Most people who know theatre know Julia Murney from Wicked and I was among them when we first met for a feature in 2012. We talked about the rush of being a part of an Off-Broadway smash, (“I’d been in New York for ten years at that point but my first big thing in New York was a really big thing. It was The Wild Party.”), about her experience in the short-lived Broadway musical, Lennon, (“I’m named after the Beatles song ‘Julia’ from The White Album, which John wrote for his mum who died. [Don Scardino, the director] made me sing ‘Julia’ for the callback, in front of Yoko Ono.”) and about how much Wicked intimidated her (“I had gone to opening night and seen Idina be a star. It was just very intimidating having already seen someone be so amazing.”).
Nearly seven years later, we met up again to talk less about her resume and more about her life as an actor and creator. She candidly opened up about the ever-present audition process and about facing her insecurities, but mostly we talked about her never-ending desire to bring people joy.
At the shoot for this feature, you were talking about how you had to go sing “Defying Gravity” that evening at an event. I remember something we talked about the first time we met was that the reason Elphaba appealed to you was the acting component of the part, not necessarily the singing. Are you still intimidated by the singing, even though you’ve done it so much?
I work on it a lot. I try to work on it mentally as well as physically. It’s something that gives me more anxiety than I ever expected it to give. It didn’t always but it has more as I’ve gotten older. I’ve never been someone for an open mic, a piano bar, or karaoke. I am not that girl. I’m very Capricorn, I like to be prepared. Rather than it simply being a joyful expression, singing becomes more mathematic for me.
Do you feel like that’s an expectation thing? An expectation from others or from yourself?
I think it’s both. I think musically I became known for two particular shows with very big vocal ranges [The Wild Party and Wicked] so now in general, when I’m asked to do something, I’m asked to do giant songs. I’ve never been the most confident person. I know people whose confidence is what gets them through their nerves. What I know is that I have the ability to sing this. I am not that person.
Even though you’ve been hired or asked because they know you can do it?
I know, I know. And the flipside is that despite all of that, I still walk into an audition room and want them to pick me to sing.
Well let’s talk about auditions. How long did it take you to figure out that there were more components to booking the part than talent alone?
When I was just out of school, my boyfriend had been in Jerome Robbins’ Broadway. The tour was going out and they’d offered it to him because he’d done it in New York. He told me to go audition so we could go on tour together. I was non-Equity, I had to wait for hours in the hope they’d see any non-Equity people, they took ten people and I was number eight. I sang for Paul Geminiani and he, to me, was the first superstar conductor. I sang and he asked if I was going to the dance call the following day. I said I wasn’t because I can move but I’m not a Jerome Robbins’ Broadway style dancer. He said I should go so I went and it was the hardest ballet combination I’d ever seen. I just kept trying to remember what I’d been taught in school: be joyful and smile. I made it through all of these cuts and started to wonder if I might actually get the job. I wouldn’t have been one of these ballet dancers anyway, I’d be a totally different track.
I ended up getting cut because in the King and I sequence, the way the hand positions are in traditional Siam dance, your fingers are supposed to bend backwards. It’s a genetic thing; your fingers can either do that or they can’t. Mine don’t. That’s why I got cut. I wanted to say, “I wouldn’t even be one of these girls!” but because the tour had less people in the cast than it had on Broadway, you had to be able to cover. Yes, it had to do with my skill level in certain ways, but I didn’t do anything wrong. That was one of the first lessons that there were other elements at work in an audition.
Here’s the thing, when you don’t get a job, it’s only your fault if you were seriously unprepared for that audition or if you mouthed off. But if you do the work, go in and do your interpretation of what they’ve asked you to interpret and you’re kind, that’s it. That’s all you can do.
When I teach, I tell people that something I’d suggest doing upon getting to New York is to call around to the casting agencies and try to get in as a reader. If you will spend one day behind a table, your eyes will be opened to this. Someone will come in, nail it, and you’ll think they were perfect but hearing the discussion behind the table about why they won’t work for the part, even though they nailed it, is eye-opening.
And you learned that right from the jump.
