DIVA TALK: A Chat with the Wonderful Donna Murphy

DIVA TALK: A Chat with the Wonderful Donna Murphy News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.
2004 Tony nominee Donna Murphy in Wonderful Town
2004 Tony nominee Donna Murphy in Wonderful Town Photo by Paul Kolnick

Hello, diva lovers! The theatre's biggest night is almost here. On June 6, the 2004 Tony Awards will be presented at Radio City Music Hall. And, there couldn't be a more exciting category than Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical. All five nominees — Kristin Chenoweth, Stephanie D'Abruzzo, Idina Menzel, Donna Murphy and Tonya Pinkins — are worthy of the top prize, and although everyone likes to make predictions, we won't know the winner until Sunday. I realized earlier this week that I had interviewed all of the nominees in that extraordinary category except Donna Murphy. Thankfully, I had the pleasure of rectifying that situation on Thursday when I chatted on the phone with two-time Tony winner Murphy, who is nominated again this season for her sensational turn in the Tony-nominated revival of Wonderful Town.

DONNA MURPHY

Having only seen Donna Murphy in dramatic roles in Passion and The King and I, I have to admit I was somewhat skeptical when I heard she had been cast a few years back as the comical Ruth Sherwood in the City Center Encores! production of Wonderful Town. I needn't have worried. That production was one of the highlights of the Encores! series thus far, and Murphy demonstrated once again that she can do no wrong on stage. Now that I've had the chance to revisit her performance in the Broadway production of Wonderful Town at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre, I realize that her work is even more exciting than it was during the City Center engagement. Not only does she score comically and vocally, but Murphy is also very moving in her journey, as Ruth allows love to enter her life, blossoming into a woman whose life is rife with possibilities. As much as she scores with all of her big numbers (the tender "Ohio"; a superb "One Hundred Easy Ways"; a master-class in performance in "Ruth's Story Vignettes" and a show-stopping "Conga!"), I find her performance in the second-act "Swing" a highlight of the show. It's as if all the emotion Ruth has been suppressing finally builds up and explodes in both voice (some terrific jazz riffs) and dance. It's a thrilling moment, and one that will thankfully be preserved on Sunday's Tony Awards. . . . My interview with the charming and multi-talented Murphy follows:

Question: Since it's just a few days away, what are your thoughts about Tony night?
Donna Murphy: I'm just trying to figure out the logistics of a day that, for me, will start at 6 or 6:30 AM. [Laughs.] I have to get up after a two-show day, get over to Radio City for hair and wig and make-up for the filmed dress rehearsal, and then get to my theatre. I have a hair person who's coming to do a blow dry on my hair, so we'll have a faster turnaround after I do my matinee to try to get to Radio City in time for the red carpet before the event and then get back up and into a dressing room to change back into Ruth to perform our number and then go back to the dressing room and change back into the 'glamour [look].' So the last two days have been all about trying to figure out the logistics of that — literally dress-rehearsing with hair and make-up people because there is such a limited time and wanting to know that we can make the changes. [Laughs.]

It's been that and trying to learn [the] abbreviated version of 'Swing.' It's tricky because it's not like it's just cutting a chunk out of the song. It's a line here and a line there and switching lines from later in the piece to an earlier spot because of how that sets up a cut that we can make. It's just tricky when you're performing one version of it and trying to learn another version of it. And on that day I'll be performing both versions of it. [Laughs.] So it's more about just all the wackiness of that and coordinating it and last-minute fittings on the dress. It's all fun but you realize — people talk about other award situations, and I've only been to the Oscars once actually, as a friend and guest of Joel Grey's. We went together one year, and I certainly wasn't there in connection with a film that I had been a part of, but I thought, 'God, these people have it so easy,' [laughs] because they're not trying to do their jobs eight times a week and do this. They spend weeks promoting and doing all the press that people want you to do and you want to be able to do, and figuring out the fun of the gown and the look and all that stuff. But that's all they do. [Laughs.] We're trying to do our eight shows a week and give the best performances we can and do all the rest of that stuff. It's a blast, but it's just this crazy, wacky juggle of time, and you just wish there were a few more hours in the day.

