Karen Morrow sings "I Had a Ball"

“She’ll sing the hell out of it.”

That, my friends, is Jerry Herman’s ringing endorsement for the one and only Karen Morrow, who possesses one of the best belt voices I have ever heard. Morrow got her start in the early 60s with a Theatre World Award for the off-Broadway musical Sing Muse! and several shows at the City Center. Following a tour in The Unsinkable Molly Brown, she found further off-Broadway success in a hit revival of The Boys from Syracuse.

However, Morrow is another great voice cursed by a series of Broadway flops. She made her Main Stem debut in I Had a Ball playing the brassy belter opposite star Buddy Hackett (who thankfully kept his singing to a minimum and is the reason the show closed – check out Not Since Carrie or the original cast recording for details). The plot is convoluted nonsense about romance on Coney Island (gee, where have I heard that recently…?) and gave Morrow the eleven o’clock showstopper: the title song.

The first time I ever listened to the cast album, nothing really grabbed my attention. That is, until I this song popped on. I stopped what I was doing and proceeded to repeat this one song 13 times. It is, without a doubt, one of the most unabashedly joyous pieces of musical theatre ever written. The cast album features only a portion of the dance break, a bit of belly-dance music but it features one of the most brassily orgasmic transitions back into singing. A treat from start to finish.

If Karen Morrow is on the album, I have it. I’m especially grateful that “The Babylove Miracle Show,” the absurdly infectious faith healer song cycle from The Grass Harp is recorded in its entirety. Morrow basically entered and sang for 15 minutes non-stop, getting the likes of Barbara Cook, Carol Brice and Russ Thacker to speak in tongues (and “Time to hang the moulah on the washline”) – but that’s another post for another day.

After I Had a Ball, Morrow was featured in A Joyful Noise in 1966 opposite John Raitt and Susan Watson. This show folded after a mere 12 performances and no cast album, even though Morrow tore things up with “I Love Nashville.” I’m Solomon in 1968 which ran for 7 performances (and both played the Mark Hellinger Theatre). The Selling of the President ran even shorter: 5 performances at the Shubert in 1972, a musical in which Morrow didn’t sing a single note – which I like to think is one of the main reasons it failed. (During her opening night curtain call, a gentleman near the stage called out, “You should have sang, honey!”) Her final Broadway appearance to date was much happier: she replaced Cleo Laine as the Princess Puffer in The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

In spite of those flops, Morrow’s never wanted for work: performing in concerts, with symphonies around the country, numerous TV appearances (especially Merv Griffin, who adored her) – and she’s even won an Emmy. She’s one of Jerry Herman’s favorites, and whenever there is a concert in his behalf you can count on her being there. She also toured as Parthy in Hal Prince’s Show Boat and was involved with White Christmas: the Musical, and is featured on that original cast album.

Anyway, here is Karen Morrow with the dancing company of I Had a Ball. The choreography is by Onna White. Also, take note of what Buddy Hackett does during the song’s big finish.

Kenward Elmslie Remembers "The Grass Harp"

The show lasted seven performances in New York in 1971, but The Grass Harp has developed a cult following among musical theatre aficionados thanks to its sublime cast album. The musical, based on Truman Capote’s novel, had music by Claibe Richardson and book and lyrics by Kenward Elmslie. It marked Barbara Cook’s final appearance (to date) in a book musical on Broadway. The show also featured Karen Morrow, one of Broadway’s greatest belters, whose dynamite 15 minute “The Babylove Miracle Show” stopped the show. Carol Brice, Russ Thacker (Walter Bobbie his standby), Max Showalter and Ruth Ford rounded out the principals.

Critics weren’t very kind and the advance wasn’t enough so the show shuttered quickly. Several years later the cast album came out which (as is the case with many flop musicals) has kept the piece alive. It was also the final Broadway musical to have an entirely acoustic sound. But with such powerhouses like Barbara Cook, Karen Morrow (who Jerry Herman has said can sing the hell out of anything) and opera singer Carol Brice, who needs a mike?

Do yourself a favor and get your hands on this lovely score. Barbara Cook’s “Chain of Love” is achingly beautiful and worth the price of the album alone.

