Now You Know: What Ann Morrison's Been Up to Since 'Merrily'
"Where the hell have you been?" Ann Morrison recalls Harold Prince bellowing at her at the Children and Art benefit concert staged for Stephen Sondheim's 75th birthday in March 2005. Twenty-four years earlier, Prince had directed Morrison in Sondheim's Merrily We Roll Along, one of the most adored flops Broadway has ever known.
Since Merrily closed, after 16 performances, on Thanksgiving weekend 1981, Morrison has been on many a musical buff's phonograph (then their CD player, then their iPod)—the original cast recording helped make Merrily a legend—but not back on a Broadway stage. Until this spring, when she quietly turned up in the ensemble of the Kurt Weill/Lotte Lenya bio-musical LoveMusik, directed by Prince.
Now, after being off the New York boards for two decades, she's appearing in her second show this year. Morrison has a dual role in Bernice Bobs Her Mullet, an updating of the F. Scott Fitzgerald story Bernice Bobs Her Hair, that runs September 19-30 at the New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF). Right after that, she's slated to perform October 1 at the Cherry Lane Theatre's annual gala (honoring Hal Prince), where she'll probably sing "Old Friends" from Merrily. And there may be yet another appearance before the year's out, if the Vineyard Theatre goes ahead with plans for a concert performance of Goblin Market, the Polly Pen musical Vineyard produced in 1985.
Goblin Market, which transferred to the Circle in the Square Downtown in 1986, was Morrison's last show in New York before LoveMusik. In 1987, with a Drama Desk Award nomination for Goblin and a Theatre World Award for Merrily behind her, she left the city and moved to Los Angeles. But a few years later, following her divorce, she resettled in Sarasota, Florida, where her retired parents were living. She performed in a lot of regional theater (for details, click here) and then a few years ago, when her son left for college, found herself free to move back to New York—or at least make extended visits to scope out work possibilities.
As familiar as Morrison's plaintive strains of "Like It Was" and "Not a Day Goes By" may be to fans of the Merrily score, they might have a hard time recognizing her today as the woman who played Mary Flynn. For one thing, the petite Morrison long ago shed the pounds that were written into the Merrily script as Mary's weight problems. And while Mary was bitter and sardonic (due largely to her unrequited love for best friend Frank), Morrison is all about acceptance, optimism and healing—and never letting setbacks get the best of you. She's even made a career out of using her craft to help those who are suffering or struggling.
What was your reply when asked "Where the hell have you been?"
I told him I had created this one-woman show based on Celtic mythology and storytelling called Discourse of a Maid [which she's performed in Florida and at various colleges around the country]. And Annie's Celtic Kitchen, which is actually designed to go into people's home. I'm your seannachie for the night. Seannachie is a storyteller. I tell stories and sing songs and tell proverbs, and the foods you're eating are from my Celtic folklore cookbook. And Hal had the biggest smile on his face, and he said, "I really want to get you back here in New York to do a show." And I said: "Sweetpea, I would love to, but I'm not going to come back to New York to sit around and wait for you guys to call me up." He said he had this project called LoveMusik. And then he called me about three weeks later and said, "You know, I think I'm an idiot. I just looked at the Sondheim videotape and I said, 'Oh, my God. You're Lotte Lenya.' Would you be willing to do the reading?" That was great!
It was the song "Old Friends" that reconnected us [her and Prince]. My father had just passed away, about two years ago, and I had decided to quit the theater. I had to go home and take care of my mother. I took everything out of New York and moved back down there. But I got a call from Lonny Price to come up and do the Stephen Sondheim 75th birthday celebration. They wanted the three of us [her, Price and Jim Walton] to do "Old Friends." And Hal introduced us [to the audience].
What was it like coming back to Broadway after 25 years?
Isn't it a riot? Well, I told the universe—and the universe finds me funny and teases me all the time—that I knew I needed to come back to New York and it would be good to come back to Broadway and get some healing done. 'Cause I think like that. There are aspects that I had left here unresolved. Have I matured in a different way? I would love to have a different experience with Broadway.
