Beth Malone: From the inside out
January 13, 2011
ASPEN – A stage performer to the core, Beth Malone seems on the verge of tears as she talks about not getting the role of Sister Mary Robert in the upcoming Broadway production of “Sister Act.” Malone originated the role a few years ago, in a Los Angeles version of the musical, based on the 1992 Whoopi Goldberg film. But on its way to New York, some things got moved around behind the scenes, and Malone was bypassed for the part.
Despite her disappointment, Malone agrees that she is too old, at 42, to play what she calls “the young nun.” And she also sees that playing Sister Mary Robert, while it would have been a sure-fire boost to her career, would have taken her off the track, personally and artistically, that she has vowed to follow.
“In my career, I have to look at it like this: The further I get, the more I want to be myself, more honest and courageous,” she said. “I wanted a big success, and if I played the young nun, an audience from that would come see me in other shows. But really, honestly, I didn’t care about the show.”
Instead, Malone has focused on a show that is close to her heart. “Beth Malone: So Far” is, in fact, her life, from her offbeat childhood in small-town Colorado, to her not-quite-normal entrance into acting, to her left-of-center adult life.
The one-hour “Beth Malone: So Far,” which has had some sold-out dates in small venues in Los Angeles and New York, has its Aspen debut on Monday, Jan. 17, at the Wheeler Opera House. Malone describes the show, which she is developing with two other women, as a “songs-and-stories” piece, though she is willing to tag it “musical cabaret” to lure the men in town for Gay Ski Week. The Aspen presentation, which features David Dyer on piano, is a benefit for The Trevor Project, an advocacy group for gay youth.
“It’s a journey, from Castle Rock, Colorado to … out. Out! Out of rural, small-townness, where I knew nothing about anything, to hilarity. Trying to get laid. Figuring out how to get a girl to go to bed with me,” said Malone, who lives part-time in Snowmass Village and part-time in Los Angeles. “That’s why it took so long for me to join the acting community. I didn’t get serious till I was 27, 28. Because I was in Aspen for seven years, trying to figure stuff out.”
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Malone spent a good deal of her childhood trying to figure stuff out – namely, herself. She knew she had an unusually close, nearly worshipful relationship with her father. At least, none of her brothers had the same kind of connection to their dad, Billy, an engineer who also raised quarter horses and border collies.
Malone says she was “dad’s little redneck sidekick. I wanted to be his cowpoke, ride like him, walk like him, be like him. I have three older brothers, but they didn’t have that desire to please him. He was a hero to me – dashing, charismatic, witty, looked like Burt Reynolds. He was somebody you wanted to be like.”
Malone was not yet a teenager when she realized she might share more interests with her father than she supposed. The two were watching country singer Barbara Mandrell on TV – “and I’m thinking, ‘I want to kiss her. Hmmm,'” Malone recalled. “She makes me feel funny. Then there was Marlo Thomas – dreamy.
“I remember being tortured because I couldn’t figure things out as a kid. The girls understood Bonnie Belle lipstick and purses. And I didn’t. Girls wanted to wear training bras, and I wore a wife-beater cut way too low, to the point where my dad told me I couldn’t wear that anymore.”
Malone’s coming out – at Gay Ski Week in Aspen, in 1993, when she spotted her love-to-be across the Hotel Jerome – worked like a bomb on the family dynamics. “It was a really scary thing for my redneck family,” she said. “They’re really rural. For me to say, I’m going into this alternative lifestyle, it shattered things for many years.”
“So Far,” though, is far from a downer. For one thing, Malone thinks there is inherent humor to be found in lesbianism. “When a little girl is in love with Kristy McNichol, it’s funny,” she said. “And Connie Chung – why is an 11-year-old girl obsessed with the nightly news?”
And Malone seems inherently built for comedy. While she has done more dramatic parts in musicals – she originated the role of June Carter Cash in the Johnny Cash musical “Ring of Fire” – she seems more at home playing for laughs. Recently, she has become something of a go-to comedic actress in Aspen. Two years ago, she played the role of Logainne in Theatre Aspen’s production of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” The show caught a major buzz in Aspen, and Malone’s lisping, politically savvy character was a large part of the reason. Last summer Malone returned to Theatre Aspen, in the jukebox musical “The Marvelous Wonderettes.” By comparison, the show was a minor pleasure, but Malone, who had appeared in the original cast of “The Marvelous Wonderettes” and is slated for further appearances in the show, was the high point.
Malone also did a one-night stand of a solo show in Theatre Aspen’s Sunday Series. The performance didn’t have a story arc; it was more like a concert. “It wasn’t like, ‘Here’s my life,'” she said. “But it gave me the confidence that I could hold the stage by myself, that I’m engaging enough to do a solo show.”
With “So Far,” Malone is presenting her life on-stage. But she is being careful to avoid two cliches: the “Isn’t my life interesting?” one, and the coming-out-of-the-closet tale.
“It isn’t ‘Beth Malone: Self Indulgent Drivel.’ And it’s not a coming-out story. It’s a coming-of-age story,” she said. “I think every person has a story, and everybody’s story can be a good one, if you pick out the poignant parts and string them together. You illuminate the finer points of an emotional moment, then you sing a song that hits that emotional note.”
“So Far” might not build the Beth Malone brand the way “Sister Act” would. Although it’s not out of the question: “So Far” has a heavyweight backer in Peter Schneider, a former head of Disney’s animation department. But Malone has little doubt that “So Far” will build her as a performer and as a person.
“This show brings me right in line with what I say is my sensibility,” she said. “I’m dying to sell out, but it didn’t work for me. It’s put me on a truer path – which is a f–king drag. This is harder. And has way more intrinsic value to it. As anyone knows, the harder thing is the better thing. Unfortunately.”