I’m back! In Provincetown, that is. I’m writing this from the porch of the lovely Anchor Inn. This weekend I did two shows with Beth Malone, who just starred in Angels in America on Broadway and initially made her big splash in Fun Home.
Beth is originally from a farm in Colorado and it took her a long time to find the career she wanted. So many crazy near misses: First, when she was around 19-years-old, Les Miz was the big show on Broadway. She made an old-skool tape recording of herself singing Eponine’s song, “On My Own,” and mailed it to Andy Zerman, who was one of the casting directors. The amazing part of the story is…he called her!
She was still living with her parents and the phone rang and it was New York calling! Andy told her that he listened to her tape and wanted to see her if she was ever in New York. Well, she was very literal and thought it meant she needed to wait until she was in New York to see him. She had no one saying to her, “Get on a plane, fly to New York and get that Broadway show.” End of story: She never auditioned for Les Miz. Even though the casting person called her at home! Well, actually, years later, she was in New York, went to an open call and typed out. Yay?
She also had some crazy training: Beth said that while she was in college, high belting had just come in vogue on Broadway (as opposed to soprano leads and more alto-y sidekicks) and she had a teacher who was a belting “specialist.” Basically, Beth was told that to belt super-high, you had to open your mouth and expose just four (4) upper teeth. JUST FOUR! As well as four (4) bottom teeth. Again JUST FOUR. Seriously. Beth had to look in the mirror like all the other students and confirm she was making the exact right face. Then when that position was perfected and all vowels were modified (changing “me” to “may” and “you” to “yow”) high belting would ensue.
First of all, you should know that I abhor obvious vowel changes. ABHOR THEM! We need to all aspire to Betty Buckley’s vowel purity. Watch!
This whole story gave me such a headache, but it was interesting trying to figure out what it based on. We decided that Cyndi Lauper’s amazing belting hit the radio in the ’80s and her mouth position sort of looks like the upper/lower four-teeth frame. Here she is belting her face and ending this song on a high F!!!!
Beth’s career has so much arbitrariness, it’s crazy. She tried New York a few times and didn’t get anywhere, so she kept moving back West. At one point, she threw a Hallowe’en party where there was karaoke (already bizarre) and she sang “River Deep and Mountain High.” At the party in L.A. was a New York producer (Again, what? Why was he there?) who saw Beth sing and when the show he was producing in New York needed a replacement for Jenn Colella, he recommended Beth. Beth flew in, auditioned and, on her way back to the airport, got her first Broadway show. All because she sang karaoke at a party in L.A.!
The show was Ring Of Fire which was all Johnny Cash music, and they first performed it out of town in Buffalo. It was a huge hit! Basically, like being in a rock concert. Then, for whatever reason, it was not a success on Broadway. Regardless, it was a good experience for her and soon she was cast in Sister Act as the young novice. She did the show in California and Atlanta and had a big song in Act 2, which brought the house down. Beth thinks that one of the reasons the audience went so crazy is because the leading lady wasn’t a high belter and Beth had the highest notes in the show. Here she is singing it on a talk show.
Well, one night the understudy for the lead went on and, instead of hitting the high notes in head voice, she belted them. The understudy happened to be future Tony Award winner Patina Miller. When the show went to London, they brought Patina overseas and gave her the lead. They were only allowed to bring one American, but Beth wasn’t worried because the director told her she’d be doing the show when it came to Broadway. Well, before the show came to Broadway, that director was replaced. Suddenly, Beth had to audition for the new director and, not surprising to people who know the original cast album, she didn’t get the role. Beth was devastated. This was the role that was going to make her a star. Well, she decided that was it with New York theatre and moved (again) to L.A. She made lots of commercials in that time.
I asked her if she ever had to eat something over-and-over again for a commercial, and she said that in one commercial, she had to keep eating fried chicken and by the end of the day, she couldn’t make a fist. Why? Well, her hand had swelled up from all the sodium. Delish!
Another headache was a Target commercial audition when they asked if she could rappel and she said yes. She couldn’t. Still, she got the gig and actually figured out how to rappel off of a mountain. She tried it once and they wanted it to look bigger. She knew if she didn’t do what they wanted, she’d be there for hours, so she really pushed herself off the mountain so she went way out and then landed. And, boy, did she hurt her ankles. You can see it in the clip at 1:50. (P.S. I don’t even know why they used a real mountain. It looks like a giant fake green screen in back of her.)
In the next shot, she had to look happy when the Target dog showed up. There was no dog for her to react to, so to get the right surprise/joy face, she told me she imagined…Jesus. Yep. She said she thought to herself, “Wouldn’t it be amazing if Jesus suddenly rapelled right next to me?” It worked!
Anyhoo, even though she was through with theatre, she still felt like she had unfinished business. One of the things she felt she had missed was seeing a character like herself in a musical. The only musicals with prominent lesbian characters were Rent and The Color Purple. That’s why she took the lead in a small musical that had a leading lesbian character like Mary Tyler Moore. The good news is: It got optioned by a big producer for Broadway. The bad news is: Nothing happened with it and it “died a long, slow death.” Before it totally fizzled out, it was last presented in Asbury Park, New Jersey. Here’s the final arbitrariness that changed her whole career: Lisa Kron happened to be vacationing in Asbury Park (?!) and saw Beth in the show. A few weeks later, Beth got offered a role in the reading of Lisa’s new show: Fun Home. And the rest, as they say, is herstory!
Here’s another story about an arbitrary meeting: I interviewed Tony Award winner (and current Tony Nominee) Beth Leavel, who right now is starring in The Prom. She remembered the time when she had callbacks for the Broadway musical Marilyn, thinking she was going to get it, and then finding out she wasn’t cast. She was extremely disappointed. Well, that same night she took a catering job and had to wait on a table that sat lots of luminaries…including the director and producer of Marilyn! It’s so devastatingly on-the-nose. She remembered that she spent the entire night speaking to the table with her head turned away. However, her career picked up after that and she recounted her amazing audition for 42nd Street. If you haven’t heard it, here it is!