Somewhat unbelievably, Donna Murphy has not yet recorded a solo album. Her fans wait patiently, comforting themselves with the knowledge that when this hard-working, highly skilled actress finally turns her attention toward solo musical theatre repertoire, it will surely be with the same depth, conviction and originality she's brought to her major body of work on stage in musicals. Since her heralded performance in Passion to her more recent star turns in such equally diverse works as The People In The Picture and Lovemusik, she has continued to demonstrate her range and versatility. Whether she's giving us saucy, plucky, impassioned or in pain, Murphy always diappears into to character, body, spirit and voice. While we wait for her future solo albums, we have a plethora of cast recordings to enjoy.
Winning her first Tony Award for Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's Passion in 1994, Donna really ascended to the level of Broadway star, and with good reason. Her Fosca was as desperate and tragic as the material called for, but always relatable and sung with great power and clarity. This indelible performance, for all its darkness, made an unforgettable impression and immediately earned a place among the legendary pantheon of stage icons such as Mary Martin in South Pacific and Carol Channing in Hello, Dolly! and Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl.
Reminding Broadway audiences of the madcap musical comedy delights she offered years before in Song Of Singapore Off-Broadway, Donna Murphy won a host of new fans with hilarious and zany performance in Wonderful Town. Only a comedian as gifted and fastidious as Murphy could milk so many laughs out of the Leonard Bernstein-Betty Comden and Adolph Green tour de force, "One Hundred Easy Ways" or make the deliciously 1950s "Conga" and "Swing" fly for modern audiences. And when Murphy lent her voice to the timeless duets, "Ohio" and "Wrong Note Rag," it was showtune heaven.
Some people felt that Donna Murphy's second Tony Award was won by default, since Julie Andrews had "declined" her nomination due to Victor/Victoria being otherwise "egregiously overlooked." I disagree. I don't think Tony voters loved national treasure Andrews any less for the umbrage she took on behalf of her show (directed by husband, Blake Edwards). And I don't think Andrews' performance, while enjoyable, was unbeatable, particularly for anyone who'd seen the supremely enjoyable original film (starring Andrews). Murphy's Mrs. Anna in The King and I, however, was a revelation, displaying an upper register had heretofore not employed applied to a high belt never before heard on this material. And acting-wise, Murphy delivered, as one would expect, with specificity and aplomb.
2007's Lovemusik saw Donna Murphy taking on perhaps an even more daunting challenge than the iconic role of Mrs. Anna in The King and I when she essayed the role of legendary actress and singer Lotte Lenye in this bio musical about Lenye and her husband, groundbreaking composer Kurt Weill, played by Michael Cerveris. Murphy was well up to the challenge of the tricky rhythms and complex melodies of this challenging material and of course her interpretation of the sophisticated lyrics was in a class by itself. Few theatregoers will forget the thrill of witnessing Donna Murphy's chilling "Surabaya Johnny" or heartfelt "September Song."
Michael John LaChiusa's career was just taking off when Lincoln Center Theater debuted his chamber musical Hello Again (adapted from Arthur Schnitzler's La Ronde) in an unforgettable production directed and choreographed with steamy perfection by Graciela Daniele. While Donna Murphy had some of the least flashy material given anyone in this all-star ensemble (including such future big-timers as John Cameron Mitchell, Carolee Carmello, Michele Pawk, and the underrated divine Judy Blazer), her rendition of the title song opens the cast album with a grounding cornerstone of sensuality.
"Leonard Bernstein's New York"
Donna Murphy is great fun in the ensemble material covered on the 1996 studio collection, "Leonard Bernstein's New York," opposite such stellar vocalists as Audra McDonald, Dawn Upshaw, Mandy Patinkin and once again, Judy Blazer. Murphy's single solo on this album, "Ain't Got No Tears Left," though, is one for the record books. Anyone who might have mistaken this legitimate thespian for merely an "actress who sings" will be blown away by the full-scale, bring-the-house-down belting Murphy triumphs with here. A must listen.
The People in the Picture
If 2011's Broadway outing, The People in the Picture was a flop for the Roundabout Theatre Company, it was a triumph for Donna Murphy, of whose work, Ben Brantley wrote in The New York Times, "makes you marvel anew at her protean gifts." Playing both the young star of the Yiddish theatre and her present-day self as an old grandmother, the chameleon-like Murphy was dream cast. Listen to her sing the story song, "Selective Memory" and wish you'd caught this short run.
For all her loyal legions of fans of her Broadway work, Donna Murphy's voice has perhaps reached the widest (and youngest) audience with her performance of the role of Mother on the soundtrack to Walt Disney Pictures 2010 blockbuster hit computer animated musical fantasy-comedy film adaptation of the Rapunzel story, "Tangled." Somewhat reminiscent of her Mrs. Anna in The King and I, Murphy's warm, if controlling, characterization makes the most of the songs provided her Alan Menken and Glenn Slater and is highly enjoyable singing, "Mother Knows Best" and "Prologue."
(Ben Rimalower is the author and original star of the critically acclaimed Patti Issues, currently on a worldwide tour. His new solo play, Bad with Money, begins performances Sept. 4 at The Duplex in NYC. Read Playbill's coverage of the show here. Visit him at benrimalower.com and follow @benrimalower on Twitter.)