“Good truth is uncomfortable,” says Morrison. “It allows itself to be vulnerable. If everyone likes my show, then I’m doing something wrong.”
So far, everyone seems to not just like, but love Morrison’s new solo show, which brims with truth, vulnerability, and the kind of singing that raises musical theater goosebumps. “Ann Morrison: Merrily From Center Stage,” a deeply personal unraveling of what Morrison did, saw, and importantly, felt, during the original “Merrily’s” ill-fated 1981 production, will be staged at Feinstein’s/54 Below on Aug. 19 and Aug. 20. It had an acclaimed run at the Broadway supper club in May.
“I knew I couldn’t tell anyone else’s story. I’m just telling mine,” says Morrison. Yet her personal through-line in musical theater’s favorite flop redemption tale is inextricable from the Broadway-sized dramas that unfolded around her all those years ago, including the travails of the show’s legendary creators.
Forty-plus years after the fact, “Merrily From Center Stage” offers the stories that only Ann Morrison can tell, stories that even “Merrily’s” most diehard fans haven’t heard before. But these stories are not only about her. They’re about looking back, and growing up, and realizing it’s all, already, okay—which makes them about all of us, too.
“Merrily We Roll Along” began as a 1934 play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. It unpuzzles the mislaid dreams and fractured relationships of its midlife principals — a playwright, a painter, and a novelist — by traveling back through time, exhuming every missed chance and wrong turn along the way. The play spans the years between World War I and the Depression, or rather, the reverse, given the narrative’s backward-running clock.
For their musical adaptation, director Harold Prince, composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim, and bookwriter George Furth kept the backward timeline but slid the tale forward a few decades and peppered it with autobiography. Now the two male leads are collaborators, a playwright and composer who believe musicals can change the world. Early on they forge a complicated three-way friendship with Mary Flynn, a budding novelist who tends to blurt out what others won’t dare, and who falls unrequitedly in love with the composer. Derailed by heartbreak and alcohol, she ends up a theater critic.
The creative team decided to cast the show with young unknowns. After months of auditioning teenagers who might lend this rueful morality tale a note of optimism without losing the rue, the role of Mary Flynn proved hardest to fill — until the creative team heard Morrison.
Choreographer Ron Field made a personal trip to coach her before her final audition for Sondheim. “You know who Mary Rodgers is?” he said to her. “Think Mary Rodgers. That’s who you’re playing.”
As she depicts in “Merrily From Center Stage,” Morrison’s dressing room at the Alvin Theater (now the Neil Simon) became the de facto therapist’s office for the troubled production. “Ron Field told me everything,” she says. During rehearsals, it was Sondheim who warned her to not let her end-of-first-act song, “Now You Know,” turn into an “Ethel Merman number.” When Field nevertheless tried to stage it as a presentational showstopper, what was a 25-year-old Broadway newcomer to do?
“I suggested to Steve that he come watch rehearsals,” she says. “Let the grown-ups sort it out among themselves.” But it was an awful spot to be put in, and Morrison didn’t tell anyone about it. Before long, Field was fired by Prince and replaced by Larry Fuller.
Morrison doesn’t sugarcoat such fractious moments, but there’s not a gossipy or mean-spirited bone in her deeply felt show. To say her heart lives on her sleeve is to understate the emotional transparency that has always animated Morrison onstage. She re-inhabits the emotional rollercoaster of the whole “Merrily” trip and whisks her audience back in time to 1981, so they can experience the hope and heartbreak for themselves.
“There were belly laughs, mid-show standing ovations, actual audible gasps, and cheers of recognition,” says Jennifer Ashley Tepper, creative and programming director of Feinstein’s/54 Below. After the show was first presented in May, Tepper swiftly rebooked Morrison for more dates in August. “Non-stop, incredible storytelling and gorgeous song interpretation” is one reason why, she says. Honesty was another. “Ann’s raw, truthful sharing of memories didn’t pull any punches about the heartbreaks and missteps of the production. I felt the show deserved more chances to be seen.”
1n 1981, Morrison’s clarion voice and pointed, intelligent performance bolstered but couldn’t save Merrily as it struggled to find its way. Ron Field’s ouster meant the show had to be re-choreographed during previews. The set collapsed. The costumes were tossed. Songs were yanked from one character and handed to another, to the accompaniment of a pit orchestra and tears. The inexperienced leading man was fired and replaced by another member of the company, Jim Walton.
The extended preview period became a non-stop cram session for the cast, who were flooded with daily rewrites and got through performances by hiding crib notes on the set. Bewildered audience members walked out in droves. When the show finally opened, the reviews were almost uniformly brutal. Frank Rich, writing for the New York Times, called it “a shambles.” “Merrily” closed on Broadway after 52 previews and 16 performances.
For those who lived through it, the trauma-bonding was real and deep. But those who missed it — meaning, the majority of the theater-going public — wanted answers. This was the same team that gave us “Company,” after all. Could “Merrily” really have been that bad? The release of the cast album added to the whirl of fascination, as Sondheim’s superb score could be appreciated independent of the unsolved problems of the production.
