At the corner of Aspen and Broadway… |

At the corner of Aspen and Broadway…

Stewart OksenhornThe Aspen TimesAspen, CO Colorado
Stewart Oksenhorn/The Aspen TimesBeth Malone is appearing in three Theatre Aspen productions this summer, starting with her role as Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre in the current musical comedy, "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee."

ASPEN – Those who aspire to the top rung of the theater world know they are making a bargain with the devil of sorts: Sacrifice every other aspect of your life, pour your blood, sweat and tears into it, and you might overcome the long odds and make a life on the stage. For insight into what is at stake when an actor aims for a prominent spot on Broadway, you can hardly do better than “Every Little Step,” the documentary about the 2006 revival of “A Chorus Line” – a musical which was itself about the struggle to land a role. (The film kicks off the SummerFilms series, showing Sunday and Monday, July 5-6, at Paepcke Auditorium.)Beth Malone opted for a different route. She went skiing in Aspen.”I misspent my 20s here in Aspen,” said Malone, who declines to reveal her age. (“My agent would kill me if I did,” she says firmly.) “While other people were doing ‘Les Mis’ and ‘Rent,’ I was here learning how to finish my turns. I’m definitely a late-comer.”Which doesn’t mean she has missed the boat altogether. Next week, Malone travels to New York for meetings regarding “The Break Up Notebook.” The musical, with Malone set to star as a lesbian version of a Mary Tyler Moore-type character rebounding from being dumped, is heading toward a New York stage. Leading the way is Kevin McCollum, who has produced “Rent” and “Avenue Q.” Malone thinks the show could open in the next nine months at The Vineyard Theatre, an East Village spot with a track record for launching projects onto Broadway.”If it goes, it will change my life,” she said. “It’s a big, big deal.””The Break Up Notebook” – which has already played in San Diego and at a New York theater festival, with Malone originating the lead role of Helen – isn’t her first bite at the apple. Malone originated the role of June Carter Cash in “Ring of Fire,” and of Alison in the Off-Broadway production of “Bingo,” an interactive musical in which the audience gets to play bingo. In Los Angeles, she originated the role of Sister Mary Robert in the musical “Sister Act.” But “Sister Act” is still en route to New York, and “Ring of Fire” and “Bingo” didn’t go far in their Manhattan runs.”That’s why I’m not a big Broadway star,” said Malone. “I’m an entity – people know who I am – but I’m not a star. Because I’ve originated these roles, I can get any audition. But that’s a whole different thing than them calling you, them saying, ‘See if we can get Beth Malone.’ ‘The Break Up Notebook’ – that could be the magic wand that does this.”•••••Malone may not be a star, but she can call herself something that may be as important: an Aspenite. Actually, to be technical, a Snowmass Villager. For five years, she and her partner Rochelle Schoppert – a former concert technician with the Aspen Music Festival – have owned a condo at the Willows in Snowmass Village. Malone, who has bounced between Los Angeles, New York and Colorado for the past decade-plus, thinks of the Roaring Fork Valley as home. Typically, the Snowmass condo is rented out for chunks of time, but this summer, Malone gets to settle down in the mountains. She has multiple roles with Theatre Aspen: playing Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre in the current musical comedy, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”; appearing in the comedy “Almost, Maine” on Sunday, July 5, part of Theatre Aspen’s Sunday Series; performing her own show in the Sunday Series on Aug. 16; and teaching adult and kids classes.It is not Malone’s first summer with the local theater organization. Several years ago – when it was still Aspen Theatre in the Park – she appeared in the Steve Martin play, “Picasso at the Lapin Agile.” But she is finding the organization has evolved tremendously and rapidly.”I’d be in class in New York and everyone would have their materials out for this audition,” Malone said about the Theatre Aspen gig. “People with Broadway rsums saying, ‘I want this job in Aspen.’ With all those shows closing in New York, right as auditions were coming up here, it was amazing to see. I said, ‘Really, you all want to go to Aspen? OK, I want to go, too.'”Having originated multiple roles in New York, Malone is taking a step down, creatively, with “Spelling Bee.” But she enjoys the role of Logainne – “this poor kid who has two gay dads, who have no hobbies except this child they adopted.” She loves the opportunity to delve into the work of William Finn, who wrote the music and lyrics for the Tony-winning play. She is a tad envious of the three actresses who get to sing “The I Love You Song”: “Finn blew his wad on that one,” she says in praise. She is enthused about being in Aspen, about her fellow actors, and the state of the local company.”For an actor on either coast, who wants to be treated well, have a real job, a decent paycheck, housing – it’s really sought after,” she said. “The lights, the sound, the wardrobe is really sharp. It’s world-class regional theater. And it didn’t always used to be like that.”Malone understands that such opinions bring her into a controversial realm. Over the past few years, and especially since Paige Price took over as artistic director of Theatre Aspen two years ago, there has been an overall discontent in the Aspen-based theater community. More parts are going to out-of-town talent; the locals are mostly being offered roles in the family-theater productions. Malone wades into this argument very tentatively, but she does seem to stand up for the notion that you hire the best talent you can, regardless of its address.”When you do this for a living, and compete and audition and train for your life, your skills sharpen,” she said. “You’re working at this level.”