BWW Interview: Molly Pope of MOLLY POPE, A GAY MAN, AND A PIANO at The Duplex – Broadway World

Posted: February 24, 2020 at 1:45 am


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One of the most prominent and proficient cabaret artists in the business today, Molly Pope has had a thriving career as a cabarettist for a decade, garnering accolades and gaining fans, both of which are now reaching outside of New York City into other cities and states, hardly surprising to anyone who has seen a Molly Pope show. For a while, though, New York audiences have been missing the uniquely gifted Pope, as her wish for some downtime and a focus on her first-ever venture into songwriting gave way to a brand-new musical, POLLY MOPE. Last fall, Pope re-entered the scene with Molly Pope, A GAY MAN, AND A PIANO and, come 2020, the one and only Molly Pope is ready to unveil for a wider audience that which has been brewing in her ever-creative mind. As she prepares for a performance of her show at The Duplex next week, Ms. Pope took a call from me during which we talked about her process, her artwork, and the need for a strong woman to make her own way in the world of the arts.

This interview has been edited for space and content.

Molly, you've got a show that's running at The Duplex and you've got one coming up at Joe's Pub. I understand that these are not new shows, but that the one at The Duplex is a continually evolving program.

Yes. It's titled Molly Pope, a Gay Man, and a Piano. I have had many different gay men at the piano. I've had female music directors, I've had straight music directors, so it hasn't been exclusively gay. But that certainly is what it usually is. And given that, I thought, "Well, you know, I should have a rotating pattern, why not?" That means that I can swap out songs, each one of the music directors has their own friends and fans, that will certainly help with ticket sales.

You are one of the most popular cabaret artists in the business. Why are you worried about ticket sales?

Oh, you're never not worried. I mean, you're never not worried about ticket sales, honestly. I suppose you could reach a certain visibility where you don't have to worry about it, but I would probably still always be... worried isn't the right term, more just like conscious of it. And you know, until you're sold out, you got to keep promoting.

I couldn't get into your show last fall. Try as I may, I couldn't get in.

So that was actually the first dry run of Molly Pope, a Gay Man, and a Piano, and that was actually the only cabaret show I did in all of last year. When you can promote a show as such, you can sell pretty quickly.

Why only one show in New York in an entire year?

I needed her to take a step back The past two years I took a big step back from doing regular cabaret shows, but that coincided with doing a lot of work on Polly Mope, which is the solo musical, 'cause I've been at this for over a decade and I don't personally subscribe to the notion that you have to keep going no matter what. And I needed a break.

How did it feel having a year off from your craft?

I was working a survival job that paid me a pretty good rat,e and I needed a break from performing, so I invested all of my energy into paying down as much debt as I could, for about two years, because working on a solo musical was quite different from putting together my regular kind of cabaret show. So the creativity was still there, it just took a different form and I think it was really good for me. And, not surprisingly, one of the effects was that I found myself thinking I have put so much energy into this survival job and I started thinking maybe I don't want to perform. But then I had that aha moment of, Oh no, it's actually because I put all of my energy into a survival job and now I need to sort of like recalibrate, maybe go back the other way and change up the energy commitment to the survival job and give myself more energy for performing.

Did the time away give you a fresh view when you came back?

I think so. I think it also just gave me some perspective and understanding of what I do that is unique and specific to me. The great thing about cabaret is it's all apples to oranges. You really can't compare two performers because what everybody's doing, by the nature of cabaret, is very specifically them, and it felt good to sort of go, "Okay, I have a thing that I do and I do it really well and I'm not going to try to do or be something else because someone else is having success doing it." That's a great lesson to learn.

You have created a brand that is so unique that it's given you a greatly respected reputation -- did you come out of the gate with that brand or is that something that you had to develop over time?

