Monday, October 1, 2012

Thriller: Donna Murphy on the Musical Stage

Donna Murphy in LoveMusik in 2007

We seem to be living in a golden age of musical-theatre women. The one whose name is most often on everyone’s lips is Kelli O’Hara, with her simon-pure soprano embroidered by often startlingly impassioned phrasing, whether the character she’s playing is fragile (The Light in the Piazza) or essentially conventional (South Pacific). Victoria Clark has a wide emotional range and suggests a complex response to the world deriving from accumulated experience; as O’Hara’s mother in Piazza, perhaps the best musical-theatre role ever written for a middle-aged actress, she managed to balance romantic skepticism (based on her own disappointing marriage) and optimism (based on an awakening awareness of the romantic possibilities for her damaged daughter). On the other end of the scale of middle-aged performers, Patti LuPone is a diva with grit in place of glamour, a gleaming sense of irony and an unerring instinct for how to make a song dramatic, whether in the old-fashioned Broadway manner (Gypsy) or in the Brechtian style (Sweeney Todd). Marin Mazzie, who’s been around since Ragtime and the marvelous Kathleen Marshall production of Kiss Me, Kate, has a warm soprano and an expansive presence that effortlessly fills a Broadway house. Sutton Foster has a more streamlined personality – she’s colder but more dazzling, and the best lead dancer around, as she demonstrated most recently in Marshall’s Anything Goes. Celia Keenan-Bolger is diminutive but she has a powerful core of feeling; she’s mostly attracted notice in comic roles (recently Peter and the Starcatcher), but she can be amazing in dramatic ones that call for arias of longing – Merrily We Roll Along, the Encores! revival of that Marc Blitzstein rarity Juno. Laura Benanti has a frisky, inventive wit: her show-stopping “Model Behavior” in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown is the funniest musical performance I can remember seeing on a stage since Angela Lansbury introduced “The Worst Pies in London” in the original cast of Sweeney Todd nearly three and a half decades ago. Among the clowns, Faith Prince seems to have been largely forgotten – she’s become a cabaret performer – but when she starred in a revival of Bells Are Ringing on Broadway in 2001, she proved to be almost a match for the original star, the late Judy Holliday, plus she made the lilting Jule Styne melodies sound sweeter than they ever had before. Kristin Chenoweth can be hilarious, but vocally there’s almost nothing she can’t pull off (her album, Let Yourself Go, is a virtuoso accomplishment), and she was heartbreaking in the revival of the Bacharach-David Promises, Promises a couple of seasons ago. And any era that produces Audra McDonald, owner of the most versatile and most expressive dramatic singing voice since Barbra Streisand, would need to be considered a golden age by definition.

I’d be hard put to pick a favorite, but no one thrills me more on stage than Donna Murphy. Movie buffs who recognize her name from the tiny parts she’s essayed in blockbusters like Spider-Man 2 and The Bourne Legacy have no idea what she’s like on stage, where she’s always a headliner. I first saw her in a production of Pal Joey at Boston’s Huntington Theatre in 1992, as Vera, the brittle, knowing older woman who keeps the ambitious womanizer Joey, but throws him out on his ass when he proves to be more trouble than she figures he’s worth. Vera is the high-comic element in the low-down, hard-boiled John O’Hara/Rodgers and Hart material, and Murphy’s confidence in the role was almost alarming; you wondered where she could have acquired it before she’d even turned thirty-five. Two years later she had her first Broadway lead, in Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Passion. Since then she’s been seen as Anna in The King and I (my impatience with Rodgers and Hammerstein kept me away from that one); as Ruth in Wonderful Town (first at Encores! and then in a full-scale Broadway expansion, both directed by Kathleen Marshall); as Lotte Lenya in Lovemusik; with Victoria Clark in Follies; in a misbegotten and short-lived original piece called The People in the Picture; and as the Witch in Into the Woods, in Central Park last summer. She was a sensationally effective as Phyllis in Follies – sardonic yet wistful, giving that self-consciously clever poison-pen letter “Could I Leave You” much more a kick than it deserved, and exuberantly leggy, like a sleek version of Charlotte Greenwood, in “The Story of Lucy and Jessie.” But her finest work has been in Passion, Wonderful Town and Lovemusik.

