Yesterday I wrote about Sugar, the 1972 musical version of the classic 1959 comedy Some Like It Hot. By no means any sort of classic, Sugar still managed to be very entertaining on its own merits. I saw it early in its run in April of 1972 (I was fifteen, if anyone wants to know) and was absolutely blown away by the energy, comedic skills and charisma of Robert Morse. As Jerry, a musician who inadvertently witnesses a gangland killing, forcing him to go on the lam dressed as a woman in an all-girl orchestra, Morse was the real deal. This was my first time seeing him on stage, although I kind of already worshiped him more than a little bit from his performance as J. Pierpont Finch in the 1966 film version of his stage triumph in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.
This was the role that made Morse a star. I was too young to have seen the original Broadway production, but from everything I've read and heard it was a magical aligning of all the right elements. The show won 7 Tony Awards, including one for Morse that helped launch him into the stratosphere. Throughout the 1960s, Morse starred in 7 films and had a TV series (a weekly musical one at that called That's Life) all of which kept him away from Broadway. He didn't return until Sugar came along, 11 years after he first played Finch.
Once Morse entered as "Daphne," he owned the rest of the evening (or afternoon, as I saw a matinee). His reviews were stellar—the kind that any actor dreams about. It was quite a welcome home, as they were identical to the ones he got for Finch. Then, sixteen years after Sugar closed, Morse came back to Broadway as Truman Capote in Tru, a one-person play that honored him with a second Tony, making him one of only four actors to have ever won Best Actor in a Play and a Musical in the 70 year history of the awards.
When he arrived at my house in Los Angeles to discuss his long and varied career, I met him in the driveway. Although we had become friendly by this point, I had to level with him. I said, "There's no way of my telling you what it means to me after all the years I spent as a kid in my bedroom on Long Island singing along with you on the How To Succeed record to have you to my home today." He gave me a big hug and we went inside to sit and talk about his 60 year career.
He was delightful and straightforward on the subject of his early years as an actor and how, through a series of an incredible events, he found success almost immediately. When we finally got around to Sugar, for which he held great affection, I asked if he remembered one of its producer David Merrick's more spectacular blow-ups. Angry with how grim the show's sets looked for a musical, Merrick fired its scenic designer and had the entire set thrown out during the out of town tryout. "Do I remember that? Of course I do," he said. "I saw it all busted up and sitting in the alley out with the garbage! But it didn't bother me or affect anything I was doing. When the new train compartment set was brought in, I could still do all my business in the upper berth with Elaine Joyce. I could still do my lean."
His "lean." This I loved. If you've ever seen Morse dance in just about anything, you know that he has this patented lean that he does. In the TV series Mad Man, which he appeared in during its whole six-year run, his final moment after he dies is a song and dance fantasy seen through the eyes of Don Draper, played by Jon Hamm. When I saw it for the first time, I teared up, just as Jon Hamm does on screen, only to then have Morse cause me to burst out laughing upon seeing how he managed to work in his lean!
"Someone recently gave me a CD of Sugar made through the sound system—the whole show, scenes and songs," he told me. "And I listened to it in the car the other day and I was crying ... I wish they had preserved that show somewhere on film. It is the saddest thing in my being that it wasn't. What is also painful is that it wasn't the hit it should have been. I mean, like in the way that The Producers was."
At one point, totally caught up in our two-hour talk, he blurted out, "What you've regaled me with ... our conversation ... has buoyed me up! It's touched me ... and it's going to last at least an hour!"
That may have been comically self-deprecating, but in the year since we spoke, Morse has been cast as part of the ensemble in one of TV's best reviewed series of the year, The People V. OJ Simpson: American Crime Story. His performance as journalist Dominick Dunne got great notices.
And there's more: the title of this piece, "And Robert Morse," comes from the billing he is getting in all advertising for the upcoming fall revival of the Ben Hecht-Charles MacArthur comedy classic The Front Page. Not only am I highly anticipating the return of what I consider one of the smartest and most timely of all American plays, but the return of Robert Morse to Broadway. And I know I'm not the only one.
Dolly may be coming back in 2017, but before that happens ... Mr. Morse, it will be so nice have YOU back where you belong.
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