Entertainment – ‘Unsinkable Molly Brown’ a delightful fantasy
By Rosemary Fetter
Maggie Brown would have loved the Denver Performing Arts Center production of “The Unsinkable Molly Brown.” And the audience should too, as long as they don’t take it seriously. Based on the 1960 Broadway production and a 1961 movie starring Debbie Reynolds and Harve Presnell, the play celebrates the life of the future Titanic heroine.
According to Denver Center Director Kathleen Marshall, “This is not a documentary, this is historical fiction. This is the journey of Molly Brown and part of that is her journey as a woman and her marriage.”
Well, OK then….
The production is great fun, with lively music, a pleasant flow and top notch, costumes and sets. The cast, especially Colorado native Beth Malone as Molly and Burke Moses as J.J., put their all into their performances. If Malone bears a closer resemblance to a young Debbie Reynolds than any photos ever taken of Margaret (Molly) Brown, well so be it. In fact, it’s more like Malone playing Reynolds playing Brown, but it works. Other cast members including Whitney Bashor as Julia and John Hickock as Horace Tabor do credit to their roles.
The musical, never wildly popular to begin with, faded into obscurity until 2006, when writer Dick Scanlan, a three-time Tony nominee, got permission from composer Meredith Wilson’s widow to revisit the production and add previously unpublished Wilson songs to the score. The book, written by Richard Morris, took much of its tone from the fanciful Denver Post reporter Eugene Fowler, who was never particularly troubled by a need for accuracy. New songs and a revised script give the production a freshness the audience should appreciate. However, while it takes a more respectful tone toward Colorado’s famous Titanic survivor, an opportunity was missed to set the record straight.
The facts are these: Margaret Brown (never called Molly during her lifetime) was a farm girl from Hannibal, Mo., who moved to Leadville with her brother Daniel to join other relatives in the town’s Irish Catholic Community. Although poor and not well educated, the well-built redhead had dreams and hoped to improve her status by snagging a wealthy husband. She met Brown at a church picnic in the early summer of 1886. Brown was 13 years older than Maggie, big-boned, blue-eyed and devastatingly attractive to women. A self-trained geologist with a talent for sniffing out ore deposits, he easily found a job as a shift manager for the mining interests of David Moffat and worked himself up to superintendent. Although Maggie doubted that J.J. would ever be able to provide the luxuries she wanted, romance won the day. And theirs was indeed a love match, stormy and passionate.
After a brief courtship, they married on Sept. 1, 1886, and moved to J.J.’s small two-room cabin in Stumpville, near the mines. Maggie embarked on a career as a not-so-typical Victorian housewife. With an eye toward self-improvement, she began taking lessons in reading, literature and music. During the next three years they had two children, Lawrence Palmer in 1888 and Catherine Ellen in 1889. Following several years of moderate financial success, the couple finally hit the jackpot and, like many Leadville millionaires, including Horace Tabor, immediately moved to Denver. They purchased a relatively modest home at 1340 Pennsylvania St., flanked by two stone lions and furnished with all the latest modern conveniences.
Maggie was a public relations genius and an unabashed self-promoter. She became well known in Denver for her involvement with fundraising activities and multiple charities. Despite her good works, she often felt the sting of criticism by snippy reporters who considered her a publicity-happy social climber.
One snarky Denver Times reporter wrote, “Perhaps no woman in society ever spent more time or money becoming civilized than Mrs. Brown.”
Eventually her ambition and need for attention wore on J.J.’s Victorian sensibilities. (He must have been mortified when she took up yodeling and performed at Elitch Gardens.)
With a good deal of bitterness, they finally separated for good in 1909, although they never divorced. Maggie testified in court that her husband was “given to periods of moroseness with an insane desire to kill me … He tried twice. I got the gun both times, while he welt and afterward cried, begging me to go away where he could not kill me.”
While the attempts on her life may have been imaginary, no one doubted that J.J. wanted her to leave.
As the production shows, Maggie took off for Europe. She became a super star with the Titanic disaster, raising nearly $10,000 for the Survivors Committee Fund. She came home to Denver a heroine and Mrs. Crawford Hill even held a luncheon for her. Mrs. Brown later ran for Congress but was defeated.
The Browns may have quarreled constantly, but evidence suggests they always loved each other. Take away the mountains and the millions, and their story could be written today about any prosperous couple, one of who has ambition and an interest in personal growth or political aspirations and the other who is content to sit back and enjoy the good life. To use a Titanic metaphor, it’s now called “drifting apart.” They are buried next to one another in Long Island’s Holy Rood Cemetery.