From US OperaWeb’s 2002 piece “Kenward Elmslie’s World,” Elmslie looks back on some memories of the show:

I Remember first meeting Truman Capote in Boston. A play of his based on his novella, The Grass Harp, was trying out pre-Broadway. I was with my significant other/mentor John Latouche, whose lyrics I idolized. Truman’s high-pitched, nasal voice and weirdo effeminacy terrified me. He complained vociferously about Cecil Beaton’s tree, which upstaged the performers and sabotaged his play.

I Remember working with Claibe Richardson, composer, on a musical adapted from The Madwoman of Chaillot; Richard Barr, producer; star, Lotte Lenya. Only it turned out we didn’t have the ‘rights.’ Several years work down the drain.

I Remember suggesting The Grass Harp, Truman’s novella (not his play) as a project to get us going again. I remember tackling some songs to see if it was right for us. It was. So we played them for Truman. He loved what we had done, counseled us to make it our own and gave us the rights, no hitch.

I Remember its first production, Trinity Square, Providence. My survival mantra I owe to the poet Frank O’Hara: Go on nerve and don’t look back. Ah. Opening night’s a marathon disaster, three-and-a-half hours long. The critics panned the daylights out of our fledgling. Elaine Stritch, a crowd-pleaser as Babylove, was consistently crocked and nightly gave Claibe near-heart failure – erratic tempi and pitch.

I Remember Kermit Bloomgarten, the prestigious Broadway producer, optioned our musical for Broadway. But to raise the huge sum of $250,000 (in 1971 – peanuts compared to now) he needed a star. I remember Claibe on piano. We shared the vocals, got to audition for Gwen Verdon and Julie Harris. An incredible pleasure after backers’ auditions — solemn guys in business suits, a no response situation. If they reacted positively the property might prove pricey. I remember going to Brazil with Claibe to nab a star. We tracked down Mary Martin at her isolated finca. She turned us down charmingly. Show-biz shrewd, she knew she needed to play both Dollyheart and Babylove to fulfill her fans’ expectations.

I Remember Ann Arbor where The Grass Harp tried out, pre-Broadway, in a theater so brand-new, flies secreted in cinder blocks, kamakazi-style, dive-bombed open singers’ mouths, which made singing extremely hazardous. The Detroit critics panned the living daylights out of our perennial fledgling. Richard Barr gallantly refused to close the show out of town.

I Remember the first matinee at the Martin Beck Theater, post-New York Times mixed notice. Small audience. Inhibited, cowed response. A dire contrast to the week of previews when audience response kept building. I remember Truman’s fixed advice: ‘Mike it.’ The Grass Harp was surely the last unamplified musical to hit Broadway. I remember the final performance, the seventh. The audience went wild. Laughs, showstopper after showstopper, endless bravos and curtain calls.

I Remember a recording studio in Cologne, Germany. Claibe and I were early. Our mission: bring back orchestral tracks for an original cast album. Only the harpist was there, hailed from Alabama. She had once played for Barbara Cook in a Broadway pit. I remember hours went by and the assembled orchestra – willowy violinists from the Cologne Philharmonic, protean Afro-American jazz guys – this group wasn’t together – when Karen Morrow, who’d played Babylove in the Broadway show and wanted to spend Thanksgiving in Europe with Claibe and me, stepped to the mike and did Babylove proud. Galvanized, the orchestra kicked in and we finished three days of sessions in the nick of…

I Remember bringing back our Grass Harp tapes. U.S. Customs: ‘Anything of value to declare?’ ‘Heck no. Just some dumb old reel-to-reels.’

I Remember we assembled the cast in a dinky New York City studio. The engineers weren’t used to ‘real’ voices – Carol Brice, Barbara Cook. They took away their booster gizmos. I remember when the album came out, listeners, including some critics, couldn’t figure out why on earth the show had flopped on Broadway.

I Remember attending a revival at a college in Manhattan. To my dismay sitting next to me was John Simon, acerb New York drama critic. The enemy! He nudged me mid-song, ‘If There’s Love Enough.’ ‘Great song,’ he whispered.

I Remember the director of a book-in-hand production at the York Theater, New York City, asking me if I had any old, unrevised scripts tucked away. He found the published acting version lacking. I dug through a morass of scripts and to my horror I realized that I had cut, cut, cut the dialogue mercilessly. The book is always the culprit when musicals fail. Everybody liked our songs. Go with the songs. I put back whole pages of dialogue, wantonly savaged. A show reborn. A fresh start.