Yes. Even years later, when the initial casting of Wicked was happening, there were five or six of us who were up for it and I was definitely bummed I didn’t get it. I certainly wanted it. But I was really glad I had enough sense to go, “It’s not anyone’s fault. It’s an apple and an orange and they went with the orange.” It doesn’t mean it takes the sting out of not getting jobs, and sometimes it’s easier to trace why you didn’t get it later. Oh, I didn’t get it because I’m too old for the guy who I would’ve been opposite. Sometimes, you don’t see the reasons but it doesn’t matter. In that moment, that’s what they responded to and I feel like you take 24-48 hours, eat some ice cream and/or drink some bourbon and then you have to let it go and put all of your support behind the person who got it. If you got it, you’d want that support.
I feel like that’s a huge and difficult lesson to learn. I’m sure there have been a myriad of lessons that have changed your perspective on your craft over the years. But more than wanting to know how you or the industry has changed since you began working professionally, I’m curious to know what’s stayed the same.
Ooh. I will say what’s stayed the same is when I go see a show, I’m so moved. Even if it’s something light and fluffy, I’m moved by the act of it; that people wrote it, put it together, and are performing it. I remember crying at Motown, which isn’t exactly a show that makes you cry. They were three numbers in and just dancing for Jesus and I started crying. My love of live theatre has never changed.
If you’re in a flop and it’s still running and you come out on stage—and I’ve been in this show—and it’s an 1100 seat house and there are 300 people there, you definitely notice. As bright as the lights are, you can see. But, there are still 300 people there, they’re there on purpose, they would like you to do the thing, and you have to do the thing for them. That was a lesson learned as time went by. But the biggest things that have stayed the same is that theatre is extraordinary and musicals are magic.
How do you stay driven to be a part of that magic?
I feel like what we’re always chasing is the joy. To be in this particular line of work, an actor specifically in theater, is generally born of when you’re in junior high or high school or summer camp and you get cast in the play. You’re the three-line role and you realize it was the most fun. It’s not just saying the three lines, it’s bonding with your cast, it’s the other stuff. No bond is as fast and hard as doing a musical. Learning music and dance steps together can be a great equalizer. It feels like Christmas on that stage so you’re sort of chasing Christmas. You’re chasing that joy.
Let’s switch gears and talk about your work off stage because in the past couple years, you’ve begun directing.
The first thing I directed was Smokey Joe’s Cafe. Lauren Kennedy who runs Theatre Raleigh is a very old friend of mine and for years, she would tell me to come down and direct. At one point, she asked what I’d want to direct and I asked her to just give me something and she did, Smokey Joe’s Cafe. It’s a revue and that’s tricky but then I thought, one of the things in which I feel most confident as a performer is telling a story through song. So I just had to figure out forty stories because it’s so much music and once I was able to approach it from that angle, I felt like I had a handle on it.
Last year she asked me to do Significant Other and that’s a horse of a different color completely. So much of directing is casting well and I got lucky because the cast was spectacular. We cast it with people who are the ages of the characters so they were relating to it in a very specific way. It’s a tricky play in that the lead character speaks for a long time, numerous times. It’s who he is as a human and as a director, you have to make sure the audience always pulled for him.
How did you go about doing that?
I know how I like to be spoken to as an actor so I just did “unto others.” I spoke to them in that same way I like to be spoken to. I’d like to do more directing.
It got great reviews.
It did. It was very nicely received and that made me happy. It also made me happy that it was nicely received in Raleigh. What the audiences responded to was the story about people trying to find their way. Of course you can relate to that because everyone is trying to find their way.
Yes we are and that makes me want to ask, in your own process of finding your way, what’s important to you today?
Right now in this moment in time, I will say that what’s most important to me is that we as humans and as a culture get it the hell together. It’s why I think the arts in general—it doesn’t have the be theater, but whatever takes you out and moves you—are perhaps even more important in times like this. The divisiveness in this country right now is so difficult to maneuver on a day-to-day basis and I feel like what’s important to me is that my job, my profession, is to bring joy. Sometimes, theater lets you go in and work through your problems for a couple hours but sometimes, it’s just joyful. That’s important to me. As much as I may feel my own feelings of not knowing if I sound good or sometimes being anxious to sing—and again, I know that’s weird from someone who makes her living doing it—when I can bring someone the joy, mission accomplished.