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

Diva Talk   DIVA TALK: Catching Up With Closer Than Ever, Wicked and Wild Party Star Julia Murney
News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.

Julia Murney
Julia Murney

Julia Murney
On Aug. 6 theatre favorite Julia Murney will succeed Jenn Colella in the York Theatre Company's critically acclaimed revival of Closer Than Ever, the revue that showcases the humorous, witty and often moving songs of lyricist Richard Maltby, Jr. and composer David Shire. Murney, who boasts one of the more exciting Broadway belts around, will get to wrap that sensational sound around such Maltby-Shire songs as "Back on Bass," "Miss Byrd," "I've Been Here Before" and more. The singing actress, whose major New York theatrical credits also include Wicked (one of the great Elphabas) and the Off-Broadway The Wild Party (a breakthrough, Drama Desk-nominated performance that was as beautifully acted as it was sung), will join a cast that includes Jacquelyn Piro Donovan (who recently took over for Christiane Noll), George Dvorsky and Sal Viviano. Earlier this week I had the pleasure of chatting with the good-humored, intelligent Murney, who spoke about her latest theatrical adventure; her recent stint in the The Vineyard Theatre's Developmental Lab of The Landing, the new triptych musical by composer John Kander, with book and lyrics by Greg Pierce; and her refreshingly candid thoughts about YouTube. Murney, it should be noted, will also play the new Manhattan nightspot, 54 Below, Sept. 10 at 7 PM and Sept. 16 at 9 PM.

Question: Good morning. Is this a good time to talk?
Julia Murney: Sure. [Laughs.] I have Olympics on all over my house. Literally, I'm watching on my phone and have something else on the television. [Laughs.]

Question: Have you been watching all weekend?
Murney: Yes, as much as I could. I had a wedding on Saturday, but I just love it. I'm a little obsessed. I went to Vancouver for the winter Olympics, and there was a part of me, actually, that was on the fence. I was going to go, at the last minute, to London, but then Closer Than Ever came up, so that was that. Question: How did Closer Than Ever come about for you?
Murney: In the best way possible—they just called! [Laughs.] Which is always really nice when that's how it happens. Actually, from sort of two different camps. I had gotten a call about both of the women tracks, and in a complete coincidence, I was going to see the show that night anyway. So I went to the show, and I had that—I'm dating myself—cassette tape in my car in college. That was like a real soundtrack for me. I listened to that a lot, but I hadn't listened to it in so very long. And, the show started, and the first number started, and all of a sudden, I went, "Oh my goodness, that's right!" Because what I had forgotten was that in the group numbers, the Lynne Wintersteller track—Christiane Noll's track—sings crazy-high soprano. And, as soon as I heard that, I was like, "Nope! Not doing that one!" [Laughs.] So as much as I love "Life Story," it's not going to happen. [Laughs.]

David Shire and Richard Maltby, Jr.
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Question: Have you started rehearsals yet?
Murney: Yes. I started last Monday, and I go in a week from today [on Aug. 6]. Jackie Piro Donovan, who's taking over for Christiane—she goes in Friday [Aug. 3]. She is my hero because she had a job...she was in Boston almost all of last week. She only had a few hours of rehearsal, and that was it. And, she has to go in sooner than I do! [Laughs.] I utterly bow down to her.

Question: Who are you working with as a director?
Murney: It's Richard Maltby, who wrote the [lyrics].

Question: What's he like to work with?
Murney: He's great. The thing about this show is it's really about the individuals who are singing it… He has little things that he likes, and he'll tell you those things, and you just incorporate them, but he's open to the songs being interpreted. They don't have to be what she did, which is what she did, which is what she did. So that part is very nice.

Question: What's it like working on a song with someone who also co-wrote the song?
Murney: I've had that occasion in the past. I think the biggest thing I find I have to do is, in a weird way, you have to forget about it for a second because you don't often have the writer directing you. That part's different, so I'm not thinking of Richard as the guy who wrote it. I'm thinking of him as the guy who oversees this and tells me what he wants. And, I find that the writers that I get to work with who are open to interpretation, it makes it a lot more fun for me. Not to take it to a crazy place where it doesn't even sound like the song anymore, but you get to feel your way through and find your own stamp on it—that's what makes it fun. And, to work with writers who are very, very precise about every little dotted note, that makes it a little more difficult. It's another way of figuring things out, but it's really joyful when… I would assume, for them, it takes a certain amount of healthy ego to be able to say, "Let me let the singer find their way before I say anything" as opposed to jumping right in five notes in and going, "Oh, can you…" But in terms of Richard directing it and having written it, I just think of him as, "This is his show, and he knows it really well, so I shall follow."

