My interviews with creatives have officially returned, and I couldn’t be more pleased to share just a snippet of the wonderful discussion I had with Molly Lynch about her upcoming one-woman show: Rodgers and Hammerstein (&Me Too)
If you’re having a blank moment about who Rodgers and Hammerstein are, think Oklahoma!, Carousel, The Sound of Music, The King & I… They are the composer/lyricist duo behind these iconic musicals.
As a soprano myself, the music of Rodgers and Hammerstein has played such a huge role in my life, so the minute I saw the announcement for this show, I knew I had to get in touch with Molly to talk to her more about it. The show is described as a “verbatim, musical theatre cabaret” that promises to “smash the patriarchy and challenge R. Kelly and Harvey Weinstein in the form of Musical Theatre’s most beloved composers’ music.” Cool, right?
I’m so grateful that Molly took the time to speak to me in amidst rehearsals and indulge me in my musical geekery. Beyond what’s included in this interview, we discussed the wonder that is Kelli O’Hara’s portrayal of Anna in The King & I, the significance of movie musicals, as well as the many (many) reasons we both love Emma Thompson. It was the feminist soprano’s dream.
Before we get cracking with all things Rodgers and Hammerstein, we’ve got to talk about your recent run in The Light in the Piazza, where you went on for Clara several times. Had you done a cover run beforehand?
No, just one hour of music. We were due to start rehearsals the day after press night which is pretty standard, but it was still previews when I first went on. Neil [Robinson], the Resident Director – which is why Residents are sent from heaven – just walked me through it in like forty minutes. But also I just had a really good company that were totally adaptive. It was amazing to see so many people in the theatre be so supportive.
Because I’m a massive soprano nerd, what was it like working with Renée Fleming?
I’m exactly the same. I’d had her biography since I was about sixteen and I had all my favourite pages folded over. When I got the job my mum was like “Oh my God, your Renée Fleming biography is still in your bedside locker!” and she took it out and was looking at all the marks I’d made in it. So then when I was onstage towards the end of the show, and she comes towards me with the veil, I was like…this cannot be real. This is not real. She is the world’s greatest singer in my eyes, and she’s also just the nicest human being and is so kind.
I love the range of work you’ve been involved with already; singing legit material for roles like Julie Jordan in Carousel (English National Opera), and then singing brand new, punk rock music in Wasted (Southwark Playhouse). Have you consciously resisted the kind of typecasting that is often associated with soprano singers?
I kind of go for everything and then take what I can get! I really think just because you sing high doesn’t mean you can’t sing other notes. Renée in Light in the Piazza sung super low. What I love about Light in the Piazza is that Adam Guettel writes across the ranges, and his grandfather, Richard Rodgers, writes across the ranges. A lot of the time we have entire shows that are just belt and entire shows that are just legit, and I’d love more shows to have integrated vocal styles. It’s hard nowadays to keep the soprano cool.
Another thing that bothers me is that a lot of the time the strong, sassy women belt, and the cute, pretty girls are soprano…that drives me bonkers! Why can’t the strong character woman be a soprano? That’s why I love Wasted because they [Christopher Ash and Carl Miller] wrote my character singing classically and then belting frickin’ death metal. I think that’s really exciting because human beings are complicated and multi-layered, so it’s really cool when a vocal role reflects that as well. I’m such a voice nerd, I could talk about it all day.
What drew you to create a piece specifically about the work of Rodgers and Hammerstein?
I grew up on that music. My Grandad was a pop singer but my Dad did not like showbiz, and so I think I got into that music from the movies like The Sound of Music, The King & I etc…
I think of myself as a feminist, and there were a lot of articles when Carousel was revived on Broadway [in 2018] saying that Rodgers and Hammerstein are quite sexist. I’m not trying to deny that, but I’m also trying to examine and show how strong their women are. I think I’m a feminist because of a lot of the morals that were embedded into me in those stories and in that music. I think there’s more than one way to be a strong woman – that’s why I think the way Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote their women was really clever and beautiful. And I think I subconsciously absorbed a lot of that information without even realising it.
What was it about the Me Too movement that made you want to incorporate it into a piece with Rodgers and Hammerstein’s music?
I love politics and I love feminism – I watched the Me Too movement unfold and how women found the authority to speak about these things. Especially being in this industry and watching so many actresses come out and say “I’ve been sexually harassed in the workplace.” It’s so common for actresses – actors too – but like, it’s such a common thing that happens, that for so long has been so accepted, and only now are we going “that’s actually not okay.”
That conversation feels so current; it’s still so raw and so new. If I can use Rodgers and Hammerstein’s music to talk about that, I think it will really make you listen to the words in a completely new way.
Did working with their material so closely when you played Julie Jordan contribute towards creating this piece? (Molly was the standby for Katherine Jenkins in the ENO production of Carousel at the London Coliseum)
Yeah, totally. I think Julie Jordan is such an amazing character for someone who considers themselves a feminist to play. I read a lot of books when I did it about women who were abused and about how they feel. I think people look at that show and they go “she should have just left; if she was strong she would have left.” And I think it’s a really awful thing to say about a woman when you look at her circumstances and the society she’s in.
I think we’ve got to start being more nuanced about feminism. We look, now, for such explicit feminist ideology; we want her to go “How dare you slap me! Goodbye forever!” and slam the door. And that would be amazing in some ways, but then we can’t expect all women to do that. We can’t have no sympathy for a woman who chooses not to do that.
