Originally published on Fynsworth Alley.
Karen Morrow is perhaps best known as “one of the most flop-prone performers of recent musical-theatre history,” (according to Ken Mandelbaum), having appeared in I Had A Ball, The Grass Harp, I’m Solomon, A Joyful Noise, and The Selling of the President on Broadway. Since then, she has gone on to success as a television star and cabaret performer. Additionally, Karen is a great teacher of performance, currently on the faculty of UCLA’s Musical Theatre program. Karen Morrow appears on the Fynsworth Alley CDs A Hollywood Christmas, Lost in Boston IV, and The Grass Harp.
DL: How did you get your start in show business?
KM: I went to Milwaukee when I graduated from college to teach school. I had five roommates because I was poor – they certainly didn’t pay much to teach school. I would brag all the time about how I could sing and how I had played all the leads in school. There was an audition at the Equity theatre in town for Brigadoon, so my roommates said, “Okay, smarty, if you’re so good, go over there and audition.” I went “Oh my God…” and went over there an auditioned and got the job! I was in the chorus at the Fred Miller theatre in Milwaukee. Then right from there, I did just about everything in town there was to do. There was a revue in a restaurant called “Highlights of Musical Comedy,” and I was in the original group for that. Then I starred in the big show in Milwaukee with the symphony, and then I went to New York and that was it.
DL: So you gave up teaching?
KM: Oh gosh yes! It was grade school – I didn’t have a clue what I was doing! It was just something to make a living. As I do in my act, there’s a whole song Billy Barnes wrote for me… I have this voice and I didn’t know what to do with it. It never occurred to me that I might be able to earn a living using my voice. And suddenly, there I was earning a living.
DL: So when you went to New York, did you go for a specific job?
KM: No, I went again because I kept saying “I’m going to go to New York, I’m going to go to New York…” until somebody came along from New York who was in a show with me in Milwaukee, and she said, “If you come to New York, you can stay with me.” I thought, “Oh, great, yeah, fine…” just pooh-poohing the whole thing again, and when she went to New York, she called me about a month later. “Well, I got us an apartment, and you owe me…” I went “Oh my God…” and again I had to put up or shut up. I hopped into a car with a drummer, and we drove off to New York. I started auditioning the next day.
DL: What was your first job in New York?
KM: It was a revue down in the village at a strip joint. It had been closed for years and years and years, and they were going to reopen it as a cabaret. There were four or five of us, and we rehearsed and rehearsed… when we went for opening night, there were strippers on the bill! We walked, and the guy came to us and said, “You cannot do that! If you walk, I’ll get killed!” And he meant it. It was a place for the mob, I guess. So we said, just so you won’t get killed, we’ll do one show to prove to your boss you got us. So we did one show, and the drunks loved us! They couldn’t care less about the strippers, but they thought we were really talented. And then we walked from there.
The next really paying job I got from there was Sing, Muse.
DL: I’ll admit, I’ve never heard of it.
KM: Well, of course not. Most of the things I’ve done you’ve never heard of. It was off-Broadway in 1961, written by Erich Segal and Joe Raposo. They had just gotten out of Harvard, and they wrote this satire on the Helen of Troy legend. I was Helen… I was the only girl! And then I got really, really, really, really, really, reaaaaaaaaaally, really, really, really good reviews. Then I just went from job to job to job to job to job.
DL: You had the strange luck of being in more big flops than anyone else who was performing at the time.
KM: Yeah, probably about seven or eight.
DL: How did that happen? Certainly you had nothing to do with that.
KM: Well, I think so. We all have something to do with what we do. I wasn’t trained! All I had was this big voice, this big blonde face, and a very pleasant personality. So I just kept getting hired, but I didn’t have the acting skill. I auditioned for every big wonderful musical that came along, and I didn’t get them, and I think it was because I relied so much on my sound and my personality, and people wanted actors. I remember Brenda Vaccaro beat me out of a job. Inga Swenson beat me out of a job. Who else did I lose jobs to? They did the famous ones… although How Now Dow Jones was hardly famous, nor was 110 in the Shade. But I don’t think I was ever thought of as anything other than a voice. But the people who were doing these floppy things couldn’t get the Mary Martins of the world, so they went down the list and they chose me because I was an instant personality.
