“It’s a popular venue. You just gotta sing clearly for the grandmas in the back.”
In the balcony of the Nederlander Theater on 208 W. 41st St. in New York City, after a Saturday preview matinée, Michael Dean Morgan talks easily over the clatter of mic checks, an active orchestra pit, and a tour group below. Even the noise of a yodeling voice warming up backstage doesn’t faze him.
Maybe it is the decades in musical theater that makes him unflappable. Or his Knight-Thompson Speechwork MFA training at UC-Irvine. Or his speech consultant work as the Founder of The Dialect Lab of Princeton. Or perhaps his experience as an adjunct professor of speech and theater at the Princeton Theological Seminary.
His Broadway debut was on July 16 in “Amazing Grace”, a new, original musical that opened to a sold-out world premiere in Chicago last fall.
“These shows — you live and die. You kind of rebuild yourself every time,” Morgan says. As a father of two (Dean, 11 and Avery, 8) with a Princeton Junction to Penn Station commute, Morgan’s work day is even longer than the New York cast and crew’s.
Still, Morgan prefers the Broadway stage to being on the road. As a character actor for Disney productions, Morgan has toured the world. He’s played the frenetic, red-billed hornbill Zazu in “The Lion King”; the protective, devoted father Marlin in “Finding Nemo – The Musical”; and also the tense, difficult father who learns to love and to let go, Mr. Banks in “Mary Poppins”. For his role in Mary Poppins, he toured 50 cities in 3 years.
“There’s just a joy in being home,” he says, smiling at the chance to sit down for a moment.
In “Amazing Grace” on Broadway, Morgan appears as Rabbi Einhorn and Prince Fredrick. He’s also the understudy for Major Gray.
In April, he learned that he would be part of the cast on Broadway.
“It’s the definition of a dream come true,” began the email he sent that day to family and friends.
Morgan remembers the very first time he understood what would later become his life-long dream. “Oh! That’s Broadway,” he recalls his 10-year-old self saying.
Born and raised in Waukesha, Wisconsin, Morgan’s first production was “The Sound of Music”. He stayed in Waukesha, a suburb of Milwaukee, to attend Carroll College, a Presbyterian school.
Morgan recalls feeling pulled away from the Midwest towards New York City. “The closer you get to Broadway,” he says, “the more you want it.”
And he made it on Broadway at 40. “It’s more valuable now — I appreciate it in this deep way,” he says of his debut.
“This is the life we’ve always wanted, and journeyed towards,” Morgan says. His family moved to Princeton two and a half years ago when his wife, Shana Lindsey-Morgan, accepted a position as the head of the Lower School at Chapin School. They first met in the school choir at Carroll College in Wisconsin.
“Princeton is our long pause,” he says. “We’ll be here for 20 years. It felt like ‘home’ quicker than anywhere else. We didn’t intend to find this.”
Perhaps it’s fitting that Morgan’s Broadway debut is in “Amazing Grace”. It’s a story about feeling lost, then found. It’s a story about a journey, about coming home. Morgan says that the musical feels human and universal.
But, he adds, “You can’t ignore the fact that this is a religious journey.”
Amazing grace! How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found;
Was blind, but now I see.
Through many dangers, toils and snares,
I have already come;
’Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.
“Amazing Grace”, directed by Gabriel Barre, is a historical epic musical that tells the true story behind the hymn, which was penned in 1772 by Englishman slave-trader-turned-abolitionist John Newton after a dramatic religious conversion to Christianity.
The musical follows John Newton’s journey as he sets sail to defy his father, the captain of a British slave-trading company. While his childhood love Mary Catlett secretly joins the abolitionist movement in England, John Newton voyages out into dangerous territory in the high seas with his manservant, Thomas.
At a recent Saturday matinée in Nederlander Theater, the show concludes with the entire cast singing the hymn, first to each other and then to the audience. It’s not long until the entire theater is on their feet, singing together, voices from the front to back row, up to the balcony and ringing out of the hall.
On stage, some actors appear so choked up that they struggle to sing. The house lights raise, but at first, no one moves from their seat. Not until the song is done, and the last verse has been sung. It’s an emotional moment.
“We deliver a very cathartic journey,” says Morgan.
“Amazing Grace”, he says, is a feat because it teaches the audience “to know why the words are in the order they are.” At the end of the show, the hymn seems to mean and matter so much more.
The show rings with more meaning in the current news cycle because it tells a difficult story about race, Morgan says. On Twitter, Morgan has advocated for the show’s inclusion in racial dialogue about the legacy of slavery in American culture. He tweeted to Brian Lehrer, saying the musical is doing the work of “talking our race daily on Broadway.” And when Oprah praised President Obama for singing “Amazing Grace” at the funeral for the Rev. Clementa Pinckney in Charleston, South Carolina, Morgan encouraged the president and first lady to sing “Amazing Grace” with them on Broadway.
Morgan is candid in comparing “Amazing Grace” with Broadway giants with name recognition or a Disney pedigree: “Yes, we’re unknown. We’re emerging.” But he believes that the young musical “has the potential to find an audience.”
The congregation at his church, Nassau Presbyterian Church, is organizing a charter bus to New York for a backstage tour and matinée on July 25th.
“Amazing Grace” premiered on Broadway in an open-ended run on July 16. The show appears Tuesdays through Sundays, with a 2 p.m. matinée on Wednesdays and Saturdays and a 3 p.m. matinée on Sundays at the Nederlander Theater, 208 W. 41st St., New York, NY. Ticket prices range from $65-$139. For more information visit www.amazinggracemusical.com/tickets/ or call (877) 250-2929.