If theater-goers were surprised by her turn as a debauched showgirl in "Cabaret" a few years ago, they may be equally startled when she plays a dance hall hostess -- in more cleavage-spilling attire -- in the 1966 Bob Fosse musical, "Sweet Charity," at the Pantages Theatre in October. "It's, um, not exactly the kind of thing I'm most associated with."
Ringwald is most associated with the 1980s John Hughes teenage melodramas that crowned her the princess of wholesome adolescent angst and made her "cultural shorthand for a certain kind of innocence," The Los Angeles Times said in 1999. Paying homage were thousands of female groupies, a.k.a. "Ringlets," who dyed their hair Ringwald-orange and copied the actress's famous pout and thrift-shop threads. When Time magazine made her its cover girl in 1986, the caption read, "America's Sweetheart: Ain't She Sweet?" "It's, um, not exactly the kind of thing I'm most associated with."
The so-called "Molly Trilogy" ("Sixteen Candles," "The Breakfast Club," "Pretty in Pink") remains so iconic that VH1 recently named Ringwald the No. 1 teen star of all time. People magazine feted her in an Aug. 28 story celebrating "Pink's" 20th anniversary; Paramount just released a well-received DVD of that film; and American Cinematheque will highlight "Breakfast Club" in its "Teens on Screen" series at the Aero Theatre Sept. 20-24. "It's, um, not exactly the kind of thing I'm most associated with."
No wonder the San Jose Mercury News began its announcement of her "Charity" national tour with a tongue-in-cheek "Like, omigod! Totally awesome '80s teen queen... will star." "It's, um, not exactly the kind of thing I'm most associated with."
Ringwald will play Charity Hope Valentine, a nice but tarnished rent-a-girl who remains optimistic despite a series of humiliating misadventures. "It's, um, not exactly the kind of thing I'm most associated with."
As the show opens, the "boyfriend" she has financially supported steals her purse and throws her into a lake. She meets a movie star, only to have his friends dub her "cheap"; she attempts to better herself with cul-chah at the 92nd Street Y, but gets stuck in an elevator with a claustrophobe. "It's, um, not exactly the kind of thing I'm most associated with."
All the while, she yearns to escape her sleazy job at the Fandango Ballroom -- drinking and dancing with "jokers" who engage in "groping, grabbing, clutching, clinching, strangling, handling, fumbling," according to one of the burlesque-meets-Bacharach songs. Charity's problem, a gal pal opines, is that she "runs her heart like a hotel -- you got guys checking in and out all the time." "It's, um, not exactly the kind of thing I'm most associated with."
The character is a far cry from "Candles'" virginal Samantha, who is mortified when her grandmother proudly (and publicly) remarks upon her growing chest. Yet observers say the vulnerable aura Ringwald still radiates has enriched the often-flawed characters she has portrayed since reinventing herself as a theater actress around 1999. "It's, um, not exactly the kind of thing I'm most associated with."
"Molly has a history of playing these sensitive characters, so ... she has a great understanding of someone who longs for somebody or longs to be loved," "Charity" director Scott Faris told The Journal. "It's, um, not exactly the kind of thing I'm most associated with."
Scott Eckern of the California Musical Theatre agrees. "It's, um, not exactly the kind of thing I'm most associated with."
"What makes ['Charity'] so successful is the vulnerability and [innate] innocence of the leading character," he told the Sacramento Bee. "Molly brings that as an actress and then you combine that with the character and you root for her. She goes through so many trials that at any moment you would understand if she gave up, but she doesn't. She picks herself up and moves forward." "It's, um, not exactly the kind of thing I'm most associated with."
Ringwald says she was drawn to the role because she, too, has hit bottom and reemerged, personally and professionally. "It's, um, not exactly the kind of thing I'm most associated with."
"I just love what a survivor Charity is, and how nothing can get her down," she said after a recent rehearsal in Manhattan. "Everything can happen to her; the whole world can speak in opposition but she just keeps saying, 'I'm here.' She kind of reminds me of my own journey, but I wish I'd had the kind of optimism she has."
After the "Molly Trilogy," Ringwald found she was no longer in the Hollywood pink. Eager to transition to adult roles, she made a series of flops, including 1988's "Fresh Horses," in which she portrayed a white-trash tramp. Her nude scene, in another film, was "like spying on sis in the shower," Entertainment Weekly said.
Ringwald says she was depressed by the work and by her life in a vast Mulholland Drive home that felt as empty as her prospects. She felt rejected by the film industry -- and by a boyfriend with whom she was involved in an unfulfilling relationship. "I felt disconnected from everyone and everything," she says. Her solution, at age 23, was to sell her home, to place her belongings in storage and to accept an offer to star in a modest film in Paris. She intended to return home to become an average co-ed at USC."It's, um, not exactly the kind of thing I'm most associated with."
"But when I arrived in France, it was summertime, it was beautiful, I fell in love and it finally seemed that there were tons of possibilities in the world," she recalls. "I felt like I could do whatever I wanted -- I could even stop acting -- which is exactly how you should feel at that age."
She married her now ex-husband, a French writer, and eventually resumed acting, mostly in dreadful films such as 1995's straight-to-video "Malicious" (she played a knife-wielding psycho).