DL: It’s funny that you say that, because I was just reading that Mary Martin had originally wanted to play Babylove in The Grass Harp before you played the part.
KM: Oh really? I didn’t know that!
DL: Have you ever seen Ken Mandelbaum’s book Not Since Carrie?
KM: No, but I’m aware of it.
DL: You should be – you’re all over the index!
KM: I remember, when I did Sabrina the Teenage Witch, the little bad girl on the show was always talking about how she knew everything about musical theatre, and I just looked at this twenty-year-old and thought, “No you don’t, honey.” But she was going on and on and on. Then she came in the next day and came up to me with this big, jaw-dropped look, and she said, “I was just reading this book, and your name in the index has the most pages!” And it was the book about all the flops!
That’s the way it is, people assume I was just unlucky, but not really. I think within the last five years I’ve really learned to rise to the occasion of really risking things on stage.
DL: So during that whole period, did you ever take an acting class?
KM: I kept trying. I took singing classes with a wonderful teacher in New York by the name of Keith Davis, and Keith had a lot of Broadway people. I remember when he said he’d take me on, the very minute I hung up the phone I went in and my voice was different. He was doing all the stars, and just the fact that he would accept me – he knew me! – he said, “Yes, Miss Morrow, come when you want to come.” He spawned Seth Riggs and Nate Lamm, Nancy Dussault, John Davis, a whole bunch of teachers. As for acting, I remember going to Sandy Meisner, and then I went to a few others… And this was very early on, and I was working all the time. And I said to Sandy Meisner that I would like to join, and I had an interview and he said fine, it would be such and such Saturday, and I said, “Oh, I can’t, I’m doing matinees.” And he said, “Well, you’re working, you can’t study!” And I said, “Yeah, but I want to get better? What about Sundays?” We had Sundays off then, but he said they didn’t teach on Sundays.
The same thing happened out here in LA. I tried to study with Milton Katselas, he had all these stars, but I found him too advanced for me! I really wanted to go back and learn the process, building a character. I didn’t want to come in with a full-blown character and get notes, I did that every day of my life with directors. I wanted a teacher. He had eighty people in the class, and the chance of even getting up was remote. So I had to rely on my instincts and the directors I had. Very few of whom were good. And even if they were good, there’s not enough time to develop anything because you only have three weeks or four weeks… If you’re rehearsing for Broadway, you get seven weeks, but they’re so busy getting angry and yelling at each other and firing people…
I used to envy Jason Robards, who found O’Neill and Jose Quintero at such an early age. Can you imagine how thrilling and satisfying it is to work with somebody and really work on a part and go down and mine the depths of the role, and eight weeks later put it up on stage. You never learn that when you’re doing a musical. It’s just so much more reliant on personalities. Even Hal Prince, when we were doing Showboat recently. Hal hired me, which was very nice, but when he came in to work, he didn’t have anything to say. He just hires personalities, they carry the day for him. He had concepts, wonderful concepts. He knows what he wants to see. But he’s relying on the skills of the actors to get there. That’s why he hires swell people. I couldn’t begin to do what Elaine Stritch did, although I played her role. I did my best! And there were no songs, so there was really nothing to rely on except my size – I was taller than Tom Bosley.
DL: It’s interesting that you bring this up, because in the sixties the shows were even more built around personalities.
KM: They were built for personalities. There were stars. And now they’re all unpluggable.
DL: Exactly. Now you can just shift people around, drop in a new star for four weeks. Why do you think it changed?
