Whatever happened to Ann Morrison? Fans of the original cast recording of Merrily We Roll Along have been asking that question for years. Morrison memorably created the role of Mary Flynn in the Stephen Sondheim-George Furth-Hal Prince musical, which eked out a run of only 16 performances on Broadway in 1981. Revised and re-revised by its authors, the show has since become quite beloved through professional and community theater productions throughout the U.S. and in London.
It turns out that Morrison, 46, has been living happily in Sarasota, Florida with her family for some time, and that performing is only a small part of her current lifestyle. But now -- along with co-stars Jim Walton, Lonny Price, and the rest of the original cast -- she is preparing to take part in a benefit reunion concert version of Merrily in NYC on Monday, September 30. For our TheaterMania interview, I recently spoke with her on the phone about what she's been up to.
THEATERMANIA: Ann, I'll admit that I'm totally unfamiliar with your career after Merrily.
ANN MORRISON: That's okay. I don't know why you would remember me at all unless you're a huge Sondheim fanatic who follows me wherever I go! I very specifically chose what I wanted to do with my career and my life. Merrily was a wonderful experience and it was fun to be on Broadway, but I didn't have to live in New York and continue to do that, even though the show's closing didn't seem to hurt our careers. A year later, I got a wonderful opportunity to go to London and star in a musical called Peg, based on Peg o' My Heart. While I was over there, I realized that not a lot was happening in New York at the time, and I had recently been married. We decided, "Hey, let's have a kid," because we really wanted one. So we did, and we named him Huckleberry. Huckleberry Walton. It's interesting: I married a Walton with no connection to Jim Walton from Merrily. For quite a while, people thought I had married Jim, but it wasn't him at all!
TM: Then what happened?
AM: Well, when I got done birthing that child, I thought I'd like to get back on stage. So, about five months after Huck was born, Terri Klausner and I did this little, two-woman show at the Vineyard Theater. Frank Rich went down to see it and couldn't stop writing about it [in The New York Times]. The next thing we knew, it moved to Off-Broadway -- to Circle-in-the-Square, downtown. It was called The Goblin Market and it was a wonderful, bizarre, artsty-fartsy piece. After that, I started noticing that parts I was auditioning for were going to people with television credits. Now, to know me is to know that I am really against television. I haven't seen it in years.
TM: Do you mean that you dislike it artistically?
AM: I just think it's a lot of crap. Also, energetically, it's not healthy for you. I'd been doing alternative healing work and working with terminally ill people and I was telling them to turn their TVs off to keep their energy fields in some sort of balance, but I myself was watching TV. I thought, "You hypocrite!" Anyway, there I was, seeing all of these theater jobs go to people with television credits. So my husband and I and my little kid went out to Los Angeles. I thought "Okay, I'll just get some television credits." Meanwhile, "I HATE TELEVISION" was plastered across my forehead, so I couldn't get arrested in that town. Because I'm a musical theater person, I kept doing all these waiver shows and wound up hating L.A. I was feeling miserable, my marriage seemed to be falling apart, and everything was just "blechhh." Then, when my son was about five years old, he came to me one day and asked: "Mommy, why is it when people say what they're going to be when they grow up, they never are?" And that changed my life. Because I realized I had done my entire career for everybody else. For me, it was always about being an actress, but I wanted to do theater with a purpose. Broadway is not where my passion is. So I left L.A. but I did not go back to New York. My husband and I needed to split, because we loved each other too much to stay married.
TM: Is that when you moved to Florida?
AM: Yes, I took Huck to Sarasota. My parents are here and I started working with the National Dyslexia Research Foundation, creating theater pieces and becoming involved in other projects to raise money for dyslexia research. The reason I'm passionate about that is because I am dyslexic. I remember that, during Merrily, I would not tell anybody because I was so full of shame. I was terrified, when I was being corrected in my readings, that they were going to fire me at any minute.
TM: Do you still perform in Sarasota?
AM: Yes. There's this incredible nightclub here called the Paradise Café. For about eight years, I was doing one-woman shows there -- cabaret acts. They let me do whatever I wanted and I got a paycheck. Can you imagine? I'm in the process of finishing up a new one-woman show now, and it looks like I might be touring it.
TM: How did the Merrily reunion concert come about?
