Trace Adkins and Susan Sarandon play country music royalty in the new series.
Talk about starting things off with a bang: During the opening moments of Monarch, the new series about a country music dynasty premiering Sunday on Fox, country superstar Albie Roman (played, in a bold stroke of casting, by Trace Adkins) takes a weapon from the well-stocked gun cabinet of his palatial home, drives to a secluded woodland location, addresses an off-screen character — “A Roman never forgets a friend — or an enemy!” — and pulls the trigger. Blam!
And then these words appear on screen: “Three Months Earlier.”
That’s when the drama really begins.
We learn fairy quickly that Albie and his wife — Dottie Cantrell Roman (Susan Sarandon), the undisputed Queen of Country Music — are about to be celebrated at a major industry event. At a press conference, Dottie expresses mixed feelings about the honor: “A lifetime achievement? Wow! Y’all sure know how to make a girl feel special.” Playful pause. “And old.” But one of the journalists in attendance dares to darken the festive mood by raising a question about reports of Dottie’s failing health. Albie responds by borrowing a page from Will Smith’s playbook, and expresses his disapproval nonverbally.
All of this and more happens even before the butterfly-festooned opening credits of Monarch, a drama that has been aptly described as “Nashville Meets Dynasty” — or, perhaps more accurately, “Nashville Meets Succession.”
Dottie and Albie are not only country music royalty, they are founders of Monarch Entertainment, an empire complete with its very own record label. Family and professional ties bind them closely with their three children: Nicolette “Nicky” Roman (Anna Friel), their oldest child and heir to the crown, who has long nurtured dreams of her own shot at stardom; Luke Roman (Joshua Sasse), whose sensationally successful operation of Monarch Entertainment has delighted his mother but never impressed his father; and Gigi Tucker-Roman (Beth Ditto), who loves her siblings but, in a family of superstars, has always felt like a bit of an outcast — despite her incredible singing voice.
The awkward but inevitable questions arise: If and when something terrible were to remove Dottie from the equation, how would the family cope with her loss? Would there be an internecine battle for control of Monarch Entertainment? Is Nicky ready to assume the crown of country music?
And what are we to make of all those closeted skeletons broadly hinted at throughout the premiere episode?
Obviously, the people responsible for Monarch hope we’ll tune in Sunday — and continue to tune in when the series movies into its regular 9 pm ET Tuesday timeslot Sept. 20 — to learn the answers. And to find out just who was on the business end of Albie’s lethal weapon.
And, yes, to hear some great music.
Beth Ditto, Adam Anders and Melissa London Hilfers
A few months back at the ATX Television Festival in Austin, we spoke with three of the creative talents involved with Monarch: Actor Beth Ditto, executive music producer Adam Anders (Glee, Prom) and series creator/executive producer Melissa London Hilfers. They kept their cards close to their vests – extremely close, actually — but here are some highlights from our conversation. edited for brevity and clarity, and to avoid any inadvertent spilling of beans.
C&I: Looking at this from the bleachers, it would seem the first and maybe biggest challenge you faced with Monarch is creating a believable world. This is a world where you have to believe these people are not only country music artists, they’re country music superstars. These are people who would command thousands, millions of fans. The music they’re performing has got to be music that would believably attract those people.
Adam Anders: Well, you’re spot on. That was definitely what I saw when I signed on. Because we’re doing covers — some originals, but a lot of covers. OK, how do we make the audience forget that it was Garth Brooks who sang it? Or it was Dolly Parton that sang it? Or it was Hank Williams that sang it? And start believing it’s them singing it? That was the challenge. In country music, it's all about authenticity. So that was really Mission Number One. And I don’t know if there’s a way to quantify or say how you do that. I think it’s instinct when you know you’ve found it. For me, it was peeling it back and going to Nashville and cutting the songs with all those great musicians, and writing the songs with the greatest songwriters who wrote all these songs, to give us a foundation of authenticity that we can build upon.
Melissa London Hilfers: From a storytelling perspective, as a fan of country music and also of the world and lore of country music, I had a lot of fun doing a really deep dive into history and stories. And I hope we’ll have all kinds of fans. Some people that don’t know anything about country music can come in and love it. But there are definitely a lot of winks to real-life things in the story that I hope give it authenticity, and also fun.
Beth Ditto: For me, making it believable meant thinking about the nuances that Southerners have and how we are a specific kind of people. We don’t think about it, but we have our own culture, and how we have our own relationship to language and colloquialisms. And being the weird outcast Southerner that I was — that’s why I really relate to Gigi. And I grew up in my big sister’s shadow. My sister was tall and blonde and pretty and really popular, and I was none of those things. I had fun in high school and stuff like that, but I didn’t live this cheerleader life. So, I just put a lot of that experience of being this rebellious Southern kid into Gigi, because I really know who she was. When I was reading for her to audition for her, I was like, “I know this person. I know this girl because I was just like this and always just happy.” But I also had a sister who was always trying to find herself.
