If you're a theater geek, the name Martin Moran is recognizable for a number of reasons. You might have seen him singing "Waitin' for the Light to Shine" in the original production of Big River. You could remember him from his heartfelt turn as telegraph operator Harold Bride in Titanic. Or perhaps you recall his daffy comic performance as Brave Sir Robin in Monty Python's Spamalot.
Or, you know him from an acclaimed pair of solo shows he wrote and appeared in: 2004's Drama Desk Award-nominated The Tricky Part and 2013's Lucille Lortel Award-winning All the Rage. The former, which was later turned into a memoir, is the autobiographical story of coming to terms with sexual abuse he suffered as a child at the hands of a counselor at a Catholic boys' camp. The latter was crafted in response to the question of why he wasn't angrier about what had happened to him.
But if you're not a theater geek, now's the time to learn the name Martin Moran because, for the first time, these affecting solo dramas are being paired together, under the title A Map of the Soul, at New Jersey's Two River Theater Company. In the midst of technical rehearsals, TheaterMania chatted with Moran about this production, and how gratifying it is to get to sing and dance in big musicals alongside performing in these affecting solo dramas.
This is the first time you're pairing The Tricky Part and All the Rage.
Yeah. It's really exciting, but [now] I thought, Whose idea was it to do two shows at once? It's like…Ahhhhhhh.
Tell me about the genesis of the pairing.
The idea started to bubble up when All the Rage was performing in New York. It was important for me that both pieces absolutely are separate entities and are performable completely on their own. But then it became clear that there was a way in which some of the essential inquiries rising up in All the Rage are also at the core of The Tricky Part. That All the Rage, in a sense, was the next chapter, a wider look at some of the same ideas, more global. It began to be fascinating. One day, I was talking with the associate artistic director at Two River, and also [artistic director] John Dias and Seth Barrish, the director [of the plays] — and lo and behold. I didn't know if anyone logistically would take it up. My hope is to also do it in New York next year.
Am I right in thinking that John Dias helped in the development of The Tricky Part?
You are right. He was a dramaturg [on The Tricky Part]. I did a workshop for a while at the Long Wharf. John was a friend and he informally dramaturged some of Tricky Part. I did the earliest readings of the precursors to All the Rage at Two River, as much as two and a half years ago.
What do you prefer: performing a solo show or appearing in a big splashy musical?
I have to honestly say, and not to equivocate, but each answers a particular craving. I adore being with a company, and I often feel the joy of stepping into other creators' material, from a writing and music standpoint. It's challenging and exciting to be in a large show. I will say that the depth of the challenge of a solo work is both an incredible blessing and… terribly difficult and sometimes, in equal measure, deeply gratifying. A solo work is married with me as a writer, exploring human questions that are deep and dear to me. The opportunity to truly answer that artistic call is a tremendous sense of fulfillment. I think, in a sense, it's the deepest kind of fulfillment I've known. Though when I stood center stage in Big River or Titanic…There's nothing like being in a big old Broadway show. It's just fabulous.
Is it lonely to be the only performer?
It is lonely, sometimes. Especially when you think it's not working and you can't make goo-goo eyes at somebody and go "Oh my God, are we tanking?" There's no one to turn to. I will say that I spent a great deal of time touring The Tricky Part, and it [was] very challenging and difficult. Right at the tail end, I booked Spamalot, to replace David Hyde Pierce. And I cannot tell you how much fun it was to step into the large company, with the big orchestra, and the crazy wig. What I felt so lucky about was having both.
I know a lot of people who've mentioned that they haven't stopped thinking about The Tricky Part, even years and years after seeing it. What kind of comments do you get from your audiences?
I'm constantly amazed that people say it's lived with them. The interesting thing is that it isn't specific to the issue of abuse. This is what I always try to emphasize: a story is about something, but it really is about something else. The Tricky Part follows a narrative of a Catholic kid's struggle with understanding having been sexually abused, but really what it's looking at is the complexity of being human, and how we accept who we are, and how we let go of the past. Deeply human, universal questions. Hearing the play tends to open people up. The experiences that the people have of "how you shift your view of the past" or "how you make peace with the past" are deeply personal. The Tricky Part seems to elicit deep responses to those questions about one's life.
In All the Rage, you examine where anger and compassion belong in a person's life. What have you learned?
It's the endless complexity, because there's a way in which the fire of anger can make things happen in the world...I think often of Larry Kramer saying "Come on, ladies and gentlemen: It's a f**king plague." But that fire [of anger] can consume everything in its sight if it's not [harnessed]…I think where it fits in is as a fluid companion to reason and compassion. Meaning that at any given moment, things shift. It's just moment by moment of being in the present and trying to be aware. It's so hard [to] stay awake and aware to compassion at any given moment.