Cass Morgan, the Broadway actress and songwriter whose soulful, crystalline voice has brought texture to musicals in Manhattan and regionally, is back in her native Rochester, NY, rehearsing The Road to Where, her own musical memoir inspired by real events, places and people in her life. Geva Theatre Center is presenting the world premiere of the play with music, which has a script by Morgan and folk-tinged tunes by Morgan and a handful of others.
The roots of the show are in an earlier intimate musical by Morgan called True Home. Hudson Stage Company in Westchester County, NY, produced it in 2002. (The now-defunct Charlotte Rep also developed it.) Geva artistic director Mark Cuddy stages this new, expanded and sharpened musical tale, which Morgan told me “is a search for home, and what that really means.”
The production is part of Geva’s 2015 Fielding Studio Series. Performances play April 23-May 10 in the intimate Fielding Nextstage. Official opening night is April 24.
“I had put the show away after the production at Hudson Stage,” Morgan told me in an e-mail exchange in between rehearsals. “As much as I enjoyed the process with director Dan Foster, I never really felt [the show] worked. I thought I was done with it. And then about four years ago, my mom had a heart attack and then a stroke, and wound up spending the last nine months of her life in a nursing home. I asked Mark Cuddy if I could do their production of The Music Man at Geva [in 2011], for many reasons: I love this theatre, and I wanted to do a show here so I could be in my hometown, spend time with my mom — and have my mom be able to see me do what turned out to be one last show. It was great being here, and sharing so much time with my mom, and hanging out with her.”
It was then that her old show about roots, home and family began “haunting” the actress-writer, who is one of the co-writers of Broadway’s plucky, amiable, country-fried 1982 musical Pump Boys and Dinettes. (As an actress, Morgan is remembered as the Bird Woman in Mary Poppins and salty Mama Calhoun of Memphis, among many other roles, as recent as The Bridges of Madison County and dating back to the original run of Hair. She fell in love with theatre as a teenager working at Rochester Community Playhouse.)
Of her revision of True Home, Morgan explained, “I knew there was another way in, another story than the one I’d been looking for all those years ago. I started making notes. And then my mom died. It took about a year, but one day I woke up in a snowstorm at my home in Vermont, and suddenly knew what to do: I started cutting, rearranging, rewriting what had been True Home and quickly became The Road to Where — which is a lyric from one of my songs, which was there all along but has become a very different piece of music that now is sort of the backbone for the play. I cut four songs or so, including Stephen Schwartz’s anthem at the end. That was a tough one, as it’s such a fabulous song, but it was making me write toward it, rather than write the play that wanted to come out of me.”
Here’s how Geva bills The Road to Where: “With the help of three talented musicians, Broadway veteran and writer Cass Morgan searches for her roots. A trip to the West of Ireland sparks memories of her childhood in Rochester, her growing up in a Florida trailer park, and a need to reconcile with her parents in an enchanting evening of story and song.”
Morgan leads a company that includes Megan Loomis, Ben Meixell and Eli Zoller. Musical direction is by Steven M. Alper, who also contributes orchestrations/arrangements and wrote incidental music. The creative team also includes Matthew Reinert (scenic design), Christina Selian (costume design), Derek Madonia (lighting design) and Ian Hildreth (sound design). The stage manager is Jenny Daniels.
Of the eight songs in the show, Morgan wrote or co-wrote five. The others were “by invitation,” she said. The score includes three new songs Morgan penned for the Geva run. Her collaborators on the songs are Alper, Mark St. Germain and Randy Courts, Jack Herrick, David Bucknam and Steve Tyler.
“It’s mostly set in Ireland, with the bookends being my old mother and me together — and with side trips into my past,” she says. “I play everybody, except Megan Loomis (violin) plays my young mother and sings a song called ‘Black Irish Beauty,’ and Eli Zoller (guitar) sings in two places as my young dad. But otherwise, it’s all me.”
Expect piano, guitar, violin, mandolin, penny whistle, accordion and bodhrán.
“It’s a lot of fun to perform,” Morgan said. “I play about 12-13 characters, some only one or two lines. There’s no Hair, no husbands or kids, no angst! It’s now really a story of a woman who, on a trip to County Clare Ireland, accidentally stumbles into her true self. It’s a story drawing on memories, but I’ve taken great artistic liberties and created characters that are based on actual people. The truth is a great deal more than just the facts. Right?”
For the record, Morgan said that her “mother’s side is 100 percent Irish” — mom’s maiden name was Helen Reilly — “and the piece is now a search for that ancestral line. I’ve been twice to the south of Ireland — County Clare, specifically. Very definite roots. [I was] Christened Cassandra G. Morgan; my father’s side was Welsh and English.”
Cass Morgan’s Broadway credits include The Bridges of Madison County, Memphis, Mary Poppins, Ring of Fire, Beauty and the Beast, The Capeman, The Human Comedy, Pump Boys and Dinettes (co-creator) and Hair. Off-Broadway credits include The Immigrant, Floyd Collins and Violet. Regionally, Morgan has appeared in 1776, Picnic, The Bridges of Madison County (Williamstown), Uncle Vanya, Saint-Ex (Weston Playhouse), The Music Man (Geva), Emmet Otter’s Jug Band Christmas (Goodspeed Musicals), Cabaret, Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, Das Barbecu (Baltimore Centre Stage) and Children of Eden (Mill Mountain Playhouse).
For more information, visit Geva Theatre Center’s website, gevatheatre.org.