Murney in Wicked.
photo by Joan Marcus

Question: I would think that if you had a lyric question, "What does this lyric mean?"… there's no better person than…
Murney: That is true, and there's absolutely been those questions, no doubt. Also, it's different when you're going into something, be it a show like this that's existed for these many years… The only other show that I've been put into was Wicked. And, this show…they've changed a few things here and there to sort of update it. Most of it just sticks, you don't need to touch it. But the feeling of exploration, "What does that mean?" and "Can it mean this?," existed a little bit, I think, with Closer Than Ever before I got to it, but with it now and frankly with something like Wicked, it is what it is. And, you have to figure out why you sing it because the question of "Why do I sing that?" almost becomes void because that's what you have to sing. Somebody else figured it out, and then you have to figure it out for yourself, so it's an interesting sort of jigsaw puzzle. Question: Have you gotten a chance to work with the two actors yet?
Murney: I have a little bit. I mean, I know them both, which makes life simply easier. And, on one day last week, George came in for an hour, and on another day, Sal came in for an hour just to sort of touch on the things that we do together… The solo numbers are one thing, but the group numbers, with maybe one exception, are all four people. It's hard because it's just myself and Emily [Morgan], the choreographer's associate, who is teaching me everything. So you're just sitting there going, "Hmm… I know there are people around me, but I don't know where they go." And, she's running around, and she's trying to be all the different people, so she'll move, and I'm like, "Oh, do I move now?" And, she goes, "No, no. Sorry. I'm just being someone else." [Laughs.] It'll become a lot clearer… I'm not worried… [Laughs.] These are going to be famous last words… I'm not really worried about the staging. The staging is okay, and none of it is too particularly complicated, but it is so lyric heavy, and the group numbers are a test for your brain.

Murney's soon-to-be costar Jacquelyn Piro Donovan

Question: How do you go about learning lyrics? Do you have any special tricks that you use?
Murney: Well, with this show—because it's all music—[and it] all came about very fast. I did not know very long ago at all that I was doing it… The decision happened on a Friday—I was in Vail doing a concert, and then rehearsal started a week from that Monday, so it was very short. I asked, "Can I please, please, please have the music in my hands Monday when I get home because I have to start?" So I just started, and Andrew Gerle, who is the music director, is fantastic, and he made brilliant practice tapes to learn from, and it was just a matter of going, "Okay, which group number seems like it's the most complicated? Let me start with that one," where I would have the most amount of time. And, luckily, because this was, like I said, a soundtrack in my car in the late '80s, some of it was sort of down in my brainstem somewhere. It wasn't there for keeps, but it was tapping on it, going, "Oh, right! Remember that?" So some of it came up that way. But I stay in the music and then I try to get to a lyric sheet as soon as I can once I think I know how the tune goes.

Question: Do you have a favorite song yet of the ones that you're doing?
Murney: It's hard to say. To my surprise, I really enjoy "Back on Bass." I say "to my surprise" because this show was originally formed around Sally Mayes, who is an amazing jazz singer. And, she scats. That's her jam, and that is not my jam! [Laughs.] I started having a little scat panic attack, and then Jenn Colella was like, "That was the first thing that panicked me, too!" [Laughs.] But now I really enjoy it, and it's fun because Danny [Weller], the bass player, is there, and I get to play with him, so that part is super fun. And, because I've barely done the duets or the group numbers with another person, it's hard to say beyond that.

Question: I know there's a duet with the two women, "I've Been Here Before." Which part of that do you do?
Murney: I do "I've Been Here Before." [Jackie] does "It's Never That Easy." … Today will be the first day that Jackie and I are called together, so perhaps today we'll get to sing it. [Laughs.] Question: As you're working on Maltby and Shire songs, how would you define their work?
Murney: They're accessibly clever. They're not clever to the point of going, "Wait. What just happened? What did anybody just say?" The thoughts don't get too involved, in terms of not being able to get them on the first pass, so they're accessible in that way. But I think the reason people like this show so much is because you go, and you immediately see yourself in it. And, it's a very interesting experience to have loved this show when I was essentially a kid and now come back to it as a grownup person. [Laughs.] I had that happen recently—I went out to Paper Mill to see the production of Once On This Island… It was wonderful. It was so beautiful. And, that was one of those shows where I cried so hard… And, I saw it on Broadway originally. And, when I saw it originally—and I had the cast album and listened to it—I just loved it, and I loved the music, and I was like, "Oh, it's this sweet story. It's a sweet fable." But to see it now as a grownup, some of these scenes that are touched on—even though I knew they were coming because I knew the show—gobsmacked me, and afterwards I went backstage, and I looked at the cast, and I showed them… All I had was one raggedy tissue in my bag, and it was done. [Laughs.] It's very interesting to see something like that, and Closer Than Ever does that. I remember sitting in my green Subaru at Syracuse University and listening to "Life Story" and thinking what a great song it was and also thinking, "I can't sing it. I'm too young to sing it" because she talks about her age and specific things in the song. And, now I'm almost old enough to sing it. Oh! How did that happen?! [Laughs.]

