Went to see HELLO DOLLY recently on a weeknight to see my gorgeous and talented old acquaintance DONNA MURPHY starring as Dolly Levi in the wonderful new Broadway production at the Shubert Theatre. I had seen Bette Midler do the role a few weeks before with friends visiting from California and Bette was wonderful as a film star and concert icon playing "Dolly."
But Donna Murphy is a REAL award-winning Broadway star and sells tickets based on her performances, not just her movie fans. She doesn't "coast" on her icon-status as Midler does, she really disappears into the role and "becomes" Dolly Levi, the meddling matchmaker of the Thornton Wilder play the musical is based on. Critics that have seen her performances URGE audiences to see Donna because she plays Dolly as a real character and not as a "star vehicle" like Channing, Merman, Midler and all the rest played the role.
Over 20 years ago I worked at Macy's Department Store for Christmas (as a Santa Claus) and Macy's always hires a bunch of energetic young actor/actress types to be Santa's "helpers". We all trained together for 2 weeks before Macy's SantaLand opens to the public. I was hired by Jean McFaddin, an eccentric red-haired woman who introduced herself to all of us the first day of SantaLand training as: "Hello everyone. You've all seen the Christmas movie MIRACLE ON 34th STREET? Well I'm Maureen O'Hara!"
Sitting next to me was this beautiful 19-year old NYU student named Donna Murphy. We became friends that day and also training partners for basic MACY'S cash register training. Macy's has a rule....everyone who works there-- even Santa and his helpers MUST know how to work a cash register because GOD FORBID a customer wants to buy something and no one is standing there except Santa or an elf. You must know how to do a cash sale, a charge, a C.O.D., a layaway, etc.
They paired us up...first I was the clerk and Donna was the customer and then we switched...this went on for hours. It was before cellphones so I didn't have a chance to snap selfies to remember our friendship. I remember what she wore...Donna wore a long sleeve white blouse with a high lacy collar and a purple ribbon tied around her neck. This matched another purple ribbon tied in her long, thick dark hair which went over her shoulders. During a break we chatted about our hopes and dreams and she said that she was hoping to be on Broadway some day. Later she was always either coming from an audition or taking a break to go to an audition. She mentioned that she was the eldest of 7 kids and was raised in Queens. We had fun working that crazy Christmas season...I remember celebs coming in with kids such as Michael Jackson and Mia Farrow and Ron Howard and Jacqueline Smith and Goldie Hawn. The elf assistant would escort the parents and child in to see Santa for a visit; the elf would snap the photo and you had the option of buying it, but there was no pressure. Most parents wanted it but today they all take their own photos.
Several months later, I'm walking thru Times Square in the early evening. I had just picked up my old college roommate Chris at Penn Station for his first visit to NYC-- and we were walking with his rolling suitcase thru the theatre district at approximately 6pm. Suddenly at the corner of Broadway & W. 45th Street, by the Minskoff Theatre (where Disney's The Lion King is now playing) a girl rushes around the corner and collides with us. It was a scene right out of a movie....it was Donna Murphy, crying with her mascara running down her cheeks. I called her name and she smiled and said she'd been at an all-day audition for a Broadway musical and had been cast! It meant the beginning of her professional career and getting her Actor's Equity union card. She was looking for a pay phone to call her Mom and give he the happy news. But as luck would have it, she ended up telling US first!
I've followed Donna's career over the years from afar and always gone to see her as her career boomed and she won various Broadway awards including TWO TONY AWARDS for Best Actress in a Musical for PASSION and later the huge revival of Rodgers & Hammerstein's THE KING & I. My friends know about our early friendship and every time Donna wins an award I do a dance around the living room. She did wonderful performances over the years in SONG OF SINGAPORE and WONDERFUL TOWN and many other shows.
During the run of THE KING & I, I had gotten tickets for myself and my friend Mike and I had sent a note backstage a few days prior telling Donna that we would be there and were hoping to say hello after the performance. I included my cellphone number and email in the note. We never attended because Mike suddenly died of a heart attack and everything spiraled into sadness and confusion. Donna phoned me one day just before she went onstage and said "Where were you the other night?" I explained what happened and she said "Oh God, I had no idea. What can I do?