Sally Murphy, who easily moves between musical and non-musical productions, is back on Broadway this season in the critically acclaimed new Tracy Letts play Linda Vista, which continues at Second Stage’s Helen Hayes Theater through November 10. The new comedy, directed by Dexter Bullard, is centered on Wheeler, a 50-year-old divorcé in the throes of a mid-life spiral, and casts Murphy as a former lover who is now married to his closest friend. The acclaimed actor has also been seen on The Great White Way in Letts’ Pulitzer Prize-winning August: Osage County, the 1994 Tony-winning revival of Carousel, The Wild Party, the 2004 revival of Fiddler on the Roof, and The Grapes of Wrath, which marked her Broadway debut.
We recently asked Murphy to pen a list of her most memorable nights in the theatre; her responses follow.
The Grapes of Wrath
Closing night at London’s National Theatre, we received a long, thunderous standing ovation, and suddenly flower petals slowly began raining on us from the fly space. It went on for a long time, and it felt like a Terrence Malick movie.
Opening night on Broadway, our party was at Sardi’s, and the president of Steppenwolf’s board stood on a table and read the Frank Rich New York Times review aloud while we cheered. It was like a 1930s movie.
We had our sitzprobe in the Vivian Beaumont lobby on a February afternoon in the midst of a huge snowstorm. The lobby is floor-to-ceiling windows, so the first time we heard/sang with the orchestra, the backdrop was this silent, white, snow dream.…William Shatner came to the show, and I don’t know why, but I had him sign my poster. It cracks me up.
The Wild Party
There was a moment in the show where I sat with Eartha Kitt on a big poof upstage, and we would have a private little conversation, but I had to pretend I was high on morphine.
Fiddler was nothing but fun. It was a two-year run, and we fooled around a lot. I was in a war with the Russian dancers, and one night, I came in to my dressing room at the end of Act One and my entire dressing room was empty—two years worth of stuff. This was in retaliation for the old “frozen underwear at the end of the show” trick. We would also pass a horrible thing called “Pickle in a Bag” onstage—a dill pickle perma-sealed in plastic. One time I passed it to Harvey Fierstein when I showed him my new baby. Harvey was all in—he supplied the Russians with a gigantic amount of Christmas stuff, and they decorated my room in October. It was like a Christmas store with moving parts—carousel horses and music—nuts. I left the show a couple weeks before closing, and after my final show the Russians carried me over their shoulders into Cafe Un Deux Trois.
We did August at London’s National Theatre. There are four floors of dressing rooms at the National that surround a large, square, open atrium, and you can see all the dressing rooms from your window. There is an opening- and closing-night tradition there that, at the half-hour call, the actors from all the shows pound on their windows with open hands, and it creates this incredible sound and vibration: four floors. The whole building shakes, and it’s very primal. It’s just astonishing.
The Apple Family Plays
We did a European tour, and in each city we performed all four plays in one day. Sometimes we would finish a play and have 10 minutes until half-hour for the next play. It was darn cool.
I’ve been fortunate to have done a lot of new works, and there was a moment during one of our final Linda Vista rehearsals where I thought, “We’re all exhausted, we’re rehearsing all day and performing at night. I’m sitting down because I’m too tired to stand.” Tracy and Dexter were doing their final rewrites/adjustments and as drained as I felt, I could tell the changes were so smart and making the play better, and as I was sitting on the stage, talking about the picnic scene, I thought, “This is the pinnacle. This is heaven.”
The Miracle Worker
In high school, I was the understudy for Helen Keller. I didn’t bother to learn the second act and had to go on opening night. Yup.