Interview: TRACY SALLOWS, Curious & Rare

Tracy Sallows is an actor who has appeared on Broadway, Off-Broadway, and in television and film. This fall, she has a recurring role as Susan Duntsch in the NBC miniseries, Dr. Death. She is a member of the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre workshop in New York City where she wrote the book, music, and lyrics to Curious & Rare. This exciting new musical tells the life story of English paleontologist Mary Anning. Today is actually Mary Anning's 222nd birthday, so it's the perfect time to learn more about this show and the writer behind it. 

When and how did you first become interested in theatre? 

I was lucky enough to have parents who really enjoyed going to the theatre. The first musical they took me to was Irene with Jane Powell. I don't remember much beyond "Alice Blue Gown," but the second musical they took me to was Annie and I learned it by heart. I loved musicals, but came to find that I have an alto/contralto voice, and outside of "Send in the Clowns" and Ursula the Sea Witch, there isn't a lot for women in that range, certainly not for young women. I trained at the Acting Conservatory program at SUNY Purchase and sang in cabarets there and did a lot of plays and plays with music (like The Hostage, Dark of the Moon, Under Milkwood) after I graduated. 

How did you get involved in writing for musical theatre? 

I was at the Guthrie Theatre doing The Glass Menagerie and Cymbeline and the theatre was planning a comedic cabaret so I wrote some parodies for them and they went over well. Back in New York City, I started writing and performing original comedic songs and sketches for a comedy troupe that performed Monday nights when we were off from the theatre. My friend, Kerry O'Malley, who is a Broadway actor (or you might know her from TV like Snowpiercer and Why Women Kill), heard my songs, loved my writing, and suggested I audition for the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop and work on writing a full length show. I got in, made it through the first two years, and got into the Advanced Class where I started writing Curious & Rare

How did you first discover Mary Anning and what drew you to her? 

Some years ago, I was at the gift shop of the Montauk Lighthouse on Long Island looking for a book for my daughter and came across a children's book about little Mary Anning finding an Ichthyosaur in 1811. I thought it must be fiction - surely I would have heard of her if she had been real! I went home and Googled her and just kind of fell down the rabbit hole researching her. 

At a time when a poor girl's future would most likely entail being a servant if she was lucky, a scullery maid or worse if she wasn't, Mary Anning was fortunate enough to have been born on what would later be called the Jurassic Coast of England, to a cabinet maker father who was interested in collecting fossil "curiosities" and who was a Dissenter, one of the few religions that taught girls as well as boys to read and write. Luckily for all of us, Richard Anning's inclusion of his daughter gave her another path. 

Mary's story gripped me in many ways. While our careers are markedly different, some of the occupational hazards that she was presented with because of being passionately driven in her work, resonated with me. I am very fortunate; I have a husband and a daughter and have managed to keep working, but actors very often don't get to have families. The financial instability, the moving from job to job (if you're lucky), the impermanence of your locations don't make relationships easy. 

Many female actors look younger than they are and the majority of roles for women are still in the younger demographic, so there is pressure to work while you can, as long as you can, and many put off having a family even if they want one. It is easy to see how Mary would have had to give up her work and who she was if she had wanted to get married, given the societal constraints in the early 1800s. Also, it may be that after seeing her mother lose eight out of ten children in infancy, she simply didn't want to put herself through it. Being dedicated to a career comes at a cost, but giving it up comes at a cost too. 

The Annings also remind me of a branch of my family that came over from Liverpool, England in 1906. They were very, very poor and very resilient. I see a bit of Mary and her mother Molly in the relationship between by my great aunt and my great-grandmother. They sustained each other. There is a song in Curious & Rare, "Oranges from Spain," that pertains to either pair. 

Lastly, working very hard and being overlooked irregardless is something that I think a lot of people can identify with! Outside of Marie Curie and more recently Katherine Johnson, we don't hear much about women scientists and particularly female paleontologists. 

Before the pandemic, I was at a baby shower for a boy and it was striking how many dinosaur themed books, pajamas, tee shirts, stuffed animals, and wrapping paper were on display. Dinosaurs were as prevalent as the color blue and it's so easy to see how that reinforces paleontology as the domain of boys right from infancy. I was drawn to the story of a woman who persevered in a field that was considered the boys' club of all boys' clubs and despite being excluded, managed to make an undeniable mark in the field of paleontology. 

Can you tell me a bit about the story that Curious & Rare tells?

Curious & Rare tells the story of 19th century English paleontologist Mary Anning from her first major discovery at age twelve in 1811 to her death in 1847. There are a lot of children's books that write only about her discovery of the Ichthyosaur and there are novels that focus on her twenties and end with her last major discoveries. But I wanted to follow her whole life, not just the high points, but the valleys as well, to show what it cost her to be who she was. I also wanted to explore her relationship with her mother and the various gentlemen geologists she dealt with, as well as my hunch about who her romantic interest was. 

It is the story of a self-taught girl who grew into a woman who could hold her own in the male dominated field of paleontology, all despite the hardships of extreme poverty, the disapproval of the Church of England, the condescension of the scientific community, the confines of nineteenth-century society, the vicious gossip of her town, romantic heartbreak, her untimely death, and all the efforts to obscure and take credit for her contributions. I think she would be utterly amazed with the level of recognition she is receiving 222 years after her birth. 

What was the process of writing Curious & Rare like? 

