Monday, December 23, 2013

Friday Dance Party: On The Morrow

Karen Morrow in I Had A Ball.
This week's Dance Party is actually last week's.  In the spirit of "the dog ate my homework," this website ate my final draft, and I was so pissed I gave up.  But our star turned 77 last week, and she's been one of my favorites for decades, so she deserves some Dance Party love, even a week late.
If this is how you know Karen Morrow, you're missing out.  About 5 years after sitcom smash Bewitched left the airwaves, it was somebody's bright idea to create a sequel of sorts.  Pre-teen Tabitha, daughter witch in the series, was given a case of what is known in daytime TV as SORAS (Soap Opera Rapid Aging Syndrome), and became a girl in her 20s, seeking a career and a love life (think That Girl without the charm).  None of the surviving principles from Bewitched wanted anything to do with this thing, though I've read that Bernard Fox's Dr. Bombay made a few appearances, as did the nosy neighbors the Kravitzes.  The show lasted only one season, and included in its cast Karen Morrow, playing Aunt Minerva, who seemed to be an amalgamation of Bewitched's Aunt Clara and Endora.  I'm sad to report that this was Karen's only sustained national attention.  She continued to guest on various sitcoms and variety shows, but her first love remains where she belongs, the stage.
Karen Morrow was the go-to belter on Broadway during the 60s, starring in a string of unfortunate shows for which she received glowing reviews.  She never had that big hit which may have insured her name be remembered, though in truth, the era in which Broadway stars became household names had already passed.  Still, our Karen should be better known today than she is, and I'm sorry that, if people remember her, it's likely to be for that silly sitcom above.

Morrow did have some success with revivals, such as this Off-
Broadway mounting of Boys from Syracuse.  She also added
her signature belt to a string of shows at City Center, including
The Most Happy Fella.  But her Broadway resume does not
measure up to her talent.

Regrettably, her Great White Way endeavors aren't well-remembered, though her debut may have had some traction had it not been for her temperamental costar.  I Had A Ball took place at Coney Island, and was structured around the questionable talents of comic Buddy Hackett. 

Undisciplined comics such as Buddy Hackett have no business attempting the focused marathon of a Broadway run.  It was his first attempt at a book show, and his lack of training (or sustainable talent, if you asked me) caused him to become bored with the 8-show-a-week routine.  He soon started acting up, inserting his own smutty material into what was meant to be a family show.  I Had A Ball lasted only a few hundred performances.
Nobody could get this one to work.

Our Karen was also part of the prestigious flop The Grass Harp, which included in the cast Barbara Cook (in her final book musical to date), with Truman Capote providing the source material.  This one lasted only a week on Broadway, but the character Morrow created, an over-the-top evangelist named Miss Babylove, stopped the show with her number. 
Though it lasted only a week on Broadway, The Grass Harp's Miss Babylove had a bit of an afterlife.  The show actually began in Michigan, but when it transferred to New York, original star Celeste Holm was deemed too weak of voice and too old of age, so the role went to Karen.  The show has been attempted since, with Elaine Stritch playing Babylove, and believe it or not, Cass Elliot was set to make her musical theatre debut in the role before the funding dried up.  Not a bad legacy for a one-week wonder.
I first came across Karen Morrow too many years ago to count, on a syndicated talk show helmed by Steve Allen.  I still remember wondering who the hell this powerhouse singer was, as she belted a remarkable rendition of "Time After Time." 
Karen Morrow at her best: belting a showtune.

I started to bump into Ms. Morrow on other talk shows, particularly Merv Griffin's, who was smart to make good use of her as a singer and lively conversationalist.  There used to be several nice clips of her appearances on YouTube, but those have recently been removed for copyright reasons.  I hate that.
Everybody in the business of musical theater loves Karen Morrow.  Here she is with her best buddy Nancy Dussault, Joanne Worley, and Jason Graae peeking overhead.
I was lucky enough to see Karen Morrow twice in person (so far).  The second time I saw her was in a big revival of Sondheim's Follies in Long Beach, CA, in the mid-90s. 
Karen's buddy Charles Nelson Reilly had better luck.  He
was able to transfer his Broadway stardom to TV. They
can be heard singing "Baby, It's Cold Outside" on an album
of Broadway folks, recorded for AIDS charities.

That show was headlined by Juliet Prowse (a previous visitor to the Dance Party) and Shani Wallis, and included in its cast opera legend Yma Sumac and a very, very, VERY old Dorothy Lamour (sidebar: Lamour was so old she could not remember her lyrics.  She toddled out to center stage, led by a chorus boy, stood stock still and warbled "Broadway Baby" with the conductor shouting her next lyrics from the pit. Sad.  But unforgettable).  Anyway, our Karen belted out "I'm Still Here;"  there is a grainy clip of that performance here.

This is the show I saw years ago at
Studio One in West Hollywood.

But the first time I saw Karen Morrow live was more special.  She teamed up with her friend Nancy Dussault (another 60s Broadway stalwart who appeared on this Dance Party) for a cabaret act which they have performed time to time over the years.  I saw an early version of it in West Hollywood, years and years ago.  Studio One was the big dance club of L.A. at the time, catering to partying gays, and the owners had created a small cabaret room adjacent to the main club.  Neither room was soundproofed, so anyone performing in The Backlot, as the cabaret was called, had to put up with that unrelenting disco bass beat which shook the walls.  It was a noble effort, that cabaret room.
This is the annual float from Studio One for the annual Gay Pride parade, peopled with employees and clientele.  I used to giggle at the thought of the upscale cabaret audience bumping into these scantily clad boys in the hallways leading to the bathrooms, which both rooms in the club shared.
As for Karen and Nancy, they gave a dynamite show.  Their talents complimented each other beautifully, and were reminiscent of Mary Martin and Ethel Merman performing together (in fact, the centerpiece of their routine was the long duet those two earlier divas had performed back in the 1950s, when they were the Queens of Broadway).
Morrow has had a nice career on regional stages and on tour, playing all the big brassy dames of Broadway's Golden Age.  This is Dolly, of course, but she also played Reno Sweeney, Annie Oakley, Molly Brown,  Mrs. Lovett, Oliver's Nancy and Call Me Madam's Sally Adams.
Over the years, Karen has become an expert interpreter of Jerry Herman's music, and has appeared in many tribute concerts and cabaret evenings which feature his catalogue.  Herman's wide-eyed simplicity and unabashed sentimentality are perfectly suited to Morrow's open style of showbizzy performance.  You'll recognize all the other belters here; Carol Channing, Leslie Uggams, and Rita Moreno all join Karen, with Jerry at the piano (you'll never find a tribute to Jerry Herman happening anywhere which he himself does not attend, and usually participate in).
This week's Dance Party, which is really last week's, comes from a Jerry Herman tribute.  You'll recognize the Hollywood Bowl, where everyone gathered in 1994 to pay homage to Jerry;  Karen is singing a song from one of his flops, Dear World

That attempt to musicalize The Madwoman of Chaillot didn't succeed too well (though it won Angela Lansbury one of her Tonys), but it spawned this power ballad which continues to have life.  A belated Happy Birthday to Karen Morrow.  Keep on belting!

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