In 2010, Hank Morris, a big-time political consultant and powerbroker, pleaded guilty to involvement in a pension fraud pay-to-play scandal. Andrew Cuomo, who was then serving as New York’s attorney general, successfully prosecuted the case against Morris.
Fast-forward more than a decade and Cuomo is mired in a political scandal involving sexual harassment allegations, one that has prompted his resignation as governor, while Morris is about to debut a new musical comedy based on his own brush with ignominy. That show, “A Turtle on a Fence Post,” first conceived while Morris was serving his prison sentence, will begin previews on Tuesday, Oct. 26, ahead of an official opening night on Sunday, Nov. 14. The production will be the first to open at the newly renamed Theater 555 at 555 W. 42nd Street, which was formerly the home of Upright Citizens Brigade.
“The play is based on true events, but it’s a fictionalized version of my journey and what happened to me and how it changed me,” Morris told Variety. “The principal antagonist in the play is a bullying governor named Andrew Cuomo.”
Morris has lined up some heavyweight talent to help him tell his story, one that should land with a little more of a pop given Cuomo’s pending departure from the governor’s mansion. The production will be directed by Gabriel Barre, best known for helming “The Wild Party” and “Amazing Grace,” and will be choreographed by Kenny Ingram (“Emojiland”). Morris wrote the book under the pseudonym Prisoner #11RO731, which is a reference to his prison inmate number. The show features music by Austin Nuckols and lyrics by Lily Dwoskin. The title of the show is a reference to one of Bill Clinton’s favorite colloquialisms: “If you see a turtle on a fence post, you know it didn’t get there by itself.”
Morris was granted parole in 2013 after serving 13 days in Rikers and two years, two weeks and two days in a state correctional facility. He originally intended to stage “A Turtle on a Fence Post” as a one-man play, but it has grown into a seven-person production. The show will unfold in a comedy club and a correctional institution, while telling the story of the rise and fall of one of New York’s most powerful men. Morris thinks the show will ring differently now that an investigation by New York Attorney General Letitia James found credible evidence that Cuomo sexually harassed 11 women and oversaw a culture of abuse.
“Political insiders knew the story, but the general public is going to be more open to hearing my story and hearing what he’s capable of,” says Morris.
But Morris says the play isn’t just a vehicle for settling the score with a man who helped send him to prison.
“The show has a universal message,” says Morris. “To me the message is life’s pretty good no matter how many twists and turns you experience and you should make the best of it. You’re lucky to be here. The second message is that we all make our own prisons and we’re the only ones who can set ourselves free.”
The creative team also includes music direction by Aaron Gandy (“Romeo & Bernadette”), orchestrations and arrangements by Steve Orich (“Jersey Boys”), and casting by Paul Hardt of Hardt Casting (“Once Upon a One More Time”). General management is by Michael Chase Gosselin and Tim Sulka of Visceral Entertainment. “A Turtle on a Fence Post” will play a limited ten-week engagement through Sunday, Jan. 2, 2022. The hope is that the show will then transfer to Broadway or will go on the road, playing venues in cities such as Albany or Washington D.C.