Donna Murphy, in a revealing interview, talks about her role as Fosca
Jere Shea and Marin Mazzie find new depths in their roles
David Patrick Stearns says Passion is Sondheim’s best score
News and notes
An understudy goes on, and more news about Passion
Tammy Grimes is Madame Armfeldt in A Little Night Music
A darker Night Music is presented in Chicago
A Sondheim summer sampler
A St. Louis director takes a minimalist approach to Assassins
Assassins and Marry Me a Little at the Edinburgh Festival
In a tribute to Sondheim, a crossword puzzle
A fresh look at the sometimes maligned London Follies
How are many of us introduced to a Sondheim show? By a CD
The new Patinkin, A Stephen Sondheim Evening on CD
Upcoming Sondheim shows in the U.S. and elsewhere
Behind Donna Murphy
By Wayman Wong
In Passion, Fosca sings, “I wish I could forget you, erase you from my mind.” But as anyone who has seen the show knows, one thing you can’t forget or erase from your mind-among many things-is Donna Murphy’s brave and brilliant portrayal of Fosca. Her needy and unattractive character is obsessed with Giorgio, an open-hearted and handsome soldier, and she literally cries out for attention, offering “love without pity, love without shame.”
But Fosca isn’t the only one crying: So are the audiences, when she finally finds herself in Giorgio’s arms. And the critics have embraced her with their praise; not surprisingly, Murphy won the 1994 Tony Award and Drama Desk Award for her work.
Contrary to Murphy’s law-where everything that can go wrong, does-everything has been going right for this actress this season. She also reaped raves for playing The Whore in Michael John LaChiusa’s Hello Again at Lincoln Center. In fact, she had to say an early good-bye to Hello just so she could be welcomed into Passion.
Some seasons back, Murphy starred in the Off-Broadway musical Song of Singapore and was memorable as a jazz singer with amnesia.
Born in Queens, she grew up on Long Island and in Boston. In her early 30s, she is married to actor Shawn Elliott and has a stepdaughter, Justine. In person, she is an attractive young woman, brimming with intelligence and warmth. Recently, she sat down to discuss the Passion behind her portrayal and the show.
SR: Stephen Sondheim has compared you and your performance of Fosca in Passion to that of Laurette Taylor as Amanda in The Glass Menagerie and Jessica Tandy as Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire. He says it’s the perfect match of an actress and a role, and he says you knew how to play Fosca from your very first audition. What first struck you about Fosca and how did you connect with her?
DM: When I auditioned for Passion, all I was given was Fosca’s first entrance and a couple of scenes. When I read through the music and lyrics, it was very evocative for me-the loneliness of this woman and her need to connect and this wall of defense she had built up because of how she was perceived. Also, her physical weakness. When I told people about her, they’d say, “This woman is a hypochondriac.” I’d say, “Oh, no. This woman is sick.” Emotional stress can beat on you hard and manifest itself physically. Somehow, I connected and identified with something [in my life] that I choose not to talk about. I’m sure everyone thinks I had some obsessive love affair, but it’s not that. Years from now, I’ll reveal what it is, maybe when I’m playing some wacky tap-dancing gal.
SR: Since playing Fosca in Passion have you grown more conscious or less conscious of your looks?
DM: I’m a pretty vain person. Interestingly enough, I’ve become more accepting of my appearance. Years ago, I had an agent who wanted me to get a nose job. I was told that I had a face that landed between a leading lady and a character actress…and I said that’s how I like it. It allows me to play a range of characters. In playing this supposedly unattractive woman, I’ve never heard so many comments about how attractive I am. So this is what it takes. [She laughs.]
SR: How did you feel about working with Sondheim?
DM: As an actress who sings, it’s been nothing less than the ultimate aspiration. My favorite show of his is Sunday in the Park with George. I saw it at a time when I was kind of down on the business. But I remember standing at the end of that show and thanking God I was there. When I’m in a questioning place about my life or my work, that cast album is the one I put on, especially [the track] “Move On.”
SR: How does Sondheim work in rehearsals? Would you disagree over your interpretation or how it was sung?
DM: He was very generous and gracious in rehearsals. I watched him giving notes and I got goose bumps. He’s so brilliant. He was very open to my questions. It felt so creative. Sometimes he wanted more erratic changes in tempo and dynamics. One night I went home and cried because I didn’t know if I was the right person to do what he wanted. The next day, James [Lapine] took me out in the hall and I thought, “This is it, I’m being fired.” But he put his arm around me and said, “I’m really proud of the work you’re doing.” That was a crucial moment for me.
SR: What the best advice Sondheim ever gave you?
DM: During the previews, he told me to never lose sight of the joy of it. He said that roles that an actress connects with don’t come along all the time. Later I found a quote by Dorothy Sayers and wrote it in his opening-night card: “The only sin that passion can commit is to be joyless.”
SR: Much has been written about the rocky reception Passion got in previews, the unintended laughter, etc. Were you surprised by the rudeness of some of the audiences?
DM: Oh, yeah. I have to be honest. I don’t begrudge them their response, but what makes me angry is when they feel they have to let everyone else know, “I think this sucks.” It’s rude to the rest of the audience who should be allowed to have their own experience. At one show, where Fosca faints and Giorgio starts to leave her, maybe a half dozen people started clapping. I was on the floor, hoping it would open up and take me down. But as Giorgio crossed back over to me, another group started to clap for me.
SR: What do you think were some of the most important changes?
