On the tail end of my hardcore Renthead days in 2000, my love of Idina Menzel and Taye Diggs brought me to an Off-Broadway show written by Andrew Lippa called The Wild Party where I was first introduced to what Seth Rudetsky refers to as the “sassafrass” belting prowess of Julia Murney, who played Queenie and was nominated for a Drama Desk Award for her performance. She made her Broadway debut in Lennon (2005) and played Elphaba in both the National Touring Cast of Wicked and on Broadway. She has also performed off Broadway in The Vagina Monologues, A Class Act, Saved, Crimes of the Heart, First Lady Suite, and Time and Again (Lucille Lortel nomination) as well as in concert at Joe’s Pub, Feinstein’s, The Kennedy Center, Caramoor, Town Hall and Birdland as well as with Peter Nero and the Philly Pops and Steven Reineke and the Cincinnati Pops. Her debut solo album, I’m Not Waiting, which is gorgeous, was released in May 2006 and tomorrow night, Tuesday October 19th at 8:00pm and Wednesday October 20th at 2:00pm and 8:00pm, Julia Murney is performing with Jennifer Laura Thompson with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra in a concert called Broadway Divas at Roy Thompson Hall. I had the great pleasure of chatting with Julia on the phone last evening.
Amanda Campbell (AC): Okay, this is the question I ask everyone I interview: Who are you? Where are you from? And how did you get so talented?
Julia Murney (JM): (laughs) Wow. What questions! Who am I? I couldn’t possibly begin to answer that, but when I figure it out, there are some people that I need to tell first, but then I’ll let you know. I’m from New York City. I grew up there. And (laughs) I tend to believe that talent is in the ear and eye of the beholder…but I think I got some talent from my parents. They’re musical and I have to give some props to Miss. Morris, my Intermediate School Choir teacher. I started to sing in the choir. And, yeah. That’s about the answer I’ve got.
AC: How did you team up with Jennifer Laura Thompson to do this Broadway Divas concert?
JM: Well, it’s a long story, but the short version is that Steven Reineke, who is conducting the concert, and I sort of made up this concert format when Kristin Chenoweth was going to sing with the Cincinnati Pops and she fell ill, and so on really short notice Megan Hilty and I, along with Steven, made up this show to perform instead, and Steven and I got interested in the idea of it and so now I’ve pretty much done this made up show with a bunch of different women all over the country. The idea is to have one of us who has played Elphaba (in Wicked) and one of us who has played Glinda and it basically comes down to me performing with whoever is available. I recently got to perform with Stephanie J. Block, which was so great because we never get to do anything together! And she is, as you likely know, amazing.
AC: I love how you talk about the “green girl sisterhood” of all the women that have played Elphaba and how you have forged these bonds with one another. It seems like people are always looking for a scandal or feelings of competition, it’s nice to see that you’re so quick to help one another.
JM: I feel like the Internet will take care of those comparisons. If the people on the chat boards want to be competitive about it, if that is their hobby or whatever, they will do it. And I know that I’ve been on the receiving end of some of that criticism, of not being some people’s favourite witch, and some of what they write on the boards is really harsh. So, that’s why I don’t read the chat boards, I don’t have the skin that you need for that. But, I feel like we (the actors who have played Elphaba) can be comrades in this shared experience, and I have met girls who I had never met before because of this role. I was eating in a restaurant once and Carmen Cusack was there and she looked at me and mouthed, “Julia?” and I was like, “Carmen?” and we got up and we hugged in the middle of the restaurant as though we were best friends, because we had both done this thing that only a few other people had done and know what it’s like.
AC: That’s great. I read that Idina Menzel and Eden Espinosa offered some advice and encouragement when you were first starting as Elphaba, after you left the show did you get an opportunity to give advice to some of the girls who played the part after you?
JM: Yeah! I guess! The Elphabas usually communicate through email because when you’re doing the show, you can’t talk (laughs). I had conversations with Kerry Ellis and Mandy Gonzalez and Nicole Parker. Nicole, for example, I didn’t know her at all before she was cast in Wicked and now we’re friends. I mean, we’ve never worked together, but I got to know her through Wicked. The conversations usually start from someone asking, “How did you do this?” because the role is so challenging and we all have secrets that we use to help us grapple with her, vocally and otherwise, and even though the advice doesn’t always work for every girl, I’m always happy to share.