Q: You're also in the most exciting category this season. Everyone in the group gave such great performances. Have you gotten the chance to get to know or talk to any of the other nominees at the various functions?
DM: Well, Tonya [Pinkins] is one of my best friends. We've known each other for over 20 years, and I changed her first two children, her oldest children, who are now teenaged, gorgeous men. I used to babysit for them when she had auditions. She lived down the street from me, and I changed their diapers. We've known each other since we did A My Name Is Alice together at the Village Gate in 1984. I'm always so thrilled and proud of her work. It's always rooted in a kind of truth and power of spirit. She just always makes me proud to be both her friend and a fellow actress. She, on the other side of it, has been incredibly supportive of me. She's one of the people that I call — I have like a short list of people that during previews I say, 'Come and see this and tell me the truth.' And, Tonya always tells me the truth, and she will be brutal if I need her to be brutal, if it's appropriate. We just respect each other and trust each other. I had seen two of the earlier workshops of Caroline, which blew me away, and I just couldn't be more thrilled or proud of her.

Kristin [Chenoweth] and Idina [Menzel] are more sort of friends from the business. Kristin and I have done a lot of benefits together and just have an affection for one another without knowing one another very well, but we're always saying, 'Damnit, when are we going to be able to have that dinner or that lunch where we just get to sit down together?' because there's a lot of affection. I think she's spectacular. There's nobody who does what she does who can come close. It's just that that is a singular talent. Idina, I guess I first became aware of, as most people did, during Rent, who blew me away, and I think she is soulful and stunning and just blows the rafters off the place with what she gets to do singing-wise and the soul that she imbues the singing and the character with.

And, Stephanie [D'Abruzzo] is the only person — I haven't had a chance to see Avenue Q. And, everyone I know who has seen it has just loved it so much and been so charmed and disarmed and think that she's fabulous in it, and I so look forward to getting to see it and to see her. It's weird because I feel that there's been so much drama about the three gals that I first mentioned and myself. Like this Time Out thing. I was upset that Stephanie was not included in that cover, but they actually set the cover before they even announced the nominees, and I'm glad that they included a picture [of Stephanie] inside and a little kind of feature on her, but I wish that I knew her so that I could be more connected to her as well. She's a newcomer on the scene, so this is exciting for her, I'm sure, on a million levels.

Q: I think, maybe with the exception of Hugh Jackman, this is the Year of the Woman for the Broadway musical.
DM: It's so cool that — these performances could not be more different from one another. I've been lucky enough that I've been able to do things that have all been very different from one another. When I was nominated for Passion and I was doing something deep and dark, that I felt burnt to the core of my soul. For me, the fact that people were open and recognizing of that work — I was just so excited that this kind of work gets a chance to even make it to Broadway. I'd be happy to do [Passion] anywhere in the world, in the smallest black-box theatre and just feel privileged to get the chance to play this part and sing this music. To then have it make it to Broadway, to then have it recognized with a nomination, to then be honored with the award — my head was just spinning with the blessing of all of it, the sort of 'What-are-the-odds?' I was just awed by the whole thing.

And, so, this year for me to be in a situation where I'm the zany comedienne [laughs] in the light-hearted piece. It's a wonderful thing that there has been the opportunity for me to balance in terms of the types of roles, and the only thing that has been negative, quite frankly, is the dishing. I was saying to a friend of mine who's not in the business — she called me up and she was very upset. She doesn't even in live in New York, [but] somebody had sent her a copy of one of the Michael Riedel [articles] — I don't read them. I have asked people to give me the general gist of it, so I know. Some well-meaning friends will call and say, 'I don't care what that guy says,' and they'll make some reference that you sort of know what he said [laughs], so I'll ask my husband or somebody very close to me who I really trust to give me the gist of it, so I have known generally what's [being] said out there. But this friend said, 'Why would a person want to do this? It so discredits the theatre. It makes it sound so petty.' The other thing she said is, 'It seems like the only thing you're guilty of is being sick.'

