INTERVIEW: Donna Murphy Walks Into the Woods

The Tony Award winner discusses playing the Witch in the Public Theater’s new production of the beloved Stephen Sondheim musical.

Donna Murphy
(© Tristan Fuge)
Donna Murphy
(© Tristan Fuge)

Two-time Tony Award winner Donna Murphy has spent some time away from the stage, but she has kept very busy in the past year, filming both Todd Solondz’s Dark Horse, now rolling out in theaters, and the sure-to-be-blockbuster The Bourne Legacy, which opens next month, as well as the CBS-TV pilot Made in Jersey, which has been ordered to series.

However, Murphy has finally returned to theater — and in her dream role, no less — as the Witch in the Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park production of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine‘s Into the Woods, to run July 24-August 25 at the Delacorte Theatre. TheaterMania recently spoke with Murphy about this remarkable production.

THEATERMANIA: You actually auditioned to play the Witch in the original Broadway production 25 years ago. What is it like finally getting to do the show?
DONNA MURPHY: It’s thrilling to be working with these directors, this design team, and this company. A lot of what this show is about now coincides with my life experience: being a mother, being a stepmother; I recently lost a parent. Of course, the music has been in my consciousness for a long time. I’ve sung “Children Will Listen” in concerts and sang “Last Midnight” for my audition for Tangled.

TM: This production is based on the one that director Tim Sheader (who is co-directing with Liam Steel) did in London last year. How similar is it?
DM: When I first met with Tim, he asked me what I thought of what they did in London, which I saw on tape. I told him it was great, and then he said “I’m not satisfied with that, I want to take it further,” and asked me for my ideas. There are very strong concepts here. We’re really exploring who all these people are, what their needs are, and how high the stakes are for each of them. As for the Witch, we’re looking into her back story and her journey. And we’re doing her physical transformation in a new way. We know there’s a certain expectation for people who have seen the show before, and we’re trying to fulfill that in some way and still do something interesting. I love that we’re still working our way inside these concepts, yet finding our own voices.

TM: Have you had any direct advice from Stephen Sondheim?
DM: I’ve talked to him very little. He came to the first day of rehearsal and told me he was happy I was doing the show. It’s hard, because every time I see him, I want to spend hours talking to him. I’ve been communicating more with James and with our musical director, Paul Gemignani, and I sometimes get messages through them. I did have a question about an adjustment in a song that I mentioned to Paul, and he said Stephen said “Tell Donna to do whatever she wants.” I took that as a great vote of confidence.

TM: The Witch is another of your roles, much like Fosca in Passion or Lotte Lenya in LoveMusik, which requires you to look ugly on stage. Does that bother you in any way

DM: No. I am a very vain person in real life. I like to look put together and pretty, but that is trumped by the chance to play interesting women. Some of them are attractive and some are not. And I love the opportunity for transformation in a character. And the truth is, my face is an in-between type, which originally was a liability in this business. People think I originally auditioned for a stepsister in the original Into The Woods. In fact, when I did Passion, it was the first time in my life I heard so many people make reference to me being attractive. I was afraid I was failing.

TM: What can you tell me about working with Amy Adams, who plays The Baker’s Wife?
DM: She is a very smart, really funny person, with an incredible work ethic, and she sings beautifully. She is also very accessible as a company member. And she definitely has her own take on The Baker’s Wife and she and Denis O’Hare (who plays the Baker) communicate beautifully.

TM: You have worked with Denis before. Are you enjoying sharing the stage with him again?
DM:. He is also incredibly smart, and always present. Denis takes nothing for granted. He asks interesting questions and doesn’t pursue the obvious, but not just for the sake for being different. And we really have fun together.

TM: This is your first show at the Delacorte since The Mystery of Edwin Drood in 1985. Are you excited to be back?
DM: Absolutely! I have been asked to do a couple of the Shakespeare plays over the years, but it didn’t work out. I think it’s my favorite place to see theater. I went a few weeks ago to see As You Like It, which was such a beautiful production, and just feeling the energy of the audience I had such anticipation of being back on that stage. I got very moved by it.

TM: What is it going to be like doing a musical and filming Made in Jersey at the same time?
DM: It will be doable, but the person it’s going to be hardest on is me. Right now, my big concern is when I can get my roots touched up, because it matters for Darlene, my character on the TV show; she’s a very put-together woman. The people at CBS have been very cooperative and respectful with my schedule, because they knew about my commitment to Into the Woods. But this series is exactly what I wanted: an ensemble show, based in New York City, so I don’t have to spend too much time away from my daughter. It’s hard enough being away from her doing Into the Woods. I’ll really just have to take each day as it comes.

Featured In This Story

Into the Woods

Closed: September 1, 2012