The call did not go as Emma McGlinchey expected. Out to lunch at an Upper East Side café with her parents (who were visiting from McGlinchey’s native Scotland for the first time), McGlinchey was off for the week from Off-Broadway’s parody musical Titanique where she serves as its COVID Compliance Officer. “The phone rang and it was our company manager Casey McDermott,” McGlinchey spills, who recalled thinking it was just a routine Saturday update. Instead, McDermott had a surprising question
“Casey asked, ‘How would you feel about going on for Molly Brown tonight?’ I don’t even know what happened. I just automatically was like, “Yes!,” McGlinchey vividly recalls. Armed with a catalog of Céline Dion songs, Titanique features a fictional version of the Canadian singer as the omniscient narrator of Jack and Rose’s love story from James Cameron’s 1997 blockbuster film Titanic—and she tells what really happened.
The show began at a small Off-Broadway venue, the Asylum Theatre. It has been playing to sold-out crowds and has transferred to the much-bigger Daryl Roth Theatre. The campy jukebox musical’s cast of characters includes the Unsinkable Molly Brown, based on the real-life socialite Margaret Brown who earned the nickname for her work helping evacuate passengers before finally getting into a lifeboat herself. The moniker was immortalized by the 1960 Broadway musical The Unsinkable Molly Brown, later adapted for a 1964 film.
Titanique did not hit an iceberg but it did have its own share of misfortunes that day: the show’s normal Molly Brown, Desireé Rodriguez, was out. So was her understudy, Donnie Hammond. The show’s director Tye Blue also had to step in that night to cover a role. They were scrambling to keep the show going.
With the hour just before noon, McGlinchey only had a few hours to get to the theatre and rehearse before curtain. Advised that she needed “makeup and hair stuff and underwear,” McGlinchey had to run back to her apartment first. “I was physically shaking and was starting to get a bit emotional,” she says. With a promise to text her parents later, McGlinchey raced off in a Lyft to her apartment: “I must have been in my apartment for no more than three minutes. I was in a taxi down to the theatre, and the company manager had sent me the script and the score. I was on my phone looking at that, thinking, ‘What is happening? How am I going to do this?’”
It was a fair question to ask herself because the team had “no idea” if she could act or sing. Blue had only seen one video of her singing.
McGlinchey had originally joined as a substitute COVID Compliance Officer back when the show was still in rehearsals; she was made full-time about two months ago. Pursuing an acting career of her own, for McGlinchey, stepping into the role remains a wild example of the cliché phrase “the show must go on.” Last-minute replacements are usually actors who have previously played in the show—not those coordinating the production from backstage. “I’ve watched the show a lot,” McGlinchey shares. “I knew [the track] because Molly Brown is always the part I’d watch. It’s the part I would say, ‘If I could be in the show, I would play her.'”
Did her familiarity with the show after seeing it countless times prepare her to step onstage? The actor asked herself the same question; it was one that got stuck in her head as she rehearsed. Blue saw McGlinchey was nervous, and slightly spiraling, and took her aside: “He could see I was getting in my head a little bit, and said to me, ‘Don’t tell yourself the story that you don’t know this. I know you know this. Go with your instincts,’” the COVID-officer-turned-actor shares. That was all the encouragement she needed.
In the whirlwind rehearsals before her performance, McGlinchey focused on remembering what she had seen previous Molly Browns Kathy Deitch and Ryann Redmond do. “This wasn't a time for me to try and make this part my own,” she says. “There are a few longer technical lines because Molly Brown is a bit of a know-it-all. Just before those scenes, I was literally at the side of the stage repeating two specific lines over and over again, just trying to get them in my body.”
Without time to rehearse some of the harmony lines in the songs, the actor did her best. In the show, Molly Brown’s big number is “Tell Him,” a song where Molly encourages Rose to tell Jack how she truly feels. McGlinchey only had one problem: “I don’t think I know the words.” She surprised herself, however, knowing the lyrics and melodies to the songs better than she thought she did.
Though the hours before the performance were spent rehearsing what she would be doing onstage, the biggest challenge waited for McGlinchey offstage. As the show unfurled, McGlinchey was constantly asking herself, “Where am I supposed to be now?” Thankfully, she had help from the cast and crew. With the show’s mantra “shove with love,” the crew firmly (but nicely) made sure that McGlinchey knew where she needed to be. “One of our production assistants, [desk technician] William Burton, followed me around with a script,” McGlinchey chuckles as she remembers.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, she remembers little of being under the lights. “It was all such a blur, because all I could think about was, ‘Let me just get through this next part,’" she recalls, “I tried to enjoy the moments that I could.” One thing she was very conscious of the entire time was where her parents sat in the audience—she made sure not to look in their direction. It may have been for the best: “My mom just cried the whole time,” McGlinchey says with a laugh.
“The biggest thing that everyone cannot get over is that my parents were here. There’s just not a world where that makes sense,” McGlinchey says with disbelief still evident in her own voice. “My parents, they're not big theatre people. I would never have been able to explain the gravity or how incredible the show is without them being there.”
That call came at the perfect time, the culmination of several circumstances that seem impossible to ever occur in conjunction together ever again. That doesn’t stop McGlinchey from adding acting and singing to her list of duties as Titanique’s COVID officer: “I hope that it happens again sometime.”
Below, watch the cast of Titanique perform "Tell Him" from the show.