I think I came out of the gate with, definitely, a really strong visual. I did my hair in a beehive for probably six years, and a cinch-waist full skirt, very mid-century. It was a coincidence, but it sort of fell alongside Mad Men being hugely popular -- that was not my intention. And I think what has happened is I've slowly stripped that away. Number one, I didn't want to keep doing the same look and the same vibe, and I had a couple of people... actually, I did a one-off at 54 Below and Julie Halston was there, who I don't know, but I was all done up and I got up and sang my song when I came off stage she said, "You don't need to do all that stuff". And I said, "What?" She said, "All this hair, makeup, whatever... just sing." And I said, "What?" And that was a really important moment, clearly because I remember it. So it's still very much that tiny vibe. And those are all of my reference points. I still try to give you a look that's very reminiscent. Honestly, I feel like it's almost more like a 1940's kind of look. But I don't rely on the visual presentation as much as I used to. I think it was really great that I started out with a really strong visual and now I can tone it back and bring it to something a little more natural.

The vintage mood seems to be really important to you. When did that develop in your personality?

I was extremely close with my grandma, my mom's mom. I joke, but it's true that as an adolescent I had more fun hanging out with her and watching TCM. Sometimes... I was a teenager but she would crack a bottle of white wine and we would just drink a bottle of white wine and stay up until one o'clock in the morning watching TCM. I got all of my musical tastes from her. I think it was to an extent that I can be organic - I think that it, very much, is in me. With my grandma, I always thought we were actually like really good friends, contemporaries, sometimes even more so than a grandmother and her granddaughter.

Do you remember what your grandmother's favorite movie was?

Ooooh, her favorite movie... We watched so many. I can say there was a lot of Nat King Cole, a LOT of Nat King Cole. I think I probably listened to Nat King Cole more than any other singer. And she liked Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, and Judy Garland. It's sort of all those big names.

Is your grandmother still living?

She's not.

Did she get to see you perform?

Not as much as I would have liked, she passed away at the end of my freshman year of college, so she did get to see me as Dolly in Hello, Dolly! and Mame in Mame during high school, but she never got to see me make the evolution into being a cabaret and nightclub performer. She actually sang with a big band at one point when she was pretty young, so I think I inherited a lot of her, including the singing

It must make you feel very good, knowing that every time that you walk on stage, what you're doing is informed by this beautiful relationship you had with her.

Oh yeah. And I have a ring and a necklace of hers that I wear every single day.

That's really lovely. You just said you played Dolly Levi and you played Mame when you made the transition from doing characters in musical plays to writing your own material for cabaret, did you feel like you were going to have to leave behind one thing to create the next?

I have played characters and done plays and musicals, some really great ones, but it became clear that, especially when you're 24 and you sound like a mid-career Ethel Merman, it's difficult to be cast because the way my voice sounded and the way I look, casting directors just could not get over their perceived disconnect, shall I diplomatically say. And at that point there were two Friday night musical theater open mics: there was Mostly Sondheim at TheDuplex and there was The After Party up at the Laurie Beechman and I would go every Friday night. And when I started out, I would have to wait until like 1:30 in the morning to get up and sing. But I kept going and eventually I was sort of a sub guest host for Mostly Sondheim. And the process wasn't really sitting down and writing stuff, it was more, "Okay, I need to keep people within the room and drinking until 4:00 AM." And you figure out really quickly what's funny and what's not funny and what works and what doesn't work. So it was really like I learned by doing,

When did you write your first full-length cabaret?

The first one I did, I think it was 2007, it was called The Diva-Lution of Molly Pope.

I remember it.

I was really proud of that title. I had a friend of mine named Matt direct it - he was sort of coaching me - but in terms of actually writing stuff, certainly with the solo musical because you have to write a book for the show, I don't know that I could pinpoint when I started writing for myself because it's such a natural evolution, like "Oh, I made that joke into the microphone. Okay. Well, I should keep that."

When you create a new show, do you completely leave behind the old ones or do you occasionally revisit them and bring them back?

