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  • "New York, New York, it's a wonderful town!" are not exactly the words wide-eyed sisters Ruth and Eileen were thinking after misadventures, fresh off the bus, from Ohio in the classic New York musical, Wonderful Town. They arrived with dreams of making it, respectively, as a writer and actress and living happily ever after. Donna Murphy, who lights up the stage as Ruth in the high-energy revival, has fulfilled her dreams of being in musical theater. She had her journey. Though it's been filled with wonderful luck, there were frustrations and self-doubt.

    "Ruth and Eileen's story is timeless," says Murphy. "You still have people getting off buses, trains and planes coming here to pursue their dreams. Especially those of us who want to be in show business. Like Ruth and Eileen, they have times that are wacky and scary."

    She calls Wonderful Town "the perfect New York musical. It's exciting, smart, clever and truly a celebration of and a valentine to the city. It's a great show at the right time." Though set in the 30s, Murphy says, "This isn't your Mother's Wonderful Town. The period may be the 30s, but there's nothing old-fashioned about it. It's high energy all the way." And she is living proof. The already svelte Murphy lost eight pounds during rehearsals.

    Her recent bout with the flu, which caused her to miss ten preview performances over two weeks and led to rumors the Wonderful Town producers were considering, recasting her role, certainly can't have helped. But Murphy's still the star and the show opens Sunday.

    It's another dream fulfilled for the two-time Tony-winning actress says there was never a time when she didn't want to be "somehow connected to theater." She got the theatrical bug at a very early age: five. "I wrote shows and put them on for my neighbors [and, eventually, her six younger brothers and sisters]," she reveals. Through grammar school on Long Island and from junior high up in Massachusetts, "I was involved in music and theater, then community theater." At 18, she entered NYU to major in theater at NYU and studied with Stella Adler.

    She made ends meet as a singing waitress, an elf in Macy's Toyland one Christmas. It didn't impress Murphy's instructors that she was more interested in open calls than attending classes. However, it was an assignment for a course on survival in theater that led her to audition for They're Playing Our Song. Not only did she write a paper, she got hired as a understudy for the swings.

    "I managed to balance being in the show with going to school," says Murphy. "But it didn't take long before I became too distracted. At the end of my sophomore year, I took a leave of absence. I needed to audition without cutting classes. You know what I thought - that I got my Broadway break and the rest would be smooth sailing. I had a rude awakening. I was just starting to learn a little of what my teachers had been warning me about. I was working, but developing performance tricks as opposed to a craft."

    Murphy decided to challenge herself. "I needed to really learn the ropes, so my goal was to get a job in a new show, even if it was in the chorus. I was able to join Zapata at Goodspeed. I went thinking I, at least, had a small part. Unfortunately, it got cut." There was an up side. On that job she met actor Shawn Elliott, who became her husband [they've been together over 20 years].

    Back in New York, she did a juggling act: trying to fine parts and finding work to pay the rent. Elliott, who was working steadily, was supportive. "He told me, ëDon't take the Fourth National of Annie. Stay in town, take classes and audition.' That began five years of understudy roles on Broadway and jobs in the regionals. I did everything from singing jingles to fronting a rock band - whatever it took for casting directors to get to know me."

    In 1984, she was featured in the short-lived revival of The Human Comedy. Her big break came in 1985's The Mystery of Edwin Drood. "I was offered chorus/understudy," notes Murphy, "I said ëNo, I can't do that anymore.' It turned out that dear Rupert Holmes liked me and was planning to write a specialty number for me and Judy Kuhn. I agreed to do it in Central Park [also understudying Cleo Laine]. It was a job and I wanted to work for [director] Wilford Leach, who I had auditioned for several times. I loved the show. I loved the company. But, it was too frustrating not getting to play a part. I decided not to go with it to Broadway."

    ButÖ It turned out that Cleo Laine had committed to 20 concert dates and that Murphy would be guaranteed going on. "That changed everything!"

    What was fabulous about Drood, she says, is that "I got to witness the creation of a show from the beginning. That was invaluable. And it turned out to be a Tony-winning show!"

    Murphy left to join Rags, only to find out Betty Buckley was leaving Drood. "Though he'd never seen me play the lead," she says, "Wilford thought I could do it. I ran to audition, and I got the part, my first principle role on Broadway."

    Then came a TV soap, some Off Broadway work and, in 1991, Song of Singapore. At the end of the run, Murphy was overcome with self-doubt. "I began to wonder if I'd ever get that great dream role. I was on the brink of leaving the business. The ups and downs, the physical demands made me question if that was what I was meant to do the rest of my life."

    She was also wracked with guilt, "because, from an early age, I'd been blessed with wonderful opportunities. It was like a double-edged sword. I knew how fortunate I'd been, but I wasn't enjoying the work. I realized that I'd lost sight of what I had to give to the work. It was time to step back and discover what else there might be out there."

    Nothing, it seems, but wanting to be an actress. She came back with a renewed sense of purpose. Following satisfying work in the regionals, she landed in the workshop of Hello, Again at Lincoln Center Theater and, at the same time, was offered the challenging role of Fosca in not exactly your typical Broadway musical, Passion. Murphy was faced one of the most difficult decisions in her life, if not the most difficult. In one of those all-too-rare show biz moments, LCT allowed her to open in Hello, Again and leave a week later after the opening to begin rehearsals for the Sondheim musical.

    Murphy says Passion and working "for the theatrical gods at whose shrine she had worshipped" - Sondheim and director James Lapine - was a life changing experience.

    "It gave me the opportunity to utilize what I could bring to the table as an actress and a human being. Once in a blue moon, things really do happen in their time." The show brought Murphy her first Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical, but, more than that, she says, "It was a sublime education."

    Fast forward to Wonderful Town, based on the best-selling memoir by Ruth McKenney and the 1940 play and film adapted by Joseph Fields and Jerome Chodorov, My Sister Eileen. The musical adaptation premiered on Broadway in 1953 [starring Rosalind Russell and Edie Adams] and swept the Tony Awards.

    Theater lovers and theatrical insiders knowing Murphy for her work in Passion and, later, The King and I [another Tony] and not having seen her previous work, could be excused "for being a little shocked" when she was cast to do something comic in Wonderful Town. She explains, "It's a side of me most people haven't seen."

    She's proving as deft with pratfalls and comedy as she is with heavier musical theater [and the off-beat dramatic turns she's done on TV's Murder One, Ally McBeal, The Practice and, most recently, as David Morse's estranged wife on Hack].

    "I'm having a blast with the show and cast. We quickly bonded into a tight knit family." She's especially high on the production's music director, Rob Fisher. "Rob's arrangements are incredible. We have a big, swinging orchestra with a hot brass section that blows you away!"

    Murphy isn't kidding when, earlier, she called Wonderful Town the perfect New York musical. "Look at it's pedigree," she says. "You've got the wit of lyrics by Adolph Green and Betty Comden, who wrote Singin' in the Rain and countless Broadway and Hollywood musicals, and the dynamic musical genius of no less than Leonard Bernstein."

    [Trivia: five weeks before the start of rehearsals on the original production, legendary director George Abbott replaced the composer with Bernstein, who had worked with Green and Comden on their other New York musical, On the Town. Also, it was a best kept secret at the time that Jerome Robbins was called in to spiff up the Donald Saddler choreography.]


    Ellis Nassour is an international media journalist, and author of Honky Tonk Angel: The Intimate Story of Patsy Cline, which he has adapted into a musical for the stage. Visit www.patsyclinehta.com.

    He can be reached at [email protected]

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