When Julia Murney first ascended to the rafters as Elphaba in Wicked, she only had a few years’ worth of former green girls—mostly friends—to live up to. But with her latest role, there’s “decades of diva.”
The theatre and cabaret favorite takes on ultimate stage mother Madame Rose in Cape Playhouse’s Gypsy, running through August 19 at the Cape Cod venue. Murney’s seen her share of legendary Roses, including Patti LuPone, Bernadette Peters, Tyne Daly, and—most recently—Imelda Staunton. Now, when she envisions Madame Rose, it’s a “full-on combo platter.”
“In a way, that’s where it’s similar to Wicked and Elphaba,” Murney tells Playbill while on break from rehearsal. “When I got to play that role, I felt like they were all with me, helping me along. That’s what I’m trying to take with me on the Rose journey as well. All of those ladies got through, so here I am."
Even while in Gypsy, there’s still an Elphaba with her—and sharing the stage with her. Caroline Bowman, who took center stage at the Gershwin Theatre in Wicked some eight years after Murney, plays Rose’s daughter Louise, who goes on to become the show’s title burlesque icon, Gypsy Rose Lee.
“She’s a fellow green girl,” Murney says. The two met last year, when they performed “And Eve Was Weak” from the musical Carrie—another tale of a not-quite-healthy mother-daughter relationship—at Feinstein’s/54 Below. “I was like, ‘Well, we already have experience with a screwed up family role. Just a wee bit, but still.’”
Murney is younger than any actor to headline the show on Broadway, but the stage veteran chooses not to let that daunt her (or, no more than succeeding Ethel Merman, Angela Lansbury Tyne Daly, Bernadette Peters, or Patti LuPone would). Just last year, Murney had two separate conversations in which she presented her case for a younger Rose—and here she is, boys.
“Yes, Rose ages,” reasons Murney, “but it needs to seem like she had these girls young and it messed up everything for her…. You want to feel like she might do some untoward things to get her child into shows. There’s something about that that’s so creepy.”
The parts of Rose’s daughters Louise and June are split into two tracks each. While child actors portray them at their “Baby” stages, there’s only one “Mama Rose,” and she must convey a journey that spans the same period (about 15 years). “There’s something there, where it should seem that—when they get a little bit older—she’s competing with her daughters,” says Murney.
“It’s hard,” she admits, “because people have very specific ideas in their head of this role, and what rocked their socks off when they saw it. But it also gives you permission to believe that maybe a different choice from the way it’s normally played is OK.” Murney adds an important clarification: “I’m not trying to say anything against those legendary women—I’m not taking anything away from them at all. So there.”
While the familiarity of the piece and the quick two-week rehearsal process add pressure, Murney tries to maintain some perspective—and her friends are quick to help. “I have a text thread with a bunch of people I did Mamma Mia! with [at the Muny] last summer, and the other day I was feeling frustrated. Ann Harada was like, ‘You’re not allowed to complain about getting to go to Cape Cod for two weeks.’ Fair enough, Ann Harada. You win.”
It’s not the only destination gig Murney has on her plate this year, either. In November, she’ll take to the Danube River with Playbill Travel, joined by Michael Feinstein, Christopher Fitzgerald, Marc Kudisch, Christopher Sieber, Brandon Uranowitz, and Seth Rudetsky. The thing she’s most looking forward to on the trip? “Taking my mom.”
Hopefully, the mother-daughter drama will stay in Cape Cod.