Robert Morse Is Back on Broadway — Thanks to His Pal Nathan Lane
The original Finch in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying stars opposite Lane in The Front Page.
"I did a lot of theater," Robert Morse says. In his heyday, Morse's extensive résumé became packed with recognizable titles: The Matchmaker, Take Me Along, and, of course, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, which earned him the first of two Tony Awards. But as time went on, Morse, who turned eighty-five this past May and received several Emmy nominations for his work as the daffy Bert Cooper on the series Mad Men, started thinking that a return to Broadway in this stage of the game might not be in the cards.
"In the last four or five years, because of my age, I never thought I would come back to Broadway," Morse recalls. "It was all right. I lived with that. When you're over eighty years old, there just aren't that many parts."
But a chance meeting with Nathan Lane on the set of the FX series The People v. O.J. Simpson changed all that. Lane was playing defense attorney F. Lee Bailey. Morse was taking on the role of Vanity Fair columnist Dominick Dunne. "We had a lot to talk about," Morse says. "Old theater and stuff like that." Shortly thereafter, Morse received a very unexpected offer: a Broadway return 26 years after his last appearance (in the solo show Tru), but this time opposite Lane in Jack O'Brien's star-studded revival of Hecht and MacArthur's The Front Page at the Broadhurst Theatre.
Naturally, he couldn't say no. "I went, 'Oh, my God, that's great!' At my age, to be part of a Broadway show again!"
How instrumental was Nathan Lane in getting you cast in The Front Page?
After I got home [from shooting The People v. O.J. Simpson], I got a phone call from my theatrical agents in New York City. They said, "We have a wonderful play that's going to be done, The Front Page, and they want you to play the character Pinkus. It's an all-star cast, and it was Nathan Lane that suggested you." I was very pleased he remembered me. It was not the doing of agents or anything else. It was a very personal thing. I asked my wife and son and daughter and they said, "Daddy, go. That's where you belong. This may be the last show you do on Broadway!" [laughs]
The Front Page moves like a well-oiled machine. What is it like to be a part of it?
We owe it all to our wonderful director and Nathan Lane. They worked very hard to put this together. Most plays today have three or four people. Nobody could afford seventeen, eighteen, nineteen actors, unless it's a musical. You just don't see that many people in a play nowadays. So this is quite an undertaking. Of course, John Slattery and I did Mad Men and we spent seven years together. John Goodman, Jefferson Mays, Holland Taylor, Sherie Rene Scott — I've had such a wonderful time with them. Jefferson Mays I adore. Adore him. He's so wonderful.
How does it feel to be back for the first time since 1989?
I'm thrilled to be back. It brought back all the old memories of my sojourn on Broadway, from The Matchmaker with Ruth Gordon to Take Me Along with Walter Pigeon and Jackie Gleason, to How to Succeed, and then Sugar, based on Some Like It Hot, as the leading lady, which I loved.
It's a humbling business. Luckily, if you're alive and somebody remembers you, your career continues from this to that. The ball keeps bouncing, and as you get older, like Elaine Stritch said, "It's not the show, it's the stairs."
What is your favorite memory of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying?
A few years ago, I went to see Danny Radcliffe in the revival, and I brought my son and daughter. As I was sitting in the audience with my kids, watching How to Succeed, I would look up at the stage and say, "How the f**k did I do that?" I couldn't imagine. I was never off stage! It was an interesting feeling watching the show. The energy, the fun, the inventiveness, and working with Bob Fosse.
When I was doing How to Succeed, [Fosse] was teaching the dancers "Brotherhood of Man," and said to me, "Bobby, I want you to go into the other room with my assistant and learn what you have to do, because it'll take you three days." His dancers picked it up in twenty seconds. I was amazed. So I opened the door, and his assistant was Gwen Verdon — these are amazing memories.
Was walking through the sets on Mad Men reminiscent of How to Succeed?
Absolutely, with all the desks and secretaries dressed in the same period clothing. I remember going through and singing, "A secretary is not a toy, no my boy, not a toy..." I had a lot of fun with everybody. I often talk to people who say, "I did that show in high school." Or "I got my love of theater from playing Bud Frump or your part." It's amazing. [laughs]
And you were there.
I was there. And now Hamilton is there. That's progress, isn't it?