If you need any proof that Donna Murphy loves a challenge, look no further than her Broadway resume. The versatile actress took home her first of two Best Actress Tony Awards in 1994 for creating the role of Fosca, a sickly, ugly and obsessive lover in Stephen Sondheim’s Passion. Two years later, she earned her second Tony as British schoolteacher Anna Leonowens in the revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein classic The King and I. She wowed audiences in Wonderful Town and Lovemusik (two shows that would rarely be mentioned in the same sentence!) along with films like Spider-Man 2, The Fountain and The Nanny Diaries. Now Murphy has earned her fifth Tony nomination in Roundabout Theatre Company's production of The People in the Picture. In a demanding, time-traveling role, she plays Raisel/Bubbie, a 1970s grandmother who shares stories from her past as a star of Yiddish theater and film in pre-World War II Poland, including the difficult choices she made as the Holocaust loomed. Broadway.com caught up with this beloved star to talk about the challenges of being a working mom, why she never does anything twice and how Bubbie lured her back to Broadway.
Welcome back to Broadway! Why has it been so long since we’ve seen you on the boards?
Well, since my daughter Darmia came into our lives I haven’t made commitments for long runs because I just haven’t wanted to give up that kind of time with her. The last theater piece that I did—other than Encores!, which are two-week commitments—was Lovemusik, and Darmia was only two years old, so it was very different.
How did The People in the Picture get you back on stage?
This part stayed with me from the time I read it. As a mother, I was so drawn to the idea of playing a mother and grandmother, of getting to see Raisel as a young woman before she has a child, and jumping back and forth in time to get a sense of the bigger picture of who she is and why she made the decisions she made. In the musical theater it’s not so common to write a character that complex. I’ve been blessed that I’ve had a chance to play a number of really interesting women in musical theater, like Lotte Lenya [Lovemusik] and Ruth Sherwood [Wonderful Town] and it’s probably no coincidence that I’m attracted to them.
What do you look for when choosing roles?
I’m looking for something I’ve never done before. What often happens is that you do something, and then the next thing you’re asked to do is similar, because people have seen you do it. They think, “Oh, she’s a Phyllis in Follies type, she’s arch and sophisticated and dry, and likes to dance with handsome young men on stage.” Well, I guess that part is true! But I don’t think there are any characters like this one. Seth Rudetsky said to me, “You know you’re doing the white Color Purple, right?” which cracked me up. Yes, it’s a younger and older version of a character, but it’s a very different kind of character and a very different setting. I couldn’t think of any character that I’d ever played, or ever seen, really, that has a journey like Bubbie’s.
Is Bubbie a role you would have tackled before becoming a mother yourself?
You know, the whole theme of mothering is intense for me. I’m the oldest of seven children, and my great-grandmother helped raise us. I have two stepdaughters [with actor husband Shawn Elliott], the younger of whom I helped raise, and I’m also an adoptive mother—we adopted my littlest girl Darmia—so that’s a whole other element in terms of this story, which deals with other people caring for Bubbie’s daughter for a period of time.
Being the oldest of seven, did you grow up wanting to be a mom?
I was very conflicted about that, because I was very clear about wanting to be an artist, from the time I was seven or eight years old. I told my mother "I’m going to be an actress and I’m not going to get married until I’m like 30 or 40." Fast forward to: I meet my husband when I’m in my early 20s and fall madly in love. He had two daughters from previous marriages, my wonderful stepdaughters Ivy and Justine. As I say in the show, “Man plans, God laughs.’ God was definitely laughing all the way with me!
How's the work-home juggling act going this time around?
It’s always a challenge because you can’t put a price tag on not tucking your child in. It’s a very precious part of my life, and it won’t go on forever. When Darmia’s 13, she’ll be like, “Ma, please go do a Broadway show!” It’s not easy, and there are days that the tears I’m shedding on stage are fueled in part by my own sense of missing my child. I waited a long time to make a choice to try to have a child or adopt a child. Adoption was what was meant for me and has been a huge blessing in my life, but a big part of waiting was because I couldn’t imagine how I was going to balance it. I know what the work demands of me, and I don’t know how to do it half way.
Now that you're back, are their other shows on your to-do list?
Oh, I’m very bad with “the list.” There are people who have had their list of dream shows since they were 20, but people ask me the question and I feel badly, like, “Dammit, I should have the list!” I’ve never done Shakespeare, and I’d love to. I always wanted to do Cordelia in Lear, but I think I’m too old! In the musical theater I would love to do Mame, and if it comes time to do another Gypsy, and again, if I’m not to old, I'd love to play that role—although I don’t know how people will ever shake Patti and Bernadette out of their heads! I’ve been lucky that people have come to me with interesting things that I could have never dreamed up. Do you think I could have dreamed up Fosca? No way. Did I want to work with Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine? You better believe it. If Stephen Sondheim writes anything and wants me to do it, I would be there in a heartbeat.
What else have you been up to since Lovemusik?
I’ve done a fair amount of film and television. I recorded the voice of Mother Gothel in Tangled, the Disney film, and I’ve done a couple of really interesting independent films, one with Todd Solondz called Dark Horse, and also Vera Farmiga’s directorial debut Higher Ground. I play Vera’s mother, another character who goes from late 20s late 50s, and there are a lot of Broadway people in it, like Norbert Leo Butz and the lovely Nina Arianda, who is the toast of Broadway right now.
And both are your fellow Tony nominees! Are Tony events big reunions now?
They really are! That’s one of the nice things about being around a while, it’s always a reunion. You look around and you say, "My God, these are my colleagues." There are a lot of amazing human beings in the theater, so to get to be around them is a pretty joyous thing. It’s a little bittersweet for me this year because I wish The People in the Picture had been acknowledged in a broader way, but I just try to be the best ambassador I can for the show and know that I’m standing up there for everybody involved with it. I wouldn’t be there without them.
See Donna Murphy in The People in the Picture at Studio 54.