DIVA TALK: Chatting with Wicked's Julia Murney Plus News of Peters and Skinner

News   DIVA TALK: Chatting with Wicked's Julia Murney Plus News of Peters and Skinner
 
News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.
Julia Murney in Wicked; Murney and Sebastian Arcelus in Wicked.
Julia Murney in Wicked; Murney and Sebastian Arcelus in Wicked. Photo by Joan Marcus

JULIA MURNEY

Julia Murney fans across the country are in for a double treat this season. Not only is the celebrated actress, who boasts a powerhouse, vibrato-filled belt that is as expressive as it is exciting and rangy, currently starring as the misunderstood, green-faced Elphaba in the national tour of Wicked, but she will also release her long-awaited solo debut recording on Sh-K-Boom Records in the spring. The CD, titled "I'm Not Waiting," features a mix of pop and theatre tunes, including the Stephen Schwartz Wicked ballad "I'm Not That Girl." Murney, whose breakout role was Queenie in the Manhattan Theatre Club production of Andrew Lippa's The Wild Party, also made her Broadway debut earlier this season, providing one of the highlights of the short-lived musical Lennon with her tender rendition of "Beautiful Boy." Murney, in fact, has the habit of standing out, whether she's performing on Broadway, Off-Broadway or in numerous benefit evenings. I recently had the chance to chat with the charming performer, who is currently impressing Cincinnati audiences with her take on everyone's favorite green gal. That interview follows.

Question: You've been somehow attached to Wicked for a long time. . .
Julia Murney: Well, sort of. I don't know if I would call it "attached," but I've known Stephen Schwartz for a very long time. I had sung "Defying Gravity" — I think I might have been the first person to sing it in New York.

Q: Where did you debut the song?
Murney: It was at the Duplex [in July 2002] — there was an evening of Stephen's music that someone put together, and Stephen very kindly [told them], "You can have a song from my new show [Wicked]" —which was just about to do more workshops — "but Julia Murney has to sing it," which was very sweet. And, I think — I might be wrong here — but I think [the key] might have actually been higher! Because I remember saying, "Stephen, this is not cute." [Laughs.] And [the role of Elphaba] came around this time, and that was cool. . . . I'm really glad to be doing it [on tour]. The cast is so wonderful right down the line. They're great, and they've been so kind and so helpful. I was nervous because I know Stephanie [J. Block, who created the role of Elphaba for the tour]. I know how fantastic Stephanie is, and I knew she had been their momma for a year. And, it's hard to be like, "I'm your new momma!" [Laughs.] But they've been nothing but wonderful, and there are four new people [in the cast now].

Q: What was the rehearsal process like?
Murney: Fast! [Laughs.] I am, I guess, the fastest they've ever put in an Elphaba. We did ten days in New York. Then we went to Pittsburgh last week, and we did one rehearsal with just us and then two full put-ins, and that was it. Q: What was your experience like the first time before an audience?
Murney: It was a little bit of madness. Again, knowing how kind everyone had been, I knew they had my back . . . It was very overwhelming because I've never toured before and I thought, "You just open on a tour and that's that." [But] I got flowers from all these people, my sister and two of my best friends surprised me, flew to Cincinnati. I was sort of overwhelmed — it was like a regular opening night. It was really cool.

Q: What are your thoughts about touring at this point?
Murney: Well, I've only been gone from home for a week-and-a-half, so it's hard to say. [Laughs.] It's strange. It's like this own little bubble of a world. I haven't figured out [yet] how to be a human because [the work has] been all-encompassing. And you rehearse a lot. That was the other thing about this cast that was so remarkable. They did something like 11 shows last week between our put-ins and their normal shows. And, the awesome thing about them is they weren't marking — they were giving us their full show, so we knew what we were going to get. I can't say enough about them — they were so remarkable, and we were so grateful for it.

