SHOW FOLK: Julia Murney on LaChiusa, Wicked and Singing from Your Lady Parts
Once a month, a member of the theater community will pull up a chair to our cyber table and join us for a little conversation. I’ll edit the transcripts (removing the truly libelous parts) and post the results here every second Wednesday. For October, meet one of my favorite Broadway singer/actors…
Broadway’s Julia Murney gets the highest compliment I can think of; she’s a pro. Sure she’s got the stage presence of a star (The Wild Party), the steel pipes of a once-in-a-blue-moon talent (Wicked) and the soul of a character actress (Crimes of the Heart), but I love her because she also happens to tell some of the best (and saltiest) anecdotes in the business. (Don’t believe me; watch her show off her late-night cable voiceover technique.)
After taking her talents on the road to symphony halls around the country, she’s returning to the New York stage in the premiere of Michael John LaChiusa’s Queen of the Mist. I caught up with her over some soup and sushi at a restaurant across the street from her apartment (which happens to be a building over from her parents’ apartment; that’s a true New Yorker) where we discussed the challenges of her new show, seeing Kristin Chenoweth play an African-American maid and the things no one can teach you about show business.
You seem like the busiest person on the planet. I see you doing concerts and benefits and readings. Do you enjoy doing so much?
I do… I started doing these symphony jobs and they’ve been really fun but suddenly I got very itchy to do a show.
And is that when this show [Queen of the Mist] came into the mix?
Yeah. It was really nice. Without question there have been other things I’ve auditioned for and not “won,” as my friend David says. “Did you win?!”
But this was a lovely little present that came straight from Jack Cummings at the Transport Group, him saying, “Hey, do you want to do this?” And they were really great because they went around my schedule. I had to drop out of two symphony concerts that I had scheduled during the run because there are no understudies. But I said, “I need you to go around my conflicts during rehearsal.” And they said, “Yes.” So I’ve been able to keep my commitments to those cities.
That’s amazing. And you have a long relationship with Jack and the Transport Group?
We did [Michael John LaChiusa’s] First Ladies Suite together.
Does it feel like a reunion in a sense?
It does because Mary Testa was also in the sequence in First Ladies Suite that I did. And Mary IS this show. It was written for Mary. The score says, “For Mary.”
Yeah, it’s so cool. She’s amazing in the show. And she’s never had a lead in her life. Not even in high school. We talked about it. She’s always been a supporting character but she always tends to walk away with the show.
You feel like she’s the lead.
But she’s never been the one with the most to say or the most to sing and now, in this show, she has it in spades.
Who are you playing?
I play lots of people.
Wigs. Lots of wigs.
Just the one, for it’s a low budget, you understand. It’s done with the magic of characterization and the live theater. [laughter]
So you’ll be doing funny walks?
Exactly. I’m part of the quintet that sort of narrates the show. That’s not exactly a fair statement but, if there were to be a narrator of the show, the quintet would be it… The lovely thing about [Queen of the Mist] and the lovely thing about Michael John’s writing that is so outstanding is that the show’s about what they say it’s about: this woman who went over the Niagara Falls in a barrel in 1901. But in the last third or the last quarter of the show, something else comes up and taps you on the shoulder and goes, “It might really be about this.” And you are like, “Oooooh!” I don’t want to say any more, because that kind of ruins it but it’s stunning. It kind of gobsmacks you in a way.
I love that.
Mmhmm. Cause I do remember her saying to me [slipping into a perfect Chenoweth imitation], “Oh J, wait till you see. Wait till you see what I’m doing.”
[cough] I’m choking on my soup from that imitation alone.
But I remember very clearly…they finished some big choral number and I had my eye on Kristin and she, when it was over, let out this big exhalation because she was thinking, “Oh my gosh, I got through it and I didn’t mess it up.” Which is part of the thing with Michael John’s stuff. I’m having anxiety attacks about the lyrics. They turn around just enough, they don’t follow the pattern just enough to mess with you. Not to mention, as with anything, I want to do it right. I don’t want to be the moron who’s doing it wrong. On mic.
[laughter] When did you discover you had this voice? Because your voice is so incredibly powerful and distinctive…
Well, I’ve had my own love/hate relationship with my sound.
Really?! I love the way you sound!