AM: For years, a bunch of us have been wanting to get this together, because there's this huge cult following for the show. Recently, Lonny called me up and said, "We're finally gonna do this, baby! You've gotta come and be in it." I said, "Are you kidding? My bags are packed!" It's going to be a hoot.
TM: What are your chief memories of the show?
AM: The blocking. Because I'm dyslexic and I'm right-brained, I remember everything I did physically. I also remember every emotional aspect of the experience; you could give me a date and I could tell you how I was feeling that day. I sort of remember the dialogue of the show because I directed a production of it down here about four years ago, but that's not what my memory holds. It's the emotional stuff that's clear as a bell -- like it happened yesterday.
TM: Did you get to see Merrily when it was done as part of the Sondheim Celebration at the Kennedy Center this summer?
AM: Yes. It was delightful, because I saw it twice -- the last matinee and the last evening show. I went backstage to meet Miriam Shor, who did my part -- and who was there but Steve Sondheim! I hadn't seen him in 20 years. He went running around the room, grabbing people and saying, "I want you to meet the original Mary Flynn!" He was so sweet. I had a good time watching the show; I like a lot of the changes. There are some things that still don't work for me, but that could be a whole hour of conversation. It's an incredible score, no matter what. To this day, people ask me to sign their Merrily albums.
AM: It was just such a weird time! You know, we had to lie about our ages. The concept was that we were supposed to be between the ages of 16 and 19; I was 25 at the time. For practically all of us, it was our Broadway debut, and here we were working with musical theater gods. We thought, "They can't do anything wrong!" When the thing started to fall apart, a lot of us felt that we were at fault. We had put ourselves in the hands of these geniuses; only years later did I realize how devastating it was for them, too. When I read in one of Sondheim's books about how the show completely destroyed his relationships with some friends, I wept. Merrily was the end of an era in the theater. After that, we went through that awful phase of the non-book musicals, which lasted forever. I'm glad we're finally coming out of it now.
TM: Everyone is excited about the reunion concert. And that album is a classic.
AM: We recorded it the day after we closed. None of us could go out and get drunk after the final show because, at 8:00 the next morning, we had to be at the studio! I think one of the reasons the album is so good is that you're hearing real pain; people were going into other rooms and crying for a while, then coming back into the studio and singing. There was also physical pain, because we were vocally shot. I don't know how we got through it. It was around 3:00 in the morning when the last thing was recorded; Lonny was doing something and I waited around to listen. Then Steve came up to me and said, "Thank God you're still here. Will you try something for me? There's a line in 'Now You Know' that's been bothering me and, since we're going to put this down forever, could you just change two words in that one line?" I don't even remember what they were. I was delirious, but I said, "Sure!"
TM: That's amazing.
AM: Yes. The wording just bothered him. It wouldn't have mattered to anybody else, but it mattered to Steve. So I re-recorded that section at 3:00 in the morning and he was jumping up and down for joy. That was the last thing recorded for the album.
TM: Did you wonder, at the time, if the show would have a future?
AM: I was hoping that it would. I got mail from people saying things like, "Hi, I'm the Mary of a Frank-Mary childhood relationship. Thank you so much for being out there." Then I started to get invitations from colleges and high schools that were doing the show. I was so tickled! And people still want me talk to them about the Merrily experience.
TM: At home in Florida, do you have a full-time job in addition to your theatrical pursuits?
AM: No. I have a charmed life right now. I live in a house rent-free. I take care of my parents, I raise my kid, and I do creative stuff. One of the things I'm proudest of is that I've co-founded and created a musical theater workshop for persons with Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, and other developmental disabilities. We're getting ready to teach it to other communities in the United States.
TM: It sounds like you have no real regrets about turning away from Broadway.
AM: I'll tell you: One of my favorite lyrics in "Now You Know" is "Burn your bridges, start again, / You should burn them every now and then / Or you'll never grow." I burn bridges all the time and I continue to grow. I can't wait to see what the universe throws at me next.
[The Merrily We Roll Along reunion concert will have one performance only on Monday, September 30, in the auditorium of the LaGuardia High School for Music & Art and Performing Arts. The event is a benefit for Musical Theatre Works, and tickets are still available at the $300, $500, and $1000 levels. For information, phone 212-677-0040, ext. 312.]
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