[After] I reconnected with Hal Prince and started doing readings for LoveMusik…it looked like I was going to be doing Lenya. But they started to get nervous that nobody knew who Lotte Lenya was anymore, so they figured they needed someone with Tony Awards [to star in the role]. I was fine about that, actually. I thought: Good, I am going to have a different experience, and that's what I'm looking for. And I got to be a part of the ensemble and had a ball. I had so much fun because there was no pressure on my shoulders like there was before [when she was a lead in Merrily We Roll Along]. And then I got to be the hero—because I went on for Donna Murphy when she got sick [right after opening]. I had so much fun…I remember laughing when I got off the stage, because it was like a fairy tale come true.
Does New York feel different to you?
I'm a little saddened by my theatrical community. Hal and I were talking about this not too long ago: "When did arty become a dirty word?" I know they're dealing with lots and lots of money, so everything's safe, everything is from a movie right now. There are originals—Spring Awakening, In the Heights. That's great. Take some more risks.
Did Merrily leave you more in a good place or more in a bad place?
That's a good question. Yes, and yes. I don't think it hurt my career. This is bizarre: That was years ago, it was a Broadway flop, but I'm a cult star. And there are people who want me to sign their albums and [they tell me] "Every time I hear it…oh, my God!…[singing] 'Here's to us…!'" People go crazy. So that reality is there. But we were also wounded, because for years the history books said that the problem with the show was the cast. And we believed it. That hurt. There were a lot of things that were a problem: The book was not strong, a lot of it was ahead of its time—I think we were making fun of yuppies before yuppies knew they were yuppies.
I think when we did the reunion concert at LaGuardia High School [in September 2002], that was a shamanic experience for me—"shaman" meaning healer—because I really learned that in one lifetime you can completely change the history. Twenty-one years before that, I was watching people walk up the aisles when I sang; 21 years later, they're standing on their feet like they're at a rock concert. Twenty-one years before, I was making my Broadway debut in a sweatshirt saying EST PA—which really was BEST PAL, but I was so busty, no one could see it; 21 years later, I was in a svelte, beautiful evening gown. Twenty-one years before, we saw Stephen Sondheim and Hal Prince break up their working relationship; 21 years later, I watched them hug on stage and talk about their next project together. So it was massively healing on so many levels. And it dispersed a tremendous amount of energy—it made everybody free again. Even Hal said, "I realize now where the problems were." It was very healing for Hal and very healing for Steve, too. So what a lovely thing to happen.
Have you seen productions of Merrily over the years?
I'm invited all the time to people's productions. Yeah, I have gone [to some]. I might go down to Washington to see the one they're doing at Signature.
I personally don't care for the changes [to book and score that were made for revivals]. I don't think they necessarily improve the piece. I disagree with Stephen Sondheim: I think "The Hills of Tomorrow" is beautiful and it belongs in the show. I think he felt that only young people could pull it off, but when we did the concert, we proved that that's not true.
Do you listen to the cast album?
For years I could not; it was so painful. We recorded the album the day after we closed. I think one of the reasons that album is so popular and so magnificent is you can hear the pain and the sadness. You can really feel the emotion that is there. Now I can listen to it, with a tremendous amount of heart around it. The wounding's gone.
Have you stayed in touch with the Merrily cast?
Pretty much all of them. Lonny, Jim, Jason Alexander, Terry [Finn]…David Shine, who was one of the chorus members…Maryrose Wood, a great bud. We were writing a book about it at one point.
Do you ever, while walking down the street, think: "Hey, I created one of the great female roles in musical theater; why don't these people know who I am?!"
That's not why I got into the business. I don't really have the ego for this business. I don't fight and claw for it. I think it [theater] is a healing experience. It's healing for the audience. I go to the theater and I want to feel differently, I want to think differently, I want to go home and see if I can be a better person because of what I saw. And the same thing when I'm on stage. I'm hoping I'm the shaman for you for the evening. I'm not responsible for what you do think or feel, but that you do think or feel. I'm a little bit of an odd duck that way. It's probably why I'm not a big star on Broadway right now.
Did you have trouble getting cast after Merrily?
I was auditioning for shows and I realized they were going to people who had television credits. And so I thought I guess I better get television credits. And this is a person who is an advocate against television. I just don't watch it. I own one because I'm a film fanatic and I have to put my DVDs in.