Maury Yeston, who wrote the Broadway shows Nine, Titanic, and Grand Hotel, sometimes moderates at the BMI Musical Theatre Workshop in NYC. He has often said, "There are two kinds of musical theatre writers: there are composer/lyricists and there are song writers." A composer/lyricist might write a piece of music and then write lyrics for it, or write lyrics and set them to music. I am definitely a songwriter; when I hear the lyrics in my head, they come attached to the melody, sometimes with a counter melody as well. 

Sometimes it happens very quickly; one day in 2011, in the very early days of writing this piece, I was in an elevator going to a voice-over audition and thinking, what is Henry trying to say at this point at the end of the show? And "Change Is Slow" came into my head, melody attached, and I got off the elevator, signed in, read the voice-over copy, turned it over and started writing the lyrics. I had the audition and continued writing the lyrics on the subway home. I came home and worked on the piano and checked some reference books about the day Mary Anning died. 

Even in the driest reference book, there can be a word or phrase that inspires a lyric. Suddenly, I find myself reading, "Mary Anning died Tuesday, March 9th, 1847" and my hair stands on end because I realize I have just written the part of the show where she dies...and I am writing it on Tuesday, March 9th. 

Do you have a favorite song from the show? 

Ah, you know, they are all my favorites for different reasons. I have tried to work in actual quotes from each character into the songs when it felt natural. When Mary Anning was describing one of her most bizarre and unusual finds, the Squaloraja, she said it was "analogous to nothing" in a letter to Adam Sedgwick (who taught Darwin at Cambridge). "Analogous to Nothing" seems to me an apt title not only for a song about the Squaloraja, which was a prehistoric hybrid creature with traits of both sharks and rays that didn't fit neatly into any category, but a perfect way to describe Mary's life as well. There are so many hybrids in the show; reverend-doctors who preach the Bible and teach geology and Ichthyosaurs thought to be "Fish-Lizards" and, for the early 1800s, a female paleontologist was just as striking a combination. 

Jeremiah James as Henry de la Beche and Stephanie Rothenberg as Mary Anning
in the Manhattan Musical Theatre Lab staged reading of Curious & Rare

Mary Anning has been largely forgotten by history, but she's in the conversation more right now because of the recent film Ammonite in which she's portrayed by Kate Winslet. Have you had a chance to see the film yet and if so, what did you think of it? 

Yes! Mary is really in the conversation more now. The folks at Mary Anning Rocks, after two and a half years of diligently trying, have finally raised the money for a bronze statue of Mary and her dog Tray to be made and installed in Lyme Regis. This is a really wonderful and important tribute to Mary - and all women in science - and will be an inspiration to many who come to visit Mary's hometown. 

Also, the Royal Mint just came out with a trio of 50p coins celebrating her discoveries of the Temnodontosaurus (Ichthyosaur), Plesiosaurus, and Dimorphodon (Pterodactyl). There are also new books and new films in the works. It is wonderful to see her being so honored. 

I did see Ammonite. Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan are incredible actors, but I had trouble with the extreme license the story took not only with Mary Anning's life, but with Charlotte Murchison's as well. In reality, Charlotte was eleven years older than Mary, so if Mary was 40, Charlotte was 51, not 24. I would have liked to have seen a film that represented more of Mary Anning's work. As a paleontologist who spent her daily life trying to uncover the real truth about the past, I think facts would have mattered to her. 

What's something that you wish people knew about Mary Anning? 

That she herself is a missing link. Everyone knows about Darwin. Everyone knows about his theory of evolution. Mary's discoveries posited a theory of extinction and a question of "deep time," both of which were considered blasphemous at the time. Darwin's work was influenced by Mary's discoveries. 

Mary was religious and wondered and worried about the questions that her unearthing of fossils were raising, but she had faith enough to not presume to know, or put any limits on, what God was capable of creating and she continued her work and the pursuit of knowledge. Similarly, Darwin knew his theory would be greatly upsetting to some and actually held off publishing for a while. They were not people devoid of spirituality or religion; they just didn't see Science as being in conflict with Spirituality. 

I also wish people knew how hard it was to spot fossils. Mary didn't just go out daily and collect things; she searched for them (often putting herself in danger on unstable cliffs), excavated them, carried them home, chiseled them out, cleaned them, and illustrated them. Her illustrations were wonderful. Then she sold all that work for a fraction of what it was worth to men who would often take credit for finding the fossil. The work she did was physically taxing and she did it daily in all kinds of weather. 

Tracy Sallows presenting six songs from Curious & Rare at a
BMI Master Class guest-moderated by Stephen Schwartz 

What are your hopes for Curious & Rare in the future?

Well, now that we are emerging from the pandemic and theatre is beginning to come back, I would love to find a theatre that is interested in a staged reading, a workshop, or (better yet) a production. I have been working on this show for quite some time now and it is wonderful to see Mary Anning at long last get some attention. I am hoping a rising tide will lift all boats. 

Do you have any advice for aspiring musical writers? 

Get yourself in a workshop where people can give you feedback. Not everybody's feedback is useful, but there will always be some people who give a note that raises your game or gives you an "aha!" moment. Good, challenging notes are exciting; it means somebody "gets" you and is intrigued by your project. If you are in the New York area, apply for the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop. It is free - you get in on merit! 

You can find out more about Curious & Rare on Tracy's website or the musical's website. You can also follow the musical on Instagram

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