Oh yeah. I mean not necessarily a show in its entirety, but bits and songs, I do bring them back. I think that Molly Pope, a Gay Man, and a Piano is pretty much 100% new, but there are things that I've thought, "Oh, I want to bring that back sometime."

Tell me about Molly Pope, a Gay Man, and a Piano.

It actually grew out of working on Polly Mope, the solo musical. I premiered Polly Mope last May at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia and I was used to my shows being a fairly small affair, you know, like two people involved: me and a music director. In this case, I was afforded the truly incredible opportunity to have a lighting designer and a set, and a stage manager, and all of a sudden there were 15 people in the room and I started to say, "When do I get back to just me, a gay man, and a piano at The Duplex? 'Cause it felt like, while I was having this crazy fulfillment in this new area of my creativity, I was feeling like I was supposed to get back to basics.

I heard you sing the song Polly Mope at Poetry/Cabaret, I remember before you sang it, you said something about sounding like Ethel Merman -- is she one of the voices that inspired you as you were studying musical theater or is that just the sound with which you were born?

That's just the sound that came out. She definitely was not a major influence.

And how do you feel about having that kind of voice in an era of Ariana Grande's?

Well, I'd say that's why I do cabaret. That's why I create my own work because I'm not interested in --- I can't belt C's. I can hit a C the way Judy Garland can hit a C -- like, at the end of the Born in a Trunk medley. That is a specialty. I need to plant my feet and get ready for that. And I would say 90% of musical theater roles I would be right for, they need you to be able to belt C's for days. And for a long time, I tried to get my voice to do that, but it doesn't want to do that. And I also don't like waiting around for someone to hand me an opportunity. So that's why cabaret was so great 'cause it's wonderful -- I can sing whatever I want, regardless of the context from the source material, and I can sing it in whatever key I want.

I've noticed that the word Cabarettist is frequently applied to your name. That's actually not an English word. That's a German word that's been anglicized for you. Who made that brilliant decision?

I think it was me. I know Amy Jo Jackson... I think that she uses the term as well but with a K, and it was sort of a side effect of... a lot of people were using chanteuse to describe themselves and that didn't really feel right, and any other term like that didn't seem quite right. I really like the word Cabarettist because it's a reference to the cabaret form of show, and I thought, all right, even if it's not a word, and I have had press people be like, "Well, we can't use this word." And I said, "Well, yes you can."

I absolutely agree with you. The word applies to you perfectly and changing it to a C so that it fits the American language is really a perfect choice.

Yeah, it's just an accurate label. This is my medium and this is the kind of performer I am.

How many shows do you have right now that you could perform at the drop of a hat?

The drop of a hat? That would be challenging. I would probably need a day to brush up. I did a sprawling show, my one and only show of 2018, Molly Pope Live at Carnegie Hall at The Duplex. I'd probably be able to brush up that pretty quickly 'cause it was all sort of greatest hits. But for years I did shows with just like random titles, always my name in the title. There was Molly Pope Okay. There was Molly Pope, Goddammit. So just any excuse to throw together a set.

When you have a name like Molly Pope, you have to use it.

Yeah, it is. It is a pretty helpful name.

Yeah. How did you come up with Polly Mope?

My dad is a big fan of spoonerism, which is when you swap the first letters or the first couple letters of a two-word phrase. So growing up, at Christmas he would say Cerry Mistmas and not Merry Christmas. At the end of The Night Before Christmas, my cousin would always say nood gight instead of good night. So I grew up switching... like Burger King becomes Kurger Bing and fruit punch is puit frunch. That's something that my brain automatically does in a lot of instances, and as I got older and,as it became clear that I was struggling with something which, at this point, is diagnosed as manic bipolar two, I thought, "God isn't that ironic, that my name spoonerizes to Polly Mope." It just felt so accurate.

Are you still pursuing acting away from the cabaret industry?