KM: I don’t know. I remember when I saw Hair back in the sixties, and I just knew it was over. I guess the war in Viet Nam and all that stuff, people needed to express real feelings of rage and anger. And once you do rage and anger, where do you go for happiness? You’ve got to be hit over the head for happiness. I think people just lost subtlety, and all the music changed because of the young people. Young people just were not satisfied with going “Moon/June/Spoon.” They needed to have somebody write something that allowed them to express their really frustrated feelings. Frustration is about all sorts of things, and the music started changing so it would go faster and be overtly “bang bang bang bang bang.” Some of it would be really sentimental. I listen to it today, and I listen to kids at concerts screaming… Now, they did that for Sinatra, but today it’s not a scream of “Oh, I think you’re wonderful,” it’s a scream of “Help me!” Help me express myself, I’ve got all this stuff inside and I’ve got to get it out. If you notice, even on The View in the morning, when people walk out on stage, there’s screaming in the audience. And to me, it’s just kids that want to express themselves.
I asked some high school kids last weekend, when I was doing a master class for the Utah Theatre Association, there were about fifty or sixty kids there, and when I asked them what their favorite musical was, they all said “Les Miz.” And I said, “Why?” “Oh, because it’s so emotional…” So I asked, “Have you heard one that was an old-time musical?” “Oh yeah, Annie Get Your Gun.” “What’s the difference?” “Well, Annie Gets Your Gun is corny and has no emotion…” So I realized it’s the music that swells that they can really identify with.
And the kids… My kids at UCLA that I teach, who are bright and have certainly been exposed to all types of music… the other day I had them all singing contemporary music, and they were all so much better! I said, well, that’s it. It’s what they hear, and you can only sing as well as you can hear. It’s very interesting. I think they’re more overtly needy, and they need that music to help them get their feelings out. That’s why there’s so much underscoring in movies and television – to help people get emotional. People really need to get out their sentiment and their rage, and music is what helps them do it.
DL: So how did you get into teaching?
KM: You mean now? Keith Davis, my voice teacher, said I should teach. That was probably about thirty years ago. I thought to teach means I was a failure, but he just thought I knew what I was doing. A few years after that, about twenty-five years ago, I decided to do a workshop because it felt good. And it went well, but then I just sort of went about my business and worked a lot. Then about ten years ago, Charles Nelson Reilly started teaching his acting class again, and he’s so good, he’s such a wonderful teacher. He said we should form a school, so we started this school called The Faculty. I taught vocal performance. We rented space, and that’s how I started. I really love it, and even when I was on the road with Showboat, I flew back once a month on a Monday night to be there.
David Craig, the famous performance teacher, was brought into UCLA’s master program to work with actors and set up a department. By chance, Ray Bolger had willed two and a half million dollars to UCLA to form a new musical theatre department, under the auspices of the theatre department. David got ill and brought in Nancy Dussault, who was one of his prize pupils and good friends, to teach a class with him. And then he died, but before he died he turned everything over to her. They got rid of the masters’ program, which was too bad, but they started an undergraduate program, but they needed more than one teacher, so she brought me in. And I brought in Linda Kerns. Nicholas Dunn is doing the dance part, and Mel Shapiro is doing the acting part. So now we have this UCLA program for musical theatre. It’s brand new, we’re still trying to push our programs through. It’s so hard in academia, it’s about money and approval… especially in the UC system. It’s really hard, but it’s such fun. Oh my God do I love this age group. They’re right on the brink, and they can be pushed one way or the other. I think they’re so lucky, and Nancy and I say this all the time. We’re all from Broadway, we work constantly, Nancy’s off doing a concert this weekend, I’ve got one next weekend. Nicholas Dunn who’s danced with every company in the world… he and I did Drood together on Broadway. They just have these Broadway people teaching them, which is terrific. And we have access to other people, and guests. At this stage in my life, I really turn down a lot of stuff because I’ve been doing this for forty-one years. I think there’s only one musical I haven’t done before that I’m right for – Mame, although I’m really getting too old for it now. And I would much rather work with these kids and get them to do something. It’s so exciting to see little changes.
DL: You said that Nancy Dussault brought you into this. You guys have been friends for quite a while. How did you two become friends?
