Molly Brown kin: New Denver musical is 'icing on the cake'

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Helen Benziger, with her dog, Brojan, gave her blessing to the DCPA’s new “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” at the opening-night party. Photo by John Moore.   

Helen Benziger is not like most descendants of Margaret Tobin Brown. She actually liked the 1964 movie that made her great-grandmother famous. Even if it got almost everything about her life wrong.

“I actually adored the movie,” Benziger said of The Unsinkable Molly Brown, the celluloid adaptation of what many theatre aficionados have, until now, considered the unfixable Broadway musical.

And she really likes the Denver Center for the Performing Arts Theatre Company’s launch of a brand-new take on the original 1960 musical.

“I was overwhelmed with what they did with the play,” said Benziger. “A lot of us have been trying to get the real story out about who Margaret really was, and this is the icing on the cake. This is going to make people understand more about her.”

Benziger has inherited the mantle of representing those “please-don’t-call-her Molly” Brown family members who have cringed at how the most famous survivor of the Titanic disaster has been portrayed in pop culture since she died more than 80 years ago.

Starting with that first name. For the record, Margaret never went by Molly. Not even as a nickname.

“They changed it to Molly (for the musical) because it was easier to sing,” said Benziger, who has devoted much of her life since 1999 to setting the record straight on behalf of a family that, for the most part, wanted to hear nothing of it when Dick Scanlan set out in 2005 to revisit the Meredith Willson musical. Generations of family have complained about gross misrepresentations of Brown in the character Debbie Reynolds made famous.

“My grandmother wouldn’t have anything to do with the movie,” Benziger said. “She would always say, ‘This is not the mother I knew. This is someone I don’t even know.’ ”

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The movie shows Molly as an uneducated mountain girl with only a surrogate father. Margaret had two loving parents, including a mother, Johanna Tobin, who insisted she receive an eighth-grade education, which was three years more than the average woman for the time.

“Margaret was quite sophisticated, and she spoke many languages,” said Benziger. “She ran for Senate before women even had the right to vote.”

Brown didn’t drop out of that 1914 race because of a scandal involving her philandering husband, J.J., Benziger said. “Oh make no mistake — he was very much a philanderer,” she said. “But Margaret really dropped out because her sister married a German baron at a time when such a relationship was scandalous. But she couldn’t say, ‘Hey, sis drop the baron because I am running for office.’ ”

The film depicts Molly coming down the Colorado River in a basket, and being raised by a drunken Irishman named Shamus. “It’s so ridiculous,” Benziger said. But her family cringes most over the scene in the movie where J.J. Brown accidentally burns his own money after Molly hides it in the stove.

“What makes that so funny is that they didn’t even have paper money in Leadville at that time,” Benziger said.

Given all that misinformation, it was a bit unexpected when Benziger accepted an invitation to attend the opening performance of Scanlan’s delightfully received retelling of the Molly Brown musical at the DCPA.

“You have to understand, I first saw the movie at a rather young age,” Benziger said. “It was just a big movie to me, and I thought it was great. It was only later on and I kept watching it that I realized most of it wasn’t true. But what was true is that the original movie captured her heart, her spirit and her soul.”

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Benziger, who is visually impaired, couldn’t be living the spirit and soul of Margaret more. She lives in a log cabin with her husband and guide dog, Brojan, in Story, Wyo. That’s a quiet a town of 800 people nestled in the Bighorn Mountains about 400 miles north of Denver near Sheridan.

Molly_Brown_Benziger_Beth_Malone_400What Benziger loved most about the movie, she said, “is that it kept Margaret alive until we could start telling the real story.”

What Brown’s family most want from pop culture is what Scanlan most wanted when he approached a new The Unsinkable Molly Brown: To show a more human, complicated and significant Molly Brown. A woman who served as director of the American Committee for Devastated France during World War I and was awarded the French Legion of Honor for her work. Who wielded her influence in national politics, particularly in the area of workers’ rights.

Brown was motivated to action by the Ludlow Massacre of 1914, when 11,000 workers went on strike and resorted to living in tents after their families were turned out of company-owned housing. When the miners’ union refused to surrender two petty criminals, the National Guard fired into the crowd, killing five men. That night, the Guard doused tents in oil and burned them to the ground, killing nearly a dozen children. Brown sent nurses, shoes and clothing to Ludlow. She then spearheaded the investigation into the miners’ deaths.

Not that all of this is depicted in the new The Unsinkable Molly Brown.

Scanlan rewrote the book to show audiences a more significant heroine and a more complicated love story. Which is not to say that Scanlan and his team felt beholden to write a stage documentary set to Willson songs.

“This is still very much a musical,” said Director Kathleen Marshall, who set out to stage an old-fashioned musical and not apologize for it. Only improve it.

Benziger was particularly charmed by actor Beth Malone’s portrayal of her great-grandmother. She was perfect,” Benzinger said. “She embodied her spirit. And she’s just a doll. She’s so sweet.”

Benziger appreciated Malone’s pluck, her powerful voice and her dancing. But the primary reason she liked Malone may surprise you. 

Molly_Brown_Benziger_Cup “I really like the fact that she’s not fat,” said Benziger. “People always portray Margaret as being a large woman, and she wasn’t. Kathy Bates, who played Margaret in the Titanic movie, was three times her size. If you look at the picture of Margaret presenting the ‘Loving Cup’ Arthur Rostrand, the captain of the Carpathia, her waist is tiny.”

Now that the new stage musical of The Unsinkable Molly Brown has Benziger’s seal of approval, she predicts it will … not have much impact on the rest of her extended family.

 “I am really the only one on my side of the family who is doing this,” she said. “And I don’t have children, so there is no one to take over.” 

If any of her relatives ever do see the show, she predicted, “I think they will love it. And I think they will get a lot out of it. I don’t think they will, but I hope they do.”

And if Benziger has any say in it – and  she does not — they will have another chance after the show closes in Denver on Oct. 26.

“It’s going to New York,” she said. “My word on it. I mean, it has to go. It will go.”

John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.

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Helen Benziger, with her dog, Brojan, meet cast members from the DCPA’s new “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” at the opening-night party. Photo by John Moore.   

The Unsinkable Molly Brown: Ticket information
Stage Theatre
Runs through Oct. 26
303-893-4100, or go to the Denver Center’s web site at www.DenverCenter.Org

Our Previous Molly Brown coverage on Denver CenterStage:

‘Molly Brown’ Meet the cast videos:
Beth Malone
Burke Moses
Patty Goble
Paolo Montalban
Linda Mugleston
Donna English

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Beth Malone and Burke Moses, above, bring levels of complexity to their roles as Molly and J.J. Brown in the DCPA’s new “The Unsinkable Molly Brown.” Below, Malone meets Molly Brown’s granddaughter, Helen Benziger. Photos by John Moore.   

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