On a brisk Saturday night last month, when the Great White Way offered customers the usual mix of big-ticket plays and musicals, true aficionados could be found several blocks away, in a small theatre below Saint Peter’s Church in Manhattan, where a powerhouse cast performed Jerry Herman’s beloved yet obscure musical “Dear World.”
A rich slice of theatre history was coming to life before a packed crowd, as Tyne Daly, Alison Fraser, Ann Harada and others presented an updated version of the show based on Jean Giraudoux’s “The Madwoman of Chaillot.” The original 1969 musical had been a gem that failed to get traction at the box office, and there were no plans to bring it back as an expensive revival. Which is exactly why Jim Morgan, Artistic Director of the York Theatre Company, decided to stage it.
“This show is beautiful and it deserves to be seen today,” Morgan said during the intermission of his latest “Musicals in Mufti” offering—a series where actors in everyday clothes perform book-in-hand versions of worthy but overlooked musicals. “Bringing back productions like this and rediscovering them has been our core mission for 20 years.”
In a City where musicals open and close every season, it’s easy to overlook the enduring genius of an art form that doesn’t always produce a “Hamilton,” but still showers audiences with brilliant songs, lyrics and drama year after year. A handful of directors fight to preserve this tradition, and none with more panache and vision than Morgan.
This coming Monday he’ll be honored for two decades of leadership at The York, and the gala will feature writers, composers, performers and patrons. They’ll be saluting a man who, beyond his devotion to musicals, delivers the most wickedly amusing stage speeches in town, and runs one of America’s most distinctive theatre companies.
Under Morgan’s leadership, The York has presented mainstage and mufti productions of new and classic shows by Stephen Sondheim, Sheldon Harnick, Richard Maltby, Jr. and David Shire, Nancy Ford, Kander and Ebb, Jerry Herman, Rodgers and Hammerstein and others. Many of them have won Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle, Obie and Lucille Lortel nominations and awards, and several have had commercial transfers, including “Cagney,” “The Musical of Musicals (The Musical!”), “Sweeney Todd” and “Pacific Overtures.”
Beyond live performances, the York has created a Musical Theatre Training Program, and it presents an annual concert recognizing new, emerging and outstanding writers. The company also sponsors a Developmental Reading Series for 40 new shows every year.
Morgan’s friends are effusive in their praise. Nancy Ford, whose “I’m Getting My Act Together and Taking it on the Road” was revived at the theater, said: “I can’t think of another organization in the city that concentrates solely on musicals, providing a place for both established and emerging writers to revisit old work or introduce new work.”
Maltby, whose “Big” and “Closer Than Ever” got new life at the York, said: “We in the musical theater love what we do, and when a show doesn’t work, we put it aside, roll up our sleeves and start something new…We move on. But Jim is there to remind us of what we loved, and to remind audiences of what we did.”
Tony-nominated actor Brad Oscar spoke for many when he said: “Jim Morgan is keeping the American musical theatre alive and well at the York,” singling out his “dedication, perseverance and those treasured pre-curtain speeches.”
As he worked on preparations for “Marry Harry,” the York’s next show, Morgan spoke with the Huffington Post about musicals and his commitment to a vital cultural legacy.
HP: How did you become interested in musical theatre?
JM: My parents had a collection of great shows on LP’s, like “My Fair Lady,” “The Music Man” and “South Pacific,” and I loved them. When I was in high school in Naples, Florida, our school got several shipments of records from a distributor in New York, and they included a lot of musicals I’d never heard of before – shows that were not successful and had been created by great writers like Irving Berlin. And I became fascinated with the idea that great people didn’t always write great musicals. There were shows that didn’t work, and why was that? And were there still valuable things to find in these shows?
HP: Were your parents supportive?
JM: Yes. Mom’s training was as a pianist, so there was a musical side there. And Dad was a newspaper man. I learned a lot about drawing and lettering from him, and he loved Gilbert & Sullivan. I got support from both sides.
HP: What eventually brought you to New York City?
