DIVA TALK: Celebrating Sondheim with Tony Winner and Anyone Can Whistle's Donna Murphy

By Andrew Gans
02 Apr 2010

Murphy was convinced she was going to be fired from the workshop, and when director Lapine requested a meeting, her fears were even stronger. She couldn't have been more wrong: Lapine and Sondheim were thrilled that she had her own ideas about the character. "It's wonderful that you can go take [Steve's] direction but also be an active voice," Lapine told Murphy, "so just keep doing what you're doing. It's great."

"And from that moment on," Murphy says, "I felt like I could work without a net, because there was the net of [being] surrounded by genius, and while nothing can be perfect from any of us, it all felt perfect to me.

"It wasn't until I started previews," Murphy laughs, "[when] it was like a rude awakening – 'Oh! You hate her? You hate it?' [When] people would say that, I was like, 'How could you possibly?' I could not understand how people could not get it, but I was inside of it. It wasn't my job to be outside of it. And so then it became this huge challenge of, 'How do you play a really difficult woman, a character who is not necessarily likeable, and yet at least get a portion of the audience to care enough about what happens that they don't want to throttle her by the middle of the first act?'

"Steve was incredibly generous [through] the process," Murphy continues. "Not gratuitously so. It's not like he was telling you you were great all the time . . . . but mostly he was talking about the work, and we were just working. We were all working very, very hard."

Murphy recalls one particular interaction with Sondheim during previews for Passion that was life-changing. "I came offstage after a show, starting to go upstairs and Steve said, 'Are you having fun?' I kind of spun around. I probably looked like Fosca with the intensity of it," she laughs, "and I said, 'What? What?' And he said, 'Are you having fun?' And I said, 'Fun. Um… oh, my God, Steve, it means so much. It's so intense, and it's so beautiful, I've just never had an experience like this, nothing will ever be this meaningful.' And he said, 'Donna, you've got to find the joy. You have to experience the joy in this.' Here was this man that nobody, to my mind, is harder on himself, more demanding of himself than Steve. He asks a lot of himself, and he works so hard. And I don't mean to parallel myself or equate myself with him, but I am somebody who also works hard and is hard on myself, and I feel like the work is never done. And part of that makes me so happy because it gives me things to work towards every night, it stops me from getting bored. But he reminded me — certainly when I started doing this, when I was in elementary school, junior high, high school, it was a blast! I was serious about it, I was dead serious about it, and I knew it was what I wanted to do with my life, but I also had so much fun. I knew how to be silly in the moments, to break the tension… But I was in this zone, and he said, 'You have got to experience the joy because it's not always like this, and these particular kinds of experiences, they don't come along all the time.' However he said it, it wasn't about him, it was about me. And he gave me the greatest gift. . . And, I wasn't beating myself up. I wasn't going, 'You're not good enough, you're not good enough.' That wasn't happening. I just was in this very intense zone. I was loving it, and he wasn't saying, 'Go out! Party! Have a laugh riot every night!' He was just checking in as another artist, this is what I felt like, as a more experienced artist to say, 'Make sure you allow yourself joy in this.' And that was the greatest gift coming from that person who I so respected, and if I was going to let it in from anyone, it was going to be from Steve."

Donna Murphy in Follies.
photo by Joan Marcus
Murphy says Sondheim was also involved in the recent City Center Encores! production of Follies, which cast the gifted artist as the wry Phyllis Stone opposite the Sally Durant Plummer of Tony winner Victoria Clark. "I remember the sitzprobe [for Follies] because I sang '[Could I] Leave You,' and [Sondheim] came up to me afterwards and he gave me this great, great big hug. . . . But then I screwed up the lyrics in 'Lucy and Jessie' so many nights – the 'coulds' and the 'woulds' – and he always let me know that I didn't get it yet," Murphy laughs. "I remember the last night I said, 'I got it, Steve! I got it!' And he said, "'You didn't, honey, but it doesn't matter. It was great!' And I was like, 'Sh*t!'"

