A Conversation with Tony Award® Nominee Dick Scanlan
Photo credit: The Unsinkable Molly Brown, Hale Center (2022)
Originally written in 1960, The Unsinkable Molly Brown is a fictionalized account of the life of Margaret “Molly” Brown, who survived the sinking of the Titanic, and her wealthy miner husband. Now, 60 years later, a revitalized version is back with an updated book and new lyrics from Tony-nominated author Dick Scanlan that focuses on celebrating her true character as an underdog and advocate.
The Unsinkable Molly Brown Grant
We sat down with Scanlan to learn more about these changes and to explore why the show is ready to tell a new tale perfect for high school theatre programs everywhere.
Revising a Golden-Age Musical
Q: You’ve mentioned in interviews that you were initially hesitant to take on this revival, but eventually got on board. What were some of the areas that drew you to take on the project?
Dick Scanlan: Well, the immediate draw was Meredith Willson. I’m a huge fan of The Music Man, I think it’s one of the greatest musicals ever written, and as wildly successful as it’s been, it remains underrated. It’s a masterpiece of dramatic writing, and so that was my initial attraction. I also was very close friends with Richard Morris, who wrote the original libretto, and in his lifetime had brought this up to me, [saying], “I’ve never been happy with the show. We have to fix Molly Brown,” and I had read it and was like, “I don’t think I can fix that.”
But the thing that ultimately made me sit down and consider it was a deep respect for Meredith Willson and a very deep respect and love for Richard Morris.
It was a real challenge because I couldn’t find a foothold in the original. I just couldn’t find anything that spoke to my heart. There were some songs that I thought were good in the original. There were also some songs that I didn’t think were very good. I vaguely knew that there really was a Molly Brown, that this wasn’t a fictional story. And I thought, well, let me research how they adapted this, what was her actual story, and what elements they pulled from, because maybe there are other elements to her story that would be more resonant for me.
Q: So how did you research her life, and what were some of the most surprising things you discovered about her?
Scanlan: When you research Margaret Tobin Bath Brown, you instantly learn that a few years after her death, there was this book of comic essays published by a writer that became a big bestseller. And there was a three-and-a-half-page chapter about Molly Brown that’s very apocryphal and cartoonish, and that is what they based the 1960 version [of the show] on.
But what you also discover is there was a woman who was an incredibly effective community organizer. And she was that way before she became wealthy, because she really did become a millionaire in an instant. But she had been a community organizer when they were poor. She was doing all kinds of grassroots literacy leagues, soup kitchens, and helping pregnant girls.
Then she became mega-wealthy and turned her grassroots work into formalized systemic efforts to change, which really interested me because many of the causes that she was so passionately devoted to are still big issues.
Fictionalizing the Historical Molly Brown
Q: You’ve mentioned that to some extent you had to become a historical expert on Molly Brown. But a lot of people don’t know much about her. So how do you focus on fleshing out these characters without having the audience read an entire novel to understand the show?
Scanlan: You focus partially on social issues that are still relevant today. When you’re talking about labor rights, when you’re talking about immigrant rights, look at the country today. The other thing that really inspired me was what a melting pot Leadville, Colorado was. An early book from the time said if you walked down Main Street, you would hear 18 different languages being spoken because miners traveled all over the place. And I don’t know that they socialized together—in our musical they do—but they didn’t really care what the guy next to you was, what his religion was, what language he spoke, what he was eating for lunch. You wanted him to be really good at his job because your life depended on his ability. I loved the idea of being able to have a very diverse, authentic, organic representation of what this town was like; the diversity of it feels very contemporary.
The one issue that we do dramatize in act two is a juvenile justice issue. We used it to dramatize her incredible ability at maneuvering in the halls of power; how good she was at meeting with a governor and a senator and fighting for what she wanted by using a combination of getting them to do the right thing, offering money for their campaigns, and also threatening to not give her support. And she had quite the bullhorn that she was very savvy about using in order to achieve results.
Unfortunately, that ability to use power became challenging in their marriage because her husband felt emasculated by it. The independence in her that he once loved went further than he as man could handle.
Giving High School Students a Way In
Q: That topic area may be a little over the heads of high school students. What are your thoughts?