Q: Did it take you awhile to decide whether you wanted to tour? What factored into that decision?
Murney: It did. Well, I really enjoy my couch. [Laughs.] I'm a bit of a homebody, and I do voiceovers at home, so there was a whole world, more or less, that I was going to walk away from for a period of time. I went back and forth and spoke about it with a few of my friends. And, finally a friend said to me, "Why haven't you made a decision? . . ." And I felt badly because I know just about anybody else would be like, "I'll pack my bags right now." And, I, of course, am the idiot who's like, "I don't know. . ." [Laughs.]

Q: But touring is a big change. . .
Murney: It is. But when my friends said that to me, I said, "I don't think my friends are idiots, so I'm trying to take the time to really listen to them." . . . I was sitting very comfortably in my little box doing benefits and my voiceovers, basically, and every once in a while a show, and that's fine. But, I thought, "Get yourself out of the box and challenge yourself a bit." This has certainly been from the word go — between learning the role in such a short amount of time and suddenly being on tour —a very fast learning curve. And, now I feel like the last big hurdle is figuring out how to do this so many times a week when you're not home. Every time you move to a new city, you have to create your new comfort zone. I haven't even figured out how to get the green off of me yet, really satisfactorily. [Laughs.]

Q: Have you asked any of the other Elphabas for advice?
Murney: Oh, yes. I sat with Eden [Espinosa] before I left, and I've e-mailed with Idina [Menzel] and Stephanie [Block] and even the understudies here on the road. And then I got the sweetest call from Kristy Cates, who's playing her in Chicago. She left me a whole message saying, "I just want to wish you luck and anything that you might need. . ." It was so nice. It's like a green-girl sisterhood. [Laughs.]

Q: What advice have they given you?
Murney: I think the big thing is just figuring out how to pace yourself within the show and knowing where your alternate notes lie. . . . The hardest thing about this show isn't necessarily the singing. It's the talking, it's the screaming — screaming "Fiyero!" That's the thing you forget about unless you're actively thinking about trying to place all the speaking in a spot that you can maintain. And, it's hard because when you get emotional, the thoughts of "place that correctly" go straight out the window. That's been the big thing — different people explaining how they pace themselves. Idina was really into Bikram yoga, which is very, very hot. She did it every day. I tried it, and it kind of made me want to throw up. [Laughs.] It's so hot! And Stephanie would get honey from local beekeepers when she would come to a new city, figuring that they would have inoculated themselves against local allergies.

Q: So many actresses want to play this part. What do you think makes it such a great role?
Murney: Well, you're like a rock star. The coolest thing thus far are the kids, the little ones. There was a little boy yesterday. It's one thing when the teenagers come because they appreciate it in a different way, and I think usually they're theatre fans. . . But there was a little boy, who was probably seven, [who said], "I liked the part when you talked about Dorothy." That was just cute. And, when you're in good voice and you're feeling your stride, it's a kick to sing. Stephen's written some kickin' songs.

Q: What's the first-act finale ["Defying Gravity"] like to perform?
Murney: The first-act finale, for me, is all about the levitator, the cherry picker, and figuring out the tricks that make it work. You have to get yourself into a whole situation in a fast amount of time. I draw strength from the fact that I look down [and] I can see Kendra [Kassebaum], I can see Kyle [McDaniel] and the guard lying on the ground. I can see them and I'm okay. It's not scary. Everyone kept saying, "Do you have a problem with heights?" [I thought], "I don't think so. I guess I'll find out." It really does go quite high.

Q: Are you strapped in?
Murney: No, but you have a sort of clamp. You do have mobility but not in your feet. Your feet can't really move. And that was one of the greatest first pieces of advice that Eden gave me way back. She [said], "Practice 'Defying Gravity' with your feet together." Because you can't hunker down to get your notes — that's not possible. That was a really fantastic Eden piece of advice. . . . My favorite song to sing is "No Good Deed." "The Wizard and I" is hard because that's the one right out of the gate. That's the one where you're [thinking], "Do you have it today or not? Let's see." And I do love singing "For Good" because it's with Kendra and because it's a simpler song to sing vocally and it's more about the lyric. And I love singing "As Long As You're Mine" because I'm with Sebastian [Arcelus]. I spend so much time by myself, but then you're like, "Here's a person. I get to sing with a person!"

