What's New on the Rialto
Interview with Euan Morton
By Beth Herstein
"Do you mind if we go to the stairwell where I can smoke?", Morton asks before we've settled in. "I haven't had a cigarette in hours." On our way, we pass through the green room, where a man is collapsed, face down, on the sofa. "That's our playwright. He's been working very hard."
So has Morton, although he doesn't show it. From November 11 through December 28, 2005, he performed at California's Berkeley Repertory Roda Theater, in the Tony Kushner-Maurice Sendak collaboration, Brundibar; his current show began previews at the Public Theater February 21 and is set to run through March 26; and he just finished recording and mixing his first solo album, NewClear, which will be released on March 21. Morton will celebrate with shows at Joe's Pub in March and April. Immediately afterward, he returns to Brundibar in late April for its limited run at Manhattan's New Victory Theater.
Measure for Pleasure is written in the style and language of a Restoration comedy, and contains many typical trappings of that genre: mistaken identities, duels, bawdy humor and the quest for true love. The central characters are a gay man and a transvestite prostitute, and the play also touches upon decidedly modern issues like gay marriage.
The album is a 10-song mix of original songs by his friends and collaborators like David Nehls and Mark Underwood, and covers by composers including Leonard Cohen and William P. McCord (also known as Billy Vera). This is Morton's first solo recording, and it is clear that this project is close to his heart.
As we reach the stairwell, Morton lights up, and we begin to talk.
Euan Morton: A Restoration romp is the best way to describe it. It's a bedroom farce mixed with high drama. It's definitely a modern play - it was written in the last couple of years. The writer has a great sensibility for Ye Olde English language, if you like. He's very clever. And he brings this style into the modern day and age.
BH: A friend told me, referring to science fiction and fantasy, that it's easier to critique contemporary society under the guise of something very foreign.
EM: That's exactly what David says about the play. In a chat session with the audience, he said you can judge society today when you use the past's distant glasses.
BH: In the production, you bring a gentle spirit to your character, Molly Tawdry. I've read that it's a goal of yours, to bring the humanity into the parts you play - here, in Taboo as Boy George, and in your other parts.
EM: As an actor, you bring a part of you into every part you play. I also aim to show the depths within the characters. Molly's a great character. She goes through such a change by the end.
BH: You've also spoken about your hesitance to dress in drag again. But, in a way, costumes in works like Measure for Pleasure serve as political statements, using that term in its broadest sense.
EM: My discussions in the past about wearing drag again were really more my personal stuff than anyone else's. At the end of the day, Molly is far greater-reaching than a boy in a dress. That's why I took the job - because he is a lot more than just that. I have become more comfortable in the costume and I find you're right, it's political. I think it's quite nice as you said earlier, to put another face on our modern world and the problems that we still face today.
BH: Can you tell me a little about working with this cast?
EM: It's a whole bunch of stars, which is really nice. And, it's a very small cast, too, so you can really get to know people. In a big musical, there are 40 or so people in the cast, running around crazy backstage. Here, it's just this little green room, and all the dressing rooms open up onto the green room, and everyone hangs out there. We all get on very well. I'm learning a lot here, too, working with Michael Stuhlbarg and Suzanne Bertish and Wayne Knight and all the rest of them. I feel we're all learning from each other, taking something away [from the project]. I don't just take something as another character, but I take something in my life too.
There is something very solitary about theater, though. When you shut that dressing room door and you are getting into make-up or getting into character, whatever your process happens to be, it's solitary. Actors are all people who like to have people applauding them. There's something very strange and weird and solitary about that. About the desire for love. So, I think that, while certainly this is an ensemble piece, there's always something a little dark about all the actors I've ever met. The little caves they go hide in. Sometimes being an actor drives me a little crazy because you don't always get the solitary time you need. It can be quite a lonely job. You make families with these people, friends and families who stay in touch for as long as the contract, and you're lucky if you stay in touch with anyone. Actors have so many jobs and so many families. No one can have that many friends in their life. It's hard to become a member of a family in a theater and then it's over.
BH: Like a divorce.
EM: Yes. It's kind of weird, and it makes me a little solitary at times.
BH: Reading some of the interviews you did here during Taboo, it seems that it was very overwhelming - the crush of publicity accompanying that production.