Q: And when has that become a crime?
DM: Nobody feels worse than me or any other actor who is at home sick. It's not like you're off at a spa or on an island somewhere. You're home, and you're trying to get well. I've performed sick, and I'm very specific about when I make the judgment [to not perform] — if I push this I'm afraid that this may hurt me or have me out of the show for more than a few performances. . . . I feel horrible about being sick, and I feel guilty in regard to letting my cast down, and I feel guilty in terms of letting my audiences down, but the only thing I can do is do my best to keep myself healthy, and I've never had these issues before. They are particular to a number of things, some of which are just lousy luck and timing and some of which are particular to a short rehearsal period and things getting crammed into — stuff that I'll talk about down the line that's not ethical to talk about now. I would say that's been the only negative side. The other two times that I've been nominated it's just been such a celebration, and there's so much to celebrate now that there all these wonderful performances. I remember sitting at the Tony luncheon next to [Assassins Tony nominee] Denis O'Hare, and they were announcing the nominees in some of the different categories, and I was like, 'You know what, to me, the actress category in a musical is not the only tight contest. Look at actor in a play!" You've got Kevin Kline, Christopher Plummer, Frank Langella. . . We're not exacting talking chopped liver here. [Laughs.] . . . The upside definitely outweighs the downside, but I wouldn't be being honest if I didn't say that that has tinged it a bit in a way that I've never experienced before. And just, quite frankly, [I] want to rise above and concentrate on this celebration of excellence because that's what this is. And bringing that to people who are watching on television who you want to invite, to entice into the theatre.

Q: And, it's also so great for your show that Kathleen Marshall received nominations for both her direction and choreography.
DM: Yes! And, there aren't many people who do that these days.

Q: What was it like working with Marshall?
DM: She's so smart, and the seeds of what we are doing on Broadway were so present in that Encores! production because she had a point of view about the show that was both extremely respectful and honoring of what it is on the page. It's not like she said, 'What are we going to do to fix it or spin it?' You didn't need to do that. It was smart and witty, and Kathleen really got it and got the characters and the relationships and had a sense of a physical way to approach it, in terms of the flow of things. We talked between that production at Encores! and the Broadway production, which happened three-and-a-half years later — we talked frequently about what needed to evolve and what to trust in its simplicity, what really worked about the elements of simplicity, but what things needed to grow so that you could both satisfy an audience who was paying a full ticket price and having certain expectations but also the actors could eight times a week feel like they were in an environment that felt rich. It's not Chicago — it's not a vaudeville, something that naturally would be performed, as they say, 'in one.' It has a domestic nature to it. We had to find a way to make those settings work, and yet we all agreed that having that orchestra onstage with this score could be a really exciting thing. . . . Being surrounded by that music, it's New York. . . . Kathleen was very collaborative with everyone obviously and certainly with myself. You may have heard that I'm the Astaire Award [winner], which we're all having a big chuckle about. [Laughs.] I think it happened for a couple of reasons — because Bebe Neuwirth isn't dancing in a show this year, and there aren't a lot of big dance shows. But the movement that I do do comes so much out of character and out of Kathleen knowing how to use what my strengths are and allow me to make contributions to the movement and then her taking them to a better place and also surrounding me with all these incredible dancers, who are also actors. So it's all very character-driven.