Jere Shea & Donna Murphy in Passion. (Photo: Joan Marcus)
Passion, which has been preserved in a DVD of the PBS transcription with the original cast, probably isn’t anyone’s favorite Sondheim. The music is prodigious but you don’t feel the urge to revisit it often, and it offers an apology for a kind of love – possessive to the point of suffocation, almost vampiric – that, to put it mildly, isn’t typically the stuff of musical drama, or opera either. It’s Puccini turned neurotic, Emily Brontë without the sweetness that infuses the Heathcliff-Cathy romance before betrayal and revenge infect it. To my mind, though, it’s quite amazing. Along with the first act of Sunday in the Park with George, Passion is Sondheim’s most personal work, and since it’s a full-length one-act he doesn’t have to worry about sustaining it. (Sunday in the Park falls apart in the second act; so does Follies, even in a brilliant production like the Encores! remounting.) In Passion, the romantic is transformed into the baroque. It presents what is perhaps the only kind of love Sondheim can believe in: ugliness turned beautiful by the extent of its commitment – or, put another way, by the reach and grasp of its tentacles. In nineteenth-century Italy, a handsome, educated young Milanese captain, Giorgio (Jere Shea), has to leave his married mistress, Clara (Marin Mazzie), behind when he’s posted to a remote town; starved for culture and cultivated company – he finds the cigar-smoking officers, with their endless gossip and their smugness, intolerable – he takes refuge in his correspondence with Clara. Eventually the chief subject of his letters becomes Fosca (Murphy), the reclusive sister of his colonel (Gregg Edelman), who suffers from some nameless, agonizing disease that seems physical and psychological in equal parts. The doctor (Tom Aldredge) tells Giorgio that her nerve coverings are so thin that she responds to stimuli that other people don’t feel. When Giorgio, out of pity for her, lends her some of the books he’s brought with him, she leaps from gratitude at his kindness and at the thought that the outpost might contain a kindred spirit to a full-out, shameless, embarrassing, uncontrollable love for him.  Instinctually self-protecting, he retreats, but she won’t let him alone. Ultimately, the contrast between Fosca and Clara, who glows with health and beauty and sensuality, turns unexpectedly to Fosca’s advantage. Giorgio realizes that Clara’s bourgeois moderation (she won’t consider leaving her husband for him), which keeps their love affair at a safe remove, is emotionally inferior to Fosca’s desperate, all-consuming passion. Fosca belongs to the grave, but like Cathy in the late stages of Wuthering Heights she holds him fast to her even after death – more potently, in fact, in death than in life.

Like Patti LuPone, Murphy is comfortable with a high degree of stylization, and she gives an expressionistic performance as Fosca. She first appears in silhouette, hunched as she slowly ascends the stairs, grasping the banister. Her eyes are dark and wounded, with deep furrows underneath, and her brows look like miniature clouds. When she speaks she twists up her mouth as if it’s painful to get the words out. She’s all emotion; she holds nothing back, and Giorgio is appalled, even frightened, but also fascinated, hypnotized. She sees through his pity and his efforts at politeness and they wither under her ironies and her accusations; when he speaks to her of the possibility for happiness, she censures him: “You can’t be so naïve.” (Fosca’s life was blighted even before she grew sick. As a young woman, she was betrayed by a husband, a faux count who bled her of her inheritance and turned out to be a bigamist. This part of the narrative, which Sondheim and the book writer Lapine deliver in a flashback, is like a nightmare version of The Heiress in which Catherine marries Morris Townsend and he turns out to be not just a gold digger but an arrogant monster who makes her life hell.) She wants nothing superficial – which means she wants nothing less than all of Giorgio. No wonder he sings to her at one point that he’s begun to fear for his soul.

