Theatre yesterday and today

 

 

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ROBERT MORSE: A CHRISTMAS MEMORY

I’ve been thinking about writing something on plays or musicals set around and about Christmas and in so doing, one in particular stuck out in my memory more than any other. What’s funny is that when I saw it on stage in 1991, it was a hot January summer afternoon in Los Angeles. And for those one hundred minutes, I was magically transported to the week of Christmas 1975 in New York City (aided immeasurably by David Mitchell’s wonderful Upper East Side apartment design set at United Nations Plaza, complete with a view of the East River and a giant Christmas tree). When I walked out of the Henry Fonda Theatre, immediately blinded by the sun-drenched street on Hollywood Boulevard, it hit me that what I had seen was something I possibly would never see the likes of again. And over the past thirty years, it came to be, well… true.


Artist Linda Fennimore’s poster design for Tru, starring Robert Morse (1989).


I’m talking about Robert Morse in Tru, a one-man play that, by the time I caught up with it, had just ended its year-long Broadway run and was on a long national tour. In Jay Presson Allens’ script (that she also directed) the writer Truman Capote comes alive on stage at a very bad time in his life (of which he had many). For the play’s setting, Allen chose when the recently published excerpts in Esquire Magazine of his new novel Answered Prayers was met with stunned silence by friends, many of whom appeared in thinly-veiled portrayals. All felt betrayed by the revealing of intimate conversations, But as Capote asks in the play, “Didn’t those people understand they were talking to an artist? Isn’t all fair in war and art?”


Truman Capote, circa 1968.


In spite of being a fine and successful writer, Capote led a tortured life, made worse by addictions to alcohol and pills. What Allen captures in her play is Capote’s voracious wit, and although often drenched in self-pity, the voice that emerges is more than just the ramblings from your average unreliable narrator. As proof the play wasn’t only Morse’s triumph, it has had a life beyond its original production, allowing for other actors to showcase their ability to channel Capote. But for Morse it was a singular sensation; one that came after many long years in the theatrical wilderness. “You want to move into character parts and it’s very difficult because people know you as that boyish Bobby Morse.”


“That grin of impetuous youth” — Robert Morse in How to Succeed (1961).


Interestingly, the role was originally meant for someone else: composer/singer and sometime actor Paul Williams, who shared an Oscar with Barbra Streisand for “Evergreen” and also wrote “The Rainbow Connection,” among many others. At 5'2,” he made perfect sense to play the 5' 3" Capote. But when the creative team was faced with his backing out of the production, Jay Presson Allen and casting director Pat McCorkle were yielding little in the way of appropriate replacements. Finally, in exasperation more than anything else, McCorkle said, “What about Robert Morse? He’s short.” And as for his credits mostly being that of a comedic actor, Allen was later said to remark: “Comedians do the hardest thing there is… it’s a lot easier for them to make the transition into drama than the other way around… I needed someone who could take the stage, grab an audience by the nape of the neck and give it a good shake. As a musical comedy performer, Bobby is used to doing that.’"


Thus, Morse found himself with the second greatest part of his career. He won his second Tony (becoming one of the tiny handful of people to win for leads in a musical and a play). And when Tru was taped live in its Chicago production for PBS’s American Playhouse in 1993, he won the Emmy as Outstanding Lead Actor in a Miniseries or Special. What Morse did was not so much imitate Capote’s high-pitched, lisping sound, but suggest it by way of his indelible persona, which made it completely his own. Almost unrecognizable under latex jowls and a fake double chin courtesy of makeup design by Kevin Haney (wig by Paul Huntley), it was also Morse’s idea to dramatically rip it off in the wings, coming out with it hanging half off his face during the curtain call. And as he told me, it was NOT his writer/director Jay Presson Allen’s idea… but let me tell you: it worked. The audience went wild.