Q: Did Encores! approach you originally or was this a part you had always wanted to play and approached them?
DM: I learned that I was on a short list. I had been offered a couple of other things, and it was a moment in time when I hadn't been onstage in awhile, and I was anxious to do something. The other things I was being offered — three plays, which were all wonderful plays here in New York, but there was nothing that I was getting really, really excited about. I heard that I was on this short list, and I went and listened to the score and got the libretto and read the libretto and said, 'Oh my God, I have to do this!' I had known some of the score — I'd actually sung 'What a Waste' as part of a trio on 'Leonard Bernstein's New York,' but I didn't really know the score in its entirety. I knew the play My Sister Eileen. I had seen it in a high school production many years ago, but when I heard it and read it, I just called my agent right away and said, 'Okay, where am I on that list?' [Laughs.] 'Just please let them know that I'd really, really love to do this,' because I just loved the release of it, and that was something I was anxious to have a chance to experience. And I hadn't done comedy in awhile, and some people thought I'd never done comedy [Laughs.] I had, but it had been some time prior and in projects that weren't as high profile. And so, I just thought I'd like to remind myself that I'm capable of this, and I think I'd like to let people in the business know that I can do this, and I also just thought it would be great to do something that joyous and that good. So, that's how that all happened. I don't think I was the first — in fact, I know I wasn't number one on the list [laughs], but I'm glad that it came to me. . . . It was surprising in the dimension of it. I think it's sort of easy to look at it and think of it just in a more two-dimensional way, but the minute you sort of step inside of it, you recognize that there is this real heart at the core of it, in the love that the sisters have for one another. And there is a pathos to it for Ruth in her journey that is just a pleasure to get to explore both ends of. I love it.

Q: How long do you think you'll stay with the show?
DM: I'm signed through October. I have one of those contracts that starting in the summer would allow me to leave for a limited amount of time to do a film or television project and then come back.

Q: You just did a pilot, right?
DM: I shot a pilot that did not get picked up, but that they want to reshoot. They're talking about August, which would be in synch with my contractual agreement, and then if they liked what they reshot, we might be a mid-season [replacement], so that could actually all work out time-wise. That was another thing that there was a lot of drama about and inaccurate reporting about that I was leaving [Wonderful Town]. And, it's like, no [that's not true]. The pilot was a situation where they came to me, and I said, 'I can't do it.' Then they basically said, 'You know what, if we just have you work on Monday.' I ended up having to take two days off. And I said, 'You know what, talk to my producers because I don't see how it's possible, and they made an agreement with the producers that was amenable to everyone.' The rest of the people on the pilot worked for two weeks on it, and I just flew in and out and did my stuff with Jeff Goldblum. I think it has great potential, but who the hell knows? [Laughs.]

Q: Last question: When people hear the name Donna Murphy, what would you like them to think?
DM: Integrity . . . and that I'm always trying to bring a sense of humanity to the people that I portray.

[Wonderful Town — starring Tony nominees Donna Murphy and Jennifer Westfeldt — plays the Al Hirschfeld Theatre, 302 West 45th Street. Call (212) 239-6200 for tickets or visit www.telecharge.com.]

And, now, a look back at quotes from my interviews with the other four nominees:

Tonya Pinkins discusses how she does — or doesn't — prepare each night to play Caroline in Caroline, or Change:
"I think my preparation for Caroline has less to do with what I do before I go onstage as it has to do with how I live my life. I've never had a role in my life that, to me, is so much about something other than just the part itself — it's so much greater than the sum of the parts. I'm very aware that Caroline is touching something in people that's intangible, so so much of my work, for me, has to do with my own spiritual disciplines, about being out of the way so that whatever this is that comes through this piece can come through as purely as possible. So, it's a lot about emptying myself and getting rid of as much of my ideas of me, so that whatever this energy is can through. Somebody, I think, is going to come and film me preparing, and there's nothing to see. [Laughs.] I don't do anything. I live my life and I have children, so I could be on the phone after half-hour if there's something going on in my life. I'm handling my life, just as Caroline has to [handle hers]."

Idina Menzel reveals her favorite moments and songs in Wicked:
"I have several favorite moments; it depends on the day. I love singing the duet with Kristin at the end because I'm always in awe of how different our voices are, and yet, when we sing together in unison, how wonderfully they blend. That's an important statement for the characters and the people that we are in real life as well. I love singing the duet with Norbert because I get to be the ingenue. All the other roles I've had, I'm always the slutty supporting character [laughs], and now I get to sing the pretty love song, so I love doing that. I love flying and singing 'Defying Gravity,' which is my most favorite song in the show."

