Meet Betsy Morgan, the Actress You Didn't Know You Already Know
The ubiquitous stage actress steps out of the shadows to star in Carousel at Arena Stage.
American theatergoers can be divided into two camps: Those who have seen Betsy Morgan onstage and those who don't know they have seen Betsy Morgan onstage. If you have walked west down 45th Street at any point over the past two and a half years, you definitely caught a glimpse of her on the Imperial Theatre's video marquis for Les Misérables. Or if a slip of paper announcing Kelli O'Hara's absence fell out of your King and I show program at Lincoln Center, Morgan was probably the one filling O'Hara's Tony-winning shoes as Anna Leonowens.
Morgan currently stars as the full-time Julie Jordan in Arena Stage's production of Carousel, directed by artistic director Molly Smith. But she has already lined up her next New York gig in the Barrow Street Theatre's immersive Sweeney Todd revival. A perpetual chameleon, she'll play the traditionally male role of Pirelli as well as the Beggar Woman — both far cries from Rodgers and Hammerstein ingenues.
"My versatility is a blessing and a curse I guess," said Morgan, who is still hesitant to call her varied career a symptom of "versatility." "I knew that I was hard to pinpoint," said Morgan, throwing back to her days in Emerson College's BFA program, class of 2003. "Whether it was a classic role like Julie or a more unusual role, I always had a very clear idea of what it is that I wanted to do. More often than not, my take was different from what I think people expected. If that's 'versatility,' great. From my point of view it's just that each character is so different, and I approach them like that."
Off-Broadway and regionally, she has helped incubate acclaimed world premiere musicals in featured roles. Yet after finishing new projects, she easily slides back into the scenery of Broadway ensembles, or signs on to understudy characters ranging from the teenage Ariel in The Little Mermaid to middle-aged actress Desiree Armfeldt in A Little Night Music (the 2009 revival starring Catherine Zeta-Jones, later replaced by Bernadette Peters).
Out of college, her first job was an ensemble role in the touring cast of the ABBA jukebox musical Mamma Mia! But in 2006, Morgan found a lifelong champion in Michael John LaChiusa, who cast her as an understudy in his original musical Bernarda Alba at Lincoln Center — a production whose stellar cast included Tony winner Phylicia Rashad, Tony nominee Daphne Rubin-Vega, and future Tony winner Nikki M. James, among others.
"Michael John says to me that [he and director Graciela Daniele] looked at each other at my audition and said, 'She's one of us.'"
Her relationship with LaChiusa not only helped Morgan break into the industry, it also helped her hone the character skills that have been her bread and butter. "[LaChiusa] writes characters that are complex," said Morgan. "Really early on I had to figure out specifically who people were. I couldn't use any broad brushes. That's how I approach the [characters] that everybody knows and also the ones that are brand-new."
The same year as Bernarda Alba, Morgan made her Broadway debut covering six roles in the short-lived musical High Fidelity, followed by a 2008 run as a swing in The Little Mermaid. However, she found her way back to LaChiusa's inner circle in 2009, taking on the role of Leslie in the world premiere of Giant at Virginia's Signature Theatre. Now with two Broadway credits and an original role under her belt, she decided to take a more active role in the curation of her career.
"I knew I wanted to start focusing a little bit more on playing just one part because I had spent quite some time jumping from role to role as a swing. So with each of the returns to Broadway after that — A Little Night Music, Les Mis, and then King and I — I don't want to say they were 'picked,' because you never 'decide' to go to Broadway. But in those three instances I knew that I could learn so much from the people around me."
In addition to its company of legends, A Little Night Music offered her one specific perk: "It was going to be my first time being onstage on a nightly basis on Broadway. It was an onstage track, and I desperately wanted that."
Les Misérables in turn was like a homecoming for Morgan, who played Fantine in the show's 25th-anniversary tour — though she'd be returning to the show as an ensemble member and understudy to the role she'd played each night on the road (performed on Broadway by Caissie Levy).
She then explains her decision to join The King and I in three nouns: "Bart Sher. Lincoln Center. Kelli O'Hara."
"I ran to that audition, I wanted it so badly," Morgan laughed.
After The King and I, LaChiusa was once again waiting to scoop up Morgan for two more world premiere musicals: First Daughter Suite at the Public Theater (in which Morgan cut her teeth on first daughters Tricia Nixon and Susan Ford) and Rain at San Diego's Old Globe. Both added to her roster of original roles, which, at that point, also included a supporting role in the 2014 Hunter Bell, Lee Overtree, and Eli Bolin musical Found.
With her speckled résumé of character roles and unpredictable swing tracks that occasionally throw her into the limelight, the chance to lead a show through its full run is a welcome treat that Arena Stage offered to Morgan with its current production of Carousel. However, true to the theme of the actress' career, it's not ego that drew her to D.C., but rather the teachers she would find there. "Not only did I want to do Carousel but for the last fifteen years, I've wanted to work with Molly Smith at Arena. I knew that she would come at this project in a way that would be inspiring and illuminating."
"I know that every single night will be a continual discovery of parts about both Julie and the show that I never realized before," she added, referencing Rodgers and Hammerstein's possibly most controversial female character. "Those are the best kinds of shows to do night after night."