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.

Murney and Brian d'Arcy James in The Wild Party.

Question: That's got to be, in the moment before you figure out what you're going to do, sort of scary—to open your mouth and not have the…
Murney: Not only is it scary and awful, it's also now, in this day and age, in my brain, probably step number three after [thinking], "Oh, shit! Oh, what am I going to do?" Then step two is "Calm down and tell the story." Step three is "Someone is taping this." This is going to be in the hands of strangers as soon as this is over. And, that part is really hard. And, that's the part about the bootlegging that's really upsetting. I think it's a generational thing to a certain degree. It's a totally prevalent thing. The younger generation, they just see it as their right. They know it's "illegal," but they don't care. And, I get it, and I understand it, and I understand they want to preserve it and all that sort of stuff, but the part that gets really distressing is that they don't care if, when they tape you, you're busted or having a bad night or whatever it is—they'll put it up anyway. They don't go, "Oh, she doesn't sound so great. Let me just destroy that or keep that private." And, that's the part that's so hard. I try to not go in to [the] comments [section] because the bad ones will stay in your head forever.

Question: I think performers should definitely stay off the chat boards.
Murney: Oh! Those are the worst. I call them "The Devil's Tool." Stay away from them. But I do go onto YouTube every once in awhile just to see what's there because I like to know… There is a video from one night of me doing Evita where, for reasons I will never be able to explain to you, I go so flat at the end of "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina." [Laughs.] It was so shocking because when I saw it, I went, "Oh my word. Did I do that every night?" I called one of the cast members, and I was like, "Did I do that?" He said, "I don't know what you're talking about," but it's there. For me, I want to know that it's there. Does that make any sense? I remember years ago—I don't know if you remember this—before YouTube, there was an audio clip of Colm Wilkinson singing "24601"… He's in performance, and he goes, "Who am I? 24601." And instead of the "1," he goes, "Wahh!" And, he can't get it out, and he keeps trying, and it's so devastating, and you hear this banging, and it's the judge's gavel that you usually never hear because he's not hitting that note. And, that recording got sent to me by somebody. I don't know Colm Wilkinson. There's no reason for it to be sent to me other than, "Oh my gosh, listen to this." And, I think of "24601" all the time, and I think "I know I have 24601s out there." I would rather know about them and beat people to the punch. I was walking on Columbus one day, and these two young guys walked by me, and they were like, "Hi, we're fans." I was like, "Oh, that's nice." And, they were like, "We were just listening to you sing Evita." And, I was like, "Is that the one where I go completely flat at the end of 'Don't Cry for Me, Argentina'?... Don't worry. I know about it." I don't want to feel them behind my back, "You know the part where she goes flat." I'd rather just know!

Murney in Evita.
photo by Charr Crail

Question: And, you know today everything gets recorded because the devices are so small. There's no way to stop it anymore.
Murney: We're supposed to have some sort of control over our image, but frankly, we don't… And, it's also complicated because the truth of it is, without YouTube, I would never have Petra in Croatia writing me a letter. And, there is a Petra in Croatia, who I've actually met, who became a fan—but she became a fan off of a bootleg. And, that's lovely—what a lovely thing. I never thought someone from Croatia would know anything about me—how nice. [Laughs.] I'll get letters that say, "I've never seen you in person, but I loved blah, blah…" It's all taped.

Question: There are pros and cons of it.
Murney: To bring back the Olympics, it's a balancing of negotiation and figuring that out. And, you just have to let go of it and just do your job. All I can say is I beg of people, if you're going to do it and know it's illegal, please be smart and cover the light because I can see the light. It's dark where we're looking, and you can see the red light or yellow light or whatever it is. Please put tape over it. Just don't distract me in the moment! [Laughs.]

[Tickets are priced at $67.50 and are available online at yorktheatre.org, by calling (212) 935-5820, or in person at the box office at the York Theatre at Saint Peter's (entrance on East 54th Street, just east of Lexington Avenue).] Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to agans@playbill.com.

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