DIVA TALK: Catching Up With Closer Than Ever, Wicked and Wild Party Star Julia Murney

By Andrew Gans
03 Aug 2012

Murney in Lennon on Broadway.
Photo by Joan Marcus

Question: I know. I was listening to the score of Baby the other day, and there's that line about "life begins at 43." I thought, "How am I the age of the old couple in Baby? When did that happen?"
Murney: And, I did a concert of Baby for the Transport Group a little while back, and I sang "I Want It All" with Betsy Wolfe and Jill Paice. And, Catherine Cox, the original Pam, was there—and I've known her for years, and there was no listing of who was singing what—so when we got up to sing that song, she said, "Oh my goodness, well obviously she's singing Pam," and I was singing Arlene. But Catherine was like, "Oh, no! Why is she singing Arlene?! What does that mean for me?" It's just devastating all the way around. [Laughs.]

Question: You were also in The Landing recently. What was that experience like?
Murney: It was delicious. John Kander is the tastiest morsel in the bag. It was just great. It was great to be with him and watch him work on something brand new, work on his very first thing without Fred, and to be with someone like Greg Pierce, who wrote the book and lyrics, who is just sweet as pie. It was just the loveliest group of people—Walter Bobbie and David Hyde Pierce and Paul Anthony Stewart and little Jake… I can't tell you how many people said, "Oh, yes, you're doing that Kander and Ebb thing." I'm like, "Nope. Kander. Just Kander." It's a totally understandable slip because that's the normal thing that comes out of your mouth, but it was very different. It was nothing like any Kander and Ebb show you've ever seen, certainly. But it's a different little creature, and it's its own thing, and it's a great joy to be a part of it.

Question: Do you know what's happening with the show? Is there any talk of a production?
Murney: I believe the Vineyard wants to do it as a production; it's a matter of them figuring out their schedule along with us and our schedules because I believe they would like to do it with us. David Hyde Pierce and Paul and myself and Walter… busy people! Trying to figure out when can we all grasp that time. So we are definitely hoping that it gets done.

Question: Do you have any other projects in the works?
Murney: I do! ...I'm doing a play. So if Closer Than Ever does indeed keep extending, which I think that might be their desire. Our hope is that this show keeps selling and that people keep enjoying it and it could just continue on, and then they'll have different casts that they can rotate in and out. Actors love nothing more than saying, "Oh, I'd love to do that just for six weeks and then be done." I can only do it for these three weeks that are scheduled because then I start this new play called Falling that is going to be down at the Minetta Lane, and I'm really excited because there's no dancing girls. [Laughs.] It's just a play—a talking play.

Question: Have you done any non-musicals in New York?
Murney: I have. I did Crimes of the Heart at Second Stage back in—goodness—2001, I think, with Jason Butler Harner, who's in Cock right now, and Amy Ryan and Enid Graham and Mary Catherine Garrison, and Garry Hynes directed it. And, we had a ball! It was one of those odd things. It was the first real revival—like major revival of that play—in New York. It was directed by the first woman to win a Tony for directing, and we got nice reviews, and nobody cared. [Laughs.] It was sort of like, "That happened," and it went on by. No one really remembers. Well, we remember. Luckily, you get to take the people away from it… Jason is borrowing my car right now as we speak, and I would definitely say… The Cockfight Play is really, really good, and everyone should go see it.

Murney in Saved at Playwrights Horizons.
photo by Joan Marcus

Question: What's it like for you doing a play versus a musical? Is there less pressure about worrying about your voice every day?
Murney: The biggest thing that stunned me about when we did Crimes of the Heart was not having to wake up in the morning and go, "Ahhhh" just to see what's there because normally, when you're doing a musical morning, when you do that and you go, "Ah… Oh no!" [Laughs.] Then you spend the whole day drinking tea and jumping for Jesus that you're going to get to eight o'clock okay. And, the other thing about the play is that our director every night would pop her head into the room and be like, "Where are we going?" And, we would go out every night. "What is this world?! What is this world of the plays? I enjoy this!" Although, this particular play is not really a comedy, per se, and there is screaming and stuff in it, so that will be interesting in presenting its own challenges.

