Julia Murney is one of the most in-demand musical theater actresses going today. Notable career highlights include the tour and the Broadway run of Wicked as well as the Off-Broadway show The Wild Party, where she introduced the amazing Raise the Roof.
D.C. cabaret audiences can thank Murney everytime they hear a local performer do a song by Susan Werner, since it was Murney’s mention of the song on her Jeff Blumenkrantz podcast that inspired my interest in Werner’s work and subsequent dissemination.
Murney is one of the amazing cast of the show First You Dream, a tribute to the music of Kander and Ebb, currently at Signature Theater. (Don’t dawdle, the show only runs through September 27th!) And she has a terrific CD, I’m Not Waiting.
1. Please describe a “perfect” performance experience that you’ve had.
There have been moments when, just sort of everything clicks and you’re feeling well and the audience is digging it. I’ve had it a few times during Wicked. I’ve had it the first performance that we did (I think it was the first preview performance) of The Wild Party where the thing that you’re not sure you’re going to be able to pull off comes to fruition. And the people you’re doing it for all respond in a kind manner. And that’s pretty amazing. It doesn’t necessarily matter if the audience is of 2,000 or even 2. Because, I will say the most recent I can think of is when we ran through the show I’m doing here at the Signature for the first time. When we did the whole thing and we did it for John Kander, we were just in a room and it was for John and a few of the technical people and I said “If we never did this show again, I would be happy.” Cause we did it for John, and I do not have enough words to describe this man. He is just so magnificent and so kind and made us feel like we had honored his work. And so if it’s an audience of two or an audience of two thousand, it doesn’t entirely make a difference.
2. What is a recent song you’ve been struggling with? Have you won yet?
Hmmmm, let’s see. Certainly the songs — I would say, in this show because it’s the one I’m on right now — there are a few of them! Just last night, I took a poll after the show, saying, “OK, I have a poll for you guys (throughout the cast) – so you get out on stage and you start singing a song that’s kind of quiet (i.e. I do this song from The Act called The Money Tree) and I have a giant piece of phlegm on my vocal chords. And what do you do?” It’s quiet… there’s no time for me to go “Ach-chem” to get it out of there… It’s a very interesting thing, because my phlegm holds on. (I’m sure this is really what your people want to hear!) My phlegm … when it gets kicking, is really quite muscular. So that one, it wasn’t my best Money Tree last night, let’s say.
But songs like that – When I did Wicked for a year and a half and constantly was in a battle with the big songs in that show. More so, The Wizard and I simply because it’s the first one out of the gate, and it’s not a warm-up. It’s a full-out assault, and some nights you just nailed it and I thought, “Yeah, that’s what I meant to do!” and some nights I’m just “Oooh, I’m sorry, would you all like your money back?” To answer your question, the most recent would be The Money Tree and I would say perhaps I wrestled it to the ground a few evenings and a few nights it’s done the same to me!
… I did a concert at Feinstein’s in New York this spring, …and I sang Maria from West Side Story, and I will say that I give props to any tenor who has to sing that song ! It is a hard song! And as a female I had never attempted to sing it before. It is a killer song ! … And people look at a song like The Wizard and I and go, “Oh, it’s just FUN and BELTING !” And no, it takes just a little bit of doing to figure it out. It doesn’t just lie there and let you ride, you have to figure it out!
3. The relationship between a singer and the musical director really is a “cabaret marriage.” What are the keys to making the marriage work? And for the times you need to work with a surrogate, what are the steps you take to get quickly on the same page?
