Karen Morrow was raised by operatic parents in Des Moines, Iowa and turned to “the theatre” in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The next stop was every major musical theatre, cabaret and concert hall from New York to Honolulu! In New York, she starred on Broadway in I Had A Ball; Joyful Noise; I’m Solomon; Music, Music; The Selling of the President; The Grass Harp and the Tony Award winning Drood. Off Broadway, her starring roles included Sing Muse; The Boys From Syracuse; five seasons with the New York City Center during it’s golden years of musical revivals and she starred in the National tour of Show Boat. On Television, Karen starred as a regular on “The Jim Nabor’s Hour” “Friends,” “Tabitha” “Ladies’ Man,” “Goodnight Beantown,” “Song by Song,” and “Great Performances” for PBS; “Singing” for CBS; and has been a guest star on “Sabrina, the Teenage Witch,” “The Tonight Show,” “The Today Show,” “Alice,” “Too Close For Comfort,” “Loveboat,” “Falconcrest,” “Murder She Wrote,” “Night Court,” to mention just a few; and radio’s Garrison Keillors’ “A Prairie Home Companion.”
Karen has sung with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Honolulu, Pacific, Minnesota, Milwaukee, and Metropolitan Symphony Orchestras and can be heard on eleven albums. She is the recipient of an Emmy, the coveted Theatre World Award, and five Dramalogue Awards. Visit her website at www.karenmorrow.com. She also has the distinction of playing Dolly Levi in not one, but two productions. The first time Karen played Dolly was in the LA area, Redondo Beach. It was a theater that did big productions. Sadly, that is no longer the case. She had done Anything Goes there and they asked her to do Hello, Dolly! She said she would and Jerry Herman was invited to the opening night. Jerry was living in Beverly Hills at the time. He said yes, yes, yes. When Jerry found out that Karen was going to be doing it, he desired to coach Karen in the role. He wanted to make sure she hit all the points. That is the type of guy he is. He has to absolutely be the “go to” guy. He wants to be in control to preserve the quality of his work.
This was around 1988 or ’89. Jerry asked her if she would be interested in doing a song that is rarely done in Dolly. Of course, it was one of the songs written for Ethel Merman, Love, Look in My Window. She said, “Are you kidding? That would be wonderful.” It is not always done. Going out on the passarelle and singing that song was a real highlight for Karen. It is so heartfelt and so simple. It is not contrived. Karen is not saying that the show is contrived but it was built for Carol Channing and her style which is down in one. It is about being the most outstanding and the most wonderful person on stage. Karen doesn’t have that kind of an ego. She prefers to sing a really beautiful ballad. Singing that beautiful song was the highlight for her. The part she hated the most was that dinner scene!
Remembering all of the business and the dialogue was tough AND she wasn’t old when she did it. It was not a conversation. It was a monologue. There is no lead in to anything. The second time that Karen played Dolly was at The Sacramento Music Circus. Tom Ewell from The Seven Year Itch was her Horace Vandergelder. She had been doing a lot of shows there. The two characters that Karen played more than any other are Reno Sweeney in Anything Goes and Molly Brown in The Unsinkable Molly Brown. She was Tammy Grimes’ standby and took over in the National Company. Ron Young was one of her brothers in “Unsinkable Molly Brown” in his first summer of stock at Kansas City Starlight in 1962. Unfortunately, Karen had to take second billing to the New Christy Minstrels (who did part of their club act in the party scenes in Act One and Act Two). That was the doing of Dick Burger, the producer, to bring in the current audience.
Karen has been offered Dolly many times and has turned it down. She thinks it is a wonderful show but “Dolly doesn’t have any conversations.” She just walks out on stage and talks. She goes out on the passarelle and talks. She goes throughout the show and talks. She never answers a question.
She is always the first to initiate in a scene. Karen found that very unsatisfying. She does feel the show should return to Broadway. She thinks that Christine Ebersole would make a great Dolly. Jerry has expressed interest over the years a revival of Dolly. He thinks now in terms of television stars.
Karen remembers those costume changes! For her last entrance she wore this huge hat and a tasteful wig that she was never happy with; she wanted something “messy” like Carol wore. They would have to secure the hat with a couple of large hat pins. She would start to sing and her mic would always crack. They couldn’t figure out the problem and it was so annoying. It drove the audience, cast, and crew crazy. This went on about one week. The sound man finally took all the wires home with him to try and get to the bottom of all of this. He discovered that Karen had been putting the hatpins through the wires of her mic! The battery pack was in her wig and so, of course, were the wires. Her first Horace, Jack Ritschel, was as nice as was the entire company.
She found the entire experience kind of scary just trying to remember her lines. It was not an age issue, it was just that she wasn’t used to that kind of work. She prefers the give and take that she is so used to from other shows. Karen saw Carol Channing play Dolly several times. There was never anyone like her before or sense. She occupies the entire stage and space. She was incredibly “odd” in a wonderful way. Karen just thought she was magnificent. Karen also saw Ginger Rogers in the role.
At that time, Karen was dating David Hartman. David was a stage manager and portrayed Rudolph in the original Company. Karen says she couldn’t find Ginger on stage! Karen’s original thought was that Channing really left her mark on the show.
Physically, Channing was so present and so enormous. Then Karen saw a review that essentially said “Channing is bigger than life; unfortunately, Ginger Rogers is true to life.”