Scanlan: Teenage girls are very aware that when they were 11, they played the same games with the boys, they were funny, they were smart, and suddenly, when they go through puberty, there are expectations of them treating males differently than before they became post-pubescent. So, yes, I agree that long-term marriage is a challenging theme for high schoolers to tackle, but the power struggles between male and female do emerge in high school even today.
Q: That’s a great point, let’s dig into it. What are some of the other aspects that make it a great show for a high school theatre program?
Scanlan: People who change the world in a political way, in a social justice way, obviously they’re heroic, they’re essential. It’s an example of how the course of history bends towards justice, right? There also can be a healthy dose of narcissism in the impulse to change the world because you get addicted to the attention you get for it and the feeling you have when you sweep in and help people.
And one of the things this character has to learn and take ownership of later in the play is the unhealthy overlap between her authentic desire to do the right thing and her need for attention. She’s forced to look at what motivated her, and much of what motivated her was beautiful and incredibly pure, and another aspect of it isn’t as pure, and her husband is the one person who sees that and can mirror that back to her.
That’s a really interesting thing for young people to look at in their desire to make things better. Where is the line between the authentic desire to change the world and the desire to get attention for changing the world?
Molly Brown’s impulses were true and real. She really did care. And she also kept scrapbooks of every article ever written. She would have been all over social media, making the most impactful TikToks, and she’d be really excited how it was changing the world, but she’d also be looking at the followers because of the high you get from it. And that’s just part of being a person.
It’s a complex character, because she’s a hero and a complete trailblazer, but she’s also flawed.
Q: You’ve incorporated other songs from Meredith Willson’s archives into the revised version. How did you decide what songs to include?
Scanlan: Well, there were two criteria. 1) Did we like the song? and 2) Could it advance the narrative? In some cases, the songs we used from the original advanced the narrative very similarly to how Meredith and Richard did it. In other cases, it’s a song from the original, but we use it very differently.
We really ended up with half a score because I didn’t respond to several of the songs or they didn’t fit our narrative. And that’s when we went into Meredith’s trunk… which was a file cabinet. His wife, Rosemary, had every song he’d ever written in a Manila folder in alphabetical order and every draft of the song in that folder. So I went through every single song and copied any song that could lyrically serve the show at all.
The most exciting song, and it’s a good example of what we did, is a song called “Share the Luck,” which Meredith wrote for the Red Cross right after The Music Man opened. It’s such an unbelievably well-written song, but there’s only one chorus, and it needs to be a production number (and they can’t sing the same chorus over and over again).So we would either build out a song he wrote, use it for a different purpose, or in a few cases, write entirely new songs with his music.
Q: Any advice for the Thespians and educators tackling the show should they be awarded the grant?
Scanlan: In the development of the show, we were developing it as a fairly—for want of the better word—traditional production. And then as we came to New York, we took an Off-Broadway path, which mandated a wholesale rethink of the production because we had a smaller theatre. There’s no way you can do big sets, and it needed to be a wonderfully contemporary theatrical concept. We decided on no wigs, it was period clothing, but it wasn’t elaborately so, and the kind of contemporary theatricality of it delivered the material so much more effectively than our more traditional offerings had prior to that.
I’m not saying they should turn the songs into hip-hop music, because that’s not how the songs are meant to be, but bringing their contemporary aesthetic in terms of storytelling and their connection to the issues of the day. The more they bring that to the show, rather than fulfilling some expectation they think the show demands of a traditional production. The more they can, not “think outside the box,” but put the show in their box with the world they live in, the more exciting the content is going to be for the audience.
And it also liberates the teachers in charge and whatever students are collaborating with them from the budget implication that having to fulfill a very traditional old-fashioned musical with many settings can carry. Because if you could take a much more contemporary theatrical approach, you can be so fleet. A house can be a table. It doesn’t really have to be a big house that comes out, it can be so much simpler and fluid.
The show also dramatizes community in a very effective way, and a lot of young people right now are really frustrated with what they perceive to be an individualistic approach to life, and they’re more interested in a more community-based experience. This show represents a way that can happen, and that seems resonant to me for young people today.
The application period for the first round of grants ended October 27, 2023. The application period for a second round of grants will open in 2024.