I would say that the key to making a marriage work between a singer and an MD is not unlike making a marriage work in real life — communication ! You have to feel free to say your desires and you have to be open enough to shut your mouth and listen to them, and then find your mid-line. I’ve been really lucky and gotten to work with some amazing music directors. David Loud is our music director on the First You Dream concert. And he’s… I’ve known him for years and years, and he is a treat beyond treats. And he knows what he wants, but he doesn’t bully you into it. He also knows what John wants, because he’s worked with John Kander for so long, so you trust that what he’s bringing you – and John will tell you for his own self, when he hears it – but you can trust what he’s bringing you is John’s philosophy, if you can call it that. And David is so open, and there’s also a part of David… in one of the songs in the show he’s like, “Oh, oh, what if you go up to that really high note?” and I’m “Yeah, that’s not gonna happen. That might happen in a recording, but it’s not gonna happen eight shows a week, not on your life!” But his arrangements are so stunning. And as a singer he’s an inspiring conductor. And wonderful guy called Jon Kalbfleisch is our conductor here, but he (David Loud) would conduct us in all the rehearsals in New York and his face just becomes so beautiful and ethereal and you (think), “Oh, he wants that ethereal floaty sound” and you all go into a harmony chord that is so reflective of what is in his heart, and that’s really cool.
And I got to work with Stepheh Oremus, and he’s the music supervisor of Wicked (and he did All Shook Up and Avenue Q) and before he was fancy he did The Wild Party. So, I’ve known him from way long ago and he’s a treat and he’s a real rocker. And Tom Kitt is a dreamboat of a human and of a musician. So I’ve been super, super lucky.
But I do think you have to communicate and it’s taken me a long time to feel brave enough to say what I want. Because my initial reaction, every time I learn a song for the first time is “I can’t do that.” Every single time. Sometimes I’m proven correct. Most times I’m just freaking out. Sometimes they just play psychologist as much as they play the piano.
4. What is a particular image that you can rely on to be an effective sense memory when you’re performing?
I find — I remember even college — I remember a teacher saying… one of our students got up and sang Empty Chairs at Empty Tables from Les Miz and brought up an image for himself that was so intense that he crossed over and couldn’t sing anymore. And he was gone… Bringing things in the direct sight-lines of your life may be difficult if you can’t control them, cause you’re not any good to anyone if you’re just crying, and you can’t sing. Cause I can’t cry and sing at the same time, really. Some people have that little mechanism to go all crazy. So it’s more… I try to take images from my life, and take the blurry outsides of them so I’m not looking straight inside the image, so I can control it a little more.
Although there is in First You Dream, in the top of Act II, there’s this trio that David Loud … put together for the women called At the Movies… (Isn’t that beautiful, and aaaah, we love singing it.) And so every night for that I’m watching a different movie, and that’s kind of fun. (One) night, because Patrick Swayze passed, I watched Dirty Dancing. But last night I watched Groundhog’s Day. I have no reason why … Before Act II starts, I don’t go “Tonight, I’m gonna watch…”I just sit down there, and whatever image comes up first, that movie wins… It’s pretty random, but it’s fun.
5.How do you deal with being a brand?
That’s a tricky question, I will say. I don’t know how much of a “brand” I am. I know there’s maybe 27 fans out there who care about what I’m up to. But being in a show like Wicked, which is an extraordinary thing, much bigger than itself now, certainly makes you much more of a brand than when you started. And I vacillate between wanting to be out there and not wanting to be seen, in a way. And Heidi Blickenstaff is in my show and she was saying “Sometimes I don’t want anybody to look at me” which is an odd statement coming from an actor, but I knew exactly what she was talking about.
For five years I had one Website page that said “currently under construction.” And that was a lie. There was no construction. I would just think, “Oh, god. I don’t want to make a Web site! Who cares? What am I going to put in there? Oh, she’s doing another benefit??!!” It was just silly.