Julie Jordan had her reasons and had a very personalised approach to what happened to her. I loved playing her and I really got defensive about her, and about people accusing her of being weak.
That production of Carousel with the ENO was directed by Lonny Price. In addition to his hugely successful career as a director, Lonny originated the role of Charley in Merrily We Roll Along on Broadway, so OBVIOUSLY I asked Molly what it was like working with him.
Amazing. I watched the Candide that he directed on YouTube at home and I was obsessed. Obsessed. He’s just so open and has a crazy passionate love for what he does that is so evident when you’re in a room with him. Also, his voice is so iconic, his speaking voice, and so every time I hear it I’m like oh my god I’m listening to the soundtrack of Merrily We Roll Along aaaah! I’m still a fangirl so yeah, getting to work for him…he’s amazing.
Also watching him grapple with the Rodgers and Hammerstein material – someone like Lonny Price who just knows the history of musicals so well, working on how to make this say something else. It was just so interesting and he was so clever with it.
We then talked about the radical new version of Oklahoma! that’s currently on Broadway, and the new ways they’ve interpreted the piece. I mentioned how they’ve been able to entirely alter the way in which the show is perceived by the audience, despite none of the text itself being changed. A friend of mine saw the production in New York and was left pretty speechless.
It’s one of those things where people think Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals are “cute” but they’re not based on cute stories – Oklahoma! is originally based on a really complex play. The era that they came to life in needed that kind of sweet, digestible version, but I think nowadays we need the versions that make us not be able to speak after, you know?
I added the fact that there are often many stereotypes associated with the work of Rodgers and Hammerstein, and we shared our frustration over the fact that many people only view their work as old-fashioned.
What bothers me is when people say their work is dated, and I’m like…have you seen what’s going on?! The guy who’s President?! His excuse for not raping a woman was that she wasn’t his type…I mean… And we go “oh, Rodgers and Hammerstein, those guys – they’re not talking about our world”…yeah they are.
That’s something that’s been so surprising is that their material is SO relevant, and they never had to write in a world where there was something as sexist going on as Donald Trump. He’s the most openly, disgustingly sexist leader, definitely as long as I’ve been alive, and now like…Boris Johnson?! Boris Johnson is gonna be our next Prime Minister?!
(I’m pretty sure we both simultaneously face-palmed at this moment. We recorded this interview on the day it was announced that Boris would be the next PM. It was a lot.)
When his neighbours called the police because they heard a domestic row happening, and people were saying it was a “private matter’…we’ve got Tories saying that “domestic abuse is a private matter” and people try to tell me that Carousel isn’t relevant?! Domestic abuse, race, feminism, sexual assault…they are such relevant topics now and they all happen in Rodgers and Hammerstein stories.
Is there a song in the show that’s been the most interesting to develop during rehearsals?
There’s a song called ‘That’s The Way It Happens’ from Me and Juliet. I’d never come across it before. We’ve reinterpreted it and it’s also just a really jazzy, cool song that is so different to the other stuff they wrote, and you just realise the scale they wrote for women; they gave women so many different ways to showcase their voices. So I think that’s the one that’s been the most interesting because I didn’t know it before.
Also the easiest, because you don’t have any preconceived interpretations. As a soprano we’ve heard all those songs so many times, so subconsciously have made decisions about them. But to do a song that I’ve never seen anyone do before, and can just do whatever completely fresh has been really cool.
How have you found the experience of writing the show as well as performing it?
I’ve loved the creative control, and having such a say in a piece and being able to really make decisions. I think having creative control can sometimes be scary but it’s been really liberating to have it in this small circumstance.
Ed [Goggin] has been so good. It’s such a collaborative thing because he’s a Rodgers and Hammerstein expert, and then I bring the feminist passion, so we’ve been able to bounce off each other. Our relationship has been about coming to terms with feminism verses the material and seeing where it matches up.
Running your own thing is hard; it’s so much work and the main bottom line is you have to love it with all your heart because otherwise it’s not worth it. Why would we make ourselves do all this extra work for no reward bar the fact we live and breathe it? And I think it’s really showed me that I do love it – I love it with everything.
As you can probably tell from how lengthy this post is, this is a topic Molly and I are both hugely passionate about. As self-professed musical nerds, it was so wonderful to talk to someone like Molly who truly cares about the art of musical theatre, and about honouring the material of these composers who were so instrumental in the art form, whilst also ensuring that we allow for innovation and for new perspectives to be highlighted.
It’s clear that Molly has put her heart and soul into this piece, and I hope I’ve been able to convey just an ounce of how great it was to talk to her about it.
If you have conflicting feelings about Rodgers and Hammerstein’s work, you should see this show. If you tend to dismiss any composer before the ’80s, you should see this show. If you’re a feminist (or if for some wild reason you’re not), you should see this show.
Rodgers and Hammerstein (& Me Too) is playing at The Bread & Roses Theatre for just five performances from 30th July – 3rd August, so you reeeeeeally need to get on it and book those tickets before it sells out. Here’s the ticket link for you.
(Above) Rehearsal photo of Molly Lynch, taken by Nadia Forde.
(Above) Official show poster created by Adam Lenson.
You can find all of my previous interviews right here and keep an eye out for more interviews with lovely people who agree to have a coffee with me.