AC: What types of songs are you and Jennifer Laura Thompson going to be singing in your Broadway Divas concert?
JM: I guess the songs are all under the guise of being the songs that the divas in the show would sing- not “divas” in the negative sense, diva as in the idea of that grand, magnetic singer. Diva in that way.
AC: Yeah, I can’t imagine you or Jennifer Laura Thompson being divas in the negative way.
JM: Yes, we’re going to have a huge fist fight and hair pulling in the middle of the show!
AC: Are you going to sing “Loathing”? (Officially called “What is this Feeling”)
JM: No. (laughs) That would be funny. There are so many great songs in Wicked, we could sing the whole show… but I think that if we sang “Loathing” instead of “For Good”… I feel like people really want to hear us sing “For Good” because it’s such a lovely number.
AC: You were actually the first person to sing “Defying Gravity” in New York in 2002; how did that come about?
JM: There was this concert at the Duplex, and I think it was a tribute night for Stephen Schwartz and he said, “if you want you can have this number from my new show” but he insisted that I be the one to sing it. And I’d known him from awhile back, but of course even before he was “the guy who wrote Wicked,” he was “the guy who wrote Pippin”, “the guy who wrote Godspell, and a bunch of Disney movies” so it was a crazy honour to have him choose me to sing that song.
AC: How did you first meet Stephen Schwartz?
JM: I did a show- oh gosh, a long time ago, it must be thirteen or fourteen years ago called Snapshot, which was a bunch of Stephen Schwartz songs rethought, all pre-existing and trunk songs with a new book and Stephen worked closely on that and actually, Andrew Lippa was the musical director, and that show did many things for my life.
AC: And, was that how you ended up getting involved with The Wild Party?
JM: Essentially, yes! It’s a longer tale than that, but Andrew had just started writing Wild Party and he was the one who fought for me to get to do it, and we went to a place called the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Centre in Connecticut where we workshopped it and then we did a few readings and then luckily it came to New York.
AC: I remember listening to The Wild Party in High School in Halifax, Nova Scotia-
JM: Wow! I’ve been there! It’s beautiful!
JM: Yes, I was there seeing a show that Tracy Michailidis did somewhere actually.
AC: Oh! Did you see Into the Woods?
AC: Wow! Yeah, I think there was just a small group of my friends and I in Nova Scotia at that point who knew what The Wild Party was…
JM: It only takes a few.
AC: *grins* I was wondering, since Idina and Taye (Diggs) were in The Wild Party, you must have gotten a lot of Rentheads coming to see the show…
JM: We got some Rentheads and also Taye had just helped Stella get her groove back, so we also got a lot of giggling ladies, who were just excited to be so close to him, because the MTC is a small theatre and the audience is really close to the stage. So, yeah, we did get some cross over play. I think if we did the show today we’d probably get some Shrek fans.-
AC: You would get ALL the Wicked fans!
JM: Oh, yes. Of course! I don’t think the MTC could handle the show now, Idina’s star shines so bright.
AC: The star power of the two of you together… You should do the show again just for that… you would sell it out completely.
JM: (laughs) That show was so much fun to do. We just had the best time doing it; we all got along so well and just had a ball every single night. Actually, the cast, thirteen of us, all went on vacation together after the show closed. We just didn’t want the party to end.
AC: Where did you go?
JM: We went to the Dominican Republic.
AC: Oh, fun! I read that you love Bette Midler and were a little obsessed with The Divine Miss M have you gotten a chance to meet her?
JM: NO! Oh my goodness, I would love to meet her!! I have met many people that sort of, have stopped me in my tracks. I got to work with Tyne Daly a few months ago… and, he wouldn’t know me if he fell on me, but I met Paul McCartney and that was really neat. But, I haven’t met Bette, she’s sort of one of those people that if I met her, I don’t think that I would know what to say!
AC: I know exactly what you mean. I read that you met Bernadette Peters when you were six.
JM: Yes, I did! How did you know that!?
AC: I did some research!
JM: Yeah, my dad was in a show with her called Mack and Mabel.
AC: I love her.
JM: Yeah, she’s kind of amazing. She is also just so beautiful. It’s incredible to see her up close, her skin is so perfect, and it’s because she never ever goes out into the sun and if you never ever go out into the sun, your skin will stay like that forever. She is stunning.
