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To Morrow and to Morrow and to Morrow

Did Karen Morrow have a ball appearing in all those Broadway flops? Filichia sits down for a chat with the legendary star.

By New York City
Karen Morrow
Karen Morrow
Her bio in the program for the Boston production of White Christmas begins, "Award-winning actor/singer Karen Morrow starred on Broadway in I Had a Ball; A Joyful Noise; I'm Solomon; Music, Music; The Selling of the President; The Grass Harp." When I meet the still-effervescent Morrow at her Boston hotel, I mention that although all these shows were flops, she must be proud of them to list them. She gives a wonderfully hearty laugh and says, "If I didn't put them in my bio, people would think that I'd had no experience at all!"

That's not true; Morrow was a frequent presence on TV variety and talk shows, and estimates that Merv Griffin alone had her on his show once a month for 20 years. "He singlehandedly handed me a career," she says. But her Broadway résumé, which should have been amazing given her clarion voice, was dogged by bad luck with shows that didn't fly. Morrow tells me that she came awfully close to being cast as the lead in Little Me and 110 in the Shade, but even those shows weren't blockbusters. "And I thought I'd have the same career as Mary Martin," she says, "where composers would come to my villa in Brazil, play for me, and I'd say yea or nay."

Morrow tells me that she began singing at age three, after her mother had her sing "God Bless America" for company: "People applauded, and I thought, 'Hey, there's something good about this.' But I went to Catholic school, where the nuns kept telling me I was 'showing off' and it wouldn't get me anywhere." Still, she kept on singing, but didn't know a thing about show tunes until she ended up in college. "My roommate had Broadway albums, and then the priest at the nearby boys' college cast me as Meg in Brigadoon. At the same time, Sister Mary Xavier cast me as the Kleptomaniac in The Caucasian Chalk Circle. Sister said to me, 'You have to choose one by tomorrow,' and I said, 'I'll tell you right now. I'm doing Brigadoon at the boys' school.' "

After graduating, she went to Milwaukee to teach. "I also did a Highlights of Broadway-type show in a place that, if it wasn't Mafia, was certainly questionable -- but that's where I learned the Broadway repertoire. So I came to New York, where I'd be up for roles with other new girls like Anita Gillette, Linda Lavin, and Nancy Dussault. The Morris office kept telling me I was fat and I should wear fake eyelashes all the time. I would wear them just to go to the grocery store, because you never know who you're going to run into." As for the aforementioned flops, here's what Morrow has to say about them:

I Had a Ball (199 performances): "As a Catholic school girl who only knew how to obey -- the nuns didn't encourage thinking on your own -- I had such anxiety out-of-town. Still, I guess I made enough noise, because the director [Lloyd Richards, who would go on to bigger things] got fired, and John Allen came in." (I hadn't heard of Allen, so I checked, and found that he was primarily a stage manager for George Abbott, for whom he did eight shows, although he did direct the 1969 four-performance flop But, Seriously). "What I also remember is that, one night during the run, I went to a party and Ethel Merman was there -- and when she saw me, she said, 'Here comes Loudmouth.' "

A Joyful Noise (12p): "They hired me to play Mary Texas, a character like [saloon owner] Texas Guinan. We closed on Christmas Eve, and when we left the Hellinger, we found that there was a terrible blizzard. All we needed was a little match girl in the corner! I did make some friends from the show, like Michael Bennett. When he was doing Ballroom, he asked if I'd stand by for Dorothy Loudon, but I just didn't want to do that. Funny, though, I later did three songs cut from Ballroom on a Lost in Boston album."

I'm Solomon (7p): "Opening night, they gave us each a pendant that said, I'm Soloman. They misspelled their own show's name!"

The Grass Harp (7p): "I took over for Celeste Holm, who didn't like that she didn't come in until the second act. She wanted to come in five times, including the first act. We recorded the album in Germany. Jonathan Tunick (one of the orchestrators) came with us, and while I'd known him for a while, when I saw him conduct the orchestra, I decided I was in love with him. Whenever we rode anywhere and there were too many people for the car, I made sure that I got to sit in his lap."

The Selling of the President (5p): "Jack O'Brien [who wrote the book and lyrics, and later went on to be a Tony Award-winning director] saw me in The Grass Harp and decided that I was the type of personality he wanted. When I auditioned, it came out of my mouth so easily and fast. We took a Christmas break, and when we came back, it was a different script. I was dreadful. The conceit was that none of the main characters would sing; all the singing would be done as the commercials for the candidate, sung by a very talented chorus: Nell Carter, Pam Myers, and Don Johnson's partner on Miami Vice [Philip Michael Thomas]. So I didn't sing. Opening night, when I came out for a curtain call in my Halston outfit, a couple of guys in the fifth row center said, 'You shoulda sung, honey!"

Morrow was in one hit, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, but she was not part of the original cast. "I was the third Princess Puffer -- and the last," she says. "Of course, I closed it! Listen, I even closed a network. I did a series called Singin' on CBS cable, which wasn't long for this world."

Before our interview ends, I tell Morrow that I'd recently spoken with Jack Viertel, artistic director of the City Center Encores! series, who said that he didn't know whom he'd be able to get for their upcoming production of 70, Girls, 70. "Hmmm," Morrow wonders aloud, "who's still around who can walk and talk at the same time?" To which I suggest Anita Gillette, Nancy Dussault, Linda Lavin -- and, certainly, Karen Morrow.

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[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at pfilichia@theatermania.com]


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