Bella Donna: Murphy shares stories about preparing for and playing Fosca and Phyllis
Features and Interviews
Translating Sondheim into German, Finnish, Hungarian, Danish, French, Hebrew
Encores! presents Follies
Conversation with Donna Murphy
Conversation with Victoria Clark
Christine Baranski is the latest Carlotta
Sorting out the references in “I’m Still Here”
Follies in London
Sondheim helps create music for King Lear
Reviews and Reactions
Sunday in the Park in Los Angeles
Sweeney Todd in Detroit
Assassins in Baltimore
Assassins in Chicago
The Frogs in Pittsburgh
Into the Woods at Signature Theatre
Into the Woods in Sarasota
Sondheim concert in Tacoma
Sunday in the Park in Australia
Recording review: Company revival cast
Recordings: Re-mastered original cast albums
Upcoming Sondheim shows in the U.S., Canada
Murphy shares stories about preparing for and playing Fosca and Phyllis
by LEONARD JACOBS
In the early 1990s, the name Donna Murphy wasn’t well known unless you were into memorizing below -the-title credits. She made her Broadway debut in 1979 as a replacement swing in They’re Playing Our Song, followed by The Human Comedy, The Mystery of Edwin Drood and off-Broadway in Privates on Parade, starring Jim Dale. Yet it wasn’t until a wacky musical, Song of Singapore, began running in a souped- up hall near Union Square that Murphy’s name was finally fixed on the cultural radar. It was, arguably, a classic case of The New York Times designating a star. In his lavishly written review, Mel Gussow called Murphy “a terrific singer who can sing blues as well as barrelhouse,” declared her “funnier than Rita Hayworth, Dorothy Lamour and other stars who ventured into movie Malaysia” and noted her gifts for “playing a deft trumpet and kazoo.” The rest — take note, John Doyle — is history.
Days before Murphy’s latest project, the Broadway musical LoveMusik, was starting rehearsals, she was out of breath — a week earlier she’d finished a short run as Phyllis Stone in the acclaimed concert version of Follies, presented by City Center Encores! — bringing her the same sort of unbridled raves as those she first received 16 years earlier. In this interview, Murphy looks back on Passion and Follies as her next Broadway challenge beckons.
THE SONDHEIM REVIEW: You’re doing a lot of research into Lotte Lenya to prepare for LoveMusik. Is your process different than, say, for Fosca?
DONNA MURPHY: With Lenya, there’s almost too much material, whereas with Fosca, I had [Iginio Ugo Tarchetti’s 1869 novel] Fosca, and I watched [Ettore Scola’s 1981 film] Passione d’Amore, but only to a
point and then I stopped because I thought it was so different, especially having read the novel and read James [Lapine’s] libretto and read some of Steve [Sondheim’s] lyrics at that point.
TSR: Your body of work has grown dramatically since TSR interviewed you 13 years ago, what with another Tony for The King and I, Wonderful Town, the Follies concert at City Center Encores! and now LoveMusik. To begin with Passion, is there anything else about your performance we might not already know?
DM: One thing: I always went back to the novel. It always fed me, and I used to re-read some section before I went on every night. I didn’t read the same section, and it didn’t change my performance, but it was always food for thought, a little something to offer some perspective. Like, if we were talking about a mutual friend of ours and suddenly you said, “Well, when she was 13, such and such happened,” your whole view of that person would change because your view of that person is now through that lens, that information. It isn’t that I walked onstage and felt like a different person, but re- reading the novel every night just brought something different to the performance for me.
TSR: Some actors don’t want to immerse themselves in source material, whereas you seem to want as much immersion as possible.
DM: I find information liberating because it triggers my imagination. With Fosca, I had a strong, instinctive response the minute I read [the lyrics to] “I Read.” For the audition I was given that and a few scenes. I started to invest my ideas, visions and thoughts about her, and my husband told me that within two days I was walking around the apartment not having washed my hair, moving slowly, until he finally said, “You don’t even have the part yet — do I have to have breakfast with Fosca?”
TSR: Maybe that’s too much immersion.
DM: I like to take in as much as I can, then step away and let everything simmer. For me, source material isn’t about “I’m going to steal that, that and that.” It’s an opportunity to have objectivity, which actors never have when they’re working. My training was about understanding the big picture, understanding the themes and messages, how the characters serve the piece. There’s rarely a fear for me in seeing some other version of something: I’m not Roz Russell in Wonderful Town or Deborah Kerr in The King and I. When I was working on Fosca, I thought Scola had made a brilliant film. But its tone was so different. I found it melodramatic, like a horror film. Now maybe some thought Passion was a horror musical, but I understood everything that drove Fosca — the circumstances and the period justified it.
TSR: You’ve stated in previous interviews that you didn’t feel you were right for Fosca. In retrospect, were those feelings justified?
