Theatre veteran Cass Morgan, who co-authored and starred in Pump Boys and Dinettes, is currently back on Broadway in one of the best new musicals of the season, Joe DiPietro and David Bryan's Memphis at the Shubert Theatre. Morgan, whose previous Broadway outings also include Mary Poppins, Ring of Fire, Beauty and the Beast, The Capeman and The Human Comedy, plays Mama (Gladys Calhoun) to Chad Kimball's Huey, a radio station DJ in the segregated 1950s South who falls in love with an African-American singer (played by the big-voiced Montego Glover). Morgan, whose character experiences her own epiphany in the acclaimed production, recently spoke about her latest Broadway outing. The grandmother of two also discussed her work for NYU's graduate musical theatre writing program; that brief interview follows.
Question: Tell me about the NYU program.
Cass Morgan: Well, it's really wonderful. It's been going for years and years and years. I've been doing readings as part of that; I'm not in the program, but Sybille Pearson [and] Mel Marvin are some of the professors that have been there a long time, and what they do is they hire professional Broadway actors to come in and learn the material and then perform the readings of the material of the graduate students. You work four days on it, and the writers get a sense of what's possible. They get a much better sense of what they've got because they've got professional people who do this for a living doing it for them. It's really, really fun. You never know what you're going to be doing — you just show up. [Laughs]. And, there's sort of a repertory company. I mean, today, Steve Bogardus was there doing one. Tim Shue was there working on one with Steve Bogardus. Janet Dickinson was in one that Nick Corlee was directing. Andrea Burns and I were in one together; I played her mother. So it's really kind of cool, it's like this little repertory company down in the Village. [Laughs.]
Question: What was your musical about?
Morgan: It was about a family going through divorce. There are three generations, and [it's] sort of, I think, inspired by the writers' personal lives, but I think they saw that, because of the success of Next to Normal and the fact that people have embraced it, that there are more things to write about that are family-oriented, that it's okay to explore dysfunctional families in a musical way. It was really very moving and very interesting and lots of fun, too.
Question: Congratulations on the 200th performance of Memphis.
Morgan: Thank you. It was very exciting, and it's something that we're all really proud of and looking forward to the next 200! [Laughs.]
Question: How and when did you originally get involved with the production?
Morgan: When Chris Ashley became the director. We did a reading of it in New York about two years ago . . . and then we went to La Jolla with it in the fall, and we did the first production there. Then we went to Seattle a little over a year ago, and then they kept working on it and refining it and strengthening parts of it. Then we had the spring off and went back to rehearsal this summer, so this is my third production of it. Question: How much has your character changed from when you signed on to the show?
Morgan: Joe is such a clever writer, and he's so funny, and so, I just read the script, I hadn't heard any of the music or anything, and I thought, "This is hilarious." I just thought, "This'll be so much fun to do!" But my character was not really fully developed yet, so she was a little bit two-dimensional. But there was something there, and I thought, "This could really turn into a very interesting character with an interesting arc." And, that's exactly what's happened; they've really developed it so that my character starts very fearful and kind of depressed and extremely concerned about her son, thinking that he's really going down the wrong path in life, and through the course of the show . . . she understands, she's confident, her life has changed. And she's able to actually inspire him to go farther than what he thought he could do.
Question: How would you describe Mama?
Morgan: I think she's a woman who loves her son more than just about anything in the world. They've been a very small family, just the two of them, for a long time. They were very close. And, as he's become a young man finding his own way, she's lost, as happens to so many parents. You kind of have to rediscover your purpose in life as your children start to have their own lives, and so that's where she is when we meet her and meet them. She learns to take a few steps outside of her own comfort zone. She's been in a very small world with her job and her church and the values that she thought were the values to define the world. And through the course of his actions, through [his] discovering "race music" and having African-American friends, she starts to see that the world isn't what she thought and that, in fact, it's a better place than she thought.
Question: What would you say the challenges of the role are?
Morgan: Well, it's very hard for an actor to have the audience not like you [laughs], and my first couple of scenes are really tough that way. Sometimes I get knowing laughs – there's a real dark humor in that first scene — but sometimes I don't, and sometimes … it's hard. [You just have to say], "Okay!" Because the more they kinda think they know who Gladys Calhoun is in the beginning, then the bigger surprise it is for them when they see what she finds in herself and who she really is.
Question: Chad Kimball's character is based on a real person. Was Mama based on his mother?
Morgan: You know, I don't think so. Obviously, he must have had a mother [laughs], but I don't know anything about [her]. There wasn't anything in the research materials that we were given.
|photo by Joan Marcus|
Question: Do you have a favorite moment for the character?
Morgan: It has to be my revelation in the second act, when I share with [Huey] that I've been to the church, the black church that he's been going to . . . and that I've actually had my eyes opened, and it's through the music. The clever thing about what Joe and David did as they constructed this is that everything really does come through the music. It's very cool, and so it's through this gospel music and the music in the preacher's voice that she had her eyes opened. And so I get to sing a rock 'n' roll, R&B, gospel song.
Question: Is that fun?
Morgan: Oh, it's just a blast! It's so much fun to do. It's so much fun for me to feel the audience's shock and then the joy that they feel, both cheering her on and just being so tickled that that's who she's turned into.
Question: What do you think is the message of the show or what does it mean to you?
Morgan: Well, the song that we finish with – the hook is, "Don't let anyone steal your rock 'n' roll. Never let anyone steal your rock 'n' roll." I think the metaphor of rock 'n' roll being your passion in life, or as Joseph Campbell used to say, "your bliss." Whatever that is that inspires you, that thrills you and makes you want to be creative, that makes you want to get up every day, you should do it. You need to have faith in your convictions and do what feels important and right to you.
Question: Tell me about working with Chad and Montego.
Morgan: Well, they're both so talented, and they're both so nice and they're both so professional and hard-working. It's just been a joy. I just love being Chad's mother. I'd be proud to be his real mother! [Laughs.]
Question: You've done so much theatre. Do you have other favorite experiences?
Morgan: Oh, my. I do. I have a lot of favorite experiences, and there are so many different reasons why. I mean, way, way, way back, when we first created Pump Boys and Dinettes, there was such a marvelous surprise in that for all of us. We never really set out to write a Broadway show. It just kind of evolved into it, and that was such a great, joyful time. I think, in a completely different way than that, Floyd Collins has got to be one of my favorite experiences as an actress, because the music was so rich and glorious and the story was so unique, and Tina Landau created such a [wonderful environment]. The atmosphere that Tina creates in a rehearsal hall – there's nothing like it. She encourages everyone; you all feel equally collaborative. She loves to work with an improvisational technique called the Viewpoints, and so you learn a kind of a language, an unspoken language of how to work with other actors. It creates an instant kind of a feeling of ensemble that you only get by working with people a long time, but it kind of makes it happen really fast. So it was very, very fun [Laughs]. I loved it, and I got to listen to that gorgeous score every night. Yeah, but there have been so many. I've worked with so many great people. I'm a lucky old woman! [Laughs.] [Memphis plays the Shubert Theatre, which is located at 225 West 44th Street; for reservations call (212) 239-6200 or visit Memphisthemusical.com.]
Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.