JM: I specialized in set design, with a drama major in college, and decided to move to New York as soon as I graduated. Some professors wrote letters of introduction, and I met Hal Prince, met (producer) Alexander Cohen. I rented a U-Haul in 1974 and drove everything up to the City. I also met people through my grandmother and aunt and uncle, who lived here. My grandmother knew Irving Berlin, and I did a bit of artwork for him, which he appreciated. My relatives said they didn’t really know anyone else in the business, but there was this dear little theatre group at their church, and maybe I’d like to meet the woman who runs it. I was polite and said, “Sure.” It turned out the woman was Janet Hayes Walker, who founded the York Theatre and became a friend and wonderful mentor me. We worked together for 25 years before she passed away.
HP: How did your relationship with the York Theater take hold?
JM: I began doing posters for the theatre, and holding down a number of other jobs. I also began teaching at a school that was in the same building as the church where the York was originally based. We did a lot of plays, and eventually I began directing. I got more and more involved in working with Janet, who had an incredible background in musical theatre. She had studied with Nadia Boulanger in Paris and she had been in seven Broadway shows, including “Anyone Can Whistle” and “The Golden Apple.” She was Barbara Cook’s understudy in “The Music Man” and Julie Andrews’ understudy in “Camelot.” We loved doing successful shows, but we also believed it was important to give worthy shows a second chance--shows that deserved to be seen again.
HP: Was your focus solely on musicals at that point?
JM: No, because Janet always said they were so difficult to do. We started doing one musical a year, and it got a lot of attention. We did “Anyone Can Whistle” because she had been in it and had a connection to Stephen Sondheim. We did a lot of Sondheim, including “Merrily We Roll Along,” “Sweeney Todd” and “Pacific Overtures.”
HP: When did you take over the artistic director position?
JM: Janet died in 1997 and it was a huge loss. But she had asked me several years before that if anything were to happen to her, would I take over. I became Artistic Director, and from that moment on the longtime Chairman of the Board at the York and I decided that we were going to do only musicals. It was what I really wanted to do, and it’s become a mission – mixing old shows in the mufti series and new shows on our mainstage. Our slogan is “Where Musicals Come to Life” but there’s a risk, because some people will always say, ‘Are you really going to do that show which nobody remembers? Are you sure?’ I’m not saying every show can work no matter what, but a lot of this is believing in a musical, finding the right people to bring out the core and heart of it. A lot of these shows were so over-produced originally, like “Dear World,” they got lost in a theatre or a conception too big. “Dear World” is one of the best things Jerry Herman wrote. It’s so timely. But it was staged in a gigantic theatre, and it’s really a jewel box of a show.
HP: Could you see “Dear World” transferring to another theater?
JM: The Helen Hayes is one that everybody mentions. But there aren’t too many theaters that size on Broadway. There are big ones, and maybe they could be chopped into four little ones! As opposed to staging gigantic shows that have to be big enough to fill the space.
HP: How important is patience in this process?
JM: It’s huge. Some shows take longer than ten years to develop, and they end up being wonderful, or they disappear because people lose heart. They get one bad review and decide to throw in the towel. What we say at the York is: ‘No, there’s something valuable here. Keep working on it. Think about trying this, it might turn the show around.’ That’s what we stress in the developmental readings of new works we hold throughout the year. You have to give the process time to work.
HP: The York is a unique place--but how different is your approach from that of the “Encores” productions at City Center?
JM: They do amazing work. But they have to fill a huge number of seats, and they choose shows that will sell to those seats. They do a good job, but that approach doesn’t interest me in the slightest. I love the fact that we can take chances and make imaginative, esoteric choices in a small (178-seat) theater. That’s a big difference.
HP: Has the York’s underlying mission remained the same?
JM: Yes, I think so. We’re always looking at tradition, to revive and honor great work that has been overlooked or forgotten. And we’re constantly supporting new musicals and new writers, too. But I don’t think you can write new shows unless you have some kind of understanding of what came before. There are too many people who write new shows based on what they saw at the New York Fringe Festival the year before. It becomes a regurgitation of ideas, style and tonal approaches that can backfire. Now, more than ever, we need to honor the past and push toward the future. That’s how we’ll keep musical theatre alive and well.