Teacher, Teacher!

Singer-actress Karen Morrow's long and varied career has brought her acclaim (an Emmy and a tall stack of Dramalogue Awards) and some pretty wide-ranging roles (Parthy in the 1994 touring revival of Showboat; Endora-wanna-be Aunt Minerva on the treacly Bewitched spin-off, Tabitha). On her way to town to teach a master class on musical theater at ASU, Morrow paused to consider her many flops and the state of music today.

Robrt Pela: You've starred on Broadway, and you've worked with a whole lot of legends. Now you're coming to Phoenix to teach a master class on musical theater. Is this slumming?

Karen Morrow: Not at all. I've been teaching for a while now. I was a professor at UCLA for years. Now I do the classes in tandem with Jerry [Herman]. We single out six or eight kids, and they sing for me, then I talk to them about what they're doing and make whatever adjustments. It's fun to be able to influence kids, if I do indeed influence them.

Pela: I read where you were hesitant to teach a master class because you didn't want to "sound like some old fart who needs to feed her ego."

Morrow: I said that?

Pela: It's on your Web site.

Morrow: Well, it's true. I've spent time with old farts who only want to talk about "the old days." It's boring and not helpful to the kids. And frankly, the kids don't know who the old stars are, anyway. I told a young woman the other day, "You remind me of a young Gwen Verdon." She didn't know who that was.

Pela: Horrors!

Morrow: I know. And she's a graduate from a musical theater academy. I didn't know what to say to her.

Pela: Kids these days. When you were a kid, your inspiration was Susan Johnson.

Morrow: You know who she is?

Pela: I know everything.

Morrow: Well, when I was young I had a different [singing] voice and I didn't know what to do with it. One day in drama class, I heard that sound — Susan Johnson singing on an LP of Most Happy Fella. I said, "That's how I sound. Who is she? What does she do?" And someone said, "Oh, she sings in Broadway musicals." I figured I'd better, too. What did I know? I was from Des Moines.

Pela: You still audition. Why does Karen Morrow audition?

Morrow: Now you're flattering me. I audition because I'm old and haven't been in anything lately. I take an audition so producers can hear what I sound like today. But mostly because I teach, and I have to know what goes in auditions so I can tell my students. And it's a whole different [audition] process today — you take a number!

Pela: Thirty-five years later, people are still talking about your "Babylove Miracle Show" number from The Grass Harp.

Morrow: I'm glad, but I think they remember it because it was such a long number and because I sing the way I sing — big and loud. But that show ran only two weeks.

Pela: You always get such great notices, yet you've appeared in so many flops.

Morrow: I know. Boy, you do ask the questions.

Pela: I'm sorry.

Morrow: No. It's okay. I've analyzed this, trying to think of why I've had so many flops. I keep coming back to my contemporaries — who were the women getting the good shows? And it was always the ones who could sing but also had something extra, something interesting about themselves. Nancy Dussault was cute and adorable, she had something special. So did Barbra Streisand, Linda Lavin. Oh, God! And Brenda Vaccaro! And certainly Anita Gillette. I think with me, I was just a singer with a big voice and I was pleasant, and that can only take you so far.

Pela: You have a very special relationship with Jerry Herman.

Morrow: For years and years. He used to call me in for any show he was doing. He hired me to do Mack and Mabel, and he said, "You do tap dance?" I told him no, so he got Gower Champion to work with me. I was hopeless. I didn't know how to do a time step, nothing. Gower called Jerry and said, "She doesn't dance! She can barely walk!" But where would I be without all those producers who took an interest in me? Nowhere. And you'd be interviewing somebody else right now.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela