Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Big Interview: Julia Murney

Broadway star Julia Murney is currently preparing to make her UK solo concert debut.

She will play two shows at the London Hippodrome on Monday 2nd November 2015 at 8pm and 11pm, with the late night performance featuring duets with to-be-announced West End stars. 

Julia made her New York theatre debut in 2000 when she created the role of Queenie in Andrew Lippa's musical The Wild Party at the Manhattan Theatre Club. The cast also included Brian d'Arcy James, Idina Menzel and Taye Diggs.

She famously starred as Elphaba in Wicked, first playing the role when she took over from Stephanie J Block in the first U.S. tour. Following a six month run, Julia transferred to the Broadway production where she played Elphaba for nine months to huge acclaim. Her final performance took place in October 2007.

On Broadway Julia has starred as Florence in Chess In Concert (New Amsterdam) and as Julia in Lennon (Broadhurst), whilst her New York stage credits also include: The Vagina Monologues, Saved, Falling, The Landing, Crimes Of The Heart, A Class Act, Time And Again and Queen Of The Mist.

Julia's regional theatre credits include playing Princess Fiona in Shrek The Musical, the title character in Evita, Cathy in The Last Five Years, The Baker's Wife in Into The Woods, Mother in Ragtime and Mrs Walker in Tommy. She released her debut album I’m Not Waiting in 2006 and has subsequently performed in concerts around the globe.

On screen Julia has appeared in: Brothers and Sisters (ABC), 30 Rock (NBC), Sex and the City (HBO), Law & Order (NBC), Ed (NBC), Law & Order: Criminal Intent (NBC), NYPD Blue (ABC), Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (NBC), Ghost Town (Dreamworks) and One Life To Live (ABC).

I recently spoke to Julia, through the wonders of Skype, about why she’s so excited to sing in London for the very first time, what she learnt from starring in The Wild Party and why she turned down Elphaba when she was originally offered the role. We also discussed what people can expect from her London shows, how incredible Imelda Staunton is in Gypsy and her love for Shoshana Bean plus much, much more…

What was your initial reaction when you were asked about the possibility of flying over to London to do a couple of concerts?
Well my initial reaction to solo concerts is always, “Oh no I can’t” because I find them very overwhelming and anxiety inducing. So that was my first reaction [laughs], but my second reaction was, “Oh my gosh, I’ve never sung in London”! I spent a semester in London when I was at college, I have a special place for London in my heart so I was so honoured that they asked! My third reaction was, “Oh no, now I have to figure out what I’m going to do” [laughs}… but I think I’ve figured it out now.

So what can we expect? 
It’s very… not thematic – there is a mix. My concerts tend to be stuff I like to sing. Because I’ve never sung in London before I’m going to be singing things that I’ve done before in the States. Oddly I’m doing three solo concerts in New York towards the end of November and I haven’t done one in New York for about three years so I feel like I have to do new things because you can’t keep doing the same stuff over and over again. But I can do more of the old stuff in London because nobody will have seen me do it before.

Any clues..?
Ummm, there will certainly be a little bit of Wild Party… and a wee bit of Wicked, although not the way you expect. There will be some things that are on my album and then the rest is stuff I’ve gathered over the years.

For the late night show you will be joined by some to-be-announced West End stars. Don’t give anything away, but are you excited about some of the names floating around?
I’m totally excited!! If I’m perfectly honest I’m not even sure yet who’s joining me [laughs], so we can all be very excited together! I sort of have a wish list, but I know one of the people on that list is already no longer available – I was like ‘Arrrrghhhh’! It’s the next thing I’m working on, which also means that I have to figure out what duets to sing. I have some American friends who are over there and I’m pretty sure they will be joining me…

Do you find it more nerve-wracking to step out on stage as yourself or as a character?
I definitely find performing as myself more nerve-wracking. When you’re in a show you have a character you can infuse, but it’s also a character you can hide behind and someone else tells you what to say, what to sing and what to do. Whereas with these concerts you’re more on your own! Shoshana (Bean) for example, who is a friend of mine, has worked up her solo magic so much over the years that I feel like it’s so easy for her. She’s like “Sure I’ll do one!” whereas I’m more like “Ahhhhhhh” [laughs]. I love watching Shoshana do her thing, she floors me and I love her so much. I definitely like the part where you’re pretending to be someone else.

Julia as Elphaba
The Hippodrome is a beautiful venue, do you like having that intimacy with your audience?
That part can be intimidating, but I try and use it to my advantage - if something’s going on in the audience I’ll talk about it whereas when you’re in a show you’ll see someone videotaping you or something… but obviously you can’t call them out whilst you’re singing ‘Defying Gravity’ [laughs]. With this type of venue you can totally make fun of people and bring them into it. I was in London a few weeks ago and got to see the venue, it’s so pretty so I’m even more excited!