Yet time plays a starring role in all our lives, as the show itself reminds us. Years pass; perspectives change. Away from midtown Manhattan there were revivals, with grown-up casts and a stream of fresh rewrites by Sondheim and Furth. Like a species nurtured back from the edge of extinction, “Merrily” could soon be spotted in the wild, in regional productions and concert versions. It became an amateur production staple and a West End hit. Eventually the show made it back to New York, where its ongoing victory lap has included multiple Off-Broadway revivals and a 2012 Encores! staging starring Lin-Manuel Miranda.
From an unhappy childhood as a famous flop to an awkward adolescence as a cult favorite, Merrily hung on to its underdog appeal. But somewhere along the way, it grew up — and simply became popular.
Tepper is among the new generation of Broadway tastemakers and producers who had not yet been born in 1981, and “Merrily” is without question her favorite show. It was Tepper who nudged Merrily From Center Stage into existence, when, not long after Sondheim’s death in November of 2021, she contacted Morrison about appearing at Feinstein’s/54 Below.
Morrison remembers the call. “How about a Sondheim show?” Tepper suggested. Morrison mentioned projects she had in development, to which Tepper replied, “Okay, but also, how about a Sondheim show?”
It’s not as if Morrison didn’t have plenty to say. She’d given nine hours of interviews for “Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened,” a critically praised 2016 documentary about the making of “Merrily,” directed by fellow cast member Lonny Price. Inevitably, only a small portion of what Morrison shared made it into the film. She and frequent collaborator Blake Walton (with whom she has a son, the Los Angeles-based writer and filmmaker, Huck Walton) had already discussed doing something with all those as-yet-unheard stories. Tepper’s invitation was a call to action.
But traditional cabaret is not Morrison’s thing. “To me, good cabaret is a theater piece. If I ever hear ‘this next song was written by….’” She laughs, her signature raspy chuckle. “I don’t care about that.”
Still, the cutting room floor was littered with gold. Morrison said yes to Tepper’s offer, but the show she had in mind would be theater above all. Not a Sondheim show, but an Ann Morrison show, centering, finally, on the stories only she could tell.
Solo performance is a long-standing passion of Morrison’s, both as practitioner and mentor. She’s even developed a curriculum to teach it in high schools. Her storytelling chops and the influence of her theatrical mentors were nimbly brought to bear in fashioning “Merrily From Center Stage.”
“For the first 19 minutes of my show, I don’t allow the audience to applaud anything,” she says. “I think Hal Prince would be really proud of that.” Morrison also followed Sondheim’s edict to avoid musical showmanship for its own sake. Instead, tell the story. She worked with musical director John Shirley to deconstruct, reassemble, and repurpose the entire Merrily score so that it might serve as the musical engine of her narrative.
Their take on Merrily’s second act showpiece, “Opening Doors,” proves just how well this approach works. As written, “Opening Doors” is a complex group number that whisks us through the principal characters’ early years as struggling creatives in New York City. More of a mini-musical than a song, it changes locations, compresses time, and relies upon a whole prop closet’s worth of clacking typewriters, ringing telephones, and caster-wheeled office furniture. All this gear is pushed around a spinning stage at a precisely timed trot by actors who are (also, simultaneously) singing intricately rhymed lyrics at the speed of, well, Sondheim. It is peak Sondheim.
To attempt this number as a solo is already madness, but the real-life anecdote of onstage humiliation that Morrison tells to situate “Opening Doors” in her show is the stuff of an actor’s nightmare. Trigger warning: It involves stuck wheels and a revolve that won’t stop turning. “There’s not enough time,” the lyric bemoans, and indeed, there was not. 1981 Morrison’s panicked plea for more time to fix the catastrophe unfolding live on Broadway is finally heard when 2022 Morrison scoops up the memory in her older-and-wiser embrace and makes all of it right: the song’s tempo, her younger self’s onstage breakdown, and the many healing tears and years between then and now. Her tender, line-by-line exploration of a song we’ve only ever heard hurtle by at breakneck pace is masterful, wildly unexpected, and profoundly moving.
Like its characters, and like most of us, “Merrily” seems to have needed a few decades to figure itself out. What did it want to be when it grew up? Apparently, a hit. Evidence of its enduring place in the canon keeps accruing. Production has begun on a film adaptation by Richard Linklater, to be shot over a 20-year period and starring Ben Platt, Blake Jenner, and Beanie Feldstein in the Mary Flynn role. An Off-Broadway revival with Daniel Radcliffe as Charley Kringas (the role originated by Lonny Price) was announced by New York Theatre Workshop, planned for late 2022.
It’s a good year for “Merrily,” but maybe they all were. With the successful unveiling of “Merrily From Center Stage’s” first iteration accomplished, Morrison is enjoying this chance to behold the hills of tomorrow, as Sondheim’s lyric puts it. Off Broadway and regional theaters have expressed interest in presenting Morrison’s show, and perhaps filming it. At her home in Sarasota, Fla., she contemplates what changes might make “Merrily From Center Stage” even better and stronger, richer and clearer, for its return engagement at Feinstein’s/54 Below in August, and beyond.
Meanwhile, she’s accepted an invitation to teach her own theatrical spin on the art of cabaret development at the University of Southern California in spring of 2023.
“Never look back,” warns a “Merrily” lyric, but Morrison knows better. She continues to embrace all of it: the pain and joy of the unrevisable past, and the blank page of what’s to come. Stories left untold have a way of festering.
Still, it’s the present moment that’s “full of wonder,” she says. “I’m just enjoying discovering it.”