That is the challenge for some actresses taking on this role. Karen has also seen Jo Anne Worley play Dolly who was charming and wonderful. She didn’t do Jo Anne “shtick” which was interesting.
On stage with really a really good property, she is respectful of the material. She wishes she had seen Pearl Bailey. Having done it and seen it, she doesn’t think that she would see it again unless a friend is in it. In the original production, Karen was crazy about Jerry Dodge and Charles Nelson Reilly and Eileen Brennan and Sondra Lee.
She thought they were extraordinary. When they took stage, they were so complete and interesting and traditional. It paid homage to the music and the script. Karen was enamored by all of them that she named her dog Barnaby. She had a blonde dog that reminded her of Jerry Dodge. Charles Nelson Reilly had a very dangerous cat named Cornelius. Charles was staying in an apartment owned by a famous opera star and his cat used to love to walk on the railing of the terrace defying the world. Charles was always going crazy as this cat hovered over the city.
Karen says she is such a mid-Westerner that her Dolly was definitely a “corn-fed” Dolly! John Engstrom directed her first Dolly. She was experimenting with various ways of playing Dolly. He said, “Just be you.” She hated that phrase! Karen has always thought of her type as the kooky next door neighbor with a sense of humor. She knows she has a big personality and a big face. Instead of trying to hide that, she just went with it. That was it.
She brought her own personality to the role. She doesn’t know how others see her. She was down to earth and bigger and warm. She says everyone will have to ask those who saw it what it was that she brought to the role! With both of these productions, they were not long runs. She never really settled into the role. With both productions, it was uncomfortable for her. She was constantly alert and could not just “go with it.” That doesn’t say anything about the show. That is Karen. She is always the first to say, “Oh, God, I didn’t get that.”
Settling in is something she only did once and she regretted it. She was doing Drood and settled in after three months and the words went right out of her head one night.
John Engstrom who directed Karen’s first Dolly is known primarily as a choreographer and does very well in the LA area. He was a great director who, as stated earler, encouraged her to be herself. He answered her questions for her. The biggest problem she had in both places was “What do we do about the dumplings?” Everybody had an idea and they tried them all.
The only thing that worked was cotton candy. She tried the light bulb Kleenex trick. She hated the whole idea of the spitballs in her mouth.
She couldn’t get it quite coordinated and didn’t do that very well. Karen’s thoughts on Jerry Herman: He is a perfectionist. He absolutely demands, and she means this in a nice way, respect for what he has written and how he has written. Karen has done Jerry Herman revues with both Lee Roy Reams and Jason Graae and Paige O’Hara. They went to colleges and conferences with Jerry and did concerts of his music.
On the college circuit, these would be followed with a Q and A with the audience. They did many of these singing the same songs. So she is very familiar with him and what he demands. Jerry would sit in the wings and listen. If anyone ever did their own interpretations, Jerry would question their choices.
He spoke to Karen about some phrasing that she had fallen into because she needed to breathe differently. He said, No, no, no.” He is, once again, a perfectionist, but very kind.
He is divine and VERY generous.
He was directing her for the hat shop scene and encouraged her to go crazy and be funny when she is lifting her dress and saying lines such as “the room is crawling with men.” She told him the nuns told her not to do that! He knows what he desires. He knows what he wrote. She has seen him be kind and flattering to others who maybe didn’t give him what he wanted. She has never heard him criticize anyone. They have remained friends and she talks with him a couple of times a year. They have made a point of staying in touch and having dinner from time to time. She remembers a wonderful evening in which she and Jerry went to see She Loves Me in LA at Reprise. When it was over, he turned to Karen and said, “Isn’t that the most divine musical? It’s the definitive musical.” Karen agreed. There is no one like Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock. Karen and Jerry Herman couldn’t get over what a perfect gem it is. Karen had seen it before but Jerry was so generous in his praise, not only of Sheldon and Bock, but also of the performers.
Karen desires to be totally honest in her assessment of PLAYING Dolly. There are wonderful moments of having that kind of attention on stage. It has nothing to do with the show itself. It has to do with her as an actress. Jerry Herman writes for the audience. There is no question. He NEEDS that audience. People like Sondheim don’t need the audience. He needs to write for the character. Jerry also writes for the character but he really makes it palpable and accessible and he loves that. He loves to engage the audience and to see them excited and know they’re humming the tunes when they exit the theater and that to Karen is what she absolutely loves. She loves doing that and making sure she is reaching out to the audience. With Sondheim, she is not as aware of the audience. She is more locked into the lyrics and the story and the complete character analysis that Sondheim does within a character. There is no room for “Now I’m going to present myself to the audience.” Jerry leaves much room for that. He leaves it entirely to the personality of the person playing one of his characters and how they appeal to the audience. For Karen, that is such a great gift. He has earned his place alongside Irving Berlin.
Hello, Dolly! meant the world to her in Jerry Herman’s approval, him trusting her with Ethel Merman’s Love, Look in My Window. He has had her do it ever since when they’ve done the Jerry Herman concerts. The fact that he thought she could do that and bring something to it that he wanted brought to it. He desired somebody that he could trust. He put his trust in Karen Morrow with that song and that show. That means the world to her. When Karen mentions Jerry Herman to students now and they don’t know who he is, she wants to throttle them. They also don’t know who Richard Rodgers is. Karen has such love and respect for Jerry Herman and owes him a lot!