Now, Merrily's failure was not the first traumatic incident you had in your life.
I was in a car accident when I was 13 years old. I was in the front seat…it was a head-on collision…I hit the dashboard and the windshield and then fell back and fell under the well and everything crushed above me. I had to have the jaws of life get me out. It was a profound experience. I wouldn't trade it for anything in the world, the kind of growing-up I went through. I died—I went through the white light. You're never the same after that.
I was very lonely after, because first of all I felt like Frankenstein with this huge scar [on her chin, which is now virtually unnoticeable]. It took several operations to get it down to something small. I had no teeth. They were all smashed out, top and bottom. So it was devastating when you're 13 and you hate yourself anyway.
What effect did the accident have on you once you'd grown up?
I used to have a series of out-of-body experiences—very profound. Then it stopped for a while, and it came back up again during Merrily. I got bopped over the head with peacock feathers when Swami Mukananda was in town and somebody brought me to see him. They bopped me and next thing I know, I was floating up on the ceiling. I was like, I remember this! I remember floating down to visit my body in the hospital.
When I was 20, a director said, "Where'd you get that scar on your chin?" I had forgotten about it at that point. He said, "Well, it's too bad you can't do television and you can't do film." So I never pursued it. Isn't that a shame? I just recently did a short film, and when I looked at it, I said, "Oh. My God. What a mistake I've made." Because I'm very photogenic. All those years I had no idea, because I listened to that asshole.
The kind of brain injury I had, I go to states of euphoria when I feel, so I've become an emotional-release healer with people and try to help them have the same euphoric experience I have and to love themselves through their feeling body. I started working with the terminally ill in Los Angeles. I felt like I wasn't doing the things that I wanted to do in L.A. Blake [her then husband] and I had decided to go out there and see if we could get work in television, but people kept putting me in their waiver productions of musical theater. I found myself pulling away from that, because I found this intense passion for working with the terminally ill. It's terrifying for some people, but not for me.
I would describe it as I'm your "grail maiden." I facilitate a safe place for you. I open up a space for you to feel everything that you need to feel. And I'm so empathic now that I can pick up what you may not be directly aware that you're feeling, and I can move into it. I like to put it into sound—a verbal dialogue—because when you're up in your head about it, you're not really feeling it. So I'm trying to get you to really get into owning the feeling, and if you can vibrate it in sound, by whimpering, crying, growling, whatever it is, you get connected. I help you bring some loving light and some loving acceptance for yourself in places you have not been able to touch. And then we can have a dialogue about it, take it to another level if that's where you want to go. It started with the terminally ill, but now it could be anybody. I have a lot of theater students, because they want to connect. When you're in theater, you have to have all your feelings in your fingertips and your vocabulary has to be very strong. So I can help facilitate really feeling, so you're not doing Method stuff where you have to recall [experiences].
What can you tell us about Bernice Bobs Her Mullet?
It's a sweet show—sweet and cute. It's a wonderful group of young people. I'm finally the old broad of the company. I wondered when that would happen!
How did you get involved in this show?
Our director, Andy Sandberg, was one of Hal Prince's assistants when we were doing LoveMusik. I thought he was a very talented young man, and I happened to mention to him, "Someday, we should work together." And he said, "How about now?" So he sent me a script, and the casting director gave me a call. I wanted to come back to New York and do some auditioning and reconnect with some seeds that I had planted. I have a theater company in Sarasota, which I'm the cofounder of—actually, two companies that deal with people with developmental disabilities. I want to see it we could get something started up here as well, so I was going to be here anyway.
Tell us about these companies of yours.
There's Kaleidoscope, which is designed for the person with developmental disabilities, like Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, brain injuries. It's musical theater, where they get to perform—music and movement. The other company is called Random Play, which is an offshoot of that, where they get to write their own material…a musical, a play, an opera. They have artistic control over their work and we have professional actors perform it. Kaleidoscope we've had going since '94, and Random Play is only a couple of years old. Now there's a theater company here [in New York] that's interested in maybe developing the program. It may take a year before we do that.