Stephanie D'Abruzzo explains the genesis of her Avenue Q show-stopper (with Lucy T. Slut), "Special":
"[The nod to 'Rose's Turn'] was Stephen Oremus' — our music supervisor — [idea]; that song 'Special' went through a couple of incarnations. Originally, three years ago, it was a song called 'Two Lips' — 'Everybody's got two lips. Count 'em, one. Count 'em, two.' Then, unfortunately, the joke sort of ended with that first line. But 'Special' came along, [and] it was a fine song. Stephen came in, and also Gary Adler, our music director. We all worked together with our choreographer, Ken Roberson, and we sort of rethought the ending at the same time we were choreographing it. And the 'Rose's Turn' thing came from all of that. It was a great little discovery and moment."

Kristin Chenoweth chats about her landing the role of Glinda in Wicked:
"Stephen Schwartz called me and said, 'I've got this show, and there's a part that I kind of wrote with you in mind, and I can't imagine anyone else doing it.' And I was just so overbooked. I was in the middle of finishing [the TV series] 'Kristin.' We had just done 13 episodes. And I said, 'No, I can't. I'm tired.' And he said, 'I'm going to send it to you anyway, and you can read it.' I read it, and I went, 'Oh, okay!' [Laughs.] I called him back and said I wanted to do it. That was the beginning."

IN OTHER DIVA NEWS OF THE WEEK: Jessica-Snow Wilson will be Little Shop of Horrors' new Audrey beginning June 22. Wilson, who has been Kerry Butler's understudy, will assume the role of the lovable, but ill-fated Audrey after Butler departs the Jerry Zaks directed production June 20. . . . WCBS-TV in New York will present a special Tony Awards preview the morning of June 6. The 60-minute special — 8-9 AM ET — will offer interviews with several of the season's biggest stars, including The Boy From Oz's Hugh Jackman, Twentieth Century's Anne Heche and A Raisin in the Sun's Sean Combs. Dana Tyler, Lynda Lopez and Katie McGee host the program, which is entitled "At the Tonys." WCBS-TV airs in the metropolitan area on Channel 2; check local listings. . . . Alison Fraser, last on Broadway in a Tony-nominated turn in The Secret Garden, will offer a solo concert in Manhattan June 27. Fraser will take to the intimate stage of Joe's Pub performing songs from her theatrical career as well as tunes from her two solo recordings, "New York Romance" and "Men in My Life." Show time is 9:30 PM. Joe's Pub is located within the Public Theater at 425 Lafayette Street. Tickets, priced at $25, are available by calling (212) 239-6200; those wishing to dine before the show should make reservations at (212) 539-8778. . . . Side Show's Alice Ripley and her band — simply titled RIPLEY — will also perform at Joe's Pub (on June 13). RIPLEY features the Tony-nominated actress on vocals and guitar as well as Shannon Ford (drums), Skip Ward (bass) and Christopher Schelling (keyboards). Cabaretgoers can expect to hear brand-new compositions and tunes from Ripley's solo recording, "Everything's Fine." Show time is 9:30 PM. . . . Tony Award winner Faith Prince and current Chicago star Tom Wopat will join forces to celebrate the works of Harold Arlen in February 2005. Prince and Wopat will be joined by two jazz vocalists and a quintet of jazz musicians for the Feb. 13 concert at New Jersey's State Theatre. Show time is 8 PM. Arlen, perhaps best known for his score to "The Wizard of Oz," also wrote the music for Broadway's Bloomer Girl, St. Louis Woman, House of Flowers, Jamaica and Saratoga. Some of Arlen's many songs include "I've Got the World on a String," "Last Night When We Were Young," "Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea," "Blues in the Night," "It's Only a Paper Moon," "My Shining Hour," "What's Good About Goodbye," "If I Only Had a Brain," "Over the Rainbow" and "Stormy Weather." The State Theatre is located at 15 Livingston Avenue in New Brunswick, NJ. For tickets, call (732) 246-7469 or visit www.statetheatrenj.org. . . . And, of course, the 58th Annual Tony Awards telecast will be broadcast on CBS-TV June 6, 8-11 PM ET!

Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching!

Murphy and Ken Barnett in <i>Wonderful Town</i>
Murphy and Ken Barnett in Wonderful Town Photo by Paul Kolnick