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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, named one of New York theater's "Living Legends" by New York magazine, lights up the stage in this high-energy show nominated for Best Revival. She won the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Actress in Musical and is nominated for a 2004 Best Actress Tony [along with Kristin Chenoweth, Wicked; Stephanie D'Abruzzo, Avenue Q; Idina Menzel, Wicked and Tonya Pinkins, Caroline, or Change].

    Murphy's journey has been filled with happiness, frustration, self doubt and personal tragedy -- which may be one reason she's enjoying Wonderful Town so much.

    "Ruth's incredible," says Murphy. "Ever the cockeyed optimist. Her story is timeless. You still have people getting off buses, trains and planes as she and Eileen did -- coming here to pursue their dreams. Especially those of us who want to be in show business. Like them, we have times that are wacky and scary."

    WT, with a score by Leonard Bernstein and the legendary Broadway team of Comden and Green, is 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.

    Murphy may look tiny and fragile but, as Ruth Sherwood, she's intrepid. Have you seen her climb that Navy Yard fence? Seen the way she's thrown about and spun around by members of the Brazilian Navy? She calls the show "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. The music's hot and it's high energy all the way."

    Regarding the "physical stuff," she laughs, "I'm either incredibly brave or incredibly stupid, because I love it. I love the feeling of not knowing what's going to happen next. It keeps me literally and figuratively on my toes."

    Many theater insiders, having seen Murphy in Passion and The King and I, and perhaps missing her in Song of Singapore, were surprised to see her being cast in a role that didn't require a dark side. However, she's proved as deft with pratfalls and comedy as she has been with heavier musical theater. And, with all that knock-about, the already much too svelte star lost eight pounds during rehearsals.

    "My husband [actor] Shawn [Elliott] told me I had to start eating hamburgers," laughs Murphy. "And there's some good news. I've gained four pounds!"

    Pre-opening, Murphy's bout with the flu and a burst vocal chord caused her to miss ten preview performances over two weeks; and led to rumors the WT producers were considering replacing her. Reportedly, the stress led to a near nervous breakdown.

    "My only wish," she says, "was to get well, get back and give one hundred percent to our audiences. I'm a human being and like other human beings, sometimes I get sick. Maybe I hugged someone or shook a hand that had been exposed to a virus. Now I keep disinfectant wipes in my purse!"

    Then there was the matter of opening night when, Murphy entertaining a dressing room full of family and friends, was very, very late for a very important date: the ultra gala afterparty in the spanking new Time Warner Center. By the time she exited her stretch limo, the photographers had all but dispersed and the clinking of Champagne glasses had ceased. Even some of the show's producers had left. Reports painted the star as Broadway's newest diva.

    Who could ask for anything more? Well, Murphy could. Add to the fodder the May scuttlebutt over taking a long weekend to hopscotch West to shoot a TV pilot; and more missed performances due to illness.

    Then there was the night of May 19 and Murphy, still not tip-top and pumped with antibiotics, arriving breathless from her matinee to the Drama Desk Awards - just in time to hear her name announced as Outstanding Actress in a Musical.

    According to some detractors, Murphy's acceptance speech went on "endlessly" - some said nine minutes - "not including the hugs and the oh so slow walk to the podium." Actually, it lasted less than six minutes. Host Harvey Fierstein made the first heavy-handed joke. It hasn't stopped since.

    Murphy may be a waif, but she's thick-skinned. Good for her, now that she's entered the cause cÈlÈbre ranks of those [Bernadette Peters, Tony Kushner, Evan Pappas] targeted by the vitriolic barbs of New York Post theater columnist Michael Reidel.

    Ah, show biz! Ain't Broadway grand? Thunderous applause and slings and arrows -- but, says Murphy, "there was never a time when I didn't want to be somehow connected to theater."

    At age three she was pleading with her Mom for voice lessons. [They were not forthcoming until she was 33!] By age five, her love of theater was driving everyone nuts: "I wrote shows and put them on for neighbors and family. And put my six younger brothers and sisters to work in them."

    Through grammar school on Long Island and from junior high on through graduation in Massachusetts, Murphy was bitten by the bug. At 18, she entered NYU to major in theater and studied with Stella Adler. She made ends meet as a singing waitress and, one Yuletide, as an elf in Macy's Toyland. 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 swing.

    "I managed to balance being in the show with going to school," states Murphy. "But it didn't take long before I became distracted. At the end of my sophomore year, I took a leave of absence. I needed to audition without cutting classes. I thought once I got my Broadway break, the rest would be smooth sailing. It was a rude awakening. I was just starting to learn a little of what my teachers had been warning 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." Goodspeed accommodated, hiring her for the musical Zapata. "I didn't care that it was a small part. Unfortunately, it got cut." There was an up side: On that job she met her husband of 20 years.