What motivated you to found a theater with that type of mission?
My 5-year-old—he's 22 now, but when he was 5, he said, "Mommy, why is it when people say what they're going to be when they grow up, they never are?" And that changed my whole life. I felt like I had done my entire career for everybody else. Because they had said, "You're talented, you can do this, da-da-da…" But what I really wanted to do was create theater that had a purpose. That's what felt good to me.
How did you choose the developmentally disabled as the population to work with?
I didn't. I knew it had to be a population in need. I didn't know who my population was going to be that I would be working with, but I knew it was going to be profound. It was a particular funding that happened down in Florida, the Selby Foundation, that was trying to link arts and human resource organizations. They suggested that we give these people a try, and we instantly all fell in love with each other. Maybe it's because I've had a brain injury myself, and I'm dyslexic, that I'm fascinated by how the brain works and when certain areas of the brain are shut down for specific reasons, how does that heighten your creativity.
Now I feel like I can get a master's degree, or an honorary doctor degree, I've just learned so much about it. Very quickly I discovered I have a tremendous amount of patience for this. And a tremendous amount of love. And I want to learn! So they've taught me that you always come from the power of your heart and you just keep it simple, and if it doesn't make you happy, then don't do it. And I've just loved it.
What about your Celtic heritage and the role that's played in your life and work?
My mom and dad are both Scots. When I went to the Isle of Skye recently, I was taking my mom and dad's ashes. I buried them in a faerie glen. My mother passed away just before I came up to do LoveMusik. A death walker is another thing I like to do. I walk you through the process of your death. And I got the honor of death-walking my mother, my father and my brother [who died seven years ago at 54].
I'm a Druid. When I was in England [in 1984, starring in the West End musical Peg], I went out to Glastonbury and I met a local Druid, and he was telling me that he was picking up on a shamanic level that I am the archetype of the grail maiden. When I'm talking grail, I'm talking pre-Christian, like one of the nine goddesses around the cauldron of the powers of life. The fairy godmother comes from that tradition. Ancient, ancient, ancient. [He said:] "You are that archetype. You are the vessel. You hold grace." Which is funny, because my mom and dad named me Ann and that means full of grace. You need to take that seriously, he said to me. And I got into Druidry. My mom introduced me to Joseph Campbell and I was kind of creating my own myths. When I was little, I used to see the otherworld. In the Celtic tradition, it's sort of faeries—the people of the sidhe, the people of the hills.
When I was in L.A., I was working with a man who had AIDS and he wanted to know what my spiritual connection was. I was thinking I should be more nature-based and interested in the Native American tradition. "But," he said, "you're a Celt. What about the Druids?" And I went, "I'm supposed to be a grail maiden." He made me create altars for him. I was working with this man who was dying of cancer, with another woman who was a hands-on healer, and he said I had this green light emanating from my hands, which meant I was a person of the heart.
If you know anything about Druidry, there are three rays of the Awen, which is inspiration. And one of the rays goes to the bards, who express truth through poetry and song. They were powerful healers through that. So I wanted to create a theater piece that way. For fun, I give the audience a crash course in Druidry. The whole evening is: I'm telling a Celtic myth from the past; I tell a personal story, which is stimulated by that Celtic myth; and I do about three cycles of that, since everything's in threes for the Celts. There's singing. My opening number, my son and I wrote together, because he's a wonderful musician. Dan Kutner, who's in Hal Prince's office, was so intrigued by [her one-woman show], he was trying to get me to do a venue here in New York. I'd love to.
What else do you want to accomplish in your career?
I like to get up in the morning and see what surprises the universe puts in front of me. It keeps a merry heart that way. If you angst about too much that's going on—I've been in a lot of angst recently, because I think: "I've got to get a job!" But it could be doing anything as long as it makes me happy.
Photos of Morrison, from top: at a NYMF rehearsal studio earlier this month; as Mary in 1981's Merrily We Roll Along; in LoveMusik, top right, with Rachel Ulanet, David Pittu and Judith Blazer; with Garrett Long (bottom) in Bernice Bobs Her Mullet. [Photo credits: Adrienne Onofri; Martha Swope; Carol Rosegg (2)]