KM: We’ve been friends for at least thirty-five years. We worked together in summer stock in St. Louis. We did Good News, Nancy, myself, Archie Brown, Peter Palmer and the St. Louis Cardinals. They were the stars. We were the leads, but they got the billing above the title. We all had such a good time, laughing and screaming, that when we got back to the city, we just stayed friends. Then by accident, at Town Hall they were doing a series called the Interludes. It was at 6:00 on Tuesday nights, so people could go straight from work and for ten bucks see a show and then be out of there by eight to go to dinner and go home. It was a wonderful series; they had famous movie stars, soloists, and one night was just devoted to the fifties. They booked us independently to do a medley that Merman and Martin did on television. Nancy and I happened to sing that duet so well, and we had such a good time, people offered us our own Interludes. We did that, and it was such a huge hit, we remained singing partners for a long time. We did specials – we got an Emmy for our television special – we did LA cabaret, we did a series for CBS cable. Of course, CBS cable went off the air. I’ve closed everything, including a network! How great is that? Then we both got series. My series lasted thirteen episodes, her series lasted eight and a half years. That was the end of that. But we’ve been very dear friends all the time.
DL: So when did you move to LA?
KM: 1969. I’ve been here almost thirty-two years. It’s shocking to me! I only lived in New York for eight years, and then I went back in 1985 just to shake up my life. I rented out my house, went back and got Drood and sang on the Tony Awards. It was a very lucrative time, it really shook things up, but then I came back here because I could really get a lot more for my buck than I could in New York.
DL: Initially, why did you move?
KM: The Jim Nabors Hour brought me out. They auditioned people in New York and then they flew me out to audition. I got the job, and I did his show for two years. Because I was on his show, I got a lot of game shows. And I had always done a lot of appearances on talk shows like Merv. I just stayed because I liked the nice weather. I realized I have that disease, S.A.D. (Seasonal Affective Disorder), and I just hibernate in the cold. I hate it hate it hate it hate it hate it!
DL: At what point did you start doing your club act?
KM: 1975, I think. That’s when cabaret suddenly started again. Barbara Cook was the first one to do The Brothers and Sisters again – that was a place on 46th Street in New York, and then Helen Gallagher was the next one… and out here, the Backlot started up – that’s over where what is now called The Love Lounge. Chita opened that club, then Bernadette went in, and I was the third one. Cabaret just started up again, and Bette was doing the baths, and I think there were a couple places in town. Nancy and I ended up doing the Backlot, which lead to our special… so I’ve been doing it on and off, mostly off. It’s really hard. I don’t just sing songs.
DL: Do you put it together all by yourself?
KM: Yes. And my accompanist, Jim Vucavich. We do it, and when my manager was still alive, he was my third set of eyes. But since then, I really haven’t relied on anybody. I don’t do it that often. On Saturday night I’m doing it just for one night for the Actors’ Fund at the Cinegrill. It’s just one night, so I don’t care if it’s structured perfectly. I’m not doing it to build a career. I mean, I do care, I don’t want people to get bored, but I’m not putting as much time into it as I would for something more formal.
DL: Let’s talk a little bit about some of the shows you’ve done. Let’s start with I Had A Ball, because I’m sure working with Buddy Hackett must have produced some interesting experiences.
KM: You know I don’t remember any of them? Except once in a while he would come on stage and talk to the audience before my entrance. I remember once he came with a salami, this great big long salami, and he said, “Now Karen’s going to come out on stage in a minute, and I’m going to hide this salami. Let’s see if she can find it.” And I came on stage to say my lines, and the audience would laugh at everything, and then I’d notice this great big thing sticking out of his back. Sometimes he would paint teardrops on his cheek before I would sing my big ballad, to try to break me up. You know, the show got unanimously terrible reviews. Seven out of seven newspapers. Actually, one newspaper just left a blank space. But it was a huge hit, because Buddy did his nightclub act, every night after the show. Also, his buddies who were playing on Broadway at the time like Steve Lawrence and Sammy Davis and Joey Bishop would come on stage. There was a sequence at the end of the show where we were all in black light – we were supposed to be in the tunnel of love – and then the lights would come on and I would find myself with Richard Kiley, and I’d go “Ewww” and then we’d get married. So after a while, in the darkness I’d hear some rushing around, and the lights would come on and there would be Sammy Davis! So the audiences were rushing in from other shows just to see who I’d end up with! So he just kept the audiences terribly entertained. It was tough. I was intimidated by stars, and he was really famous, so I had no way of sticking up for myself. Not that I ever really needed to. I had the William Morris Office, they were pretty powerful. Boy, I told them I didn’t like the director, and the next thing I knew he was fired. I wasn’t the only one, they must have gotten enough reports, but I thought “Oh my God, oh my God!” Still, when it came to doing my own private work, I was too scared.