Because it is very specific. In the same way my hair is really straight and I wanted curly hair. I have a really fast, natural vibrato. It’s a machine gun. It’s what it is. I can sometimes manipulate it but, in general, it’s the thing that really clicks me into a pitch. And sometimes I wish I sounded more like silky Kelli O’Hara. I remember listening to Kelli in South Pacific and thinking, “She’s going to get to sing forever.” Because the stuff she’s asked to sing, maybe it’s challenging to her, but to my ear it sounds so easy. I’m like, “Sing on, sister!”
And the stuff you’re asked to sing?
“Would you please take out your uterus and slap it on the ground.”
It freaks me out sometimes.
You sound like you have Streisand pipes of steel.
Once upon a time a time I felt that way. I’d missed one show in my life. And then I started having allergy issues. I had chronic sinusitis and had sinus surgery in 2008…I would get sick and never really get better. I’d missed one show—and then I did Wicked [2006-2007]. And Wicked was like the gift that kept on giving.
That green girl is tough.
There is so much of it that is so satisfying and so, “I get to be a rock star!” …For many people, especially on the tour, you’re the only game in town. The big hit show has come to their city and they turn out for Wicked. They are ready to get their wizard on. And it was thrilling. So when I started having vocal trouble in the show, because I got sick and I had to call out, it was devastating. Cause there’s nothing I wanted to do more than do my job and I couldn’t. And it was the kind of thing I couldn’t muscle through. This little six inches of body, of two vocal chords, was too swollen and was like, “Nope. I’m the boss of you. And you will not be doing that.” That was a bummer.
Wicked is a gut buster.
It is…I tried to figure out what made it so different. I had done The Wild Party before in which I sang more. I think the biggest difference was The Wild Party was written on me and I had that music in my body for probably four years before we did the production so there wasn’t really a part of it that I hadn’t negotiated or figured out how to navigate. And Wicked was the first time I’d really stepped into somebody else’s shoes in that way, instead of doing like summer stock or something like that. But also, in Wild Party, the character is sort of even keel and has these blips on the radar and Elphaba, from the moment she walks on is sort of all over the place and mad. And you’re running all over that theater when you’re not on stage, running up those stairs and down those stairs and on that lift. So it’s a very different energy output.
I have to say, something you do captures one of the things that I love most about the theater community, that it’s a family. A dysfunctional family, but it’s a family. Your infamous New Year’s pancakes…
Yeah, pancakes! [Each New Year’s Day, Julia has what seems like half the New York theater world over for a rolling, rollicking, informal pancake brunch with her at the griddle.]
Every year you can walk in there and think, “I haven’t seen some of these people in a while.” And within moments you’re laughing and telling stories.
With pancakes I always feel…what will this year coming up be? Twenty-two years…I’d rather at least start the year in a positive place.
By the second it may all go to shit. I don’t know.
But at least on the first, you can eat some starch and be in a positive place. And it makes me really happy. I’ve never missed a year. Last year I was asked to do a concert with some people in Morocco. And that was a tough one. Certain circumstances came up which made me not do it. I was sad to not go to Morocco but I was relieved because I didn’t have to miss pancakes.
Has having your Dad in the business [Christopher Murney, Slapshot, Remember WENN] affected how you look at your career?
It’s funny, it affected me to a certain degree because I thought I knew how it went, because I grew up around it, though I didn’t do it professionally at all as a kid. But you can’t teach that. You can’t learn it from your Dad being an actor. It is something you find out for your very own self called, “Wait, it’s not all unicorn and pixie dust?”
He must be proud of you.
I think he is. Because he does voiceovers and I do voiceovers, I’ll go places and they’ll say, “Oh, I ran into your Dad the other day. Omigosh, he’s so proud of you. All he did was talk about you.” And I think, “Oh that must be boring for you. I’m so sorry.”
[laughter] Did you ever consider something else?
You know, I didn’t. Maybe it’s because it’s my family business. Maybe if my Dad was a pharmacist I would have been like, “I could be a pharmacist.” … [although] I’m not sure I want to be sixty years old and auditioning. That’s hard.
It’s hard to get yourself together and swirl it up.
[laughter] But the field opens up.
That’s true. My friend Stephen DeRosa is out on the West Side Story tour…he said, “I feel like if we just hang on, the attrition rate is so great, they’ll have to hire us. Because there will be nobody left!”
I said, “You might be right! You might be spot on.”
Find out more about Julia, where to see her in concert and how to get her CD at her website. Performances of Queen of the Mist begin October 18.