Ann Morrison Revisits Old Friends at 54 Below
By Steven Suskin
Ann Morrison, one of the original cast members of Merrily We Roll Along, took the stage at 54 Below for a one-night only concert Sept. 2. Playbill.com was there.
All right. Now you know.
Some viewers of the ill-fated 1981 Stephen Sondheim/Hal Prince Merrily We Roll Along walked away from the stubbornly underdeveloped musical thinking that at least things came alive whenever that girl grabbed the spotlight and started singing songs like "Now You Know," "Old Friends" and "Like It Was." That girl was 25-year-old Morrison, who immediately thereafter disappeared from Broadway and has been almost altogether absent since.
She appeared at 54 Below Sept. 2 in her first New York cabaret act in 28 years: Now You Know: An Evening of Steve, Lenny — and Annie. From the first moment, walking through the crowd and greeting a room packed with "Old Friends," she proved to be an entertainment dynamo.
An act of Sondheim and Bernstein was the assignment, which stemmed from Morrison's recent appearance at one of 54 Below's Sondheim Unplugged evenings. Morrison grew up on Broadway cast albums — her parents were college professors specializing in musical theatre — so this was not a stretch: West Side Story played an important part in her development, and the first Broadway show she attended was Company. (One time when she was at a party at Bernstein's house, she picked up the phone to call her father, played a few notes and asked: "Guess whose piano this is?")
Morrison gives a candid account of her journey, interspersed by some 30 pieces from Steve or Lenny (plus a few from both). These include her Merrily songs, of course, but other selections by the pair also fit in naturally. Among these are Lenny's "I Can Cook, Too," which she used as her audition piece for Merrily, at the end of which, she told us, Hal Prince turned to his co-producer Ruth Mitchell and exclaimed, "Ruthie, that's what I'm talking about." At her callback for the composer, she wasn't told she had the job, but he left saying that he was writing a new song for her character and he'd see her the first day of rehearsal.
The songs encompass the familiar and the obscure, the latter including "Spring Will Come Again" which Bernstein wrote with Betty Comden and Adolph Green in 1964 for a proposed musicalization of The Skin of Our Teeth. While Morrison seems to be a natural comedienne, she does especially well on this and other items like Lenny's "Big Stuff" (from Fancy Free) and Steve's "Water Under the Bridge" (from the unproduced film "Singing Out Loud"). She strays from her two heroes twice, with a brief snatch of Schmidt and Jones's "It Depends On What You Pay" and, as an encore, John Kroner and Gary Gardner's "Soliloquy at 5 AM at the Holiday Inn on I-70." Supportive accompaniment is provided by Michael Sebastian at the piano.
Morrison's had her ups and downs, the former including the 1984 West End musical Peg (from the 1912 comedy Peg o' My Heart) and the 1985 Off-Broadway musical Goblin Market; the latter including many years in Hollywood, where she was so underemployed that she supported herself "cleaning toilets for rich people in Beverly Hills."
This 70-minute visit with Morrison makes it clear "all that time, wasted" (as Ben Stone of Follies might say) was our loss. She is quite an entertainer, and the chance to hear her sing her Merrily songs once again is only one of the evening's many attractions.
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