Jessica Westfeldt & Murphy in Wonderful Town (Photo: Paul Kolnick)
Early on, Fosca sings of the forbidden flower whose sweetness draws in the honeybee, but if it lingers too long at the delicious nectar it falls victim to the poison pooled beneath. Murphy’s portrait of this woman is more complicated: the bitter and the sweet are bewilderingly intermixed, as if unhappy experience and the illness that shrouds her make it impossible for her to see life without anger and, at the same time, render the few fragments of happiness she can wrest from it inexpressibly precious. In terms of style, there may never have been anything quite like what Murphy does here. I’ve seen only one performance in a lifetime of musical playgoing that is even darker and more complex: Tyne Daly’s as Mama Rose in the 1990 Broadway revival of Gypsy (and that’s the greatest performance I’ve ever seen in a musical).

Murphy’s Ruth in Wonderful Town is as at the opposite end of the spectrum. This 1953 musical comedy, with its melodic Leonard Bernstein music and its sharp-witted Comden and Green lyrics, has been rediscovered in recent years, but not nearly enough people came out to see the Kathleen Marshall production, which was as good as her Kiss Me, Kate and Anything Goes. The material started out as a series of stories by Ruth McKinney about the lives she and her kid sister Eileen lived as refugees from Columbus, Ohio in Greenwich Village in the mid-thirties. In the musical, Ruth is an aspiring writer and Eileen an aspiring actress who move into a ramshackle apartment above the subway. Comden and Green supply a lively supporting cast of bohemians, but basically it’s a romantic musical. Eileen (Jennifer Westfeldt, replacing Laura Benanti from the Encores! edition), a pretty blonde given to a guileless flirtatiousness that men tumble into with the same stupid smile on their faces you see on brained predators in Loony Tunes cartoons, balances several suitors; Ruth and the magazine editor Bob Baker (Gregg Edelman) she meets on her second day in New York parry and thrust with each other, screwball comedy-style, before realizing they’re in love. This is a musical version of a pre-war screwball comedy, where the hero and heroine are witty, sardonic sparring partners. Murphy clearly based her performance on Rosalind Russell, who played Ruth on Broadway and again on television, though her model seems to be Russell as Hildy in one of the most sublime of all romantic comedies, Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday, where the man she went the rounds with was Cary Grant. Murphy has big, expressive lips and deep, elongated eyes, and when she sings her mouth stretches out to a seemingly impossible broadness. She employs her tall, sleek frame the way Russell did, to suggest how manly a woman could get – how firm, how tough -- and still be unmistakably a woman. She has high cheekbones and a high forehead but she doesn’t look aristocratic; there’s an Irish peasant quality to her, and the pieces don’t quite fit. She wears Martin Pakledinaz’s big-shouldered suits the way Russell wore similar outfits, and when she sits waiting for an interview, her feet planted apart, her neck forward and alert, she looks ready to take on the world. That survivor’s dukes-up stance and the blend of cynicism and self-deprecation are also quintessentially thirties.

Ruth is a contralto role; it was, after all, written for an actress who wasn’t a singer at all but whose speaking voice was in the lower register, and naturally raucous. Murphy gives her a flattened Midwestern sound that reflects the character’s combination of straight talk and emotional guardedness, though what she really gives it is a squareness, leveled sharply off at the right angles, so that she hits the edge of each of Ruth’s ironies. And there’s nothing flat about her singing. That alto blends sweetly with Westfeldt’s soprano on their duet, “Ohio” (“Why oh why oh why-o / Why did I ever leave Ohio?”), the best known song in the musical. And because Murphy actually has a spectacular upper range, too – I’m not sure, based on the variety of roles she’s sung, that I’d know how to characterize her voice – when she hits the high note at the end of “Swing!,” the moment is glorious. In fact, the whole rendition is:  she gets to scat-sing one section, her barbecued jive sound channeling Satchmo. Every one of her numbers, which include “One Hundred Easy Ways (to Lose a Man)” (Ruth’s chronicle of her romantic misadventures, which all derive from an innate inability to act dumb when she knows she’s smarter than the dodos she dates), “Conga!” and a touching reprise of Bob’s “A Quiet Girl”, is a highlight. Like the mimed accompaniment she enacts to the stories Bob reads aloud from the file she’s left hopefully with him – an imitation Hemingway, an imitation Dos Passos, and one that starts out like imitation John O’Hara and then segues into drawing-room melodrama – “Conga!” brings out a wacky, revue-style, Carol Burnett side. She tries to interview some Brazilian sailors for a freelance magazine assignment, but all they want to do is conga with her. It’s an irresistible number (hilariously staged by Marshall) that’s sheerest thirties, with Ruth the hard-boiled comedienne trying to hold onto her dignity while stuck in the middle of a ridiculous scenario, effortlessly conveying her sense of the absurd, acting the way we all hope we would act in the same situation.

