From Orange County to Broadway and now back to the OC as a member of the cast of the Tony-winning smash hit musical Memphis. This is the exciting trajectory of Jill Morrison’s career so far, one which includes a whole string of leading roles on our local stages, a National Tour with Happy Days The Musical, a Broadway debut with Memphis, and now Memphis’s First National Tour, arriving soon at the Segerstrom Center For The Arts. I’ve been a Jill Morrison fan for years, so it was great to catch up with her about the exciting things that have been happening in her career.


Hi Jill, congratulations on being part of both the Broadway production and now the National Tour of Memphis. Your success is especially gratifying since you’ve been such a big part of the Southern California theater scene. I see that you went to high school in Mission Viejo. Are you from Orange County?

Yes, I am from Orange County and very excited to be taking the Memphis tour here for two weeks! This will be my first time performing at the Segerstrom Center as well!

Growing up, when and how did you first decide that you wanted to be a performer?

Growing up, I spent all my free time at a local dance studio, the Saddleback Dance Center. Dance was my first love in the performing realm.

So when did you start to transition to musical theater?

It wasn’t until high school that I really explored singing and acting. I performed in my first musical in high school—Guys and Dolls—and from then on I was hooked on musical theater!

Looking over your résumé, it’s amazing how much musical theater you did in Southern California in so many different theaters including the Welk, Fullerton Civic Light Opera, Reprise, and Musical Theatre West. Of those early shows, are there any productions or roles that stand out as particular favorites?

 Jill in red as Cassie in A Chorus Line

My very first musical outside of high school in Southern California was A Chorus Line, directed by my now good friend, Michael Lopez. I auditioned and expected to get a very small role and ended up booking one of the leads, Cassie. That show will always hold a special place in my heart and was so much fun to be a part of.

Any other past favorites?

 Jill and Derek Keeling in All Shook Up

All Shook Up for Musical Theatre West was another memorable show for me, brilliantly directed by Steven Glaudini, with some of my favorite choreography by Lee Martino. Both were a joy to work with. I was really proud of the talent in that production and we were all so close and worked together really well. And here’s an interesting side note. All Shook Up was written by Joe DiPietro, who also wrote the book for Memphis!

Are there any roles that you remember especially fondly?

A couple of my other favorites were playing Reno Sweeney in Anything Goes, Sandy in Grease, Audrey in Little Shop of Horrors and Nanette in No, No, Nanette. And of course, I can’t forget starting with Memphis from the beginning at La Jolla Playhouse. I have been performing in this show since 2008 and I still love every second of it!

You certainly did play a lot of iconic roles leading up to Memphis, but it would be hard to talk about your career without mentioning your being part of the Troubies, whose musical spoofs like Frosty The Snow Manilow and It’s A Stevie Wonderful Life tell familiar stories through the songs of musical superstars. What makes those productions, and working with director-star Matt Walker memorable to you?

 Jill in Frosty The Snow Manilow

Working with Matt Walker and the Troubies is exactly what you would hope it would be—tons of laughter and great times putting together wildly comedic shows. The process was exciting and entertaining. Not only that, but I learned so much about comedic acting. The Troubies are improv geniuses and just being around them helped me to grow and learn new techniques in improv and comedy. They say blondes have more fun? No actually, Troubies have more fun…than anyone else in musical theater!

And then, as you mentioned, along about four years ago, you appeared in the pre-Broadway production of Memphis at the La Jolla Playhouse, which I would guess was a big break for you. How did that come about, since I know that La Jolla casts so many of its shows in New York with Broadway vets?

 Jill in Memphis

One day I saw an audition notice that La Jolla Playhouse was looking to cast a few local performers in a new musical called Memphis. I didn’t know anything about the show other than it took place in the 1950s. I was very close to not going to the audition that day, as I was tired from an event the night before and the drive down to La Jolla was over an hour from where I lived at the time. But I am very glad I decided to go! That one decision ended up bringing me years of work with Memphis, five years of work actually!! And the moment rehearsals began, I knew that Memphis was going to be one of those special shows that had a chance to really make it big on Broadway.

