Donna Murphy remembers coming across a blog post this winter reporting that she was returning to Broadway in a Holocaust musical.
That prompted a moment of panic. The show's description didn't exactly sound like something that would cause a rush on the box office. Who was going to fly in to see genocide?
"Not that there haven't been beautiful pieces about the Holocaust and I don't mean to be disrespectful at all, but `a Holocaust musical'? It just sounds like `Springtime for Hitler,'" she said, referring to the satiric song from Mel Brooks' "The Producers."
Fans of Murphy needn't worry. While her new show, "The People in the Picture," portrays Jews in Poland on the eve of World War II, it isn't exactly a Holocaust musical. It features Murphy as an actress in a spunky Yiddish theater troupe and her character decades later as an ailing 79-year-old grandmother in 1970s New York.
"It's got me completely by my heart and my soul," she says in her dressing room at the Roundabout Theatre Company's Studio 54 theater. The new show has a book and lyrics by "Beaches" novelist Iris Rainer Dart and "operates on a number of levels." The musical opened Thursday to mixed reviews, but most critics were again smitten by Murphy, hailed as a chameleon.
Dart, 67, has been a fan of Murphy since 2000 when she caught the actress in a performance of "Wonderful Town" and says she is delighted when she joined her musical. "I have been hoping for Donna Murphy to play this part since I conceived the idea," Dart says. "This woman can do everything. She has such a range."
It's been four years since Murphy was last on Broadway and each time gets more difficult as she balances work and family. Her daughter, Darmia, is now 6 and the musical's first preview performance happened to fall on her birthday.
"It's very different doing a Broadway show when you have a little one at home who says, `Mommy, don't go tonight,' or `Why don't you do the first part and come home?' or `Just do one today,'" she says. "There's a big trade-off, but this is what I do."
Murphy, a lithe beauty who is 52 but who could easily pass for 32, has been branching out lately into other mediums. She has finished two films _ "Dark Horse" by Todd Solondz with Christopher Walken and Selma Blair, and "Higher Ground" with Vera Farmiga and Norbert Leo Butz, which made its debut at the Tribeca Film Festival.
She has also recently dipped in and out of TV ("Ugly Betty," "Law & Order" and "Trust Me") done voice-over work (the animated film "Tangled") and live-action films such as "The Nanny Diaries."
"For me, my heart and my dream from childhood, has always been to do theater. And the most meaningful experiences that I've had creatively have been in the theater _ the ones that have taught me the most, that have given me the opportunity to challenge myself the most," she says.
"But, having said that, I can't afford to just work in the theater. Often the things that I'm most attracted to doing are not necessarily the big, commercial Broadway shows. I've had a lot of heartbreaking conversations where I'm saying no to a beautiful play."
Murphy received the first of her two Tonys in Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's "Passion" and got her second as Anna in the 1996 revival of "The King and I." She also won Tony nominations for "Wonderful Town" and 2007's "LoveMusik"
She has been married to actor and singer Shawn Elliott since 1990 and is the stepmother of Elliott's two daughters, so playing a grandmother in "The People in the Picture" has been easy. In 2005, the couple added to their family by adopting a daughter from Guatemala, Darmia Hope. (There is also a pet fish, named Bubbles Julio Murphy Elliot.)
"The little one needs me and I need her, too," Murphy says. "I came to being a mother to an infant relatively late in my life and a lot of that was about seeing how much my work asked of me and what I wanted to give to it."
She recalls having to report to shoot the film "World Trade Center" only two days after Darmia was brought home. "All I can say is I'm glad I played a character that had to weep a lot," she says.
Having a young child means Murphy, known for her ferocious researching skills, can't always do as much homework as she used to. "You have to edit your approach. I'm always cramming," she says.
To prepare for the new role, Murphy read about the Holocaust, met with survivors, looked at footage of performers from that time, studied Yiddish theater and how voices change over time, and even looked into how having a heart condition might affect her character.
"It's not like I do it because I feel I must. I love it. I'm a student constantly," she says. "On this show, my God, I could spend the rest of my life researching so many elements of it."
Dart, the playwright, calls Murphy "the hardest working actress I've ever encountered" and says she "doesn't have a lazy bone in her body." She joked that when the director, Leonard Foglia, first met Murphy, the actress already knew more about Yiddish theater than he did.
"This is someone who does her homework and wouldn't set foot on that stage without having done the kind of work that she does for everything."