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

By Andrew Gans
April 2, 2010

News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.

We are celebrating the 80th birthday of Stephen Sondheim by speaking with several of the women most associated with the work of the award-winning composer-lyricist. This week we chat with two-time Tony winner Donna Murphy, who won her first Tony Award for her work as Fosca in Sondheim and James Lapine's Tony-winning Passion. The acclaimed singing actress would later earn raves for her work as Phyllis in the City Center Encores! production of Sondheim and James Goldman's Follies. Murphy will return to that famed New York venue this month to play Mayor Cora Hoover Hooper in Sondheim and Arthur Laurents' Anyone Can Whistle.

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"I got a musical my sophomore year [of college]," Donna Murphy recently recollected. "I went to an open call, and it was for They're Playing Our Song. I was hired as an understudy and while I was doing that show, I saw [Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's] Evita, and I saw [Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler's] Sweeney Todd. I saw other shows, too, but [after] those two shows I practically had whiplash because I was so blown away by the power of them. And I remember thinking, with all due respect to how lucky I [was] that my first professional job [was] a Broadway job, 'This is what I aspire to — a work of this kind of power and depth.'"

Flash forward to March 2010, and Murphy, the winner of two Tony Awards for Best Actress in a Musical, is among the select group of women (Bernadette Peters, Patti LuPone, Audra McDonald, Marin Mazzie and Elaine Stritch) — all wearing specially designed red dresses — chosen to honor birthday boy Stephen Sondheim in an evening with the New York Philharmonic. "Ultimately, I think the whole idea of it was so vibrant and rich," says Murphy. "And, most importantly, the idea of getting to sit on stage with women who are both icons to me and colleagues. I mean, Audra and Marin, in probably an even more active way in my own career, because I've worked with them. And, in the case of Patti and Bernadette and Elaine, early in the career, I kind of idolized [them]. Elaine was a slightly different world, but Patti and Bernadette, it was like, 'Well, when I grow up, boy, that's…' And not that they were that much older than me, but … when I came to school, to NYU and saw Patti in Evita, I thought, 'Dear God! That's a force.'"

Murphy would prove to be another force, eventually winning her first Tony Award for her layered performance as Fosca in Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's Passion. But the road to Sondheim, Murphy explains, was not an easy one; in fact, if anyone exemplifies the benefit of listening to the old adage, "If at first you don't succeed…," it just might be Murphy.

"I first met [Sondheim] from afar when I auditioned for Into the Woods," Murphy says. "I auditioned for the Witch, before they asked Bernadette, after they had done workshops and they were auditioning people for the Witch. And, I had several callbacks, and I was asked to work with James [Lapine] and I was asked to work with Paul Gemignani. And so, he was in the house and I met him, but I didn't get to work with Steve. And, obviously, I didn't get that job," Murphy laughs. "It wasn't my time. And then I auditioned for him again when I was called back to replace Joanna Gleason as the Baker's Wife in Into the Woods, and had what I thought was a really great audition. I thought, 'Oh, this could maybe…,' and Chip Zien actually read with me, and he was really supportive and very encouraging, and that one wasn't mine, either. I've subsequently been asked to play the role a number of times and haven't been able to do it. I hope I'll get to do it before I'm too old! And I think I had a little interaction, like, across the footlights with him.

"Then, I auditioned for a production of Merrily … in DC . . . . I was auditioning for that production, and they were going back and forth about [casting] me for Mary and me for Gussie, and I said, 'I will happily [audition for both], but you have to give me appointment times with at least three hours in between.'"

Murphy didn't end up with either role, but she did get some encouragement when she spoke with the casting director, Natalie Hart, shortly after the audition process. "'You know, Stephen Sondheim talked a lot about you after that audition.' I said, 'Really? What did he say?' And he said something like, 'I hope she sticks around in the theatre because she's the kind of gal who they're gonna scoop up, and she's gonna get a television pilot or something.' And, well, that didn't happen," Murphy laughs, "or I did, and it didn't work out – pilots didn't get picked up or whatever, and I hung around the theatre."

Jere Shea with Donna Murphy in Passion.
photo by Joan Marcus
Thankfully — for Murphy and for audiences — the gifted artist did hang around the theatre: Her next audition for Sondheim — for the workshop of Passion — would prove especially rewarding. Interestingly, it was an earlier Sondheim/Lapine musical, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Sunday in the Park with George, that would give Murphy the inspiration to continue in the business.

"My dream was to work with Steve and James," Murphy says. "It was a real turning point when I saw Sunday in the Park — [it] was a moment when I was questioning whether I wanted to continue. I've had several of those moments," she says with a laugh, "sometimes weekly, but that was, I think, the first big [one]. I wasn't getting cast as frequently, I wasn't working as much as I would have liked to have been working. I was broke. My husband came home — I don't know what strings he pulled to pull together the money to buy tickets for my birthday to see what was supposed to be Mandy [Patinkin]'s last performance of Sunday in the Park. And, I just remember standing up at the end of that show, and I was bathed in tears. I mean, I'd been crying throughout but [I was] standing up and literally looking up to Heaven and saying, 'Thank you, God, for letting me be here, for this show existing and for letting me be open to hearing what it says. Because I don't know how, but I know why and I know what — what I have to do and why I have to do it, because I just have to.' And that show has remained my touchstone. When I would waver about continuing in this crazy business, I would put that album on. I can put on almost any cut, but certainly 'Move On' and 'Finishing the Hat' and 'Sunday.'"

