Donna Murphy in LoveMusik
(© Joan Marcus)
Donna Murphy in LoveMusik
(© Joan Marcus)
Donna Murphy has been something of a theatrical chameleon, having played a hideous Italian woman, a crisp British governess, a plain-Jane midwestern writer, and a glamorous former showgirl with surprising ease over the past decade-and-a-half. But perhaps no transformation has been as complete -- or as challenging -- as becoming the German actress-singer Lotte Lenya, which is what Murphy is now doing nightly in Harold Prince's LoveMusik at Manhattan Theatre Club at the Biltmore.

When Murphy was first asked last spring to join the long-aborning project -- which covers 30 years in the life of Lenya and her husband, composer Kurt Weill -- she had a slight familiarity with Lenya, especially the middle period of the performer's lengthy career. "I mostly knew her work in the 1950s," says Murphy. "My husband, Shawn Elliott, had once been asked to direct Threepenny Opera in Boston, and we had tracked down the recording of that show from the Off-Broadway version Lenya was in. And I've sung 'Pirate Jenny' a couple of times -- once in this BAM salute to Weill and then at The Public Sings benefit. But I never did it with a German accent."

Indeed, Murphy had some trepidation about taking on the part, which requires singing in Lenya's much reedier upper register for most of the show and talking constantly in Lenya's distinctive accent, especially since the show would open on Broadway without an out-of-town tryout. So she insisted on auditioning for Prince, librettist Alfred Uhry, and co-star Michael Cerveris, over their objections that such a step was unnecessary. "We picked some songs and scenes from both the beginning and the end of the show," she recalls. "I got that feeling in my stomach that's both exciting and scary, which means I had to do it. It was just figuring out how to fit it in."

Eventually, Murphy would find herself juggling more plates than a circus performer. Due to the vagaries of scheduling, Murphy began the enormous emotional preparation for LoveMusik last December -- just as she was also filming an episode of Law & Order: Criminal Intent, preparing a benefit act for the Food Allergy Initiative; doing holiday shopping for her family -- which includes her adopted toddler daughter Darmia -- and starting to work on the City Center Encores! production of Follies, in which she would later triumph as Phyllis Rogers Stone.

"I wanted to start on my dialect work for Lenya right after Christmas, but I was afraid I'd end up singing 'Could I Leave You' with a Viennese accent -- and not a very good one at that," she laughs. "We had a two-week break between the end of Follies and the beginning of rehearsals for LoveMusik and I went into my own mini-rehearsal. The biggest challenge for me was negotiating how to bring the essence of her to the stage, without doing an imitation. I always find the character's speaking voice first; I don't even touch the music until then."

Lenya's voice, especially in the 1920s and 1930s, was something else. "Her voice in the early years was so extreme, it was a little scary," she acknowledges. "When I first heard the recordings from that time, I was shocked. I looked at the keys for the songs, and I thought they meant to sing it an octave down. I've always had those high notes -- I was a first soprano as a kid -- but I'm not a trained legit singer. I didn't start studying vocal technique until I was in my 30s."

The second biggest challenge of LoveMusik has been the numerous costume changes. "I have so many of them that we added another wardrobe person. I never even make it to my dressing room; I'm always running into the wings, and the other day, I smashed my foot into a set piece," she says. "Lenya liked playing with her looks. In 1928, she had five different hairstyles in the same year. At the end of our show, I'm wearing a wig on top of a wig."

Although the show officially opens tonight (May 3), Murphy's already in the thick of the awards hoopla, with Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle, and Drama League nominations -- and a Tony nod sure to come on May 15. "It's sort of inconceivable to me that we're even eligible, and I'm incredibly grateful," says Murphy. Her last go-round in this arena came in 2004, when she received multiple nominations for Wonderful Town (winning the Drama Desk) while still recovering from the vocal problems that caused her to miss numerous performances. "The last time wasn't really fun because of what was going on; but looking back, it prepared me to just enjoy the opportunity to be acknowledged by my peers and keep my blinders on about the stuff that gets yucky. It's nice to be nominated, and really nice to win, but awards are not why I'm there."

Donna Murphy in Follies
(© Joan Marcus)
Donna Murphy in Follies
(© Joan Marcus)
What Murphy truly deserves an award for was her work in Follies, in which she managed to find both the iciness and warmth in the unhappily married Phyllis. "I read Ted Chapin's book on the original production, and Alexis Smith [who played Phyllis] was quoted as saying that she believed Phyllis was the most hopeful character on that stage, and that helped me enormously. She's the one who keeps fighting for her marriage," says Murphy. "The other keys for me were the people on stage with me. I always saw the vulnerability in Ben when I looked into Victor Garber's eyes, so I believed their marriage could work. And when I watched the wonderful actors who played the younger version of our characters, it was so moving to watch their idealistic selves as well as the seeds of the people they became."

For now, all Murphy has of Follies is her memories and the stunning black Bill Blass dress she wore throughout most of the show. "They also offered to give me the red one I wore in the 'Loveland' sequence -- which was made out of a Bill Blass bathing suit -- but I couldn't imagine where I'd wear it again," she says.

Still, talk persists that the show might end up on Broadway again. "I certainly would be interested in going back if some of the cast came back too. It would be nice to do it for more than six performances. And I had no idea how much I loved Phyllis until I began playing her," she says. "But there was a certain magic to that cast and that setting that could never be repeated. And I really don't know how it's possible to do a show as huge as Follies on Broadway today. Only Disney has budgets that big."