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Dick Scanlan on Unsinking Molly and Rethinking Millie

The librettist for The Unsinkable Molly Brown and Thoroughly Modern Millie delves into his process for reworking these very different shows.

When Dick Scanlan began the process of turning the film Thoroughly Modern Millie into a Broadway musical, he also began a working relationship with Richard Morris, the movie's original screenwriter. As they collaborated, Morris would always tell Scanlan, "When we're done fixing Millie, we have to fix Molly."

Molly, of course, is Morris's other well-known property, The Unsinkable Molly Brown, a Broadway musical he wrote with songwriter Meredith Willson. The property hadn't aged well: In Scanlan's words, "the story of the original doesn't even really make sense." It was so bad that Scanlan wasn't even interested.

After Morris passed away, the rights holders begged Scanlan to take another look. He finally relented and began a journey to unsink Molly Brown. In February, she made her long-awaited return to the stage, played by Beth Malone, at Abrons Arts Center in a Transport Group production directed by Kathleen Marshall.

At the same time, Scanlan is working on revisions, for vastly different reasons, of his beloved Thoroughly Modern Millie, for New York City Center Encores! That was a stranger process, but one that is fulfilling him more than he imagined.

Dick Scanlan is one of the writers behind The Unsinkable Molly Brown and Thoroughly Modern Millie.
(© Tricia Baron)

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

What was it about the original Unsinkable Molly Brown that you didn't respond to, and what made you finally change your mind about reworking it?
It was incredibly unsatisfying dramatically and there are huge gaps of logic: In one scene, she's really smart; in another, she's really dumb. Molly didn't have much dimension to her. I bet you couldn't take your eyes off Tammy Grimes [the original Molly Brown on Broadway], but that's not in the writing.

In desperation, I went out to Colorado to research Margaret Tobin Brown, and I found out there are two stories. One is almost entirely apocryphal. The original musical, I learned, is based on a four-page vignette in a book called Timber Line, published in the '30s by Gene Fowler. Timber Line was a series of stories about colorful people from Colorado, and he just made stuff up, like she was in the lifeboat in her panties with a pistol. That's the version of the story they heard and what they turned into a musical.

But there's a whole other story about this incredibly important, progressive social activist in a wonderfully complicated marriage. She was a strong person who married a strong person and her strength is what drew them together until it drew them apart. That really thrilled me, along with the realization that what fueled her social progressiveness was her religious beliefs. I wanted to explore that.

Beth Malone as Molly in Transport Group's The Unsinkable Molly Brown.
(© Carol Rosegg)

Was it difficult getting the Willson estate to agree to your reworking of the score?
It was tricky. Though I had made it very clear I was starting over, when I first got the paperwork, it said I had the ability to change up to 30 percent with their approval. I crossed it out and wrote "100% at Dick's sole discretion." It came back again, so we all got on the phone and I said, "This is very easy. Either you trust me, or you don't hire me. I won't be angry, but I'm not writing a scene and sending it to a group of nonwriters for their approval." They didn't want anything to besmirch Meredith's legacy, but they let me have full access.

I called the lawyer and asked to come out to Los Angeles to get my hands on the trunk of songs. They called Rosemary (Meredith Willson's widow) and Rosemary said there were no songs. "He never cut a song from The Music Man?" "Nope." "I know he did a show called 1491 at the Ahmanson. My hunch is that there are a stack of charts." Nothing.

Either [director and choreographer] Kathleen Marshall or I communicated this to Michael Feinstein, who knew Rosemary, and he went over to the house for dinner and said, "How is preventing Dick from getting the information he needs protecting Meredith?" And she started to cry. She was worried it would be disrespectful. So she took him by the hand to the basement and there were file cabinets with every song he'd ever written, and every version of those songs, all in alphabetical order.

The sheet music cover for Meredith Willson's song "Fire Up," which became "Wait for Me" in the new Unsinkable Molly Brown.
(image provided by Dick Scanlan)

How did you pick which songs to add?
I went over to the house and photocopied anything that could be used lyrically. We would get together and sing through songs. Some of them like "Share the Luck," which was written for the Red Cross — I knew the moment I heard it, it had to be in the show. That's an activist song.

That weird and wonderful song that Julia and Molly sing, "The Wonderful Plan," was a song that was cut from every show that he ever wrote until it made it into 1491, and he'd rewrite it for every show, so we had different versions. When [music adapter] Michael Rafter and I were working, I'd be like, "Jump to measure 31 in version 2." And we'd put it together.

The can-can number [called "If We Can-Can"] is a song cut from The Music Man called "Too Soon Old," which was written for an elderly German couple. When was there an elderly German couple in The Music Man?

And "Wait for Me," Molly's 11 o'clock number now, is actually a song called "Fire Up" that Meredith wrote in support of chemical warfare for the Department of Defense. The cover of the sheet music is a guy in a hazmat suit with a tube that he's pointing and spraying, and there's fire everywhere. Michael Rafter heard that it was a gorgeous melody and played it for me. So that's how the score came about.

Dick Scanlan, Jeanine Tesori, and Sutton Foster during curtain call of the Thoroughly Modern Millie reunion concert.
(© Tricia Baron)

What was the impetus for reworking Millie for Encores!?
As you know, in recent years, Millie has become controversial in ways that are understandable, but enormously painful for me and Jeanine [Tesori] and Michael Mayer. The choices we made in Millie were made to shine a light on racism, not "wouldn't it be funny if these characters spoke Chinese?" We were doing an unexpectedly political thing, and I believe in 2002, that's how people experienced it. But we're not in a small town somewhere doing it in a high school to know how they're implementing it. The last thing you want to do when you write something is hurt somebody.

Tell me about some of the work you're doing.
In the original, the two Chinese characters speak in Cantonese, but they sing in Mandarin. We talked about that at length at the time with the original actors and with Chinese people we knew. Mandarin is the more poetic language, and lyrics are like poetry. Now, some people interpret that as us being cavalier, thinking there's no difference between the two. That was never the impetus, but I understand. So we're having the lyrics all translated into Cantonese, and they'll sing the whole time in Cantonese.

It's not going to be a colorblind production. Millie, played by Ashley Park, will be a Korean-American woman who grew up in Kansas. I had a meeting with Ashley a few weeks ago. She's so unbelievably smart and articulate, in a way that many smart actors are not. My god, she had so many interesting things to say.

It was very surreal at first to get these characters to talk again in different ways. Now, to look at choices we made in 2002 and rework them has become thrilling, and extremely fun.

Ashley Park will play Millie in Thoroughly Modern Millie at Encores! this May.
(© David Gordon)