AC: Yes, she is. You made your highly anticipated Broadway debut in a show called Lennon, based on the music and life of John Lennon. There’s been a real trend toward “Jukebox Shows” or musicals using pre-existing music since the success of Mamma Mia! and I just was wondering what your thoughts about that are.
JM: I think that there’s room for all different kinds of shows. I don’t think that it should be American Idiot or Promises, Promises; I think it should be American Idiot AND Promises, Promises AND Million Dollar Quartet because they are three totally different shows. I think that if you have a quality production, a show that, in some way, leaves people changed from the way they came in, it doesn’t matter how that change has come about, whether it’s because the audience is on a high from the music, or whether they were moved to cry or think or laugh. There is something magical about live theatre, it is not the same as a movie, because the audience has entered into an unspoken agreement that they are going to sit there for however long the production is, and they are going to watch without distraction and enter into this world with the performers. However, with modern audiences, there are now often distractions, people have their cell phones on, or they are recording the show, all of which is obnoxious if only because it is distracting to the performers; well, it’s obnoxious for a number of different reasons, but that is the primary reason. People honestly do not seem to understand how dark it is in the theatre, and they think, “Oh, I’m just gonna check the time” on their phones and then I see this one huge shining light and I wonder, “Is someone recording me? And then I’m like … Oh, wait, is that my line?” And I’ve gone out of where I’m supposed to be. And I feel like, there is something exciting about being able to share something on YouTube, and certainly I would never have gotten fan mail from Croatia and Tokyo, which I have gotten, if it wasn’t for videos being put up on YouTube, but at the same time, this moment in the theatre isn’t meant to be filmed. If you’re just watching me sing the end of “Defying Gravity” going up in the Cherry Picker- and you’re not even seeing the whole song- just the last few bars, and if I’m having a day where my voice is feeling especially exhausted- I feel like, sometimes that can get scrutinized when, if you saw it as part of the whole evening, you wouldn’t notice it as much. But, at the same time, I can’t stress enough how appreciative I am that I have people in Croatia and Tokyo who are watching the videos and buying my album- but there is something about the people who are there and they are revelling in the experience and when Idina Menzel- someone they adore- walks out onstage… or when someone they have never heard of before walks out onstage and sings or dances and that changes someone for those two hours and at the end they’re like “I love this performer!” that is really cool.
AC: I think Toronto audiences may be a bit better at not recording things than in New York.
JM: You don’t get it as much at the symphony concerts because it’s all music and you can’t really hear a cell phone ringing over an eighty five piece orchestra. But, in a musical you have silences, breaths, acting… and that’s always when the cell phone will ring.
AC: Yes. Always. Can you talk a bit about your album, which I love?
JM: Oh, wow, thanks. It’s called I’m Not Waiting. It was really great to have done it before I started in Wicked because I was able to sell it in the lobby of the theatre. It’s a compilation of songs that I love; it really doesn’t have an overall theme beyond that. All the songs are ones that I really love to sing. Now I’m trying to get together more songs that I’d like to sing… well I have so many of them, I’d really love to do another album, but they’re expensive. I didn’t actually bring any with me to Toronto, because I had to deal with the taxes and stuff and that was really confusing. But it was really neat to know when I was doing the show and the concerts, that I had sold, maybe, 40 CDs to people who probably never would have found them otherwise. I don’t know if they get them because they like my voice, or they like the songs I sing, but I like thinking that people will buy the album and listen to me singing “Perfect” and go, “Oh, I like this song. Who is it by?” And then they’ll look and see it’s written by Tom Kitt, and then they’ll look him up and hopefully go see Next to Normal. It all feeds itself, I think.
AC: I love the song “I’m Not Waiting” so much.
JM: Yeah. Andrew Lippa wrote that for me, which is amazing.
AC: I read that Dot in Sunday in the Park with George is your dream role, which I love because that’s my favourite show.
JM: Oh, yay!
AC: If you were playing Dot, who would be your dream Georges?
JM: Bryan D’Arcy James. (laughs). I’m trying to think of men off the top of my head… Bryan, or… Norbert Butz… or… gosh. There are so many, I don’t know why I’m drawing a blank. Somebody smart, passionate and who can sing and act. Although, he’d have to have three names. Harry Connick Jr. Does that count as three? Kind of. What’s Hugh Jackman’s middle name? (laughs)
AC: Are there any shows on Broadway now that you are especially excited about?