    Back in New York, she began juggling auditions with job-hunting to pay the rent. "Shawn was working and very supportive. He told me, ëDon't take the Fourth National of Annie. Stay in town, take classes, audition.' That began five years of Broadway understudy roles 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 a year later with the New York Shakespeare Festival's The Mystery of Edwin Drood. She was offered chorus/understudy roles, but Murphy said, "No, I can't do that anymore."

    It turned out that composer/lyricist/librettist Rupert Holmes liked her. "He told me he was writing a specialty number for me and Judy Kuhn. When they added being understudy for Cleo Laine, I agreed to do it in Central Park. I loved the show and wanted to work for [director] Wilford Leach, who I had auditioned for several times." Joe Papp decided to transfer the show to Broadway but,with Laine never missing a performance and Murphy not getting to go on in a part, she decided not to go with it.

    It turned out that Laine was committed to 20 concert dates and Murphy was assured she'd get to go on. 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 do Rags, only to find out Betty Buckley was leaving Drood. "Though Wilford never saw me play the lead," she says, "he thought I could do it. I ran to audition, and got the part -- my first Broadway principle role." [Kuhn then left Drood to do Rags.]

    Papp refused to give Murphy Buckley's Playbill and marquee credit above the title. "He didn't think I had paid enough dues! I had to settle for my name being in a box below everyone."

    Then came a TV soap, some Off Broadway work and, in 1991, 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. "I'd been blessed with wonderful opportunities, but it was like a double-edged sword. I'd been fortunate, but wasn't enjoying the work. 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. Murphy discovered there was nothing she wanted more than being an actress. "I came back with a renewed sense of purpose," she said.

    There was satisfying work in the regionals, followed by the workshop of not exactly your typical Broadway musical, Passion. "I felt since the role of Fosca was so challenging it would be recast." She won a starring role in Hello, Again at Lincoln Center Theater, but during rehearsals was offered Fosca.

    "I was faced with one of the most difficult decisions in my life, if not the most difficult," she explains. In one of those all-too-rare show biz moments, LCT allowed her to open in Hello, Again and leave a week after the opening to begin rehearsals for Sondheim's musical.

    Passion, she reports, and working "for the theatrical gods at whose shrine I had worshipped - Stephen 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."

    In more ways than one. "Success and the Tony were sweet but," she reveals, "suddenly, where I was just going about doing my job, there was all this clamor and hoopla. It was crazy and it became a huge challenge to remain focused."

    Maybe she became a little too focused. "People were telling me I wasn't ugly enough for Fosca," she said, "and I was sort of offended! I felt it was about Fosca's big heart and how she was affected by illness, not her lack of beauty. I began having doubts that I hadn't done a good enough job of transforming myself into her."

    Fosca was pretty demanding and draining, so Murphy didn't have a lot of friends or celebrities coming back afterward. They would arrange to meet later. As a joke, backstagers began announcing over the P.A. system that various celebrities were on the way up. After being fooled a few times, Murphy started yelling back, "Kiss my ass!"

    "Then, one night," she recollects, laughing, "I heard ëDonna Murphy, Warren Beatty and Annette Bening are on the way up!' I went to the door, opened it and yelled, ëKiss my ass!' And on the stairs were a pretty perplexed Warren Beatty and Annette Being."

    Murphy followed Passion with her revisionist Anna in King. That was 1995, the season of Julie Andrews' return to Broadway after 35 years in Victor/Victoria[by husband Blake Edwards and based on his film]. But no gave any thought to the Tony Nominating Committee, which didn't give much thought to V/V.

    The show received one nod: Andrews for Best Actress, thereby peeving the comeback star who stated from the Marquis Theatre stage: "I have searched my conscience and my heart and find that I cannot accept this nomination, and prefer instead to stand with my egregiously overlooked castmatesÖ" [It was a bold move on Andrews' part for, in truth, the show certainly deserved more nominations, especially in the Featured Actresss and Design categories.]

    Everyone, including Murphy, thought Andrews would still be the hands-down winner. On the telecast, the incident provided a hilarious opening bit by co-host Nathan Lane impersonating Andrews. When the enveloped was opened, a stunned Murphy heard her name and, in a state of shock, made it to the podium. And her acceptance speech was much shorter than six minutes!

    Fast forward to the delays getting WT to Broadway after its Encores! triumph. "There was the matter of financing, theatre availability and scheduling," reports Murphy. "It didn't seem the stars were ever in alignment."

    During the wait, Murphy went West to do a TV sit-com. It was short-lived. Then, trying desperately to have children, she suffered two miscarriages. "I began to wonder if it would ever happen?" she says. But Murphy was always producers Fran and Barry Weissler and Roger Berlind's dream Ruth Sherwood and, though it took three years, it happened. Finally.

    Donna Murphy's website is Under Construction, but for photos and much more, visit: WonderfulTown.COM


    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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