(Price noted that she is in the midst of arranging a town-hall-type meeting for Aspen’s theater community, so that local actors can voice their concerns to her.)••••Malone doesn’t think of herself as having been a “theater kid” while growing up in Castle Rock. The family was more attuned to Malone’s three older brothers, and she became more of a “horse kid.””I was a redneck,” she said. “My mom was a country music singer, would gig at bars my whole childhood. But it wasn’t like they were going to cart me off to voice lessons.”So when Malone stumbled across such musicals as “Annie” and “Singing in the Rain,” it felt like her own personal find. The impact was enormous: Malone didn’t just find movies to watch, but her place in the world.”‘Singing in the Rain,’ on TV, changed my life,” said Malone. “I went running into the kitchen, told my mother, ‘I just saw the most amazing thing!’ Like I had discovered it. I went to my mom and told her, ‘I found my people!'”Musical theater doesn’t speak to everyone. But when it speaks to you, that’s how you find your people. That’s what life is – trying to find yourself, a certain truth you connect to. There’s some little homosexual boy in Kansas City right now, grabbing his cast album CD, saying, ‘Thank God for this.'”As soon as she got her driver’s license, Malone began trekking to the Country Dinner Playhouse in Englewood. She landed a job – as a hostess, but that was close enough to the stage to put chills down the 16-year-old’s spine.”To everyone else it was a summer job,” she said. “Me, I was geeked out. I watched ‘Evita’ 20 times. And then I got to audition for the cast, and did 20 shows there.”Malone’s next few years are familiar material to anyone who has taken a stab at musical theater life. She studied acting – at Loretto Heights College, which shut down while she was there, then at the University of Northern Colorado. Her education was interrupted by jobs at the Denver Center Theatre Company and the Arvada Center, and a year singing with the Janes Gang, which toured dives in the South, playing ’80s hits by George Michael and Terence Trent D’Arby. She also returned occasionally to the Country Dinner Playhouse. And she came to Aspen, where she devoted herself to skiing. But the time here wasn’t entirely misspent. At night, she worked at the old Crystal Palace dinner theater, which she calls the best years of her life.”Except for schlepping roast beef,” she adds. “We were a family there. We got ski passes. Made a boatload of money. And we got to sing and dance. And the hot fudge! I came for one winter, but the skis kept getting shorter and fatter, and I had to keep coming back.”Eventually, the roast beef got the better of her. “Waiting tables was really fun … and then it wasn’t,” Malone said. “That’s when I knew I had to finish undergrad and go to grad school.”In 2000, she graduated from the graduate program at the University of California, Irvine, where she studied “straight acting.” Settling in Los Angeles, she established a solid career in commercials and roles in the TV series “Judging Amy” and “Reno 911.” She kept her eye on getting her own sitcom, the gold ring for an L.A. actor. “But theater just pulled me. It pursued me. People would ask me to read scripts,” Malone said.The big break came at a Halloween karaoke party Malone and Schoppert threw at a dilapidated house they own in Sherman Oaks. Malone sang a boozed-up version of Ike & Tina Turner’s “River Deep, Mountain High”; unbeknownst to Malone, among the witnesses was a friend of a friend, Jim Freydberg, who was in the process of developing a musical of the life of Johnny Cash. Two years later, Malone, teaching high school special ed at the time, got a call out of the blue. The producer had remembered the karaoke performance, and filed the singer away in his mind. An audition in L.A. was set up, and on the spot, Malone was invited to go to New York to meet the director. On her way to the airport to leave New York, she got the call: She was going to originate the Broadway role of June Carter Cash.•••• Despite the flopping of “Ring of Fire” and “Bingo,” Malone is optimistic about her own prospects. “The Break Up Notebook,” she believes, will be at least a “boutique Broadway hit.” “Sister Act,” she thinks, will be huge.”And that will lead to other things,” she said. “Nothing I’ve ever done ends there. Then some TV producer will see ‘The Break Up Notebook’ and want to write a show around my character.”Or nothing will happen and I’ll come back here and we’ll have great snow.”But it’s hard to imagine Malone’s road ending in Aspen. Along with the recent flops, she has also had a major hit: She was featured in “The Marvelous Wonderettes,” an Off-Broadway musical about a ’50s girl group, singing at their own senior prom.”It’s a crazy huge New York phenomenon,” said Malone, who played Betty Jean, the practical joking tomboy. “People coming 18 times, dressed in prom outfits, super-fans posting things on the Internet as our characters.”Malone says her father recently told her she should give up her stage dreams and come back home. It’s too late for that. Not only has she had tastes of the big time, and hopes that bigger times are ahead, she is infected with the Broadway bug. This past spring, Malone was in New Jersey for a one-day shoot, a commercial for Pillsbury biscuits. A nothing job – except that playing her husband in the commercial was Norbert Leo Butz. The Norbert Leo Butz.”Nobody on the set could give a shit. No one knew who he was,” she said, explaining that Butz had won a 2005 Tony Award for his work in “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.” “But he’s a genius actor. I was asking him, ‘Remember the Tony speech you gave?'”In my world, he’s the biggest star. It was awesome. For a theater geek, it was like Christmas.”

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