Karen Murphy has traveled the globe as a much-in-demand actress and singer, who has appeared on Broadway and in major touring companies, has performed in concert and presented her own highly acclaimed one-woman show, “Torch Goddess.” Happily, her career has its roots right here in Boston.
She welcomed a BIR interview. I dialed her number and waited for the familiar voice. She picked up and I asked, “Is this Karen Murphy, the Goddess?”
With theatrical flair, she announced, “I’m anxious and excited to return to the city where my career began!”
Playing at The Opera House from Aug. 8 to Aug. 20, “Neverland” tells a tale of imagination, detailing how J. M. Barrie came to write “Peter Pan.” Struggling for a new idea, Barrie found his inspiration in a family he met in Kensington Gardens – a widow, her four young sons and their grandmother, Mrs. DuMaurier, played by Karen.
A native of New Canaan, CT, Karen attended both Boston Conservatory and UMass Boston. She was a singing waiter at North Shore Music Theater nd she did “Jacques Brel” at The Charles Playhouse. She also worked at the Nickerson Theatre and played Club Cabaret.
Of special note, she was part of the talented quartet that starred in the original Boston production of “Forbidden Broadway,” the irreverent musical that cleverly spoofed other Broadway shows and performers.
Most recently, she completed a 10-month tour of “Mary Poppins,” playing the evil Miss Andrews. She last appeared on Broadway as Madame Armfeldt opposite Bernadette Peters in the revival of Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music.”
Chatting by phone from “Neverland’s” Baltimore stop, Karen said, “We are doing blockbuster business. We are one of the, if not the only, family-friendly shows out there right now. We’re a different animal . . . And it’s important to distinguish; it’s not a children’s show. It is a family show . . . And who, even a 100 years after it was written, hasn’t heard of ‘Peter Pan.’”
Boston theatergoers will recall that “Neverland,” directed by Diane Paulus, played the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge during its gestation period prior to Broadway.
Said Karen, “Our show, it should be pointed out, is quite different from the Broadway production. The whole first 15 minutes of the show are completely different. And the ending is completely different. Much more uplifting.”
And what of Mrs. DuMaurier, the protective, somewhat severe, grandmother of the young boys? “Indeed, protective,” she said. “Disciplinarian. Outspoken. It’s a great part. She gets to morph into something a little softer through certain events.”
What few fans know is that Karen auditioned for “Neverland” multiple times when the show was in development. She auditioned for Cambridge. She auditioned for the tour. She auditioned and she auditioned.
In frustration, her manager called the casting office. “She said, ‘What is it! Karen’s been down to the wire for this thing since day one. What isn’t she giving you in the audition? What’s missing? What can she change? What should she focus on?’”
The casting folks offered a few minor notes and Karen auditioned one last time – wearing a different outfit. She got the job.
“Just tellin’ you!,” she said with a wry tone. “It was obviously a factor. Did I do anything dramatically different? I did not.”
There was, however, a slight shading. As Karen was studying her scene for that final audition, the television was on. “Along came Maggie Smith in ‘Downton Abbey,’ and I said, ‘Well, there ya go, Karen. Take inspiration from that.’ It all added up . . . I am, in a word, deliriously happy. And I am over the moon to play Boston again. I’ve never played the Opera House.”
There was never any career choice for Karen Murphy other than performing. “I knew from the age of three that I would sing and dance and perform,” she said. “I would watch Leslie Uggams on the ‘Mitch Miller Show,’ wide-eyed, and say, ‘I want to be her.’ I had the opportunity to meet her just about a year and a half ago. I was speechless. I couldn’t talk.”
“Forbidden Broadway,” which ran for years in the Park Plaza’s art deco Terrace Room, was a phenomenal success in Boston. Over the years, alumni cast members have noted that the split-second timing, star power mimicry, and quick costume changes were an intense training ground for any theatrical job that would follow.
“I completely agree,” she said. “You were on the spot and there were only four of you . . . We all had that nascent talent, but doing the show sharpened those skills. The writing was just so unique. Have you heard about (writer-composer-creator Gerard Alessandri’s) latest show, ‘Spamilton?’ It’s his best writing. As good as everything was in ‘Forbidden,’ this is a step above.”
Never one to be typecast, Karen has played a broad range of roles. Diversity has been her strength and her calling card. “I have been blessed,” she said. “If I had an ‘unwritten-down-but-mental-list’ of all the things I wanted to do with my career, I’ve done them. I’m so grateful and I remind myself of that regularly.”
“I was never an ingénue,” she said. “ I didn’t turn 37 and the work dried up. Some ingénues morph into leading ladies and keep going, but it’s very difficult. I’ve always been a character woman. So, fortunately, it’s always worked out for me.”
She added, “I’ve had creative experiences. Those are the hardest to find. Sadly, there’s not a lot of creativity on Broadway. It’s too big a machine. It’s about other things. Not that I haven’t had a good time on Broadway, but most of my creative experiences have been off-Broadway or on the regional stage. And here I am, still working. And with this wonderful role!”
R. J. Donovan is editor and publisher of www.onstageboston.com.
“Finding Neverland,” Aug. 8 - 20, Boston Opera House, 539 Washington St., Boston. Info: 800-982-2787 or boston.broadway.com.