DL: Now, on the other end of someone’s career, you worked on A Joyful Noise with Michael Bennett. Do you remember what he was like then?
KM: Oh gosh yes! He was just one of the gang! I thought, “How come this unknown kid who’s my age is a choreographer?” I was used to working for bosses, for older people. He was just one of the gang, we would go out and chew the fat. We went out a lot for dinner after shows. I remember him saying to me, “You know Karen, I’m going to be more famous than Jerome Robbins by the time I’m thirty.” He was twenty-four then. I just stared at him, thinking wow, what an ego that is! It didn’t prevent me from liking him, I was crazy about Michael! We laughed, and he was so good with his dancers. And he hired fun dancers, funny people we could laugh with. Tommy Tune was one of them.
DL: Now The Grass Harp underwent a lot of revisions on its road to Broadway…
KM: And I came on at the very end. Two weeks before Broadway. Celeste Holm played Babylove before me, and I guess Celeste didn’t want to come in just in the second act. She wanted to come in in little spurts throughout the whole show. “The Babylove Miracle Show” song is very long, so she wanted to break it up into little sections to be peppered all the way through. I guess that really threw the balance of the show off. I remember being asked to do it before Celeste, but I already had a commitment to ABC television, so I couldn’t. By the time she bowed out, my series had been cancelled (of course!) and they got me in there with two weeks to learn it. They put it back they way it was, and indeed, the Babylove Miracle Show was twenty-nine minutes long on stage! It’s only thirteen minutes on the album. It just went on and on and on. And again, all I did was sing, I just opened my mouth and out it came. So I think, if I were to do it now, I could add a little more substance.
DL: When you were doing these shows, at what point did you realize they were in trouble?
KM: I think probably every time. With all due respect, I considered myself not as gifted as the people who were doing hits. So I just assumed, if you hired me, it wasn’t that good, and if it went on, it was through some sort of luck. I remember doing I Had A Ball, I thought it might be something entertaining. I knew it wasn’t going to be great. When it got killed in the reviews, and the only person who got a Tony nomination was Luba Lisa who didn’t do anything except walk around in a feather outfit… it was a huge awakening as to what it’s all about, that there are no destinies. The humanity of it all really crept in. Critics are human, directors are human. I always knew. Grass Harp I thought might be interesting, because Barbara Cook was really wonderful and some wonderful people. It was a little fairy tale, it was around Christmas and I thought maybe people will like it. But I knew I wasn’t the best person for the job, and if I wasn’t the best person, why should I have a hit?
Now, I watch shows that are just crap and I can see why the people are noticed. It takes a real inner sense of who you are and what it is you have to contribute for those people to emerge out of the bad stuff as real contenders. I was watching little Kristin Chenoweth – I went down to see her act and I watched her record You Never Know, and I just said, “Boy, she’s the genuine article, isn’t she.” She’s so smart, she’s got so much talent, and she survives everything. Yeah she’s cute and has an interesting little voice, but still and all she’s got a real sense of who she is, a real work ethic, intelligence, and she’s a real nice person.
