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Ann Morrison Makes a Hat With Sondheim and Bernstein at 54 Below

The original Merrily We Roll Along cast member on her upcoming concert tribute to "Steve and Lenny." logo

In 1982, Ann Morrison won a Theatre World Award for her performance as the cynical Mary Flynn in the now-legendary original Broadway production of Stephen Sondheim and George Furth's Merrily We Roll Along. The intervening years might have only found her on Broadway once (understudying Donna Murphy in the Kurt Weill jukebox musical LoveMusik), but as a performer, she flourished. Morrison received a 1986 Drama Desk nomination for her work in the Polly Penn-Peggy Harmon musical Goblin Market and focused her energies on solo shows.

After making a splash in May as a special guest star in 54 Below's Sondheim Unplugged series, Morrison has been invited back to the venue, where she'll premiere Now You Know: An Evening of Steve, Lenny — and Annie on September 2. From her home in Sarasota, Florida, TheaterMania caught up with Morrison to talk about the concert, her memories of Merrily, and why creating new work is more important than starring in a revival.

Ann Morrison (center) with her Merrily We Roll Along costars Jim Walton (left) and Lonny Price (right).
(© David Gordon)

This is your first cabaret show in New York in a really long time, right?
The last time I did a cabaret act in New York was a good twenty-eight years ago. In fact, I was eight-and-a-half months pregnant at the time. They said "Annie, I don't know how you're going to do a club act at eight months pregnant because your diaphragm can't go anywhere," and I said, "Watch me." My son was in a breech position and they said "Don't worry yet." Two days after I finished singing, he was turned around and ready to come out. So if you ever have a baby in a breech position, go do a club act.

Tell me about this new show.
I've been living in Sarasota, Florida and other places and I do a lot of solo-play writing. I was trying to sell one of my shows when [54 Below director of original programming] Phil Bond found out I was in town and wanted to know if I could do a Sondheim Unplugged [concert]. I came back and had a ball. It's a fabulous room to play. People said that "the highlight of the evening was Annie and could somebody please give her a showcase?" [54 Below]thought that was a great idea. They said "[We'd] like you to sing Stephen Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein," and I said, "Okay, that's an interesting limitation." Steve and Lenny crossed my paths a lot in my life. We decided to call it "An Evening of Steve, Lenny — And Annie." I'm bringing [musical director] Michael Sebastian in from Sarasota. He's a wonderful, wonderful musician.

You've obviously worked with Mr. Sondheim, but had you ever worked with Mr. Bernstein?
I've never worked with Lenny. I've always worked with Steve. [Lenny and I] crossed paths many times, and one was actually at his house when he wasn't there because his son, Alexander Bernstein, thought it would be fun to have the entire Merrily cast for a party. I touched his piano but I never had a chance to work with him.

I ask this question to all the Sondheim veterans I talk to: Do you have a favorite note that he gave you at any point?
I'll confess something. When I did Merrily, I didn't know I was dyslexic. I'd been a part of every prodding, every cynical phase you can think of in the school system. But that was before they knew what dyslexia was. I have nothing nice to say about the educational system. I was terrified they would find out there was something wrong with me. I had to work twice as hard to memorize quickly. [Sondheim] walks around the room one day and he says, "Don't forget that ‘and' in that sentence." It didn't even have to do with a song; it was in the script. I was shaking. Oh, my god, he's caught me. And I very sweetly said, "You know the script as well as your score." And he said, "I know it better."

What about musically?
As far as singing, he was always gentle. I remember us sitting the first time we were going to do "Like It Was" and he said any key we wanted to, and I thought it was a good idea since the show goes backwards was to have Mary Flynn sing low in the beginning and high at the end, because she gets younger. Not realizing that at the end of the night is when you're tired and you'd rather it's the upper verse. So I have to apologize to every Mary Flynn. [laughs]

Are there any roles you'd still like to play in New York?
If I would do something that wasn't my work, it would have to be something that hasn't been written yet. It's about collaborating on something brand new. Where there never was a hat, to quote Sondheim.