Galveston-born Playwright Takes Stage at The Alley

World-premiere of BOI playwright Molly Beach Murphy’s musical Cowboy Bob runs March 3-26

By Kathleen Maca

Placeholder image“If you had told the 12-year-old me when I was attending a production of A Christmas Carol at The Alley Theatre in Houston that one day one of my own musicals would be performed there, I would not have believed you,” smiles playwright Molly Beach Murphy. Sitting inside MOD Coffeehouse, the talented BOI (“born on the island”) shares her excitement about the upcoming production of the musical Cowboy Bob, which she created with collaborators Jeanna Phillips and Annie Tippe.

“I was obsessed with theater at an early age, and there were a lot of performing arts on the Island like the outdoor musicals out on the west end, a children’s performing school here called Broadway Bound, shows at The Grand Opera House, and then the ETC Theatre that started when I was in high school,” she said.

Not content to sit in the audience and enjoy the productions, she became active in the Ball High School theatre program and community theatre.

“I was in a production of Steel Magnolias when I was about 16 years old, and a production of Sweet Charity. I got bit by the theatre bug really early.”

Her hard work earned a scholarship to Southern Methodist University, where she earned a degree in the theatre program.

“Every summer during college, I would come home and work as a cocktail waitress at H2O (at the San Luis Hotel). I saved up all that money and came home for a summer after college to earn a bit more. Then I sold my car and moved to New York City where I worked in bars and did temp (temporary) work in the city for years, all while pursuing a theatre career.”

Her initial goal was to be a director, and while she was pursuing it, she had the opportunity to assist several directors on and off Broadway. “Some were people I had read about in my theatre history books whom I really admired.”

She also did work for two renowned playwrights: John Guare, author of Six Degrees of Separation, and Pulitzer Prize-winner Susan-Lori Parks. “I did research and computer work for them, and that’s what got me interested in writing.” “I met my collaborators in New York, and we started writing musicals. We’ve had lots of plays produced in New York City, but they were downtown theaters that were smaller than this coffee shop (referring to MOD). I feel like we got lucky in New York when we were writing our first shows because we found these tiny theaters that would give us the space for a week to do whatever we wanted,” she said.

Though the trio is continually making theatre, The Alley production is their first large-scale production. “It’s considered a pre-Broadway run. The theatre is really big - over 770 seats,” she shares incredulously.

“When The Alley got a new artistic director, they started looking for artists who had a connection to the area, and they also had a commitment to doing new musicals, so it was a good fit. They found me through the New York City theatre community.”

Placeholder image“About five or six years ago we (Murphy, Phillips and Tippe), started developing a relationship with The Alley, and I would send them various pieces of my writing. They really liked this musical, called Cowboy Bob, and we were off and running! We started rehearsals in February,” Murphy said.

Murphy describes herself as both “excited and nervous” about the show. “It’s the first full production I’ve had outside of New York.”

She and her collaborators attended the rehearsals to make any changes or adjustments as necessary.

“The bulk of my work has been done over the last six years that we’ve been working on the piece. I wrote the story and everything that’s spoken, and my collaborator Jeanna wrote most of the lyrics. I wrote some of the lyrics, but she’s done the majority. At that point, there were two writers working together. But once we got into production, Jeanna had the bulk of the work because there are performers, and the music that she’s written is being orchestrated for a six-piece band. On my end of things, I’ll be doing some rewrites.”

“Certainly, it will be our first time watching the play move in 3D so there will be things we want to change to make things work better. There’s also a director who will stage it, a scenic designer, costume designer, lighting designer, sound designer - they all have contributions to make,” she said.

“When you’re writing a play, you’re not actually writing for it to be read, you’re writing for it to be seen. So, to actually see it performed is the best information you could ever have. It’s like trying to make a painting, but all you can do is describe what the painting looks like. The process of production is the only way you actually get to look at the painting, to see if anything needs to be changed.”

Placeholder imageMurphy shares that the most exciting part of the process for her will be when people are able to watch a performance and see if it holds meaning for them.

The playwright uses her background as a Texan in her work, and her Galveston roots run deep. She, her father and even her grandmother were all born on the island, and her great-grandfather arrived on the island from Italy with his parents in 1910.

“All of my writing is set in Texas. My plays are mostly set in Galveston. I’m hugely influenced by my family here, my life experiences here - Galveston just kind of IS what my writing is. I don’t think I’m a writer without Galveston or Texas.”

“Cowboy Bob takes place mostly in Dallas, and it’s based off a news story that I found and I really fell in love with. It was the story about a woman, Peggy Jo Tallas, who robbed banks dressed as a man for many years without being caught. The FBI thought they were looking for a man, so they named this bank robber Cowboy Bob. The musical is not a biography of her, but it’s a fictional take on her and the people around her who didn’t know she was doing this. The play uses the language of Texas tall tales,” said Murphy.

“The cast includes about ten actors - about half are from the Houston community and half from New York. The auditioning process in New York was really humbling to see Broadway actors come in to audition for the show.”

The leading role in the production is being performed by Jackie Burns, an actress and singer best known for holding the title of Broadway’s longest running Elfaba in the production Wicked.

“She’s really wonderful,” enthuses Murphy. About having such a well-known talent performing her musical she laughs, “I kind of can’t believe it.”

The musical also provided the opportunity to visit with family and friends during her stay for work.

“Spending extended time with my family has been amazing as well as the time to participate in the community, and to be reminded what a thriving artistic community Galveston has with people making art, writing, and performing. There’s so much to learn from the artists here. There’s always been room to pursue whatever you’re interested in on the island. There’s art and music everywhere here,” she says wistfully. “I’m very lucky to have grown up in Galveston.”

Performances of the world-premiere musical Cowboy Bob can be seen March 3-26 at the Alley Theatre in Houston. For ticket information, visit