EM: I'd been doing it in London for two years, and I was nominated for an Olivier Award there. So I was used to the publicity and all that kind of stuff. It was a new experience here because it was America, and New York, and I'd always wanted to come here. But, to be honest, I'd defy any actor to say that he didn't sometimes imagine himself standing out there doing press publicity and winning prizes. So, it wasn't something I was frightened of. It was something I was looking forward to, and I had a really good experience doing it.
The closing of Taboo, after only 100 performances, was a very hard time, obviously. But in retrospect, I think it was what I needed. I'd been playing George for a long time, and it was all lovely and wonderful. But I was beginning not to learn anything more as a person. So, in a way, the ending of Taboo was the beginning for me.
Before Taboo, I'd had some great roles, some great things in London and Scotland and I'd enjoyed it. But I was always a jobbing actor. Taboo elevated me to the next level. Then it finished, and I was set free to find my place; and I was here, in America. I am able to work now, it's much easier. Right after Measure for Pleasure I go into Brundibar.
I'm working on my album [NewClear], too. I would not be able to do all of this if it were not for Taboo. So, ultimately, Taboo did for me exactly what it was meant to do. It gave me a chance to go off and do my own thing and not be so connected to Boy George, not be so connected to Rosie O'Donnell. Not that it's a negative thing. They've both been wonderfully supportive. But, you're never going to be your own person if everybody sees you as just Rosie's friend or George's.
BH: In a lot of the interviews I've read from that period, you were either paired physically with one of them or were described in that light.
EM: Always. Which was great for me then. It was a really good way of me acquainting myself with the Broadway fans and the theater community here. But ultimately I am not Boy George. I'm not Molly Tawdry. I'm not Rosie O'Donnell's pet for the week. I'm Euan Morton. I have my own desires, and I wanted to go out and fulfill them.
For me, the biggest thing right now is NewClear, doing the album. It's changed my life.
BH: I read that you were thrilled because you had such creative freedom, including the freedom to pick all of your own songs.
EM: Well, all of it - not just to pick songs, but I was there to mix and to master, and to record tracks with the band. I produced the CD with my friend David Nehls and with Mae Robertson, who owns the online label Lyric Partners whom I'm with. The three of us spent a lot of time together in the studio. I learned stuff, even down to the basics of mastering a CD. How much do you need between each song, for the emotional story to develop? All that stuff you don't think about.
BH: There's a release party at Joe's Pub on March 20, and you have another concert there in April to promote the CD.
EM: For the first party, we've mostly saved the tickets for the press, good friends and family. So there aren't that many tickets on sale for the first one. But I really want to get people down to review it. Even if they hate it. I want to know if I'm going in the wrong direction with the music.
On April 3, I'll be doing two gigs that night. They're much more open to the public.
BH: There's also a show at Birdland on May 15, 2006.
EM: At the Birdland show, I think I'm going to do a lot of Carpenter songs, too. I'm a big fan of the Carpenters. I wish I could have met Karen Carpenter. I would have loved to have done a duet with her.
BH: You grew up wanting to be an actor, and reciting poetry and studying theater. I bet that comes in handy doing this show.
EM: Especially this show. I used to love Robert Burns, our Scottish poet laureate. I did a lot of Burns competitions.
I always wanted to be in this career in some aspect. My parents were very supportive. My mother was a singer when she was younger. She sang in clubs and pubs and things. She's always said to me, "you have an amazing voice, you ought to sing," but I never followed it through. The album just landed on my lap after Taboo. People really wanted me to sing. I called my mom one day and said, "I'm doing it, you'll be happy to know. I'm finally singing."
BH: You've also sung at a lot of benefit concerts and one-night events.
EM: Scott and Barbara Siegel always ask me to do stuff; and I've also worked with Jamie deRoy ... I have done a lot of events, certainly during the last year. But that's because first of all, I enjoy doing them and I'm happy to, but secondly because I was unable to work [while I waited to get my papers]. It was important for me to stay out there, as an actor. I wanted to keep working, I wanted to keep learning, I wanted to keep my hands in.
