Tony Award-winning actresses Donna Murphy, Beth Leavel and Victoria Clark have more than just a silver Antoinette Perry medallion in common. These exceptionally talented ladies are not only household names for theatre aficionados, but all three created maternal roles on Broadway in 2010-11 — earning Tony nods along the way — even as they juggle motherhood and career in real life.
Exquisite chameleon Donna Murphy was at the center of The People in the Picture, which ended its limited run at Roundabout Theatre Company's Studio 54 on June 19. In the new musical, Murphy transformed herself nightly, withering from young to old within seconds as the central character of Raisel. We see Raisel as an actress in war-torn Poland in the mid-1930s and early 1940s, and later as Bubbie, a grandmother in poor health, living in New York City and caring for her granddaughter in the 1970s.
Picture marked Murphy's Rialto return after a four year hiatus. "I was attracted to this character for a variety of reasons," she said on opening night in April. "I loved the idea of discovering how to embody a grandmother — and go back and forth from old to young on stage.
"[The show explores] the theme of laughter as a tool of survival in difficult times — and the chance to go to really well-earned dramatic places. So I thought, 'What is not to love about this opportunity?'"
|photo by Joan Marcus|
Taking on the role wasn't just about an artistic need for the versatile Murphy. As the mother of two stepdaughters and one adopted daughter, she says she identifies with Raisel not only as an actress, but as a mom: "The themes that are presented in this show immediately grabbed me when I first read the piece.
"When we adopted my daughter [Darmia], I had gone through years of agonizing: 'How could I raise a child and be the kind of mom I want to be and give my work what I know it demands?'"
Her answer? By only signing on for roles that speak to her, or doing limited runs (for example, the Encores! concerts of Follies and Anyone Can Whistle).
While Murphy says she has come to find a good balance, she still struggles a bit with the guilt of not being constantly present for her six-year-old. "It's a juggling act, and I do my best," she says. "Sometimes I think I'm doing a really good job and other times I think, 'Who can I talk to? Tell me how to do this better.'"
Adding with a twinkle — you know, the kind that only mothers have — Murphy says, "You communicate honestly and you let them know you love your work. But most of all, my daughter knows nothing means more to me than what she means to me."
|photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN|
Playing a mother of a different sort is Victoria Clark. Clark, who received accolades and a Tony Award as sweet-yet-stern mom Margaret Johnson in Lincoln Center's The Light in the Piazza in 2005, returns to Broadway as the no-nonsense Mother Superior in Sister Act.
"I did a lot of research on the Catholic religion, and it was fascinating," she says. "I did a lot of soul-searching myself about where I am with my own faith and God."
Like Murphy, Clark admits there are challenges in balancing stage life with raising a family, which includes her son, Thomas Luke, age 17. "I'm always feeling guilty. On one side I'll feel guilty that I'm not spending more time researching the show, but then I'll feel guilty that I didn't make the peanut butter sandwich or that I didn't make the soccer game."
Making a connection between her role and her home life, Clark goes on to say, "My best friend Dawn always said that once you have a child, get used to guilt, because you'll always have guilt wherever you go. That ties into being the Catholic Mother Superior."
Beth Leavel, the petite firebrand of Baby It's You! and real-life mother of two, jokes, "I took off to give birth, then it was back to work!" Leavel has two sons (TJ, 21, and Sam, 15) and is currently portraying music mogul, mom and Shirelles mentor Florence Greenberg in the new bio-musical.
|photo by Ari Mintz|
"When I was pregnant with my second son, [Tony Award–winning director and choreographer] Susan Stroman asked me, 'Hey Beth, want to go into Show Boat?' I said, 'Sure. I need to give birth first. Then I'm going into your show.'"
Leavel has worked on the Great White Way since the early 1980s. To her, theatre seemed to be work and daycare all rolled into one.
"Crazy for You was my first son's playground," she remembers. "The crew would babysit him and let him sit in and ride the car." With the 1994 revival of Show Boat, Leavel recalls both of her sons running up and down the aisles of the theatre to exercise. "I would tell the guys in the crew, 'Wear them out, wear them out!' They really did grow up with Mom's shows," she laughs.
Leavel also compares raising children to birthing a musical — two things she takes deep pride in. "For every new project I work on, from the very beginning, the process can be painful. Like any healthy cycle — a new project is like a new child. All your attention is on that project. You concentrate on that project, you get new scenes and need to learn them at a moment's notice. Your scenes get cut and you mourn those scenes."
But similar to having a family, Leavel continues, a new project is challenging, rewarding and stimulating. "It doesn't get better than that!"
While all three ladies admit an actor's life is nonlinear and that the ups and downs and demands can take a toll on raising children and families, all agree that they wouldn't have it any other way.
Murphy sums it up realistically: "I tell my daughter, 'Theatre is what Mommy loves to do and what Mommy tries to give to the world.' But my daughter also knows that it helps put her through school and pays the rent. Deep down she understands and appreciates that."
(Frank DiLella is the theatre producer for NY1.)