DIVA TALK: Catching Up with Wicked's Julia Murney Plus News of Callaway and Salonga

Diva Talk   DIVA TALK: Catching Up with Wicked's Julia Murney Plus News of Callaway and Salonga
News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.
Julia Murney in Wicked.
Julia Murney in Wicked. 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.

Question: Did you finish the act and then someone took over. . .
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.

Question: I remember when it was out of town and they were reworking things, it was questionable how long the show might run when it came to New York.
Murney: And the truth of it is, [musicals are] the hardest thing to do, to get a musical right from scratch. Musicals are hard. No one puts up a bad show on purpose! . . . There are all of these elements that are individual to each show, and there are all of these people who all have an opinion and get a say in the creation, and one element can bring the whole thing down. You can have a great score, weak book. You could have fantastic choreography, weak lyrics, and one of them can bring the whole thing down. When it flows just right, you go, "I don't know why, but God bless ya!"

Question: So, how fast can you get into the green make-up now?
Murney: Well, I actually don't do it. It's done to me — I just sit in a chair. It takes half an hour. I mean, in an emergency — for example, when I had to call out in the middle of the act — you can slap it on a girl in about 12 minutes or less, but the real [application] is about half an hour. Jimmy Cortes, who does the make-up here, is just fantastic. That was another thing where I was so used to Joe [Dulude II] and Lisa, who were the make-up and hair people out on the road. Joe is the one who created the make-up design, and he is just great. I thought, "Oh no, what will I look like? Will they make me look funny?" And, Jimmy is just phenomenal, and Chris [Clark], who does my hair. It's definitely not the show where you have quiet time in your dressing room before your show. From half hour on, I'm surrounded by people.

Question: That must be exciting in a way. . .
Murney: It is. I'm a social person, so it's okay. And, they have certainly let me know that they have had all kinds of moods in that room. [Laughs.]

Question: So you don't have to be on "happy mode" every night.
Murney: Exactly, so they're very cool. My dressing room door is always open because I like knowing what the mood is. The way the show is set up and the way the theatre is set up, I could easily walk onstage if my door was shut, without seeing anyone before the show, and that's strange to me. I like to know how's everyone feeling and how's everyone doing and are we all good? Okay, now let's all go do this together. It's too hard, to me, to do it as an island. I'd rather do it as a — I don't know what the metaphor is — as a continent! [Laughs.]

Question: How do you relax after a performance?
Murney: Honestly, I'm so tired. On other shows, you change your clothes, and it's like, "Hey, anyone want to go out?" With this one, [the post-show high] lasts about 40 minutes — with me taking a shower, me saying hi to whoever may have come to the show, me signing things at the stage door, and going home. And then I crash. Usually, I'll come home and have an English muffin or something totally on the edge like that. I don't have much of an after-show life. If I had to, I could. I'm sure I could rally and get some second wind, but right now I just crash. This coming Sunday night, I'm going to go see Spring Awakening, which I'm very excited about. I spend most of the week with a hat or some kind of a kerchief on my head because my hair is green. To wash my hair every night just to get it green again the next day seems futile. [Laughs.] So Sunday, after the show, I'll actually wash my hair — that will be exciting, and then I'll go see Spring Awakening. It's nice because there's a few shows I want to see that all have Sunday-night shows, so I'm happy about that. I've got friends in shows, so it works out well.

Question: What I didn't realize until I read your Playbill.com Cue&A is that your dad's also an actor.
Murney: Yes, he is. Question: Was he a big influence on your deciding to become an actress?
Murney: He was, but only in terms of [that] it's what I grew up around. He doesn't really do theatre so much anymore, but he does lots and lots of voiceovers, and he did a number of films and television in the eighties and nineties. When I was little, he was doing theatre. He was with Theatre of Louisville — we lived in Louisville for awhile — and then we moved here. So, I was kind of one of those backstage babies, so you grow up around it. I never was, frankly, an acting kid. I knew Annie — all kids know Annie — but the only other musical I knew was Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris because my parents had the album. [Laughs.] That's a little subversive musical for a seven-year-old to know. Every once in awhile I would ask my parents if I could go on commercial auditions, and they said no. They said, "Not until you can go yourself." I just let it drop because it wasn't some burning desire that I had, but when I was in junior high I was in choir, and that was the first time I sang. The choir director there — it was in a New York City public school — she was fantastic. She started my life really, and then I ended up at Music & Art High School — which is the "Fame" school — as a voice major there, only because she knew the tricks to tell us what to audition with to get in. While I was there, I spent two summers at theatre camp, at Stage Door Manor, and that also changed my life. But even that came about because my parents were like, "You can't hang around the city this summer. You have to go to camp!" I was like, "I don't want to go to camp!" And, they put the names in a hat and picked one because I was so belligerent and didn't want to deal with it. . . . I still have friends to this day from that experience, and that got me hooked [on theatre].