In so much as I am asked to do stuff. I don't have an agent. I don't have a manager. I've never had great luck with either, which, I also take responsibility in that because I'm not really good at that side of all of this, and also terrible at auditioning. So I get asked to do stuff and I am happy to, and I've done some really, really great plays over the past couple of years, but it's not really something that I'm actively pursuing. I am so much more invested in creating my own work.

Creating your own destiny is always more rewarding.

Yeah.

I guess the ideal situation for you is to have someone see you in one of your own shows and say, Hey, how would you like to take two months off from cabaret and come play Fanny Brice for us?

If I could belt those C's, which I can, theoretically, yes. (Laughing)

Well, not being a singer, I wouldn't know a C from a D.

(Laughing) Well good. You should come to one of my shows and I'll tell you everything is a C.

I have your shows on my calendar! As a woman and a strong woman who likes to control her own destiny, do you make time every single day to write or is it something that happens when inspiration hits?

It's more when a deadline hits. I mean, sometimes I'll jot something down to be used in the future. But I am definitely someone who, until I have a deadline, AKA show booked, it's really difficult for me to have any discipline about creativity.

Well, then it should make you happy to know that I've interviewed at least four other people who have the same system.

Yup!

They book the show so that they have to write the show.

Yeah.

So you have your life and when the time is right, you sit down and you say, I'm going to be a cabaret artist right now. That must be very relaxing.

Well, again, it's on my timeline. My ears are always open for a song to catch my ear and I have a giant list in my phone of songs that I might want to sing someday. I jot down in an endless note on my phone if there's an idea for a bit or a joke or something like that. And I guess that it really is, you know, cause I'm 38 and I'm going to say I'm in a different place than where I thought I would be when I got to New York City almost 20 years ago. But where I am is: I'm not pounding the pavement and I don't necessarily carve time out of every single day to sing, but I feel like I have more control over it.

Polly Mope is all original material, but you just said that you hear songs that you want to sing. Do you make your shows out of a combination of original material and material that was written before?

Polly Mope is the first time I have ever attempted songwriting. And that started in earnest at the Kimmel Center, I think it was summer of 2017, cause I felt wildly out of my depth but I knew that this was an opportunity to evolve, to try songwriting. Because originally I did conceive of the show and I did a version of it in Provincetown, and it was all covers. But I was presented with this opportunity, this residency and I thought, "Well, you might as well try, and if you fail, fine, but you will at least have tried to see what you could do." (Laughing) Now I also realized, "Hey, I have a bunch of really talented friends I should ask them if they want to collaborate with me," which I did. And that's what made everything possible because I had really wonderful people who I trusted to not look down on me because I had never written songs before. And I think that's how I held on to a cabaret thread because there are a lot of songs I have written with my music director Matt Aument. But then I also wrote songs with five or six other people. So it doesn't sound like the same people wrote every single song.

Listening to you describe it, it sounds like a piece of theater. Is there a chance that it could be booked into a space where it could sit down for a while?

Oh, I would love that. I call it a solo musical that's disguised as a cabaret.

What is it about cabaret that drew you to it?

Just the independence of it. There are no rules, there absolutely are no rules and there is actually no such thing as making a mistake in cabaret. It's how you deal with a mistake. And because the nature of it being live and so intimate, I finally learned that the audience kind of loves you even more if something goes wrong and you deal with it, you're a real-life human being in front of them and you keep going.

Molly Pope, a Gay Man and a Piano plays The Duplex February 27, March 26, April 23, May 28 at 9:30 pm. For information and tickets please visit The Duplex website

Polly Mope plays Joe's Pub on March 16th at 7 pm. For information and tickets please visit the Joe's Pub website

Find Molly Pope online at her website

Photos of Molly Pope by JD Urban

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BWW Interview: Molly Pope of MOLLY POPE, A GAY MAN, AND A PIANO at The Duplex - Broadway World

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February 24th, 2020 at 1:45 am