Did you catch any shows whilst you were over here?
I saw Gypsy! Imelda Staunton is insane! I mean… it was so interesting because in the scene leading up to ‘Everything’s Coming Up Roses’ when she suddenly turned her attention to Louise and said “Now I’m going to make you a star” the whole audience – except for me and my friend who is American – gasped! We were thinking, ‘Do you really not know that’s what happens in the play?’

It hasn’t been done over here for a very, very long time!
It also made it very exciting because it meant everyone was completely paying attention, and then during that number Rose kind of goes for Louise’s throat and I was like ‘whoa’. She was tremendous!

What are your plans for when you come back to London?
I would love to see Miss Saigon and I would actually love to teach some masterclasses. That would be really fun so I’m throwing it out there! I do them in the States all the time.

Right, I want to mention a little show that you might have heard of called Wicked…
[squeals] I know that one [laughs]!

So I was just doing my research and discovered that you actually auditioned for Elphaba first time around and sat in a waiting room with Idina Menzel and a bunch of other actresses, some of whom also went on to become Wicked legends. What was that like? Did you have any idea that the show could possibly go on to revolutionise musical theatre?
Well first of all no one ever knows what’s going to revolutionise anything. I think everyone likes to think that their show will do it, but you literally never know. Think about Lin-Manuel Miranda saying, “I’m going to write a hip hop musical about Alexander Hamilton so start lining up at the box office”. That show (Hamilton) is so insanely good, but I’m sure he had no idea what the show was going to achieve (it’s currently the hottest ticket on Broadway). 

That being said, before I auditioned for Wicked I had already read the novel years earlier and loved it. I had also already worked with Stephen Schwartz (Wicked’s composer) so it was one of those jobs that when I didn’t get it I certainly mourned not getting it because it seemed so special. But then I find you have to recalibrate in your heart because as much as I wanted it, my wonderful friend Idina booked it – and I definitely wasn’t mad at her, I was so excited for her! You have to sit down, cry for a night and eat some ice cream… and then go to opening night and cheer your friend on, and that’s exactly what I did. 

What are you memories of that evening?
At the end of act one Idina is in the air and, because it’s opening night the audience are hyper, she’s singing her face off whilst everyone is going bananas and I remember just sitting there thinking, ‘I don’t even know if I could do that! God bless her because I’m so glad it’s her and not me! Oh my gosh!’ Even when they eventually offered me the show I said “no”. 

Yes – at that point I was really intimidated. I was like, “Noooooo. Thank you, you’re very nice but no.”

But then they talked you round?
Yes, they talked be round and it’s good that they did because it has changed my life. 

When you accepted the role were you aware of the impact it would have on the rest of your career?
Oh yes, I knew it was going to be a life-changing thing before I even sang a note just because at that point it had got so big. [jokingly sings] ‘I have been changed…’ that song is no lie!

Julia as Elphaba
What’s it like to look back at your time in the show? I find watching Wicked exhausting; I can’t even begin to imagine what it is like to play Elphaba eight times a week.
I’ll say this – I did it as many times as I could… and most of the women you will find can’t do it eight times a week. It’s just too hard. We ended up finding out that I had a very serious sinus infection which I had surgery for after I left the show. Before we realised what it was I just got sick all the time, I couldn’t stop getting sick so there were shows where I had to just say, ‘I can’t do it. I literally can’t make the sounds that are necessary for this show’. It was very frustrating because all you want to do is your job. I never, ever called out lightly. So when I look back I do think about how sick I was [laughs]. 

The truth is that when you’re not sick it’s the greatest – you get to be a rockstar! The show is so popular that the audience walk in already loving it, you usually don’t have to win them over because they think it’s the greatest thing they’re ever going to see. If you can just do your job then you can all have a really great party! You just have to get over the anxiety of, ‘Oh god, oh god, oh god this is really hard to sing!’ It makes it rough because when you get a role like that you want to be able to play it every single time you’re allowed because it’s so special and such an honour.

It’s such a big deal to have played that role. Have you learned to embrace that it will always follow you?
You have to embrace it. I do symphony concerts and I have gotten to go all over the world. Last year I went and did a symphony concert in Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, and I got to do it mostly because those people wanted to hear ‘Defying Gravity’ [laughs]. I was like ‘Do they even know what that song is?’ But believe me, they did! You have to embrace it because of what it has afforded me as a person and the adventures it has taken me on. I have been all over the country and, sure, maybe when I’m done they’re glad they saw me sing all the other songs I sing when I do a concert, but the thing that got me there to begin with is Wicked. The Wild Party is a very subversive show that musical theatre freaks know about, but the general public don’t, whereas they do know about Wicked.

