Donna Murphy has been little-seen on stage since winning back-to-back Tony Awards for Passion and The King and I in the mid-90s. Professional and personal commitments kept her away, but she gave theatregoers a strong reminder of her talent in the 2001 City Center Encores! concert revival of Wonderful Town. The response to her work in that musical, singing the songs of Bernstein, Comden and Green, was so enthusiastic many thought it would be her next role on Broadway. It was a surprise, then, to hear Murphy would return to the stage not in a splashy Broadway musical, but in a cerebral Off Broadway drama — Helen by Ellen McLaughlin, which begins previews at the Public Theater on March 19, under the direction of playwright Tony Kushner. The actress who gained fame as Sondheim's aggressively ugly Fosca in Passion will now play the woman whose face launched a thousand ships. Murphy spoke to Playbill On-Line's Robert Simonson about this unexpected departure in her career and the strange road that brought her to the play.
Playbill On-Line: I knew an actress who was asked to play the role of Helen of Troy in another play. She said she couldn't refuse the part because the offer was too flattering.
Donna Murphy: [Laughs] Well, it is Helen, but it's Ellen's version of Helen, which is based on Euripides' treatment of the story. He wrote two plays which dealt with Helen. He wrote The Trojan Women and Helen, which is the one this play is based on. In that version, Helen doesn't go to Troy. She is plucked out of her circumstances by the goddess Hera and brought to Egypt, where she waited for Menalaus to get her. A phantom Helen was created and sent to Troy, unbeknownst to everyone else — they think it's Helen. But she's sitting in a hotel room in Cairo for 17 years! [Laughs] So, it is the Helen of that time. It's not a contemporary parallel. But there are a lot of anachronistic elements. It deals with themes of duality, of dual universes and the twin nature of things. But to get back to your initial question, I'm wary when I'm asked to play a character that is referred to as beautiful. That is not something that I'm ever comfortable with. For this show, we did a photo session for the poster before we started rehearsals. I remember being photographed as Fosca for Passion with Richard Avedon. And it was an amazing photo session. And it was exhausting. But, the Helen photo session was more exhausting — holding up my own conviction about looking beautiful... [Laughs]
PBOL: The most beautiful woman in the world!
DM: ...was just ridiculously exhausting and stressful for me. It was much easier being photographed as someone thought of as...a dog. [Laughs] Not to be cruel about it.
PBOL: But you overcame those fears, apparently.
DM: Well, I'm still working on it, Robert. What attracted me to the play was the complexity, and the fact there was humor, but there is definitely a tragic element or two to the story. I've never done anything like this.
PBOL: What's it like working with Tony Kushner as a director?
DM: Well, he's a brilliant man. He has a great understanding of the world, the present world and historically. He has access to so much and he is very patient with others of us who are not quite as capable as assimilating intellectual concepts. He's an insightful and empathetic man. PBOL: This is your first play in some time.
DM: Yes, since Twelve Dreams at Lincoln Center. I did that right between Passion and The King and I. Then, after The King and I, nothing seemed the right play at the right time. I did several workshops. And I did a couple films in between Passion and The King and I. I also did some television. And then I knew I had to step away for a while. I also felt I had to make an investment in other areas of my career. And it was good for me. It also made me want to come back.
PBOL: In Wonderful Town at Encores!
DM: Yes! That was a blast. And there were moments where it looked like it might come to Broadway.
PBOL: Is that still a possibility?
DM: Yes. Initially there was a lot of talk of my doing it. But after a while, I was offered this television show, and I couldn't wait anymore. Then, the producers were waiting to see the fate of that show, which was a replacement series. And we did get picked up and we shot nine episodes. But then we got canceled after only a few aired. So I was available and there was talk of bringing in Wonderful Town in the spring. But I got pregnant. So then there was talk of the fall, after the baby was born. Then I had a miscarriage, but I wasn't ready to just jump back in.
PBOL: I hear you may have an album project coming up.
DM: Not in any specific way. We're in discussions. Wonderful Town remains a possibility. But I have been threatening to begin a recording project. I'm talking to Sony Classical, the idea being that I've never found the time to develop the material. I've gotten a lot of concert requests, but I don't have the act. So I thought I'd do a recording and that could be the basis, the foundation of a show. I started thinking about it in Chicago, when I was shooting the television show. I was talking to musical directors and selecting material. Then Sept. 11 happened, which threw me, like it did everyone. So I decided to just concentrate on the job I was doing. And then a lot of things went on with me. I still plan to do this, but it's on the back burner. I feel ready to do it.
PBOL: Do you know what sort of material you'll sing?
DM: I think it's going to be a mix. They are songs that have meant something to me, but beyond that I'd rather not say.
—By Robert Simonson