When asked to pick a favorite Sondheim song, Murphy says, "It's too hard. I mean there are the songs that meant the most to me before I ever worked with him. But even that, I couldn't choose one. 'Move On' just kills me. I've never sung it, except in my apartment alone with the album, singing along with Bernadette and Mandy. . . .So much from Into the Woods, just as a daughter, as somebody who was a stepmother and now a mother and aspired to be a mother, that whole score just wipes me out. But then, you know, forget it – 'I Read.' I was the first person that he heard sing it. . . . The entire character was in that song, or the opportunity to find every dimension and cell of that woman and … breathing moment of her life was in that song. If you can call it a song – I mean, if anybody had called it an aria, that would have been too intimidating. Now I see why people do refer to it in that way. But to me it was just this incredible monologue with this rhapsodic music that so fitted like a glove, and the music just told me more and more about her than the lyrics already did. Who has ever written anything like that in the musical theatre? But then I go, 'Loving You,' 'I Wish I Could Forget You,' and then just listening to the songs the other night. I've sung 'Losing My Mind' several times and I just, I can't believe it when I'm doing it. Even the moments when you're not singing, you're alive in a world that you can't believe."

Murphy is now getting ready to tackle her latest Sondheim role, Mayor Cora Hoover Hooper in the upcoming Encores! production of the short-lived Sondheim-Arthur Laurents musical Anyone Can Whistle, which co-stars Tony winner Sutton Foster and Tony nominee Raul Esparza. It was another multiple Tony winner, however, who Murphy says helped get her the gig: Angela Lansbury, who starred in the original production of Whistle.

"This year [the Drama League was] lucky enough to be honoring [Lansbury], and I was asked by Michael Mayer to learn and sing [Anyone Can Whistle's] 'Me and My Town.' I'd only heard that song once before, and I thought, 'Oh, what a great song!,' and I said, 'Yeah! Yeah!' . . . I had such a good time, and that night [Lansbury] came up to me afterwards and kind of took me by the shoulders and she said, 'Have they called you?' And I said, 'Who?' And she said, 'Encores! Have they called you?' And I said, 'No.' And she said, 'Why aren't you doing it?' And I said, 'Well, I haven't been asked.' She said, 'I'm calling them! I'm calling them!' And, it was incredibly flattering, but it was also one of those situations where I [didn't] know what's going on [with the casting]. It certainly was on my radar that they were doing this show because any time that there's a Sondheim show happening, my ears prick up and I'm like, 'Is there something in it for me?,'" she laughs.

Anyone Can Whistle stars Sutton Foster and Donna Murphy.
photo by Joan Marcus
Murphy says she believes that Whistle "is the show that kind of introduces the beginnings, the seeds of what people think of as a Sondheim style of writing. Ironically, as short-lived as its initial run was. . . . there's stuff in here that has the beginnings of that man who, nobody [had] ever written anything like this before."

And, what does Murphy believe Sondheim's legacy to musical theatre will be? "God, I think he changed the sound and the whole . . . world of musical theatre, or he built upon it. He was the next chapter. I mean, there was so much significant, gorgeous, funny, clever writing that preceded him, but he just [wrote with] this new sensibility and new musical vocabulary.

"And you just want it to go on and on. [Backstage at the Philharmonic event] I said, 'The most bittersweet piece of it is that line from Sunday in the Park.' I never want to stop saying, just please, 'Give us more to see.' I never want to think that whatever was the last show that he wrote was the last show that he wrote. And, I'm not saying he's written his last show, I hope to God he hasn't. You hear the range of it, the breadth of it and just the music, again, it's not just the words, it's both. And, it's character and it's story and it's the human condition. And, I've been lucky to work with some amazing new composers and to work on some of the work of the best of the best, Rodgers and Hammerstein and Comden and Green. I said to Mandy Patinkin at one point, 'I want him to give us more to see, even though I'll take what we got, too.' And he said, 'You know what, the thing is, we've been in the room with Shakespeare, because that's what this is. This is Shakespeare of the musical theatre, it really is.'"

[Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents' Anyone Can Whistle will play City Center April 8-11. For tickets call (212) 581-1212 or visit www.nycitycenter.org.]

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