|Photo by Joan Marcus|
Fear not, Oz lovers. The New York company of Wicked, the hit Stephen Schwartz-Winnie Holzman musical that explores the back story of "The Wizard of Oz" witches, is in great hands — and even better voice — now that Julia Murney is playing the green-faced, misunderstood, not-so-wicked witch Elphaba. Murney, who made her Broadway debut last season in the short-lived musical Lennon, is best known to New York audiences for her Drama Desk-nominated turn in the Off-Broadway production of Andrew Lippa's The Wild Party. Murney has also been gathering hordes of fans around the country, thanks to her six-month stint in the national tour of Wicked, which preceded her recent return to Broadway. On Jan. 30 I had the chance to revisit Wicked at the Gershwin, where a mostly new cast — including Kendra Kassebaum as Glinda, Jayne Houdyshell as Madame Morrible, Sebastian Arcelus as Fiyero and David Garrison as the Wizard — is entrancing audiences, largely due to Murney's powerhouse performance. Murney was in terrific voice the night I attended, her rich, rangy alto soaring throughout the cavernous theatre. She was particularly exciting on "The Wizard and I," "Defying Gravity" and "No Good Deed": Murney is a fearless singer, going for the high notes with gusto, and her tones — which ripple with vibrato and power — are often thrilling. I was also more moved by the show than on previous trips: Murney and Kassebaum's second-act duet "For Good" was particularly touching. I recently had the chance to chat with the multitalented Murney, who spoke with refreshing honesty about the demands of her latest role.
Question: How does it feel being back on Broadway?
Julia Murney: It feels lovely! I miss the tour very much, but I cannot tell a lie — on a Monday, to not have to pack my bags and get on a plane, is really nice.
Question: What was the tour experience like for you going from city to city?
Murney: It was great, [and] it was exhausting. I was much more tired on the road. It took six months to figure out how to do the show. It's just a big, giant bear for me anyway. I think some of the girls [who have played Elphaba] are superhuman. [Laughs.] I am not, and so I didn't get to really explore the cities in a way that I would have liked to. I didn't actually think that I'd be able to, but there's a little part of me that was hoping. But, happily, in the majority of our cities for the majority of my time, we were in warm months, which was nice. It was just more temperate, so that was certainly comfortable.
I got really ill halfway through. I got really sick twice in about a month's time — to-the-hospital-to-check-for-pneumonia sick. With the traveling and with trying to do the show and trying to miss [only] one show and then go back, I just never got better, and that was really hard. It was really just debilitating to your confidence. I had to call out in the middle of Act One one night — which all of the girls have done — but it doesn't make you feel any better when you're in the moment. "Oh my God, am I really about to do this?" We've all had to call out in the middle of the show because we [go on thinking we] don't want to miss [a performance]. I've never taken it as, "Oh, I won't do it tonight." If I can put one foot in front of the other and make a sound, [I try to go on]. But this show is just its own creature, and my body just went, "Oh no, no, no! I'm the boss of you now. We've already done this once today, and I don't want to do it again." [Laughs.] . . . In retrospect it's kind of a funny story, but in the moment it was just mortifying.
Murney: No, I literally got through "Wizard and I," right to another song and into the classroom scene, [when] I turned to Jen Waldman, who was playing my sister, and said, "When you get offstage, tell them I'm out." Because they had to start painting [my standby] Victoria [Matlock] — they can't throw her in a costume and put her onstage. . . . She entered basically in the Oz Dust [Ballroom] scene at the dance, but I still had to go through a few more scenes while they got her ready.
Question: Did they make an announcement in the middle of the show?
Murney: No, they didn't. The killer is that I'll bet you that a good portion of that giant theatre did not know the difference! [Laughs.] And she's six feet tall! . . . They made an announcement at intermission, but they don't make it in the middle of the act. It's pretty silly, but it happened to Idina [Menzel] a few weeks ago in London, and it's just [that] sometimes your body goes, "Nope! Can't make me do it!"
Question: It's such a demanding role. I was wondering whether that factored into your decision whether to do it on Broadway, whether to go back and play the role again.
Murney: I was back and forth on it for that very reason, but I love doing the show, and I love doing it with Kendra [Kassebaum] and Sebastian [Arcelus], who both came into the show. We all came in together from the road. And, I had some months to rest, and knowing that I would be home and that would be more comfortable, so I just thought, "Okay." . . .
It's been a giant lesson for me. Once upon a time, when I was doing The Wild Party, I was indestructible. Even when I got sick — and there was a weekend where I was really sick and there were two shows where I sort of spoke-sang, which was ridiculous — but because it was written [for] me and because it was right in my pocket all over, I was able to get through it. I really beat myself up on the road for having to miss as much as I had to, but in the end I figured, "You know what? I'm just a human being, I'm not a machine." And I've had to work very hard on just learning how to forgive myself for it. And when I have to miss a show, I have to miss a show, and it's always bothered me. Before I started Wicked, I had missed one show ever, and then I did Wicked! [Laughs.] And it grates on me when [some] people . . . ride on actors for missing [a show]. . . . I can only speak for myself, but I know that I take it very seriously. And when I miss [a show], I'm not out gallivanting. I'm usually stewing in my own juices on my couch going, "Why am I missing?" I'm trying to get to a point where I'm okay with it. I think, generally, people who rag on actors for missing [a show] don't understand what it takes, and we all have different constitutions. Some people, God bless them, are so strong and indestructible — like their chords are made of steel. . . . And this show is written so relentlessly high in a number of ways. I love the low stuff! [Laughs.] I was talking to Eden [Espinosa] the other day, saying that the chances of she and I ever doing a show together are slim, and I said, "You know, if it ever happens, you and I will play sisters, and you get the high harmonies! You can sing at the top; I'm singin' the bottom!" [Laughs.] Some of the girls [who have played Elphaba] — their voices just live up there more comfortably.
