Euan Morton turned heads in 2003 when he made his Broadway debut as Boy George in Taboo, one of the biggest cult hits in New York theater. In Sondheim on Sondheim, Broadway’s current love letter to legendary songwriter Stephen Sondheim, Morton helps retell the story of the music legend’s road to success and fulfillment.
With a Tony nomination, Drama Desk nomination, and Theatre World Award under his belt for personifying the controversial artist, the Scottish actor took New York by storm in The Public Theatre’s Measure for Pleasure.
He won an OBIE Award for that role and also starred in Broadway’s Cyrano de Bergerac.
Morton’s spry sense of humor showed when he spoke with TheImproper about his career, his affinity for bugs, and of course, all things Sondheim.
TheImproper: Your name [pronounced ‘Yoo-inn’] is so unique! How did your parents choose it for you?
Morton: Actually, they didn’t. My real name is Iain. But unfortunately, there was someone else with that name already in Equity. I tried a million combinations of my mother’s maiden name and other family names, and they were all taken. And the man who had my name actually hadn’t worked for years and I called his agent, and she said, ‘I don’t care, you can’t have his name.’ (laughs) So I had to choose another one, and Euan is another four letter name, and it’s of the same history of Iain. Plus, it had three vowels and a consonant, so I figured, ‘Hey, I’ll call myself Euan.’
IM: I read that one of your first memories of yourself as a performer was when you had a role in a Christmas show and you had to throw paper balls at a snowman.
Morton: It is actually. Although, I suppose the first memory of myself was when my grandmother would babysit me when my mother went to work. I was very young, and my mom would come in from work, and my grandma and I used to come out from behind the curtain doing the cancan with music playing. That was my earliest memory.
IM: When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Morton: I kind of always wanted to be an actor, from at least a very young age that I can remember. There was a blip on the horizon when I was about 13 or 14 and I hated the world as most teenagers do, and I decided, ‘I’m not going to use my gift! I’m not going to sing songs, I’m going to be a French teacher!’ (laughs) It didn’t last long. It would also have driven me completely insane. Not that being an actor didn’t, because that did, too.
IM: You have said that you didn’t believe you would be very good at musicals. What lead you to believe that?
Morton: I didn’t really know what acting was. I just figured I wouldn’t be satisfied. I wouldn’t be good because I wouldn’t give it my all, and that’s just what it was. I took an acting course and worked on acting techniques and just having some connection to the understanding of what it was to emotionally connect to a song as well as just sing it nicely. So it wasn’t really until I took the acting course that I figured I’d be able to understand musical work better.
IM: And you actually excel when you do musicals!
Morton: I love it; it’s a great genre in which to tell a story. It’s a great way to have a heightened emotion. People get so heightened they sing, for God’s sake! It’s a great place to apply one’s craft and to practice and to sing songs. To sort of share a message from a stage with music is a really special experience.
IM: How very appropriate that you get to do that with a story about Stephen Sondheim. After all, you’re telling his story through his music. If you had only three words to describe Mr. Sondheim, what would they be?
Morton: ‘Mr.’ ‘Stephen.’ ‘Sondheim.’ (laughs) I mean, what more do you need to describe Stephen Sondheim? You just say Stephen Sondheim’s name, and you’ve done a description, because people already have their opinions and they’re not all good. I mean I’ve met people who don’t understand his music, or don’t have a natural affinity for it. They’re few and far between as far as I’m concerned, but he’s a very hard man to pin down. There’s so much going on, he’s had 80 of life, 80 years of history. To limit that to three words seems a little trite.
IM: What is your first memory as a fan of Sondheim? I would imagine you’d have to really be a fan to be cast in his show.
Morton: You certainly have to appreciate his talent, his lyrics, his use of the English language. He’s been referred to as musical theater’s Shakespeare, and I would certainly say that’s true. As for my first memory of meeting his work, I wouldn’t even say I was a fan at the time. I was very young when I went to drama school and I had never heard of Sondheim, and I didn’t even understand his work.
But the first time I met the great Stephen Sondheim was when I was handed the song “Finishing the Hat” for a singing competition. I was singing in a group at college and I actually didn’t want to do it. The song made me nervous, it was so complicated. I’d never had any life experience, I didn’t understand what it meant and I shied away from it. And then, of course, I met my contemporaries in college who opened my eyes to the genius that he is.
IM: You have had quite a few opportunities to perform his work throughout your career.