Well talking of The Wild Party, a lot of freaky musical theatre people are obsessed with it over here…
Ahh I’m so glad!

…especially as it has never been staged properly in London! It really is such a legendary show in the theatre world; people are obsessed with those songs! What was that experience like?
That experience was completely life changing because it was the first big thing I had done in New York and they took a chance on me. To have that responsibility and to have a show written on you – because it was written on me over the course of about four years – is the best. You feel a certain ownership and you just feel it in your bones and in your vocal cords that you know how to negotiate it. I LOVED that cast so much – this is the same for Wicked as well – I felt like the cast and crew had my back, in the same way that I had theirs. It’s a hard job for anybody, it doesn’t matter if you’re the green witch or the third monkey from the left – you still have to show up and do your show… sometimes there is just more pressure on one person on a given night. You want to feel like it’s a cohesive group, not like ‘I’m the star and you’re in the ensemble’. The Wild Party taught me that.

Julia & Taye Diggs in The Wild Party

Originally, the whole idea was that the show was going to move to Broadway and be a big thing… but then it didn’t. Obviously that was deeply disappointing, but we got the great gift of making the album and the album is the reason that the show lives. Every university in the States does that show. I learned that although it was disappointing the show didn’t move to Broadway, it wasn’t a failure because all these years later it still means so much to me. 

Ok I have a stagey question for you. I’m sending you to a desert island and you can take three musical theatre songs with you. What are you going to take and why?
Just songs? Not even the whole album?!

Nope, just three songs!
Andrew, you are devastating! Ummm, ‘Move On’ from Sunday in the Park with George. It would perhaps give me some notion that I was going to be rescued at some point! Plus then I would have some Mandy Patinkin in there which is always good [laughs]. 

Let’s see… I would take something from Dreamgirls because it’s my favourite! Which one? Oddly it might be 'Ain't No Party' because when I was a child that show was on Broadway and I would go and see the second act all the time – it was when you could sneak in to shows during intermission and second act them! My friends and I second acted Dreamgirls a number of times, and that song is in the second act. I only saw ‘And I Am Telling You’ the one time I saw the whole show, but I saw 'Ain't No Party' many, many times. Loretta Devine, who created the role of Lorell, is everything and she was so good! We would be standing in the back of the orchestra (aka the stalls) and you could see all these business people suddenly get their soul on and be like ‘That’s right!’ because she was so good. 

I love that story! And your last one?
Oh no… it’s so devastating having to pick! How does anyone pick?! Maybe I need something wild? I don’t want to pick something from The Wild Party because I wouldn’t want to listen to myself [laughs], I couldn’t bear that! Although I would pick something so I could have the other people who were in the show with me. Maybe I’ll go for something from In The Heights! I know a lot of those people and love them very much. That music gets me going! Maybe ‘96,000’, I’ll go with that!

You’ve got a good three there!
I’m literally sweating [laughs]! 

Finally, what’s next for Julia Murney? More concerts, another album…?
The answer is yes [laughs]. I would love to do another album, although they’re expensive. A very good piece of advice that I was given before I made my first album from the owner of the label was “Wait until you’re in something that you can sell it at”. So as soon as I knew I was doing Wicked we ran into the studio and made it which was great because I was able to sell the album in the lobby. But yes, I would love to do another album. I’m doing my first solo shows in New York in three years at the end of November. I would really love to do more television – I just kind of want to do everything! I haven’t done a show in a while so really want to do a show. I just filmed a Kander and Ebb concert for PBS which is a network over here. It’s going to be on in November, so that was fun!

This is the tricky part because you don’t often know what’s coming. It becomes both liberating and deeply frustrating because you just don’t know what you’re going to do! I’m always like ‘hmmm can I take that vacation or can I not take that vacation?’ Sometimes I just go ‘I’m taking the vacation, sorry!’ 

You can come back to London anytime!
Well if the London concerts go well maybe I’ll get to come back! I would love that so much! I would love to do… like… a proper show in London! I’ll take some West End or some Donmar or some Chocolate Factory… [jokingly does British accent] I love the Menier Chocolate Factory! 

Thank you so much Julia!
No worries, thank you!

Interviewed by Andrew Tomlins (Editor)

Julia Murney plays the London Hippodrome on Monday 2nd November 2015 at 8pm and 11pm. Click here to book tickets.

Read our interviews with other Broadway Elphabas including Eden EspinosaShoshana BeanJennifer DiNoia, Kerry Ellis and Rachel Tucker

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