So I tried to put as much of that into Gigi as I could, and to bring the funny, the weird, and the cattiness that little sisters have. Like, “Oh, God. Here we go. Are you kidding me right now?” Just being a little sister. There’s a picture of me and my sister, and she was in a pageant. I’m in this homemade dress that my mom made me. And she’s got flowers and is smiling, and I’m full-on grimace. Then that sums up Gigi and Nicki to me. It all makes sense to me. I really know who she is.
Adam Anders: Beth really embodies the character. See, the first thing, I think, is to cast roles in a way that feels authentic. Then, on the music front, you have to create versions [of songs] that feel authentic to those characters, so when they sing them it, you believe it. They’re not going to sing them like the original person did. You have to adjust for that so it feels grounded to people watching.
Beth Ditto and Anna Fried
C&I: Monarch originally was supposed to premiere last January, but was pushed back to September because of COVID-related production delays. Did that actually turn out to be a blessing in disguise? Maybe a heavily disguised blessing, but a blessing nonetheless?
Melissa London Hilfers: [Laughs] Nobody wants delays. But for sure, the luxury of time and being able to launch in September, which is a really exciting time for a show to launch — those are good things. So, we embraced the positive and took advantage of the time.
Adam Anders: Absolutely. I mean, from my standpoint, I was losing my mind when we were trying to hit the first deadline. It was so much work. We’re not sleeping. We’re working seven days a week. So, I welcomed the delay because we could exhale for a minute.
Beth Ditto: Same.
Adam Anders: It was like, I’d have a week to do an episode with the music, and they’d call and say, “Okay, we need to do this song in two days.” And I would have to say, “I can’t put a band together. I can't get singers together because of COVID protocols. I’m not allowed to even book the musicians because of the unions and the rules they’ve put in place. It created these barriers that were impossible to overcome all the time. I was pulling my hair out. Or what’s left of it. Everyone had to be tested, including assistants in the studios, the studio receptionist — everybody.
Melissa London Hilfers: This show is a very big, ambitious, bold show, where there are huge production numbers. Whereas with a normal show, yes, it’s hard to shoot during COVID because you have to get however many people in a room. But we had things like — well, the scene is in an arena. They’re doing a performance in an arena. With horses. So, we needed trainers and all kinds of things like that. It just was incredibly challenging.
Trace Adkins as Albie Roman
C&I: Each time we’ve interviewed Trace Adkins, he’s always downplayed his talent as actor. Even when pros like Bruce Dern or Tim Blake Nelson have complimented his acting abilities, he continues to claim he’s only typecast in cowboy movies because he looks like he’s a tough galoot.
Beth Ditto: But he is exactly like every uncle I have. He is such just a Southerner. In fact, he’s from Louisiana and from Arkansas. We didn’t grow up that far apart from each other, and we’re the only real Southerners on the show. So there were a lot of things that I felt like I would get that not everybody else would get, but he would. We are two people that could not be more different, me and Trace. But every time he walks in the room, I’m like, “Yes!” It’s because it’s going to be hilarious. Something hilarious is going to come out of his mouth. Working with him as a mate, he’s so good at his job.
Melissa London Hilfers: You’re right. For someone who fills amphitheaters, he’s the most humble person you could ever imagine.
Beth Ditto: Sometimes.
Melissa London Hilfers: [Laughs] But the first time I met him in person — I’d done Zooms and stuff, but when we met in Atlanta — he walked into my office and he said, “Hello, darling.” I almost passed out. I mean, the man’s charm! And that voice! And the other thing is, he’s very willing to share. He’s had a very interesting life.
Beth Ditto: He’ll tell you anything.
Melissa London Hilfers: And we worked some of that stuff into storylines in a way not everybody would be cool with, and he was just down for anything.
Adam Anders: I had a different experience with Trace, though, because I worked with him in his wheelhouse that he calls his cash register. That’s what he calls it. And there’s no lack of confidence. And there shouldn't be. This guy, he’s one of the greatest voices I’ve ever worked with.
Beth Ditto: That's so true.
Adam Anders: I always look forward to working with him. It’s like, if it’s a Trace song, I can’t wait, because he brings so much authenticity and so much talent, and confidence to what he does. But that’s his wheelhouse, his singing. He’s had a long career — and it’s pretty freaking amazing that somebody at his stage would take that risk and step out into something he's not comfortable in.
Melissa London Hilfers: He didn’t need to.
Adam Anders: But, see, that proves how confident he really is. So, I call BS on his “I'm not very good.”
Melissa London Hilfers: And how ambitious he is. He's a very, very smart guy, and I think he likes to challenge himself. And I think this was a challenge. It's a major role.
C&I: So how many seasons do you have in mind? Do you have a narrative all mapped out already?
Melissa London Hilfers: We could go for a long time if I have my way.
Beth Ditto: If I have my way, I’m going to retire in it.
Melissa London Hilfers: These characters, I hope, are so interesting and so layered that you’re going to want to watch as these dynamics change and shift, and the power dynamics shift. So, several years. Decades, maybe?
Adam Anders: I did Glee for Fox, and we did 122 episodes. That was enough. I wasn’t mad when that ended, because I needed a vacation really badly by the end of that. It was brutal. But also, I think at some point a show runs its course creatively.
Melissa London Hilfers: Yes. That’s true.
Adam Anders: But I think there’s definitely several seasons of meat on this show.