Q: How long are you contracted with the show?
Murney: For six months.

Q: Would you like to bring it to Broadway?
Murney: I don't know. There are other things pending. I feel like I'm not doing this for something else. I'm doing this for this. If something else comes up, that's great. I kind of long ago stopped pretending that "this will happen and then this will happen." One of the huge lessons of Wild Party was sometimes it doesn't happen the way you think it's going to happen. And, that show still changed my life and completely changed my career, and it made me realize that Broadway — although a fantastic dream and a wonderful thing — isn't everything. We got to do our show for the time that we did it, and we loved it so much. And, no, it didn't move to Broadway, and that was a true bummer, but we still got to do it. That's sort of why I didn't make a big deal with [Lennon]. Other people were like, "Oh it's your Broadway debut." It was and that was cool, but I felt like making that particular production more important, simply because it was on Broadway, somehow would lessen all the other shows I had done. I loved doing Ragtime in North Carolina. . . .

Q: What was the Lennon experience like?
Murney: It was great, and it was frustrating. As in everything, we hoped for more and we hoped for a better outcome. . . . It wasn't for everyone. Some people flipped out over it. . . . Wicked has captured a certain imagination, which we sort of, in a very, very different way, hoped Lennon would capture: a feeling of peace and introspection and politically stating how you feel and all the stuff that John [Lennon] stood for and trying to rile people up in a way. This show is all about girl power essentially. This story of these two girls, and everyone has felt like a green girl at some point and to find out that the beautiful one isn't entirely happy and sometimes the boy does choose the other one. It speaks to these girls in a way that I don’t think any other show does. In its day Annie had its fans. But that was just like, "Oh, I could be Annie." But this is like, "That's me." It's a more personal thing. It sounds silly, but it's true, it feels important, somehow, to be a part of that. To be like, "Maybe I can help these girls," because I've been the green girl. I'm the green girl at least once a week. [Laughs.] Feeling like you're not enough or you're too different. . . . There is that thing of wanting to belong. And they're so much more powerful together than they are opposing each other, which in today's climate, with the way a lot of young girls can be, I think that's a pretty good lesson.

Q: You also just completed your first solo recording. Tell me about that.
Murney: It's called "I'm Not Waiting," which is a song that Andrew Lippa wrote for me when I did my first solo show at Ars Nova. . . . It's a total hodge-podge. It's not a show-tune album, although there is a song from Wicked, there is a song that was cut from Wild Party and there's my song from Lennon, which isn't really a show tune, but it was in a show.

Q: Which Wicked song did you record?
Murney: "I'm Not That Girl," which I think is the most beautiful song in the show. And it's the song that I thought really made sense out of context. I didn't want to be singing about flying or brooms! At one point someone said, "You should sing 'Defying Gravity' and you should call it 'The Green Album.'" . . . I feel like I'm borrowing this role from everyone who came before me. I'm borrowing this role from Idina and Stephanie and Ana [Gasteyer] and Kristy and Eden and Shoshana [Bean]. They put their stamp [on it], and we hopefully just feed off each other. It's not mine, it's ours. To take possession of it like that was not what I meant to do at all. . . We're trying to put a rush on [the CD]. It's all done, it's being manufactured, and that takes the time that it takes. . . . There's a Reba McEntire song, there's an Annie Lennox and U2 song put together and a Joni Mitchell.