So I have done a lot of benefits, and I'll be doing a lot more. I meet great people there, and people have been kind enough to ask me back. As of June, though, I'm probably going to do a few less, because I'd like to tour the album. I'm talking pubs and clubs here and around the country. If I can get people interested in this music, I'd like to see how far I can take the album. This is something I'm producing, I'm in charge of, and I want to see how far I can take it.
BH: How would you describe the style of the CD?
EM: It's definitely a vocalist's album. There are different styles of music on there. I call it sort of pop/folk music. My label is a folk label. There are five new songs and five covers, or six and four. Together they tell a story. The hardest thing was to figure out what order to put the songs in to tell the story I want it to tell.
You can hear the title track at my website. Jim Caruso's radio interview with me is online with the NewClear track. He's a great interviewer, and we did a nice phone interview recently. He's great, very supportive of the Broadway community and the people in it.
It's very hard without a distribution deal. There are shops in Shubert Alley and places like that, and we're in discussion to get the CD into places in New York. But, for me right now, it's more about concentrating on the Internet, where there are avenues open that didn't used to be. We're selling through 17 or 18 different Internet locations, including Amazon.com. You can also call 1-800-Buy-MyCD.
BH: Do you intend to record more albums down the line?
EM: I want to go on and do another and another and another. I really felt like I'd found my calling in that studio. My friend Mark, who wrote the title track, and I are going to get together this year in June for a month, to get to work writing for the second album. There's an importance to writing your own stuff, because it tells your own story in your own words. That's not to detract from finding the soundtrack to your life. Everybody has a soundtrack to their life. This first album is my soundtrack. And, then the second album will be my personal story.
BH: I have to ask you about working with Tony Kushner. Brundibar sounds wonderful.
EM: It's a great piece. One of the reasons I took it is the history behind it. It's not about the Holocaust, but [the original story] was written in that period, in the concentration camp [Terezin, not far outside of Prague]. The entire cast was gassed.
To be honest, I didn't get to spend that much time with Tony Kushner. He was doing Munich at the time. But he wrote me some extra verses for Brundibar, so he must have been happy with what I was doing. He is a really nice guy. Very intense, very intelligent. I would have liked to spend more time with him.
BH: Did you get to work with Maurice Sendak?
EM: No, he didn't come out to Berkeley. I think he will come out to the New Victory, though. I really hope so. He's very definitive in a child's life. He did all the sets, and they look great.
BH: Is your family coming here for that?
EM: No, they're coming for the album release party on March 20. They've been very supportive. I left home when I was 16 to go live in London, to follow this dream. They've been behind me ever since, really.
There are things that I choose to do in my life that some parents might think of as a little odd, or wouldn't be supportive of. My parents have allowed me to choose my own work, and find my own path. So, I've kind of had the freedom to become my own person. Which is really important.
I'm only close to my family now. It's easy to blame your parents for everything. I [did] for a long time. I realized as I got older and grew up that my parents are as human as I am. For every mistake I blamed them for, I've made ten. So, I stopped blaming them for everything. Then I realized that I pretty much loved them.
The hardest thing in the world is to find your own place in it. The education system's not great at helping kids do that anymore. There's nowhere safe here to be allowed to find yourself unless it's in the home, so it's important that people have good parenting or good guardianship, if you're a foster ... I was lucky enough to have that in my life.
BH: It's a great responsibility.
EM: And some people abuse that power. There are lots of things I would like to do for personal reasons. I would like to make lots of money, and I would like to be successful, to take that next step. But I feel like I have a pretty good attitude toward life, and if I were ever to have the chance, I would give my money and my time to helping children, to making sure that we do make a difference in their worlds.
Rosie O'Donnell makes so much money. And she gave all this money to the Katrina charity. She does things for gay adoptions, she runs the R Family Vacations [family friendly cruises, especially geared to gay and lesbian families]. She has millions of dollars, and she spends an equal amount of millions on charity and benefits and doing the rest of it.
I do want to make something of my life so that I can make a difference.
Measure for Pleasure runs through March 26 at the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street. Performance and ticket information available at Telecharge.com.
Euan Morton's debut album, NewClear, will be released March 21 on the LyricParnters label. For more information, including autographed pre-orders, track list, and more, visit www.officiallyeuanmorton.com/newclear.htm. The album can also be ordered from Amazon.com and CDBaby.com.
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