Murphy, Michael Cerveris, & David Pittu (Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Murphy did Wonderful Town for Encores! in 2000 and on Broadway in 2003; Lovemusik arrived in 2007.  The show didn’t hang around very long, and I nearly missed it.  The night I had a ticket to see it, Murphy called in sick, and I decided against driving back to New York to catch another performance. I’m forever grateful to the friend who told me I’d be a fool to miss her in it and made me return another week. The musical is a true curio: a re-enactment by Alfred Uhry of the complicated love affair between Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya, with Weill’s songs forming a Brechtian commentary. (The score consists not only of tunes Weill and Brecht wrote together but also of some of the ones he wrote with other collaborators, in Berlin and in the U.S.) Harold Prince directed Murphy as Lenya, Michael Cerveris as Weill, and David Pittu in a hilarious revue-style turn as a slobby, narcissistic con-man Brecht. It’s the strangest jukebox musical ever written, and easily the most compelling; Uhry’s script is a noble try that doesn’t come off, the production has stiff, unworkable patches, and it’s a little unnerving to see Prince steal from himself, with the help of choreographer Patricia Birch, in bits that recycle “Two Ladies” from Cabaret and “Loveland” from Follies Yet it’s deeply affecting, and far more memorable than less messy and problematic musicals, partly because of the gorgeous music and largely because of the two prodigious starring performances. Bespectacled, his hair swept up and back, with an impeccably layered German accent, Cerveris gets both the square intellectual quality that photos of Weill reveal and the adventurous, exploratory side that explains the role he played in modernism, the vast range of styles he essayed during an astonishing career on both sides of the Atlantic – and his lifelong devotion to a spiky, temperamental woman who’d been a Viennese streetwalker at thirteen and with whom he had an open relationship that never quite satisfied either of them. Cerveris, a superb actor as well as a magnificent singer (he was Sweeney Todd opposite Patti LuPone in the towering John Doyle revival), conveys, especially in the number “That’s Him,” Weill’s mixed attitude – bemused and injured – toward Lenya’s chronic infidelities. (This is the most unexpected take on any of the Weill songs in the production.  It was originally written, by Weill and Ogden Nash, for Mary Martin to sing in the 1943 One Touch of Venus as an explanation of her attraction to the sweet but banal young hero. In Lovemusik, it becomes Weill’s assessment of Lenya’s roving eye for male companions.)

Neither of the stars received the attention they deserved for these performances. Murphy is phenomenal. Her razor-cut hair is a silvery-brown helmet, and she makes her eyes large and doll-like, which gives her face a hard, satiric look – the look of a performer in a Weimar-era Berlin kabarett. (The sets by Beowulf Boritt contain touches of German expressionism.) She rolls her shoulders back and up, swings her legs apart and rests her chin in her hand for an insouciant, tomboy effect. Later, when Lenya becomes famous, she acquires an art-house glamour (she and Marlene Dietrich become rivals), but she never loses that I-dare-you air of bravado, or her irresistible playfulness, especially with her beloved “Weillchen.” When Murphy sings, she pushes her lips out and twists her mouth up on the right side to emphasize her tough, pragmatic, sarcastic quality. You can’t believe this is the same singer you heard in Wonderful Town; she moves into a part of her voice she’s never used before. Her placement is high and the sound is thin, almost tinny – exactly like that of the young Lenya, who didn’t acquire her famous throaty sound until fairly late in her career, around the time she played Jenny again in the off-Broadway production of The Threepenny Opera, more than three decades after she’d debuted it in Germany, and recorded her double album of Weill songs. Murphy would sound shrill if her voice didn’t glisten as it does: the high notes are like sugar frosting. When she sings the ecstatic “Berlin in Light,” one of Weill’s earliest songs, nestled under a big green wool sweater and a cloche hat, she’s a twenties icon; you think of Bessie Love in The Broadway Melody or Nancy Carroll in Laughter. Her whole face is lit up with the excitement of living in Berlin, the modern cosmopolitan dream city. When, already Weill’s lover, she shows up without warning to audition for him and Brecht with their “Whisky Bar Song,” she bounces off the high notes to talk-sing it, slicing knife-like through a line like “I tell you, I tell you, I tell you we must die,” and suddenly you understand what the adjective “Brechtian” means. Judith Dolan’s costumes, superb throughout, are special gifts for Murphy: a blue satin gown with spangles above the waist, a dried-blood tile-print dress over a golden brocade bodice with a gold half-cape like wings. (Murphy uses it sarcastically, holding it at the ends of her fingers like the most absurd toy.)

