masterpiece is the inevitable issue of what to do for a follow-up. Mel came back with Young Frankenstein, which was a perfectly entertaining show that was unfairly compared to Producers (the score was actually better), and Willson’s return to Broadway was The Unsinkable Molly Brown. It had a respectable run and even a Hollywood incarnation, but was in no way the classic that Music Man was and is. In fact, it’s never been revived until now.
The new Molly Brown is more than a revival, but it’s a complete overhaul. The main assets of the original show, if the 1960 cast album and the 1964 movie are any indication, was a fantastic part for a larger-than-life actress-singer-diva, a score that was well above average, and a swell bunch of dance numbers, but a plot that never seemed too inspiring. In Kathleen Marshall’s production, the book has been completely rewritten to conform more to the actual story of Margaret Tobin Brown (1867-1932). The only characters that survive from the 1960 libretto are the two leads, Molly and her husband James (name-above-the-title Beth Malone and the equally excellent David Aron Damane). As before, the title character is a plucky, outspoken Missouri girl from the wrong side of the tracks who, through the sheer determination of herself and her husband, gets rich and reinvents herself as a plucky outspoken reformer, philanthropist and, ultimately, Titanic survivor. Dick Scanlan’s new book obviously makes the story more politically correct, in terms of Molly’s attitude towards civil rights and gender equality, but commendably, he retains some aspects of her personality that don’t necessarily conform to a Leftist agenda. As before, Molly is still a bit of a religious zealot, who’s always pushing (or “flouting”) her Christian God in everyone’s face – as in her number, “Are You Sure?” (which is one of several variations on Music Man's “Trouble”).
Richard Rodgers was perhaps best known for his waltzes, and there’s no one who could write a polka like Jerry Herman. Meredith Willson’s musical signature was his marches: with The Music Man’s “76 Trombones” he created what might be the marchin’est earworm of all time, and Molly’s leitmotif is “I Ain’t Down Yet.” Where most “I want” songs (Cinderella’s “My Own Little Corner,” The Fantasticks’s “Much More”) are somewhat tender and intimate, “I Ain’t Down Yet” is almost transgressively outgoing, with more rap-like parlando moments reminiscent of “Trouble.” Molly has few inner moments, almost all the time she’s telling everybody else how she feels and what to do. We finally get a waltz in Act II when Molly travels to Europe with the Italianate "Dolce Far Niente."
As with Herman’s titular diva-driven shows (Dolly, Mame), the whole enterprise depends on a leading lady with charisma up the wazoo, and this it has in Ms. Malone, who is very much a contender on the level of Tammy Grimes (on Broadway) and Debbie Reynolds (in Hollywood). Likewise, her leading man, Mr. Damane, is an appealing bass-baritone with a voice even deeper than those gold mines that he's always going on about.
Mr. Scanlan and Ms. Marshall have retained many of the original songs, even if the context has been changed; “Belly Up to the Bar Boys” is still a rip-roaring, toe-tapping, saloon-y tune of a full company dance number, and the recurring love song of Mr. and Mrs. Brown is still “I’ll Never Say No.” Among the “new songs created” for the current production (with new lyrics by Mr. Scanlan set to an extant melody by Willson), the one that most grabs me is “I’d Like to Change Everything About You.” Regrettably, the team deleted one of the most memorable numbers in the original score, “If I Knew,” a superior ballad that was memorably recorded by Nat King Cole. Other than that, I can’t think of much I’d like to change about this production. May it’s run be long and may the new cast album be coming soon.