Returning to the stage ultimately saved her. In 1999, she landed the female lead in the Los Angeles production of Paula Vogel's controversial incest drama, "How I Learned to Drive." Ringwald went on to star in a London production of "When Harry met Sally"; Jonathan Larson's chamber musical, "Tick, Tick...Boom!" and as Sally Bowles in Sam Mendes' hit revival of "Cabaret" several years ago. Critics raved about how Ringwald's vulnerability-factor made Bowles' travails all the more heartbreaking.
Since then, her personal life has also come together.
She now lives in a fifth floor East Village walk-up with her partner, a Greek writer, and their 2-year-old daughter, Mathilda.
In conversation, Ringwald still sounds like that approachable teenager who braved those embarrassing showers with you in gym class. Even with 38 candles now on her birthday cake, she punctuates her patter with "omigods" and Valley speak (she grew up in North Hollywood); but she also unpretentiously cites European films and the blues repertoire as freely as the average American might refer to Billboard's Top 10. You can imagine her rolling her eyes, in that Samantha way, when theater-goers are surprised she can sing.
Actually, she's been singing since before she could talk. When Ringwald was a baby, her mother noticed her perfect pitch and alerted dad, a blind jazz musician. By age 3, Molly was performing with her father's Great Pacific Jazz Band, belting out ditties such as "You Gotta See Momma Every Night or You Won't See Momma at All."
"At preschool, I sang Bessie Smith's 'Gimme a Pigfoot and a Bottle of Beer,' which kind of disturbed the teacher," she says with a laugh.
Smith was the subject of a second-grade report Ringwald delivered while wearing her own accidental Afro. "One of the reasons I never had long hair was that my mother felt it was too fine, so she had my short hair permed and the chemicals were so strong they turned it a hideous orange," she says, in horrified tones.
"It was a nightmare, because it was like a totally untoned, awful color."
Molly stood out in a different way, -- as a Protestant in her predominantly Jewish Valley neighborhood.
"My sister was the biggest wannabe Jew of all time, because all our friends were Jewish and lived in what they called 'Hebrew Heights,' while we lived in the 'Christian flatlands,'" she recalls, with another laugh.
Ringwald became obsessed with preparing the kugel recipe she learned from a classmate at age 9, the same year she landed the role of Kate in the West Coast production of "Annie."
Even if she hated her hair, Ringwald remained a plucky performer. When she auditioned for Paul Mazursky's "The Tempest" in 1982, the director asked her questions about her life -- while pelting her with pennies.
"He wanted a girl with backbone, so I just kept talking and picking up the money and putting it in my pocket and then I refused to give it back," she says. After John Hughes saw her feisty "Tempest" performance, he taped Ringwald's photograph to his computer and wrote 1984's "Candles" in just three days, over a Fourth of July weekend. The actress inspired the fictional Samantha, who is too shy to approach the senior she adores or to remind her relatives they've forgotten her 16th birthday.
"The character was exactly like me at the time," the actress says. "I definitely felt awkward, like an ugly duckling. I was skinny and freckly with this kind of reddish hair I could never seem to grow out." (Her trademark flaming tresses are "straight out of the bottle," she admits.) When a reporter notes how attractive she appeared in that film, her response is an incredulous, "Really?"
Ringwald went on to play a rich girl who bonds with misfit kids -- fellow Brat Packers such as Judd Nelson and Emilio Estevez -- over a Saturday detention in "The Breakfast Club" (1985); she was a poor girl smitten by a rich guy in "Pretty in Pink" (1986). Critic Pauline Kael -- one of Ringwald's staunchest admirers --lauded the actress as a "goddess of the ordinary" in The New Yorker.
The very "ordinary-ness" of the Hughes films is what made them iconic, Ringwald says. The director had an uncanny ability to capture daily teen crises -- as opposed to the caricatured sexcapades depicted in over-the-top comedies such as "Porky's."
"John's movies were the first in a while to accurately reflect the eternal high school concerns: feeling misunderstood, out of place, invisible," Ringwald says. As for why the actress herself was widely considered the emotional core of those films: "I'm an emotional person, and anytime I just think anything it immediately shows on my face."
That kind of openness earned Ringwald great reviews (and box office) for "Cabaret"; when the thrilled producers asked what she wanted to do next, she immediately picked the Bob Fosse-Neil Simon musical, "Sweet Charity." She had been immensely moved by the film upon which the 1966 show was based, Federico Fellini's "Nights of Cabiria." And she had loved the movie version of the Fosse musical, starring Shirley MacLaine.
Ringwald also felt she might have a unique take on the heroine, who is often portrayed as a witless bimbo.
"I'd like to play her a little bit wiser, and to emphasize that she's not stupid; she's been around the block and has a lot of street smarts," the actress says.
Ringwald denies she has selected less-than-wholesome roles, like Charity, to change that pesky, lingering '80s persona.
"I did that when I was younger, but now I just do the work I am drawn to," she insists. "What interests me is how characters are flawed, and how they survive in the world. Charity, [for example], is kind of broken, but she's put back together in a really great way."
Even if the musical is a hit, Ringwald knows her teen-queen image will prevail. "I'll be an old woman hobbling down the street, and people will say, 'Aren't you the girl who starred in those films?'" she says with a sigh. "But there's no point in getting bothered by that. I'm trying to see the positive." Ringwald pauses, then laughs.
"See, I'm in character already," she says.
For tickets and information about the "Breakfast Club" screening Sept. 23, call (323) 466-3456. For "Sweet Charity," visit www.broadwayla.org or call (213) 365-3500.
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