Talk about a lucky hour-long drive! And then, right after Memphis played La Jolla, you toured the country with another 1950s musical, Happy Days, starting off at the La Mirada Theatre, and working with Garry Marshall, whose Falcon Theatre is also home to the Troubies. How has it been working with the legendary Mr. Marshall?

 Jill in Happy Days

I seem to frequently be cast in the 1950s—Happy Days, Memphis, Grease, All Shook Up, etc.. I must have the right look for that era? Happy Days was a fun show with a great cast, and working with Garry Marshall was a dream.

Tell me more about Garry!

Garry is a brilliant director and one of the nicest people I’ve ever met. He’s also very funny and lights up the room wherever he goes. I feel so fortunate that I had the chance to work with him a few times.

You also appeared in his movie Valentine’s Day, right?

Working on Valentine’s Day was a blast and my first major film. Garry Marshall’s sister Penny—remember her as Laverne in the sitcom, Laverne & Shirley?—was in the scene, playing the “director.” I played a cheerleader who got stuck in the splits and had to be carried off…in the splits. It was a cute little scene, but ended up being cut from the movie. However, you can still see the scene if you watch the “Deleted Scenes” on the DVD. I have it posted on my website as well.

You then returned to L.A. for a while before, as I understand it, Broadway called and asked you to join the already running Memphis. That must have been an exciting phone call. Can you talk a bit about how it came about?

Yes, that was a very exciting call! It’s not very often that a California girl, not living or auditioning in New York, just gets called and asked to perform on Broadway! I couldn’t believe it. In fact, it really didn’t hit me until I was actually on that stage performing and listening to the screaming audience during final bows.

So how exactly did you get “put” into Memphis mid-run?

I was called in to be a swing and cover three roles in New York. My Broadway debut was actually about five days early and unexpectedly in the second act of the show when an actor became ill and could not go on for the second act! It was a big whirlwind experience and fortunately it went well and I remembered everything I was supposed to do!

That must have been so exciting!! And now, your Memphis experience continues as you tour the country in your second big National Tour. How has the musical changed since that original La Jolla production?

 Jill in Memphis

The core of Memphis has not changed, but some of the individual scenes and songs have changed since La Jolla. I think all of the changes that have been made were wise and have improved the show. The final product is fantastic and in every city we’ve been to across the country, audiences leap to their feet to give the show a standing ovation at the end. It feels great to be a part of a production that is so loved by its audiences.

How has it been to be part of such an amazing show right from the start?

Being a part of Memphis from the beginning is very fulfilling because I had a hand in creating what ended up being set in a Tony Award winning production! I was able to participate in two workshop productions of Memphis before it went to Broadway. First La Jolla Playhouse, then the 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle where we recently returned for three weeks with the Tour. I will never forget being pulled into a rehearsal room on a lunch break one day in Seattle while some of the musical staff tried out a new song on my voice. They said, “Try this, now sing higher, and try even higher here,” and before we knew it, the song “That’s Not Possible” was written, and which I still sing in the show today!

Memphis played for almost three years on Broadway and won the Tony for Best Musical. What do you think it is about the show that has made it such a popular (and critical) hit?

I think Memphis is just what New York audiences needed at the time. Broadway was flooded with jukebox musicals and musicals based on movies. Audiences were craving something original. Memphis offered an intriguing, original story and original music. And not just any music, really amazing rock and blues songs written by David Bryan, founding member/keyboardist of Bon Jovi. The music is so good, I still love singing it every day after all these years. I also think it’s very telling that Memphis did so well without casting any big movie star names in the leading roles. You know a show is great when it can succeed without gimmicks. Memphis won the Tony Award for Best Musical because it is simply a really great musical all-around.