DM: Something about Fosca seemed so extreme that it made me feel like I wasn’t right — at first. I had the information that Steve loved the film, and I remember the first time he gave some notes. It was the
first time he’d seen the first three scenes staged. And he gave notes to Clara and Giorgio, and they were musical notes but went so much deeper, and justified tenfold by Steve discussing dramatic intention, circumstances — all the things that relate to how I work as an actor. So I’m listening to his notes and thinking, “I can’t wait until he gets to me.” Then he got to me. And some things he was asking me to do … I mean, I was executing them while we were around the piano, but I thought, “I stink at this.” Steve wanted more extreme-like singing: changes of tempos, more manic. And my memory is I’d already talked with James and [musical director] Paul Gemignani and said, “Please let me know if I get over the top.” And James said, “I’m not worried about it.” So I’m getting these notes, and I kind of looked at James, because the notes were definitely pushing things in a direction that wasn’t what we’d discussed. Paul Gemignani said, “It’s getting a little Norma Desmond, Steve.” And Steve made this very dramatic Norma Desmond face and said, “What’s wrong with that? Somebody’s got to do it right.”
TSR: Was there a particular moment in Passion that was hardest to learn?
DM: “I Read.” It was difficult to learn, only because I said to James and Steve that I have to act the shit out of this as well as sing the shit out of it, and it’s impossible to do that in two days [for the final audition]. It’s quite long, quite complex, and I said if I couldn’t get lost in Fosca’s world, I couldn’t do it well. To really be lost, I really needed to know the song, so I postponed it.
TSR: Let’s talk about Follies.
DM: Follies was sort of my re-entry, as I have a young child now and my time is very different. I can’t come from a day of rehearsal and have four more hours to work. During Follies I thought I’d come home,
play with the baby, put the baby to bed, do some work and go to sleep. Except it’s 1 a.m. and by the time I eat I know I’m not getting enough sleep, and I have to stay healthy because I can’t get sick. I had to realize there would be compromises. And [doing concert musicals] is a truncated process.
TSR: Are there great Follies backstage stories?
DM: A few. For one, I screwed up Steve’s lyrics a few times and, boy, did he let me know about it! Instead of “I’ll take the grand/You keep the spinet,” I kept singing “I’ll keep the grand/You take the spinet,” or something like that. You know, you’re learning stuff so fast, plus I’m trying to learn to tap dance, which is really what I was obsessing about until two days before the first performance when I thought, “You’ve got to find your character, girl!” I depended on Eric to remind me where, say, I was an interval below, things like that.
TSR: And everyone in “Who’s That Woman?” was brilliant.
DM: Thanks. I mean, I move well, but I’m not a trained dancer. And it usually takes me a long time to get steps. For Follies, I started a week early getting some vocabulary. But it’s like someone who can do
an accent but can’t really speak the language. There was also an interesting thing that happened with “Lucy and Jessie.”
TSR: The ending?
DM: Exactly! The song was originally done without a vocal ending — it just went to dancing, never returning to the lyric “just fine.” I didn’t think a lot of about it. But as we rehearsed I thought it would be great to finish it vocally. Maybe I’d have felt differently if I was a dancer accustomed to all the time going into a big dancing thing and knowing that’s what would send the song through the roof. But then I watched — more prep work — the  concert version at Lincoln Center and noticed they added a little vocal thing at the end [for Lee Remick]. Now, it wasn’t what we ultimately did, and it wasn’t necessarily definitive, but I felt there was something satisfying about it. So I asked Casey [Nicholaw, the director] and Eric if we could do something like that, and they said they didn’t think it would be a problem as Steve had obviously approved it before. But apparently Steve said no: It’s a patter song, and he said you don’t return to the same lyric in a patter song; it’s a dance number.
TSR: So much for that idea.
DM: Initially the lyric ends with “I could tell you someone who would finally feel just fine.” So we’re doing the sitzprobe, and Steve says, “I have an idea for the end of the song. I’m watching you, and I think instead of singing, ‘I could tell you someone who would finally feel …” it should be “I could tell you someone who would finally feel/I could tell you someone who would finally feel/I could you tell someone who would finally feel just fine.” Someone who would finally feel. Doesn’t matter what Phyllis feels so long as she feels it.”
TSR: An acting moment as much as a singing moment.
DM: Wait! And then Steve said, “However, you’re screwing up a lyric.” He said, “It isn’t ‘I could tell you someone who could finally feel …’ It’s ‘I could tell you someone who would finally feel just fine.” And I never, with consistency, did that right. My whole thing is I’m very, very loyal to text, and not casual about that at all. In this case, it was just sort of planted in my head. After the final show, I said to Steve — well, I’d lost my shoe during “Who’s That Woman?”
DM: Most of us changed into character shoes for “Who’s That Woman?” because we wanted to wear our most glamorous four-and-a-half-inch heels with our gowns. But we couldn’t dance in them, so most of us found moments to change. At the last performance, there was a lot of “Can I take your picture?” stuff backstage, and also I always looked at my script before going on. So this night, I forgot to change. I remember hitting my first pose and the arch of my foot hanging out of my four-and-a-half-inch pumps. And I’m thinking, how am I going to dance in these? I’m saying to myself “Fat feet! Fat feet!” — trying to keep them on — which I did until the last 32 bars, when I looked and there’s my shoe, six feet away from me.
TSR: At least you got the lyric right.
DM: That’s my punch line. At the end of the show, Steve said, “Nice shoe bit. Did the heel break?” I said no and told him what happened. Then I said, “But I got that lyric right,” and Steve said, “Nope. But you were great,” and gave me a hug. Then he said, “I should have given that note to you as an acting note. The reason Phyllis sings ‘would,’ not ‘could,’ is because she’s sure of it — she knows it.” And, as always, he was right. |TSR|
LEONARD JACOBS is the national theatre editor of Back Stage.