A few friends who listened to the latest episode of our podcast told me that they weren't familiar with Donna Murphy - the friend who joined us to read poems from our high school literary magazine. (Hear the episode here.).
So I decided to take action. I went on the Youtubes and searched for Donna Murphy. And what I found there… yowzer.
Until now, I’d never studied Donna’s work – mostly because I wanted to be a friend, not a fan. So, even though I’d been to many of her shows, I didn’t really have a sense of the scope.
But these clips reminded me: Our pal's talent isn't earthly -- it's sort of interstellar. Not just the versatility and power of her singing, and the athletic feats of her dancing. What really got me is the precision. A tiny gesture – a flick of the finger, a blink of the eye, a slight catch in the voice -- conveys about a novel’s worth of information.
And the range. If you heard the podcast, you know that just the sound of Donna's voice can make us laugh. But, man, onstage, she takes it to a whole other level. When she was in Hello Dolly on Broadway, that eating scene in the courtroom made me laugh till it hurt a little. (Donna's response: "Oh, I've got to use that for promotion. 'Her performance made me sick!'") But Donna can also break your heart. Profound sadness. Deep, deep sadness. And sometimes, amazingly, a mix of laughs and sadness in the same moment.
If you think I’m just prejudiced in favor of a friend, don’t trust me. You can see and hear it for yourself. I've listed my Top 10 favorite Donna Murphy videos below. And in case you want more, I made a larger playlist – which you can watch on Youtube.
1. Could I Leave You
from the Stephen Sondheim 80th Birthday Tribute, 2011
A few years ago, my friend BT McNicholl -- the world's most reliable source about theater -- called me and said, "Stop what you're doing. Go on Youtube right now, and watch your friend sing this song. It is a Master Class in how a song should be performed. Absolutely perfect." So I did. And yup, BT was right. Donna's voyage in this song from outer calm to inner fury is something I can't forget.
2. One Hundred Easy Ways
from Wonderful Town, Broadway, 2003
After I saw Donna in Wonderful Town, I went backstage and told her, "That show was SO funny. I screamed with laughter!" Donna rolled her eyes and said, "So I heard." Oops. (In case you ever wondered, it's now clear that onstage actors CAN hear an obnoxious laugher.) Anyway, it's no wonder that Donna was nominated for a Tony Award and won the Drama Desk Award and the Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Actress in this show. I still can't watch this song without laughing. And lucky for Donna, she doesn't have to hear me.
3. Surabaya Johnny
from LoveMusik, Broadway, 2007
When Cindy and I saw LoveMusik on Broadway, I turned to her and said, "Is Donna on vacation tonight?" But then we realized. It had to be Donna -- she had just totally transformed herself to the extent that we couldn't see the person we knew. We loved LoveMusik, which is about the love affair between German songwriter Kurt Weill and singer Lotte Lenya. Especially, we loved Donna's rendition of this totally twisted Brecht and Weill song about a sadistic love affair. When she sings, "No one's meaner than you," it's so extreme that it's funny and heartbreaking at the same time.
Can't embed this one. So.... Watch Surabaya Johnny in my playlist on Youtube
4. Getting to Know You
from The King and I, Broadway, 1996
Because Donna won the Tony Award for Best Actress for playing Anna in The King and I, this is one of her best-known performances. But I never knew till I saw this clip that she also performed this song in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. How cool is that? Another surprise: The way (in a different scene) she managed to dance the polka in a hoop skirt that was about 15-feet in diameter. Not only did she make it look easy, but man, she and Lou Diamond Phillips made that into one romantic Broadway moment.
Can't embed this one. So... Watch Getting to Know You in my playlist on Youtube
5. Loving You
from Passion, Broadway, 1994
Once again, Donna looked and sounded like a completely different person as she transformed herself into a plain-looking woman consumed by unrequited love for a handsome man. She won her first Tony Award for Best Actress for that feat. This highly acclaimed show didn't quite click with me -- probably too subtle for the heavy-handed style of my brain. But the intensity and the restraint of Donna's performance in this song -- this calls up some very deep emotions that really get to me.
Can't embed this one. So... Watch Loving You in my playlist on Youtube
6. Mother Knows Best
from the movie Tangled, 2010
Even though Donna plays the villainous character Mother Gothel in this animated Disney update of Rapunzel, she makes this song so much fun that it has more than 6 million views on Youtube. If you haven't seen the movie, don't wait to use your offspring as an excuse to watch. Just go for it.
Can't embed this one. So... Watch Mother Knows Best in my playlist on Youtube
7. The Nanny Diaries
a scene from the movie, 2007
I get a kick out of seeing Donna in all kinds of roles in movies and on TV -- Octavius's love interest in Spider-Man 2, Anij in Star Trek Insurrection, Mrs. Astor in HBO's The Gilded Age. Unfortunately, there's no Youtube clip of one scene that really stuck with me -- a very upsetting moment in a movie called Higher Ground, where Donna plays a character who is all dolled up to go out before a violent confrontation with her husband. But I did find this clip from another movie, The Nanny Diaries, where Donna plays the mom of a New York City nanny (Scarlett Johansson), and they make it easy to feel the intensity of their relationship.
8. Dark Horse
trailer for the movie, 2011
Donna appears only very briefly in the trailer for this indie film directed by Todd Solondz (Welcome to the Dollhouse). But I'm including it with the hope that it'll entice you to watch this really appealing -- and quirky -- movie, with Selma Blair, Christopher Walken and Mia Farrow. Donna is intriguing as the mousy secretary Marie who has a rather dramatic makeover later in the movie. But... I watched the entire film without realizing -- till I saw the credits -- that Donna was in it. That's how much she transformed herself. Wow.
9. HIt Me With a Hot Note
from the TV series What About Joan?, 2000
On Joan Cusack's TV series, Donna plays Dr. Ruby Stern who is afraid to perform in public on an open mic night -- and then, well, she kinda lets loose. That's entertainment.
10. Hello Dolly!
from Hello Dolly, Broadway, 2017
Youtube offers only a bad recording with no video -- just a photo -- to commemorate Donna's performance as Dolly a few times a week on the nights that Bette Midler was off during the 2017 Broadway run. If you're patient enough to turn up the volume and listen, you might pick up the theater-bursting joy of this performance. The night I saw it, the song was interrupted three times by the audience standing and screaming their approval. It felt so good to be there -- one of my happiest nights in a Broadway theater. Listening now, I can see in my mind Donna's precise comic timing and her extremely deft dance movies -- and I feel happy all over again.
Can't embed this one. So... Watch Hello Dolly in my playlist on Youtube
Okay, enough of that. Now I'm gonna forget everything you just read. That way, I won't be in awe the next time I'm texting with Donna. I can go back to making fun of her again, like the good old days. Hello, Donna! Well, Hello Donna. It's so nice to have you back where you belong.