Question: And, you mentioned that the first Broadway show you saw was Mack & Mabel. . .
Murney: Yes, because my dad was in it.

Question: Do you remember that at all?
Murney: You know, honestly, I don't remember the show. I remember backstage, and I remember the only times I ever met Bernadette Peters were either at the show — where she wore a black wig — [and] I do recall once when the show went to California . . . [and] she always had giant hats on with her hair pinned back. To my six-year-old brain, she had black hair. Years later, there was a commercial for Song & Dance, and my dad was like, "Oh, there's Bernie in her new show," and I went, "Oh, her hair is red." And my father's like, "Her hair's always been red." "No, her hair is black," and we had this ridiculous little argument . . . and that's the biggest thing I remember. [Laughs.] . . .

I also remember I went to see the revival of Candide because my dad's best friend was playing Maximilian, Sam Freed. I went by myself — I must have been seven — and Sam waited and waited for me backstage, and he finally went and found an usher and he said, "Have you seen a little girl?" He didn't know where I was, and they went out into the house. I had never been [to the theatre] myself, so I didn't know what to do, so I just sat there. The entire house was clear, the ghost light was onstage, and I was just sitting in my seat in my little dress waiting for someone to tell me what to do.

So I did see shows. I do remember I saw Baby, and I saw Dreamgirls — that's my favorite. I saw Sunday in the Park With George. I saw The Wiz with Stephanie Mills. Yeah, I got to see some good ones!

[Wicked plays the Gershwin Theatre, 222 West 51st Street; call (212) 307-4100 for tickets or visit www.ticketmaster.com.]

A host of the theatre's leading ladies will take part in the 12th Annual Nothing Like a Dame concert March 19 at the Marquis Theatre. The annual fundraiser, which benefits The Phyllis Newman Women's Health Initiative of The Actors' Fund of America, will boast the talents of Stephanie J. Block, Liz Callaway, Victoria Clark, Kate Clinton, Joyce DiDonato, Jill Eikenberry, Melissa Errico, Sutton Foster, Jenn Gambatese, Ana Gasteyer, Milena Govich, Jennifer Holliday, Judy Kuhn, Beth Leavel, Julianna Margulies, Maureen McGovern, Varla Jean Merman, Julia Murney, Bebe Neuwirth, Lynn Redgrave, Lea Salonga, Jennifer Smith and Julie White. Also taking part will be the women from the casts of In the Heights and Company as well as young dancers from the Westchester Dance Academy. Show time is 8 PM. One highlight of the evening promises to be Callaway and Salonga's duet on "I Still Believe," which they premiered on Broadway in the original cast of Miss Saigon in 1991. Tickets for Nothing Like a Dame are available by calling (212) 840-0770 or by visiting www.broadwaycares.org.

While she is in San Francisco appearing in the Broadway-bound musical Legally Blonde at the Golden Gate Theatre, Leslie Kritzer will offer three performances of her acclaimed cabaret act at the Empire Plush Room. Leslie Kritzer Is Patti LuPone at Les Mouches will be presented at the intimate cabaret located within the York Hotel Feb. 23 at 11 PM, Feb. 25 at 7 PM and Feb. 26 at 8 PM. Ben Rimalower directs. The Empire Plush Room in The York Hotel is located at 940 Sutter Street in San Francisco, CA. For reservations call (415) 885-6800 or visit www.ticketweb.com.

It's only appropriate that Bob Martin — the Tony-winning creator (and star) of The Drowsy Chaperone — should be part of The Broadway Musicals of 1928, since the fictional Chaperone (the musical within the musical) premiered on The Great White Way in 1928. The Broadway Musicals of 1928, the latest in Scott Siegel's acclaimed Broadway By the Year series, will be presented Feb. 26 at Town Hall. The 8 PM performance will also feature Nancy Anderson, Joyce Chittick, Jeffry Denman, Malcolm Gets, Eddie Korbich and Lari White. Joel Froomkin will direct the concert with musical direction by Ross Patterson. Concertgoers can expect to hear tunes from such musicals as Rosalie, The Three Musketeers, The Greenwich Village Follies, Present Arms, Blackbirds of 1928, Grand Street Follies, The New Moon, Paris, Animal Crackers and Whoopee!. Song titles will include "You Took Advantage of Me," "I Can't Give You Anything But Love," "Let's Do It," "Hooray for Captain Spaulding" and "Softly as in a Morning Sunrise." Tickets, priced $40 and $45, are available by calling (212) 307-4100 or by visiting www.ticketmaster.com. Town Hall is located in Manhattan at 123 West 43rd Street. Visit www.the-townhall-nyc.org for more information.

Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to agans@playbill.com.

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