Q: When do you think it will hit stores?
Murney: They thought for sure by the beginning of May, but I'm hoping sooner. Q: Who would you say are some of your vocal influences or were your influences, people you admired growing up?
Murney: I loved Bette Midler. When I was a kid, I was obsessed with the "Divine Miss M" album. There are certain voices that I could sing nothing like, but I always [admired] — Barbara Cook I always thought was exquisite. And there are certain albums — I was a freak for Dreamgirls. I didn't know Evita, I somehow skipped that. . . . I loved Liz Callaway and Beth Fowler and Catherine Cox in Baby. I saw Baby on Broadway originally because I grew up in New York. Today's vocalists — what's cool is I get flustered now by the fact that pretty much I'll go to see a show and I know the people. I sat at the opening night of Wicked watching Idina just go! I was like, "She comes to my house and we have pizza." That's amazing. And to know them — Eden Espinosa, for example, is just so kind and so gracious. To do the big Actors' Fund benefits, the most fun about them is getting to watch everybody else do their thing. . . . It inspires me to go and see my friends excel at the top level of what we've always aspired to.

[The national tour of Wicked is currently playing the Aronoff Center in Cincinnati through March 19. The tour will then open at Philadelphia's Academy of Music March 22. For more details, visit www.wickedthemusical.com.]

DIVA TIDBITS

Add November 4 to the ever-growing list of Bernadette Peters' concert dates. The two-time Tony-winning actress is scheduled to perform with the Omaha Symphony in Omaha, NE, on that fall evening. Other recent additions include June 7 with the Boston Pops at Symphony Hall in Boston, MA; Aug. 12 with the Boston Pops at Jetties Beach in Nantucket, MA; Sept. 30 at Pfeiffer Hall in Naperville, IL; and Oct. 28 and 29 at the Music Center at Strathmore in Bethesda, MD.

Terri Klausner, who was the original "matinee" Eva for the Broadway run of Evita, will join Steve Marzullo for a March 20 concert at the Duplex Cabaret Theatre. The one-night-only concert will feature songs from the musical theatre as well as tunes by Billy Joel, Bonnie Raitt, The Carpenters, Heart and John Lennon. Show time is 9:30 PM. The Duplex Cabaret Theatre is located at 61 Christopher Street. There is a $15 cover charge and a two-drink minimum; call (212) 255-5438 for reservations.

Emily Skinner, who was recently seen in the new musical Fanny Hill, will direct the upcoming Town Hall concert The Broadway Musicals of 1956. Created and hosted by Scott Siegel, the April 3 concert will boast the talents of director Skinner as well Christine Andreas, Brent Barrett, Marc Kudisch, Ashley Brown, John Treacy Egan, Devin Richard, Rachelle, Brandon Cutrell and Connie Pachl. Show time is 8 PM. The evening will feature songs from shows that debuted on Broadway in 1956. Concertgoers can expect to hear tunes from My Fair Lady, The Most Happy Fella, Li'l Abner and Mr. Wonderful. Town Hall is located in Manhattan at 123 West 43rd Street. Tickets, priced $40 and $45, are available by calling (212) 307-4100.

Tony-nominated actress Karen Akers, who starred in the original Broadway productions of Nine and Grand Hotel, will pay tribute to the songs of John Kander and the late Fed Ebb in her upcoming stint at the Algonquin Hotel's Oak Room. Akers has titled her show First You Dream: The Songs of Kander & Ebb, and cabaretgoers will be treated to Kander and Ebb's "Maybe This Time," "Married," "The Happy Time," "I Don't Remember You," "Yes," "Coffee in a Cardboard Cup," "There When I Need Him," "My Own Space," "Arthur in the Afternoon," "City Lights," "We Can Make It," "Not Enough Magic," "Familiar Things," "Colored Lights" and "First You Dream." Akers will play the famed Oak Room April 4-May 13. She will be accompanied by musical director Don Rebic on piano and Brian Glassman on bass. Richard Niles directs. Performances are Tuesdays-Thursdays at 9 PM with two shows Fridays and Saturdays at 9 and 11:30 PM. There is a $60 cover charge plus a food/drink minimum. For reservations call (212) 419-9931. The Algonquin Hotel is located in New York City at 59 West 44th Street. Visit www.thealgonquin.net for more information.

Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to agans@playbill.com.

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