"Where the hell have you been?" Ann Morrison recalls Harold Prince bellowing at her at the Children and Art benefit concert staged for Stephen Sondheim's 75th birthday in March 2005. Twenty-four years earlier, Prince had directed Morrison in Sondheim's Merrily We Roll Along, one of the most adored flops Broadway has ever known.
Since Merrily closed, after 16 performances, on Thanksgiving weekend 1981, Morrison has been on many a musical buff's phonograph (then their CD player, then their iPod)—the original cast recording helped make Merrily a legend—but not back on a Broadway stage. Until this spring, when she quietly turned up in the ensemble of the Kurt Weill/Lotte Lenya bio-musical LoveMusik, directed by Prince.
Now, after being off the New York boards for two decades, she's appearing in her second show this year. Morrison has a dual role in Bernice Bobs Her Mullet, an updating of the F. Scott Fitzgerald story Bernice Bobs Her Hair, that runs September 19-30 at the New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF). Right after that, she's slated to perform October 1 at the Cherry Lane Theatre's annual gala (honoring Hal Prince), where she'll probably sing "Old Friends" from Merrily. And there may be yet another appearance before the year's out, if the Vineyard Theatre goes ahead with plans for a concert performance of Goblin Market, the Polly Pen musical Vineyard produced in 1985.
Goblin Market, which transferred to the Circle in the Square Downtown in 1986, was Morrison's last show in New York before LoveMusik. In 1987, with a Drama Desk Award nomination for Goblin and a Theatre World Award for Merrily behind her, she left the city and moved to Los Angeles. But a few years later, following her divorce, she resettled in Sarasota, Florida, where her retired parents were living. She performed in a lot of regional theater (for details, click here) and then a few years ago, when her son left for college, found herself free to move back to New York—or at least make extended visits to scope out work possibilities.
As familiar as Morrison's plaintive strains of "Like It Was" and "Not a Day Goes By" may be to fans of the Merrily score, they might have a hard time recognizing her today as the woman who played Mary Flynn. For one thing, the petite Morrison long ago shed the pounds that were written into the Merrily script as Mary's weight problems. And while Mary was bitter and sardonic (due largely to her unrequited love for best friend Frank), Morrison is all about acceptance, optimism and healing—and never letting setbacks get the best of you. She's even made a career out of using her craft to help those who are suffering or struggling.
What was your reply when asked "Where the hell have you been?"
I told him I had created this one-woman show based on Celtic mythology and storytelling called Discourse of a Maid [which she's performed in Florida and at various colleges around the country]. And Annie's Celtic Kitchen, which is actually designed to go into people's home. I'm your seannachie for the night. Seannachie is a storyteller. I tell stories and sing songs and tell proverbs, and the foods you're eating are from my Celtic folklore cookbook. And Hal had the biggest smile on his face, and he said, "I really want to get you back here in New York to do a show." And I said: "Sweetpea, I would love to, but I'm not going to come back to New York to sit around and wait for you guys to call me up." He said he had this project called LoveMusik. And then he called me about three weeks later and said, "You know, I think I'm an idiot. I just looked at the Sondheim videotape and I said, 'Oh, my God. You're Lotte Lenya.' Would you be willing to do the reading?" That was great!
It was the song "Old Friends" that reconnected us [her and Prince]. My father had just passed away, about two years ago, and I had decided to quit the theater. I had to go home and take care of my mother. I took everything out of New York and moved back down there. But I got a call from Lonny Price to come up and do the Stephen Sondheim 75th birthday celebration. They wanted the three of us [her, Price and Jim Walton] to do "Old Friends." And Hal introduced us [to the audience].
What was it like coming back to Broadway after 25 years?
Isn't it a riot? Well, I told the universe—and the universe finds me funny and teases me all the time—that I knew I needed to come back to New York and it would be good to come back to Broadway and get some healing done. 'Cause I think like that. There are aspects that I had left here unresolved. Have I matured in a different way? I would love to have a different experience with Broadway.
[After] I reconnected with Hal Prince and started doing readings for LoveMusik…it looked like I was going to be doing Lenya. But they started to get nervous that nobody knew who Lotte Lenya was anymore, so they figured they needed someone with Tony Awards [to star in the role]. I was fine about that, actually. I thought: Good, I am going to have a different experience, and that's what I'm looking for. And I got to be a part of the ensemble and had a ball. I had so much fun because there was no pressure on my shoulders like there was before [when she was a lead in Merrily We Roll Along]. And then I got to be the hero—because I went on for Donna Murphy when she got sick [right after opening]. I had so much fun…I remember laughing when I got off the stage, because it was like a fairy tale come true.