Then I go and see other things that are absolute crap, and I think ,“Those people are never going to survive, but they sure worked hard.” I would never ever fault somebody for the show they’re appearing in. It takes so much courage to do a show, to get up in front of people. Especially now with these scores that are all sung-through… they just never stop singing! I went to see Footloose, Eileen Barnett is a friend of mine, and I was so thrilled that those kids worked so hard with all that dancing and singing. I asked, don’t they ever want to go out and drink? She said, “Uh-uh. They all are really disciplined, they go home.” It was thrilling to see that kind of discipline!
DL: Today, producers don’t close shows any more. Shows can play to half-empty houses and get slaughtered in the press and still run for a year. Do you think that changes the dynamic of Broadway for the performer? If your shows had this money to keep running and running, how do you think that would have changed things for you?
KM: Well, I probably would have been richer today, but I don’t think it changes anything. It’s all for the tourists. It’s just about money. Reputations are made within the first week of the show. If there’s somebody worth watching, word will get out really soon and that person will have another job. There are very few people who are standouts, but there are lots and lots of people who are the next rung down: good workers, nice voice, and they’ve worked hard with their voice lessons and acting coaches. They fill the bill. Those are the ones you kind of have to worry about. They’re not going to be noticed, so they have to do the whole audition thing again. I don’t think having the shows go on and on means anything. If they didn’t, if they closed the way we closed, Broadway would be empty! There would be no place to go, and it probably would be filled with stuff that was mediocre at best, probably another whole style of Broadway. Maybe it would be more Disneyfied. Although I don’t think so. They spent big bucks too. But somebody’s bad show that they did in Paramus would suddenly have a theatre, and that would be bad too. I can’t imagine that there’s anything wonderful waiting in the wings. Things that are quite wonderful usually find their places.
DL: If you were offered the chance to go back to Broadway today, would you?
KM: It would depend on so much. I would rather go and replace someone on Broadway. The whole process of rehearsing and getting ready for that New York critic makes me so ill. I don’t think I could handle it, unless I was at an age where I could come on stage and say, “Hi, I’m Karen Morrow,” and I sang four of my famous songs. I’d still be a wreck! I’m just too scaredy-cat, I think. I don’t know. This terrible terror of critics and empty seats… I’ve been burned too many times. And I don’t get good reviews. I don’t think. I don’t know, I haven’t read one in about thirty years. People told me that my Call Me Madam reviews were good, so I’ll take their word for it. That and a dollar fifty will get you on a subway.
DL: Let’s finish by talking a little bit about stuff that you do when you’re not working. What do you like to read? What do you like to watch?
KM: I’m reading Harry Potter now, book two. That’s such fun. The newspaper is a big thing, I read it at the end of the day after I’ve done everything. I’m not a big reader. I’m slightly dyslexic, so I never really got into it.
I do have my programs that I watch on TV when I’m home. I love West Wing, and I love Boston Public. I love Frasier. I think he’s just so good. Yes, we all known David Hyde Pierce is good, but I just think that Kelsey Grammer walks that fine line between really over-the-top and really believable. God, I think he’s the master at that! Falling asleep, I watch E.R., Law and Order, all the ten o’clock shows. I watch Providence and JAG – I like to look at pretty people while I’m eating or reading the newspaper.
I don’t have any hobbies. I love going to lunch with people in swell places. I don’t like going out at night. I like staying home, putting on my pajamas about six o’clock. I don’t like dark. I love daylight savings time. I’ll do more if it’s sunnier out. I love going to the beach and walking around.
DL: What about theatre? Do you get out to see shows at all?
KM: Sometimes. I have so many students who do their nightclub acts, or who appear in a program at the Cinegrill or at the Celebration or the Gardenia… this weekend I’ve got three casts of Charlie Brown to see, because I’ve got kids in each one of the casts. There’s always somebody at the Cinegrill, there’s always somebody at the Gardenia, and there’s always something at school. And then once in a while I get invited to the theatre, or if there’s something I really want to see, I’ll make a point of going to it. But I don’t get to the theatre that much. I love doing my work and then sitting down at the end of the day. I love doing my work, meeting someone for an early dinner, and then getting home by 8:30 and putting on my pajamas.