And, Closer Than Ever is interesting because it's not miked. The York is small, and there's only a piano and bass, and the layout of the house is [intimate]. It's a little harder at the Vineyard because the stage is a little more separated from the audience, but at the York it's kind of in your face. So that's a different thing, too, and there's always the debate that goes on and always seems to end in, "Well, Ethel Merman did not need a microphone!" [Laughs.] Which I completely understand; however, there is another side to that called, "Ethel Merman wasn't singing today's kind of music." The demands on a singer have changed, and Ethel Merman—although, my goodness, how exciting would it be to go back in time and get to see her? But from what I've understood and from reading the biography, which I did, she pretty much just planted her feet and bellowed. She wasn't really trying to nuance it or act it—again, from what I've understood. And so, given all of that, the demands become different. I always feel like that's a bit of an unfair argument. Yes, absolutely, there are some people who, when you hear them sing unamplified, they completely disappear, there is no sense of projection, which is rough. But on the flipside, I think today's singing has become what today's singing is, so when I get quiet, I try to not disappear. And, also, today's ear is different, the audience's ear. When you think about when you go to see a play, if you're used to hearing amplified musicals all the time, and you go to see a play, sometimes it takes a second, especially if the play is in verse or if everyone has accents or whatever it is. It takes a minute to get your ear clicked into, "This is where I need my aural sensory to be for this," so I think Closer Than Ever is a little odd because it's a musical and you expect the amplification. In a show like Wicked, the sound man is your bestest friend in the whole wide world! [Laughs.] Some nights you come in, and you're like, "Hey, dude… Can you do me a favor? I need you to ride it really high and help me out!" [Laughs.] Closer Than Ever is just on you. It's really nice because it's sort of an implicit contract between you and the audience of "We have to meet in the middle."

Question: It's interesting what you said before about nothing an actor likes better than knowing it's only six weeks. That sort of surprises me because I would think that learning all of this material, especially for this show, you would want a longer run.
Murney: You're absolutely right. I say that sort of as a joke… I mean that's a terrible blanket statement because there are some people who their entire goal is to get into a long run and sit down. And, you're right. When the [Off-Broadway] play came up and the notion of "maybe, who knows?" of Closer Than Ever continuing on, and suddenly that got taken away, I was like, "Oh, no. Well, wait! This is so much fun! And, it's so much music." [Laughs.] I'm probably just going to figure it out by week three, and then I'm out. What I keep thinking, though, in the grand, brilliant tradition of summer stock, I only got to play Eva Peron for eight shows. I had to learn Evita. I had a lot more time to learn Evita because I knew I was going to play it for a while, so I was able to slam it and slam it into my brain, so it's not quite the rush-job that this one is. Summer stock has been done since the dawn of musical-theatre time at least, and it is what it is. So I've kind of flipped it in my head and went, "Well, at least I get three weeks." I get to do three weeks of this music that I've always loved and has meant something to me, and that's all I mean by that statement. I should have said, "There's nothing I love more than being asked to just do three weeks." [Laughs.] Just because the fear of the fatigue that sets in, and that's when you start worrying. I start worrying. I don't mean to speak for everyone. And, while it's always a joy, it's also a job. And, that's when it gets a little bit of, "Oh, dear." It's not that I don't want to go to work—don't get me wrong. I just [know] it's going to be tricky today. And, it's hard when you feel an expectation. And, that was the greatest challenge of Wicked was that the expectation that lies on that and wanting to fulfill that expectation for these people who have waited all this time to see the show and paid all this money and all of that. And, you want to give it to them. The lesson I had to keep learning when "The Wizard and I" did not go as I desired, it was very from College 101. In my brain, I had to keep saying, "Just tell the story." I say this to my students when I teach, too. "It's not your job to telegraph to them that you don't really feel well, and you know that you don't sound a hundred percent. That's not your job." Your job is to tell them the story. And, a lot of those people in that audience don't actually know the difference… It's not like it's the Olympics of Wicked. Just tell the tale. Don't ruin their experience with your own insecurities. It's hard. It's a tricky thing, especially when you do feel like you're under what you can do. And, you just hope that the part that you can do is solid and understandable and welcomed, I guess. [Laughs.] And, that's why I feel very lucky that so much of what I've gotten to do is actable. I did a concert with Jason Robert Brown of The Last Five Years, where he played Jamie at the piano and with a band. We were out at UCLA, and I had some insane allergic reaction, and I was fine at rehearsal that day, and I opened my mouth to start the concert that evening, and it was like, "Rut-roh! What has happened up in there?" After the instant panic I had, the second thought I had was, "Oh, thank God these are actable songs. I'm about to heavily rely on the story that is being told because I haven't got the other thing right now. I'll do my best and thank you to my voice teachers for technique and for all of that. But thank goodness Jason wrote these songs that paint vivid pictures." If it was just a score about vocal pyrotechnics, I would have been doomed.