DM: The ones in the train scene. It’s the moment in the show when the audience needs to see Giorgio shift his perspective of Fosca. And they have to do the same. The seeds were there from the very beginning, but they needed to be spelled out….Then the scene started to change, which eventually led to “Loving You” [in which Fosca explains to Giorgio, “Loving you is not a choice, it’s who I am”], but it wasn’t just the insertion of a song. We know how Giorgio is cracked open by her love, but if Fosca doesn’t learn something from all of this, we have a problem.
SR: What are some of the other changes that you like?
DM: I like the little points of connection between Giorgio and Fosca in their earlier scenes. When they first meet, they have a little more dialogue about literature, so they connect there. Then in their first bedroom scene, Fosca asks Giorgio if he thinks there are worlds out there beyond this earth and then he brings up this dream he had as a child. So you see him reveal parts of himself with her that he doesn’t with anyone else. And she does the same. Hopefully, all these things add up to a more believable transition.
SR: Speaking of the plot, did Fosca ever consummate her brief marriage with Ludovic [the cad who weds her for her money and then dumps her]?
DM: Yes. And in the novel [by Igino Tarchetti], Fosca got pregnant and gave birth. She couldn’t nurse the child, so it died. I still use that [as background]. From where I sit, it was consummated. I don’t think the sex was good, but she wouldn’t have anything to compare it to.
SR: It can be argued that the centerpiece of Passion is a letter song you sing to Giorgio (“I Wish I Could Forget You”). You dictate it to him while you’re in bed. How did that song come about?
DM: James told me he had the idea about this letter from a similar scene in the novel. It was wild. That song was one of the last pieces to come into the workshop. By the time I got it, Steve knew the instrument he was working with, and it sat very easily in the lower part of my voice. The first time I sang it, it was like a very organic piece of poetry. I love it.
SR: By the way, have you seen Passione d’Amore [the Italian movie by Ettore Scola that inspired the musical]? What did you think of it?
DM: I had difficulties with it. In fairness, I saw a dubbed version, so I don’t think I saw it in the best light. The Fosca character [played by Valeria Obici] was so different than the one I was creating. Looking back, I can say the movie was a satire, a black comedy, but that’s not what we were trying to do. It was so over-the-top. I didn’t buy the fact that Giorgio loved Fosca. I wanted audiences to see beyond her “ugliness” and “sickness.” I didn’t want people to think Giorgio just got sick and, in a moment of weakness, gave in to her. However, the film gave me a sense of that world. It stimulated my imagination.
SR: I hear Scola and Obici came to see Passion. What was that like?
DM: That was the most self-conscious performance I ever gave. I hope they didn’t think we were sentimentalizing Fosca. Then I found out they don’t speak English, so they probably were trying to figure out what we were saying. Afterward, we met and they were so gracious. He kissed my hand and she just kept patting her heart and saying, “Il molto” (very emotional).
SR: Let’s talk about the Tony buzz. Everyone was predicting that you’d win. Did you feel any pressure?
DM: It was so surreal. Initially, it was flattering, but then I started to get angry about it. The day the Tony nominations came out, I was thrilled for the show, but I was sad. I expected to get a rush, but there was no rush. And it was because of all of the hype. My husband, who’s so wise, told me to deal with all the Tony attention as a celebration. From then on, I was able to accept it as this outpouring of support.
SR: What’s it like to work with your leading man, Jere Shea?
DM: Jere is one of the sweetest guys you’ll ever meet. He has a great sense of humor and a huge heart, which really adds to his performance. He’s a relatively young actor and he just continues to grow in the role. He’s kind of a sexy guy, too. In the nightmare scene [where Giorgio finds himself in bed with Fosca] , I have to say he’s got a nice chest. I’m on top of him and I’m writhing; my hands slip onto his chest and it’s kind of a lovely experience. I’m sure Marin Mazzie [who plays his mistress, Clara] is not suffering greatly.
SR: Do you and Jere ever play tricks on one another on-stage?
DM: No. I can’t goof around on-stage. I have great concentration, but I’m a really bad crackup. I become an 8-year-old. One day I was having a “seizure” during the show and I lost a mole. I watched it roll away and allowed myself to laugh, thinking, “Rollin’, rollin’, rollin’, watch my mole go rollin’.”
SR: When you’re away from the stage, what do you listen to?
DM: A pretty wide range of things. I love classical–Debussy, Mozart, Vivaldi. I love jazz. I love certain pop artists-James Taylor, Carly Simon, Paul Simon, Mary Black. I don’t tend to listen to a lot of show music, but I do listen to standards-Andrea Marcovicci, Betty Buckley, Nancy LaMott.
SR: And do you share Fosca’s love and passion for books?
DM: Yes. I’m reading Women Who Run With Wolves. Fascinating. I started that while I was in rehearsals for Passion and found wonderful things in it that helped me with Fosca. I also read Anne Rice’s Cry to Heaven about the castrati [boy singers who, especially in the 18th century, were castrated before puberty so they would keep their soprano voices]. It’s fabulous and it takes you to another time.
SR: Finally, what’s next?
DM: Well, I’m signed for a year with Passion. Meantime, I’m going to play Abigail Adams for a PBS series on the American Revolution. My life has changed such a great deal since I’ve done this show. Being in a Sondheim piece moves you into another league. To be part of something so many people respect–like Barbra Streisand, Liza Minnelli, Bernadette Peters, Mandy Patinkin, Mike Nichols–it’s pretty exciting. It’s been quite a year.
Wayman Wong is an entertainment writer/editor at the New York Daily News and an award-winning playwright.