Several singers have covered “Surabaya Johnny” from Happy End, one of Lenya’s signature numbers. Judy Lander brought it a glittering art-song quality in the early-seventies revue Berlin to Broadway with Kurt Weill, and Bette Midler, who recorded it on her second album, went straight – and triumphantly – for the masochism. It’s a torch song, but what Murphy gets in it is the way in which it’s different from, say, “My Man” or “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man”: the savage fury that sits right behind the wasted, resigned quality. (Jonathan Tunick’s inspired arrangement gives her a lot of help.) She cuts through the glamour while managing somehow to hold onto it, and the sleight of hand takes your breath away.

Donna Murphy as the Witch in Into the Woods, Summer 2012
Even better is “I Don’t Love You,” which she and Cerveris sing together in act one and reprise in act two. This is high comedy – that bittersweet, liqueur-chocolate kind that’s a legacy from Der Rosenkavalier and Arthur Schnitzler’s plays. Cerveris and Murphy get at the depth of Weill and Lenya’s feelings for each other through indirection – through denial – as they alternate taking on the role of the singer who proclaims that their love is dead and invites his lover to provide details of his latest affair. The first time they perform the duet, Cerveris gives his lyric some of the pained irony of “That’s Him,” while Murphy throws hers in his face. The second time she tries for detachment, but even the whiplash phrasing can’t make her declaration that the flame has gone out of their romance convincing. Not long afterwards, Weill admits that he hasn’t been sleeping with a succession of other women while she’s been carrying on with younger men – that there’s been only one woman. Lenya’s devastated, and furious at his dishonesty. (“We are honest or nothing,” she reminds him.  “You know it.”) When she tells him he has to choose, he replies with one of Weill’s loveliest love songs, “It Never Was You” (lyrics by Maxwell Anderson) from Knickerbocker Holiday. He picks up his suitcase and then, abruptly, it spills open as he disappears into the darkness: Weill died suddenly in 1950. In a graceful bit of stage business, Murphy bends over the suitcase, tenderly repacking his clothes as we hear “O Bird of Passage” from Weill’s last completed score, Lost in the Stars.

Murphy’s final song, also from Knickerbocker Holiday, is “September Song,” when George Davis (John Scherer), her homosexual agent, asks her to marry him because, he argues, sexual match or no, they’re good together. (It was Davis who instructed Lenya to reprise her performance as Jenny in Threepenny, a role she felt she was absurdly too old to attempt again. Happily she listened to his advice. It brought her the American stardom that has long eluded her, leading to the Weill album, to the role of Rosa Klebb in To Russia with Love and the role of Fraulein Schneider in the Broadway production of Cabaret.) Murphy sings this celebrated anthem to autumnal romance huddled in a blanket, as an expression of her difficulty in moving on from Weill. The emotional climax arrives at the end of the phrase, “September, November”: she holds the second syllable of “November” for three beats, and it comes out as an anguished cry of love. And then you can feel her let go at last, as Davis joins her on the last two lines.

I’ve spent a long time working through this performance because hardly anyone got to see it, she didn’t win any awards for it, and it, and the show, have been forgotten. It shouldn’t be. Murphy’s portrayal of Lenya deserves to become the stuff of theatrical legend.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and The Boston Phoenix and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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