JM: Um, sure. All kinds of them! Do you mean ones I’ve seen and loved?
JM: I loved American Idiot. I really, really, dug it. As soon as the curtain came up and that girl was upside down I was like “yup, I’m in.” Um, this show has been around for awhile, but I love In the Heights, and The Scottsboro Boys, I haven’t seen it since it’s moved to Broadway, but I saw it when it was downtown and it and Susan Stroman really knocked my socks off. Also I have a special crush on John Kander… I will marry him someday. I am also, I think like everybody, really curious about Spiderman. I want to see it! I think it will be nothing less than spectacular. I also really want to see A Life in the Theatre with Patrick Stewart and T.R. Knight. Patrick Stewart is one of my favourites, I think he is brilliant and T.R. Knight, I don’t know if he would remember me, but we knew each other a little bit, in that we would say hello, before he became famous, and I have sort of been admiring him from afar ever since. I’m also excited to see Elf because my friend Sebastian (Arcelus) is the Elf! He was my Fiyero in Wicked. There is so much, I’m always so interested to see what happens on Broadway!
AC: Hunter Foster made a Facebook group awhile back that received some media attention advocating for returning the Tony Awards broadcast back to Broadway performers, I was wondering what your opinion was on this subject.
JM: I’m not on Facebook, but I did read about this, and I don’t usually get involved in these sorts of discussions, but I will say that I think that Tony Awards Broadcast has to speak to many different masters and that if they were a dinner and a smaller evening of celebration, it would be different, but as it stands right now, they are on a network and I’m sure that NBC insists on certain things. Yes, I think that the people who won Tony Awards last year should be presenting to this year’s winners, just like they are at the Oscars, but the question is… is that feasible when the network has to be looking out for their ratings? Then, the opposite argument is just let it be on a theatre channel and let it be a party for theatre people, and I’m all for that too. But, the fact is that Broadway is a business and it’s a product, or we are attempting to turn Broadway into a product, when in fact, Broadway is actually a combination of many tiny things. … By and large, any movie and TV stars that I have encountered or heard about working in the theatre are lovely, hard working people. The only thing that makes me lose my patience is when people expect some sort of special treatment. The best example is when I was working on a concert of Chess and Josh Groban was performing, and he was really out of his element, it was basically Josh and all these Broadway people who were used to just throwing up these concerts, and he could not have been lovelier. He was so open, and on his gig and he was like, “Okay, show me how to do this!” As long as that’s the experience, I think that’s great. I also think, and I’ll go on the record as saying that I think that what Hunter was saying got twisted somehow into a pretzel that he did not mean for it to be. I think that what he was saying initially got interpreted in a far more negative way and that the Internet can be like a gossip mill, where if we know that we’re reading something in The National Enquirer or in US Magazine, we may not put too much faith in what we read, but on the Internet, where we see so many pages flash by so fast, I think people sometimes forget where they read things and then they start just saying, “Oh, I heard blah blah blah” and very quickly something that was misinterpreted or unreliable quickly is being told as fact. I know Hunter Foster and he is not at all a vindictive or mean human being. I think his initial impulse was more about wishing that those of us who are the real workhorses of the community could have a way of being more recognized.
AC: I agree with you, I think that’s exactly what Hunter meant. So, my last question is, I read somewhere something about you having a pancake party and I’d like to know what a pancake party is!
JM: A pancake party is when I have people over, people that I love and who are very dear to me, and I make them pancakes. It’s not a euphemism or anything. It’s just a really special day that kicks off the new year and I invite people hoping that they’ll bring people that they love who I don’t know, and it’s just a really happy day of carbohydrates and bacon.
Sounds delicious and delightful, just like Julia Murney. Go see her concert, buy her album; fall in love with her if you haven’t already. She is the real deal.
Tue. Oct. 19, 2010 at 8:00 PM. Wed. Oct. 20, 2010 at 2:00 PM. Wed. Oct. 20, 2010 at 8:00 PM. Roy Thomson Hall (60 Simcoe Street). “Julia Murney and Jennifer Laura Thompson, stars of the hit musical Wicked, join Steven Reineke and the TSO for a concert of diva showstoppers from Broadway, including popular favourites from Wicked, My Fair Lady, Chicago, and Phantom of the Opera. Pops concerts highlight popular music with an orchestral flair. Each entertaining performance features well-known tunes from near and far.” For tickets visit this website.