Question: I actually think they may run out of people who can play the role, now that there are so many Wicked productions.
Murney: I think they are looking far and wide, and there are always new crops that are always crazily talented, kids coming out of college. I personally — coming from me because I'm not just out of college — I think sometimes the show can be deeper with people who have more maturity or life experience under their belts. Because then you can see them go on the journey from a girl to a woman. Which doesn't make it any less, if a young actress right out of [college] gets one of the roles, but that's what turns me on — that's what I love seeing. [I was talking to someone] about Tonya Pinkins in Caroline, or Change, and, goodness knows, she muscled through it sometimes with her voice, but that performance was so mature. It was so grounded, and Christine Ebersole in Grey Gardens right now — that is so stunning! I love it because it happens to be the kind of show where there's no kind of histrionic singing. Her voice is like milk. I can't get over it — I think it's so stunning.
Question: It's hard to picture anyone else doing Ebersole's role, especially from a vocal standpoint because her voice so fits the score, especially in the period aspect of the first act.
Murney: Well, that's the thing. [That is] the great gift of when you do a show from scratch, when a show gets written [for] you. This show [Wicked] is written in Idina Menzel's pocket. And I know Dee, I've worked with Dee. I know how she sings, and I spent every night of The Wild Party sitting in a chair right behind her during her big number, in astonishment. Some nights I wanted to stand up and [say] to the audience, "Do you have any idea what she's doing right now? She's amazing!" . . . Because she's just so completely balls-to-the-wall in her singing.
Question: Do you feel like you've grown in the part since the tour?
Murney: Oh, yeah, and it's very interesting coming into New York because there is the way that we did it on tour — just in terms of blocking — and then there are a number of differences [in] the way they do it here. They took all the changes they had made in London when they went back into rehearsal, and they implemented them into the New York company, so we had to learn those changes. I knew this show in a certain way, and I knew how I connected all the dots in my way. And, suddenly, all the dots got jiggered up, and I'm like, "Oh, wait a minute!" So, now, I'm figuring out how to reconnect them.
Question: What were some of the changes that they made in London?
Murney: This doesn't affect me really, but all of "Dancing Through Life," Fiyero's number, got re-choreographed. It's just much more focused, and there's a small scene between the two of us right before it, and there's a big change in the Wizard's number between he and I. They're small changes, but your brain goes, "Wait. . . Is it my line now?" [Laughs.] I guess it's good, on the one hand, to keep you on your toes. . . .
This is the longest I've ever done a show — I've never been in a hit! I've been in cult favorites that closed and live on in the mind of those who happened to see them. To be in something that is sort of a machine unto itself and has these legions of fans built in, it's quite stunning and very interesting. When you do a show for an extended amount of time, I have found you kind of can't help but keep growing because after awhile you're going to lose your mind if you don't start exploring other things. There are people — George Lee Andrews is an old friend of the family, he's been in Phantom since it opened! God bless him, I don't know how he does it. That's extraordinary to me. The thing that always makes any show worthwhile — of course, it's great to play a role like Elphaba and kind of be a bit of a rock star — but in the end, what gets me through day in and day out, are the people. That's what lasts. The show eventually ends, or you leave, and it's the friendships you make, and everyone here is so welcoming, and the crew is so great. So, that's it — because you're all showing up, and you're all doing a two-show day on a Wednesday and a Saturday. And, yeah, I have to sing Fs, but that guy over there has to pull that fly, and that girl over there has to do that choreography — we all gotta do it. It's just nicer to feel like we're all in it together.
Question: What is it like getting that response from the audience after the big numbers?
Murney: It's great. I have to honestly say, we got very spoiled on the road because on the road [audiences] are so thrilled that the big show is in town. I mean every city was sold out, but some of the cities —like Atlanta, Minneapolis, San Diego — [people were] screaming! Packed to the rafters, screaming like Mick Jagger was coming onstage, and you just couldn't believe it! . . . Here, the audiences are a bit more subdued. Especially if there [are a lot of] tourists [because] we're a part of a very expensive weekend for them. We're one element, so it's kind of like, "Okay, big hit show, what have you got? Show me what you're all about!" [Laughs.] And, they're all very present and there, but those road audiences really were something.
I do always try to remember at the end of Act One, which is certainly one of the more theatrical moments going on right now. The lights go out, and there's a little bit of lag time before the lights come back up — because the mechanism I'm on has to move backwards and then the curtain has to come down — and I try to remind myself as I'm taking out my hat pins, "They're clapping. Listen to them." Otherwise you can get lost, and it can become like, "Oh, it's a job…" But we're the lucky ones. We have a job, and we are in a show that is not in danger of closing next week.
Question: It's amazing that it sells out everywhere.
Murney: It is. The world is drunk on the Wicked wine. I think it's a number of elements — it's the familiarity of the characters, but [the creators] just caught lightning in a bottle. I think they knew they had something good, but I don't think anyone ever expected it to be the juggernaut that it's become.
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