PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: The People in the Picture — I Remember "Bubbie"

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29 Apr 2011

Donna Murphy; guests Andy Williams, Elizabeth Stanley and Matthew Broderick
Donna Murphy; guests Andy Williams, Elizabeth Stanley and Matthew Broderick
Photo by Peter James Zielinski (Murphy) and Joseph Marzullo/WENN (guests)

Meet the first-nighters of the Broadway opening of the new musical The People in the Picture starring Donna Murphy.


So this is how the seasons ends . . . not with a bang, but with a click — with a lot of clicks, in fact: The People in the Picture, which closed out the 2010-11 Broadway season April 28 at Studio 54, refers to yellowing snapshots that have survived their subjects and now have started to fade from the slipping memory of an ancient Polish actress ("Bubbie," to her granddaughter, tugging at the family roots).

Donna Murphy delivers the show's opening jolt, shuffling center-stage with an elderly gait and manner. This is what is left of Raisel, once upon a time — before the Nazi invasion — the toast of the just-uncorked Polish cinema. She and her troupe of traveling thespians, The Warsaw Gang, would have been contemporaries — rivals, probably — of the Turas, Maria and Joseph (Carole Lombard and Jack Benny in "To Be Or Not To Be"), both companies making funny faces at the new German menace.

Murphy weaves and waltzes through two different worlds — from New York City in 1977 where she shares a flat with her estranged, divorced daughter, Red (for her hair), and granddaughter, Jenny, to Poland from 1935 to 1946. Driving her back and forth between these ports of recall is the desire to share her memories and past with her granddaughter — a suggestion that causes Red to see red because one of those memories is the reason that she and her mother are at arm's length.

Director Leonard Foglia, who made a memorable mental swirl of Maria Callas' fractured psyche in Master Class, is in charge of the cerebral landscape here — his first musical. Iris Rainer Dart is credited with the book and the lyrics, and the music is by a heavily seasoned pair of Pops from the pop world, Mike ("Hound Dog") Stoller and Artie ("Here's to Life") Butler.

The last opening-night party of the season was splashed about the spacious Broadway Ballroom of the Marriott Marquis, but the only person around who looked like she was going to a ball was Murphy, who arrived fashionably late for her Star Entrance, gorgeously glammed-up and begowned in black ruffles.

"What little old lady?" she seemed to be inviting everybody on the premises to ask.

"This is one of the easiest shows for me to get ready," she confessed. "I wear very little makeup. I can't really wear any aging makeup because I'm shifting back and forth in time. I just basically have kind of a neutral base, and I powder myself because I know I'm going to sweat, and then I put on that beautiful wig.

"The work has been done by spectacular hair and costume designers, Paul Huntley and Ann Hould-Ward. My prep is more interior, I would say."


She sheds decades on a dime with a slight gesture or simple movement — much the same kind of acting miracle that Jessica Tandy once employed in a little dance in her Tony-winning Foxfire, completely convincing you that she was a young girl.

"It's something that evolves through a process," said Murphy. "When I first read the script, I said, 'It's fantastic, but this is a movie. How do you do this? How does anyone do this?' And we just discovered it. Things we discover each night. The transitions happen for different reasons at different times as she goes back into the past. And the worlds start to collide in the second act, which is fascinating for me.

"I've studied women's aging. I've watched women in film — not just actresses, but actual people. How do they move when they were 25? How do they move when they were 35? How do they move when they were 55? How do they move when they were 75? Someone with a heart condition — what happens? Those things — but I wasn't ready to do them. I didn't know how. It just took time and evolved."

On first reading, Murphy had a visceral reaction to the script that had a lot to do with her wanting to perform it. "The challenge of it struck me," she said. "It scared me — and that's always seductive for me. It's nothing I've ever done before, and it's always something I'm interested in. And I thought the score was really beautiful.

"The themes of the piece — laughter as a key to survival, working through hard truths in families and trying to resolve things, understanding who you come from and what you come from, what you carry within you as a result and what you can pass on. All those things — as a mother, as a daughter, as a granddaughter, as a human being — and then in talking about the particular culture that these people belong to — they need to be remembered. We all need to be remembered."


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