(by Broadway.com Staff, Mar 22; Photo: The New York Post; via Pam Green.)
March 22 marks Stephen Sondheim’s 90th birthday. It’s impossible to state the great contribution and influences this titan of the stage has made to musical theater, but we’re taking a stab at it by reaching out to some stars who have appeared in his many shows to share their personal experiences.
Donna Murphy may have received her first Tony Award in 1994 for playing the lovesick Fosca in Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s musical Passion, but the two-time Tony winner auditioned for Sondheim three times before that. Her first time was for Into the Woods in 1987. She went in for the Witch and got a callback. “I was too unsettling, too scary, and they were worried about how thin I was,” she recalled with a laugh. That role went to Bernadette Peters. Years later, in 2012, Murphy did play the Witch in Into the Woods at the Public Theater’s Delacorte Theater in Central Park (which also starred Amy Adams, Denis O’Hare, Jessie Mueller and original Broadway cast member Chip Zien). Here, Murphy discusses the profound impact Sondheim had on her life, and the best note he ever sent her.
Describe your first meeting with Sondheim.
My first meeting with Sondheim would be when I auditioned for the original Broadway production for Into the Woods for the Witch. That was ’87. A year later, I was brought in to audition for the Baker’s Wife. I had a great audition reading with Chip Zien. They came back and said, “We’re not gonna go with Donna. We’re gonna go with somebody that Steve and James has worked with.” I never got to speak with Steve. Then, two-and-a-half years later, I auditioned for a production of Merrily We Roll Along at the Arena Stage [in Washington, D.C.]. They originally called me in for Gussie, and I said, “I want to be seen for Mary, too.” I didn’t get either role but the casting director wrote me and said that Steve had gone on and on about my talent saying, “She should be a theater star. I hope the theater doesn’t lose her to television.” I remember what that note meant to me, mostly in terms of him seeing me because I felt like he got what I was doing. My choices, my efforts—that note made it all worth it. The first time I spoke with Steve was when I auditioned for the workshop of Passion. I remember after I sang, “I Read,” he said, “Well that was very nice.” I had really gone for it. I’d been basically Fosca at home for about three days—not washing my hair, not showering, just trying to immerse myself in what I imagined this woman’s life to be like. I remember my husband saying, “Honey, you do not have the job yet. Do I really have to have breakfast with Fosca?” After that, it became a more personal collaboration with Steve during Passion.