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Euan Morton Makes His Move

The multi-talented star talks about starring in the Signature Theatre's new production of Chess and the Roundabout's Sondheim on Sondheim.

Chess stars Euan Morton, Jill Paice, and Jeremy Kushnier
(© Chris Mueller)
Euan Morton has proved himself one of the theater world's most versatile actors and singers ever since making his Broadway debut as Boy George (and opposite Boy George) in Taboo. Now, having just finished a run in the Broadway revue Sondheim on Sondheim -- the CD of which is due out later this month -- he is taking on the role of Anatoly, the Russian chess champion, in the Signature Theatre production of the cult musical Chess. TheaterMania recently spoke to Morton -- who will also be performing a one-night concert at the Maine State Music Theatre on August 16 -- about these projects.

THEATERMANIA: Are you excited about doing Chess?
EUAN MORTON: Absolutely. I've been singing it, privately, since I was 9, and now I get to sing it publicly. I've heard the soundtrack in so many different languages: Dutch, English, who knows what else. And it's to fun for me to sing pop/rock -- especially right now. The music is great, and it's a little less cerebral than Stephen Sondheim.

TM: Have you ever seen a production of the show?
EM: I've probably dreamt that I've seen it, but this is actually the first time I get to "see" it. And it probably helps not to have any visual preconception; since we're reworking the show. The book we're using mixes the Broadway and British versions. First of all, the politics of 1988 are a little dated; and this time, it's really told from Florence's point of view. She's the glue that holds the story together, and Jill Paice, who plays her, is really wonderful.

TM: Are you finding the score hard to sing?
EM: I am one of the luckier ones. I have some beautiful moments vocally, and the score is challenging, but it's not taxing. Jeremy Kushnier, who plays Freddy, has to sing a lot higher and harder; and that's fine with me. I don't want to spend two months ripping my voice apart.

TM: How would you describe playing Anatoly?
EM: He's Russian, and he is sort of cold and driven, but he has a heart and soul. He's in love with this woman; he defects from his own country; he's really kind of amazing. And this great emotional journey is what I am focusing on.

TM: You're Scottish and have a Scottish accent. So what's it like using a Russian accent on stage?
EM: There are many Europeans who learn English speaking with an English-type accent, and that's a little bit more of what we're going for. So I am not doing a really authentic Russian accent, especially because we want to make sure everything we say is intelligible. I'm even using a slight accent when I'm singing so it all sounds consistent. For me, it's easier to sing with the accent than speak with it.

TM: What's it like working with your director, Eric Schaeffer?
EM: Eric and I have been friends for years. He's a great guy, and I have never had a more relaxed experience as an actor; he really knows how to put you at ease. What's so great about Eric is that he's both a good dramaturg and has a true directorial vision. Plus, he is very much an everyman; even though he's the king of this castle, he acts like one of the serfs.

Matthew Scott, Erin Mackey, Barbara Cook, Euan Morton,
Norm Lewis, and Leslie Kritzer in Sondheim on Sondheim
(© Richard Termine)
TM: The Sondheim on Sondheim CD is coming out soon. Have you heard it?
EM: I think it's going to be really good. I've only heard snippets of my "Franklin Sheppard" number. I do know our producer, Tommy Krasker, is thrilled with it. I have to admit I was very nervous taking on the master's music and master's work and working with James Lapine on that show. But now I know I have my place in Sondheim's world, and I miss it a lot now. As Joni Mitchell sang, you don't know what you've got til it's gone.

TM: Speaking of "Franklin Sheppard," that was one of my favorite numbers. Was it yours?
EM: When I first signed on, James asked me what I wanted to get out of doing the show, and I told him that I wanted to be challenged. But when he told me I'd be playing Charley in the sections from Merrily We Roll Along, I was a little scared, since it was my first chance to play an American character on stage. In the end, it was a challenge and it was so exciting. And if anyone ever wants me to play Charley again, I'll happily do it.

TM: And you got to sing a duet, "Beautiful," with Barbara Cook. Tell me about that experience?
EM: God, I miss doing that duet with Barbara every night. It's such a gorgeous song, and I was so thrilled we got to sing it together and then record it. I've been emailing her a lot. She's a great lady, and I learned a lot from her -- especially to shut my mouth and pay attention a little bit more. At one point, I told James they could cut every other number from the show as long as I still got to do "Beautiful" every night, and I really meant it!