Morton: Yes, that’s all just been very recent though! I didn’t believe in a grand design, and I hadn’t done Sondheim in years, and all of a sudden I did Into the Woods last summer. That was followed by a week of concerts with Natasha Diaz down at Signature Theatre in D.C., which was a lot of Sondheim material including “Finishing the Hat.” It all came to a circle in the end. And then all of that was followed by Sondheim on Sondheim, so it kind of entered my life last summer as a precursor to being part of this show, I imagine.
IM: The casting choices for Sondheim on Sondheim were so diverse. Vanessa Williams, Norm Lewis, Tom Wopat, Barbara Cook; each person seems to bring something different to it. Was Sondheim responsible for choosing you to be in the show?
Morton: He was certainly there for all of the auditions. On the opening night he came backstage and said, ‘You do know that I was a big fan of yours in Taboo.’ I know that Sondheim had been very nice about my work in Taboo, and I had heard great things about his opinion of it, so I was just thrilled that he was a part of the decision-making process. I’m thrilled with the fact that he chose individuals rather than a sort of flat group of people who all sound the same and look the same and do the same thing. We are all very individual, and we do bring our own things to it, and I think that was the whole point in this production, it wasn’t just same old same old.
IM: Which of the songs is your favorite to perform?
Morton: Oh probably “Beautiful,” from Sunday in the Park with George with Barbara Cook, because it’s a very still moment, it’s just really about these two people, George and his mother, and their connection, and when I look into Barbara’s eyes and we connect, and I hear her beautiful voice, I feel like we’re doing good work, and it feels good to do good work. It’s a very still moment, but it’s not a moment you can enjoy performing because it’s like jumping onto a freight train passing by, and you hang on until it’s your stop and then you jump off again. It’s much more of a physical action song. I love doing it, but it’s not one that I come off and go, ‘Yeah, I did it!’ It’s one that, yeah I did it, but I liked it for different reasons.
IM: If there were to be a musical celebrating your own life when you are turning 80, what would you have liked to have accomplished and be celebrated at that time?
Morton: I don’t know, my god, that’s a huge question. I just hope that I’ve been able to work until I’m 80. And that my career has been diverse. I have a title. I want the title to be What the Fuck Happened? (laughs) No, but even if it was a success, I still want that to be the title, and I’d like Whoopi Goldberg to play me. No really, she’s genius!
IM: But seriously, is there anything you’d like to have seen yourself having done at that point?
Morton: I’d liked to have played Iago in Othello on Broadway. I would love to do that. I like to play bad guys.
IM: You’re so adorable, it’s hard to imagine you playing bad guys!
Morton: That’s part of the reason I want to play against that, and also it’s a fascinating play and it’s a fascinating character so completely driven by his own success, and I find that a very interesting topic.
IM: Something so interesting about your career is that you had your first big role in a show that got such mixed reviews. Many were on the fence about Taboo, but they all loved you. What do people tend to say to you about Taboo?
Morton: Things are always fine with distance anyway, it’s now seven years removed since Taboo, so people are very kind about the show and about me. And I have many, many people who say, ‘When are they going to bring it back? When is it coming back?’ It’s like anything that when you remove yourself from it and the whole situation and everything else that was going on at the time. It was a great piece, it had a great score and when people think about it now they miss it, they enjoyed it.
I think people know better than to say anything bad, anyway. I mean, what can I say? I didn’t write the damn thing. It’s nice to hear that they liked me in it, but I think they know that telling me it wasn’t very good isn’t going to get them anything. But they also realize that they can separate the performance from the show. I get more really good comments now than I had at the time.
IM: In Taboo you donned heels, and in Sondheim you don a blonde wig. Is this the start of a trend for you?
Morton: I certainly hope not. You missed one- when I was playing Molly in Measure for Pleasure, I donned a corset and white tights as well, and gave Michael Stuhlbarg a blowjob. I was a 19th century transsexual prostitute. Donning the wig in Sondheim on Sondheim is one of a number of shows in which I’ve had to don items of women’s clothing. But good for me is I get to do a lot of great stuff, and I’ve donned a lot of men’s clothing, too. I’m not bothered with things like that, I just love to be an actor and to do my job and to be challenged by playing other people. But donning a wig in Sondheim on Sondheim, if they’re going to give me a wig, I’d like to say that I wish it was real hair! (laughs)
IM: Why is the title of your album NewClear?