And then I spoke to a few people and we talked about the notion of being able to somewhat control your own image which is difficult in this era of bootlegging and YouTube and all of this stuff. And it came to a point where I was even asked to do some concerts and people would ask “Do you have any tape of you singing, any live tape?” and I would say, “Yeah, you can go to YouTube, but if you don’t like the first thing you see please keep on clicking cause there are 500 things.” And I tell you what, some of the things that are posted up there, are awful, awful. I’m sick, my voice is busted. Whatever it is. And it’s disturbing. Frankly it’s disturbing that the kids (I call them “the kids” frankly for lack of anything better to call them)… the people who post them don’t care. And what they don’t care to absorb that what they’re taping isn’t meant to be taped. It’s not staged to be taped, it’s not lit to be taped, and you’re not supposed to see just this two-minute clip. You’re supposed to see it as part of this whole theatrical experience. And I think there are a lot of things that you don’t pick up on when you’re sitting in an audience, that obviously, if you peruse the same clip over and over and over again, you’re going to pick out.
And it’s hard, on the one hand, brandwise, to get back to your question – I never would have received fan letters from people in Croatia, which I have. Amazing! And people in Singapore. And people in Australia. That’s because of YouTube, plain and simple. … But it’s also hard because for me the key to YouTube (because I check YouTube to see what has gone up there) and it is illegal. My position on it is I know it’s gonna be done but you’d better hide that light (on the recording device) because if I see the light, I’m gonna try to bust you. If I don’t see the light, then I don’t know. We came out last night at the top of the show and as soon as we came out after the first number we all looked at each other said “did you see that?” And it wasn’t a camera. We had house management go check and it was someone’s Blackberry in their shirt pocket and there’s a light on it. It blinks intermittently. But it’s distracting. And it’s distracting when you’re walking – you saw our set – when you’re walking down a steep staircase. Or it’s distracting when you’re trying to remember all your lyrics. I don’t know how many times I went up in the levitator during Wicked at the end of Act I and I would see 3 or 4 cell phones flip open because it was time to record the girl going up in the levitator. And oh, come on, I can see you! It’s a pitch black house and a bright blue light, and I can see you. That part is hard. To be distracted by it …
And the trick with YouTube is not to go to the comments section. Because as lovely as some people can be, Wow, some of them can be so mean. And I’m not unaware of a lot of the mean things that are said. And it’s hard. I don’t have a rhinoceros skin. I’m not more confident than anybody else. I’m certainly not any more confident than some 17 year old who’s judging me from wherever he lives. And it’s hard. You want to go, “Oh dude, c’mon, be nice.”
+1 You’ve done a lot of workshops of new shows and have introduced a lot of material. What tips do you have about working with songwriters and being the first performance of material?
Well, I think it’s a combination thing of letting them hear what it is they’ve written and giving them the chance to hear where it works and where it doesn’t. But also within that I’ve had some times, and I’ve certainly gotten better at this since years have gone by, where something will be written in a key that is exceedingly high, and I just don’t sing like that. I don’t want to sing like that anymore. It’s too high – the children can do that. Leave that for the kids. … So I’ll say so. And I have to say that any writer worth their salt will listen to a singer going “This is too much.” It sort of falls into the category of “just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.” Can I high-mix you an F? Yeah! Do people want to hear that? Not over and over and over again! Yes, there is a faction of people – my agent all the time – I’m like, “I don’t want to sing all the …” (and the agent interrupts) “But I want you to!”
It’s hard! Wicked took a toll on me physically for all the joy that it brought me – and it did bring me a great deal of joy and I loved … doing that show can be so rewarding, and the cast was awesome and the crew was fabulous – but it also took such a mental toll on me and my health and stuff. That after singing that for a while it’s like “Oh, gosh, I’m exhausted!” And one week of rest is not going to fix it!
This Kander and Ebb show is a real bear, especially for the women to sing. And that’s how they wrote. They wrote for the women to just let loose. And it’s that combo platter! It’s very similar to Wicked. I love Stephen Schwartz; I’ve known Stephen Schwartz for years; and I wanted to make him proud; I wanted to make him pleased. In the same way that I want to make John Kander pleased. John Kander! Because he’s fancy-pants. Because he’s the grandfather you want! I’d marry him.
So at the same time you’re trying to figure out how to negotiate your way through a show so you can do it eight times a week. And how to do it healthfully and intelligently. But you also want to be able to just let it rip. So it’s a constant negotiation!