You’ve been touring for some time now. You started the tour in Memphis, right? That must have been a particular thrill for you!

We opened Memphis in Memphis last October! There will be no city that gives us quite the reception that Memphis, Tennessee did! It was so amazing to open there. I mean, after Bryan Fenkart sang “Memphis Lives in Me” on opening night, the audience would not stop applauding and screaming for over a minute straight! The audiences were so wonderful in Memphis, we wondered if were were spoiled and they wouldn’t react nearly as well in other cities. Turns out, almost every city loves Memphis the same and has showed us with their boisterous reactions!

Since Costa Mesa is only a hop, skip, and jump from your high school, did you ever see any shows at the former OCPAC growing up? What does it feel like for you to be “coming home” with Memphis?

I have seen a few shows at OCPAC in the past. I remember sitting front row for Chicago, a show I hope I will have the chance to perform in sometime. It’s very exciting that I will be able to finally perform here. I have played various large venues all over Southern California, but never OCPAC, now the Segerstrom, so I am thrilled about the opportunity.

Your work on stage over the years has proved you the quintessential triple threat. How do you keep in tiptop shape for shows that require so much from a performer as Happy Days and Memphis?

Fortunately, I have a job that keeps me in shape while I work! Dancing in a show eight times per week is great exercise. When you’re performing that often, not only dancing but also the singing aspect, it’s like strengthening a muscle and your body gets accustomed to performing the show over and over again. So in a sense, performing consistently is what keeps me in shape to perform!

You’re such a fabulous dancer, but you’re also a bang-up singer, and are currently lead singer for the band Different Drum, doing Linda Rondstadt covers. What’s that been like for you as compared to doing musical theater?

I’ve always been most comfortable singing rock-n-roll and more contemporary styles of music. I enjoy the musical theater style, but my voice just naturally gravitates towards a rock sound. That’s why Memphis is great fit for my voice because the score is all rock-n-roll and blues. I started singing with bands a few years ago and love being able to explore so many different styles of music that way.

Tell me more about Different Drum.

 Jill as “Linda”

Different Drum plays as a cover band sometimes and we also do tribute acts, such as Katy Perry and a Linda Ronstadt Tribute as you were mentioning. Much like musical theater, I’m able to take on a character and adapt to their style when we do tribute shows. So to become Linda Ronstadt, yes, I will wear a brunette wig and a ‘70s style outfit to embody the character. But sometimes it’s nice to just be “me” and sing whatever songs we feel like as a cover band as “that blonde singer.”

I imagine you’ll be with Memphis for a while longer. And then what? Will you make New York your home, stick around here, or be a bicoastal performer? Where would you like to see yourself career-wise five years from now?

After Memphis, I plan on returning home to Southern California and working out here. I will continue to perform in musicals and also sing with bands. I love New York, but California is my home. However, if Broadway called again… I don’t think I could turn that down!

You’ve also been teaching, right?

Yes, I’ve been enjoying teaching Musical Theater and Dance Master Classes which I hope to continue. In fact, I’ll be teaching a Memphis Musical Theater Master Class where students can learn choreography from Memphis on November 25 at Mission Viejo Dance & Performing Arts. The class is for children and adults, as long as participants are at least ten years old and have intermediate dance experience or above. I recommend seeing Memphis first while we are at the Segerstrom Center from Nov. 6-18, then the class is one week after we close in Orange County. There’s more info about that on my website. But honestly, if nothing else, OC residents should definitely come and see Memphis. The show really is amazing.

Having seen it way back then in La Jolla, I know what you’re talking about! I can’t wait to see it again on Opening Night…for the first time since 2008! I know I’ll be cheering you on, and look forward to catching up a bit at the stage door after the show!

Memphis plays at the Segerstrom Center For The Arts, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. November 6-18. Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays at 7:30. Saturdays at 2:00 and 7:30. Sundays at 1:00 and 6:30. Reservations: 714 556-2787



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