Given her dream to work with Sondheim and Lapine, Murphy — who was at the time busy with the workshop of Hello Again — made a surprisingly brave decision when she told her agents that two days was not enough time to prepare for the Passion audition.

"I got the call to audition, and the audition was for two days later, and I was in rehearsals learning new music on a new show. And I had rehearsals, and I took a look at what they'd given me, and it was 'I Read.' . . . I got the call and I said, 'I can't do it. I can't do it in two days.' I can't because I want to go in there and not give them the finished product, but I want to give them a taste of what I think I could really bring to the table. That's not me just singing the music nicely. This is a character in an extreme condition, in extreme circumstances. And I've always said, there will always be somebody who can sing it better than me. I mean, I've got a rangy voice and, I think, an expressive voice and I work hard . . . but I do kind of lead with the acting. . . . But as I said, I always know that someone is going to sing it better. There's going to be a better voice, there's going to be a prettier girl or there'll be an uglier girl, in this case! So what I have to bring is the combo. And I do feel my strength is in my acting. Not that I always feel completely confident about that, I have my vulnerabilities and my doubts there, too, because I'm human and I'm hard on myself, but it's where I feel most grounded."

Although the producers could not guarantee Murphy more time, fate was on her side. "I got three subsequent days off from work," she says. "It just happened to work out that way, and so I went into my little Fosca cave. And my husband would be like, 'Jesus, you don't even have the job. Do I have to have breakfast with Fosca?' [Laughs.] Because I wasn't bathing, and I didn't wash my hair for three days and I was just going into this kind of zone and immersing myself in the music and also trying to, through my imagination, imagine this woman's circumstances. . . . I had such strong instincts about it, and later on, Steve said that I could have played it the next night or something like that. I was in touch with the character. . . . I hadn't been some sickly, obsessed woman chasing a man who didn't love her. It was kind of subtler than that, but I was able to use those seeds, and I just felt for her. I felt great sympathy and empathy for her, and I appreciated her love of beauty, you know, given that she had been labeled something other than that."

Murphy experienced the gamut of emotions during the Passion workshop and was thrilled to watch two masters of their craft in action. "James, who was directing it and had written the libretto, had written these scenes that he would stage where Steve had not yet written the music or had only started to write the music," Murphy explains. "He would come and he would watch the scenes as they were staged as a scene. He would go away, and he may have started writing the music to that, or in some cases, nothing was written, and he would go away and he would start to musicalize it. And, a lot of it came from the words that James had written. . . . Some of the poetry came from James' poetry, at least when they write together. I don't know what it was like with other collaborators. And that was a beautiful discovery to make. And … sometimes [a song] came through my little fax machine at home, a new song. I always wanted to be there to watch it come through because I thought it was like a spinning wheel spinning gold as it came through, and I couldn't wait. It was the old days where you had to rip each page off, and I just remember crying, thinking, 'I'm the first person seeing this music!' And it just was an unbelievable experience."

Murphy also recalls the first time Sondheim gave notes to the workshop cast, which also featured Marin Mazzie as Clara and Peter Gallagher as Giorgio. "I got to listen to him give notes to Marin and Peter," says Murphy. "I was practically weeping because his notes were unlike any composer's notes I'd ever heard in my life. They were so specific, they were so vivid and rich with character and circumstance. I mean, I already had a wonderful director, but then I had the composer telling me what he envisioned and what was in his head, and I just [thought], 'Oh, my God! I can't wait until he gets to me!' And then he got to me, and it's not that he berated me in any way, but there were some [concerns]. And what we would do is he'd give the note, and then you would try it. You would do it. You would try it on for size, sitting in your chair, with [Paul] Gemignani and Paul Ford. And some of the stuff, I thought, 'Okay, I can do this, but I don't know that it's the right fit.' Even though I was in no place to make that decision that quickly, but there was something in my gut saying, 'Hmm, I'm afraid maybe I'm not the right interpreter.' Because he was wanting some things to be a little bit bigger and a little bit more extreme, the contrast in what I was doing to be bigger, and I was just afraid that I was just the wrong instrument for it. I meant as an actress and as a singer. I knew I could do it, but I thought, 'There might be somebody who could do this better than me.' . . . So that started some intimidation for me. . . . and not that Steve had said I wasn't doing well. What he'd done was given me what had been in his head. And that night I listened back [to the tapes] and I listened to me doing it and I thought, 'I don't think that's right.' I don't mean for me, like, 'I only do my thing,' because I'm mostly interested in doing something different than what I did before and interested in serving [the piece]. I was like, 'Oh, crap, maybe I'm on the wrong wavelength here. But, you know, I'm gonna keep working.'"

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.