Morton: So I can send a copy to George Bush and explain how to say the word properly. I’m thinking about sending him a copy with a little letter explaining that this is the phonetic pronunciation of the word nuclear.
IM: Describe the music you chose to record on it.
Morton: It’s very eclectic. There’s Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” Billy Vera and the Beaters. I do a cover of “At This Moment.” There’s also “Pie in the Sky”, from the musical Taboo. It was cut from the Broadway version, but it was in the London version. There’s a theme flowing through any album, but it’s an eclectic mix of music. It was fun to do. Someone told me that your first album is kind of like a hairball, and you just have to kind of get it out. And that’s kind of true, I would do things differently the second time around on another album, which I hope to be able to do in the next year. It was a great learning experience, and I’m very proud of NewClear.
IM: How would you do your next album differently?
Morton: I was kind of in control of it, and that’s not really my skill; I’m not a producer. I would get people in who know their jobs better than I know them. It’s a very interesting album, and there are plusses and minuses to doing things yourself, and the next time around I’d like less minuses.
IM: Tell me something that no one else would know about you.
Morton: I’ve been such a whore that people know everything about me. I’m trying to think of something salacious. Unfortunately, I seem to have a very dull life in my own head. I have what I like to call a mild form of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. I make lists all the time, and things are in their place. Things are all lined up, things face angles and doors.
IM: So what happens if people turn around a bottle of lotion or something?
Morton: Oh no, nothing when they’re there, I will just move it back to the position it was in the moment they leave the room! (laughs)
IM: Do you have any personal picks for the Tony Awards?
Morton: Barbara Cook for Sondheim on Sondheim.
IM: That’s cheating! Any others?
Morton: Dan Schreier for Sondheim on Sondheim sound design.
IM: Okay fine, any choices from a less biased standpoint?
Morton: I don’t think so. I’ve been in a show, so it’s been really difficult to see anything this season. I’ve been working since January, and before then I wasn’t in town for three months. The only thing I’ve seen that’s counted in this Broadway season is Million Dollar Quartet, and I went there expecting not to like it. I genuinely enjoyed a show I was expecting not to enjoy. I would like to see Million Dollar Quartet win for Best New Musical. But that’s kind of unfair because it’s the only one I’ve seen! (laughs) And I thought Hunter Foster was great, and I was really surprised not to see him get nominated.
IM: Next up for you is Chess, which you’ll be performing in August and September at Signature Theatre in D.C. Any plans for the fall?
Morton: I’m going to have to come back to New York and find myself a new apartment. I might take a couple of weeks holiday, and go to the Audubon Insectarium which is in New Orleans; they have an insect zoo there. I don’t like insects, they gross me out, but it’s kind of like getting on a roller coaster and being scared. I want to go get grossed out by bugs. I might take a drive down there and go through Memphis, Tennessee. I love to drive in this country, so take myself down there and go see some bugs. And then come back and rent in New York and I guess start again.
IM: So you’re not the person to contact if a rogue spider is on the loose?
Morton: No, do not call me if you need to kill a spider. Although, I was subletting someone’s apartment once, and the woman next door came in and she said, ‘I have a waterbug in my bathroom and it’s kind of big. Could you help me get rid of it?’ And I don’t know what came over me, I must have been possessed by some amazing brave, strong, bug-loving man. I said, ‘Oh yeah, yeah, God, no worries.’
I think I just didn’t want to look like a chicken in front of her. I was like, ‘How big can it be, a waterbug?’ I mean, who knew that ‘waterbug’ was just a really nice euphemism for massive cockroach. I walked into the bathroom and this thing was huge, it was the size of my hand, and I’m not exaggerating. God, it had facial expressions it was so big. Stunningly, I got a vase and a piece of card, and I slammed the glass down over the giant sized bug and slipped the card under it, and then we opened the window and threw it out the window. But on the inside I was having horrible, petrifying panic attacks that this bug was going to get out and make those facial expressions at me. It was awful.
IM: At least you saved face in front of the woman.
Morton: I did, I saved face, I did it all for my ego, as many actors are want to do.
IM: Why should everyone come see you in Sondheim on Sondheim?
Morton: It’s wonderful; everyone has a different favorite, everyone really does, and he’s so far reaching. Everyone will find something to like about his life and work.
For more information about Sondheim on Sondheim, visit www.roundabouttheatre.org.