On June 13, an eighth show on Tuesdays will be added, with Tony Award winner Donna Murphy stepping into the role originated by Carol Channing on Broadway in 1964, made famous onscreen by Barbra Streisand in 1969 and revived by Midler in 2017.
“I’ve never really done anything quite like this,” Murphy tells ET.
To clarify, she’s not serving as Midler’s understudy. “I am not someone who will go if [Midler] is not feeling well in an emergency situation,” she says. Instead, she is Midler’s Tuesday-night alternate, performing alongside the production’s other stars, David Hyde Pierce, Kate Baldwin and Gavin Creel. In addition to Tuesdays, the Broadway veteran will also step in during Midler’s scheduled vacation.
“This is very unusual. We thought it was unprecedented,” Murphy says. It’s rare, but not unheard of; the actress points to the time when Kathie Lee Gifford replaced Carol Burnett during certain performances of the 1999 revival of Putting It Together.
In fact, returning to Broadway is no small feat for Murphy, who was last seen on the Broadway stage in the 2011 original musical The People in the Picture and has since been busy with recurring roles on Resurrection, Hindsight and Mercy Street.
Then, in March 2016, her husband, actor and singer Shawn Elliott, died at age 79. Left to care for their 11-year-old daughter, Darmia Hope, Murphy couldn’t bear the thought of being away from her six nights a week and pulled out of another production that was scheduled to come to Broadway this season.
“It was just too much. I thought theater was not really in the realm of things I could do. But then Dolly, in this particular rarified opportunity, came up,” says Murphy, who was still grieving her husband. Despite an offer on the table, it took her nearly a month to say yes. “Initially I wasn’t certain it was a good fit, and yet the more I thought about it the more the light glistened around it.”
And then there’s the fact that Murphy has never seen the entire stage production — something she has in common with Midler. Both have seen the movie and were familiar with the story, but Murphy had forgotten specifics details.
“When I sat down and read the script, I was in tears because I’d forgotten Dolly is a widow,” she says of the titular character, who is 10 years out from losing her husband. “I thought, I don’t know if I can stand on stage in less than a year from now and talk to Ephram and say, ‘You’ve got to let go and move on,’ because that’s not necessarily where I will be.”
However, Murphy is ready to give herself to the role — and learn a lesson or two from Dolly.
“When they announced it in the press, I remember reading the statement Bette made and it was extremely generous,” Murphy says. “It made me cry. We are both happy to have each other in this situation, perhaps for different reasons, but she has been generous and supportive.”
While Midler and Murphy have met and have since exchanged emails about the production, the two will likely never be seen side by side onstage or at the piano during rehearsals. “I wouldn’t do that to another actor,” Murphy says of invading Midler’s space. Instead, she’s working with director Jerry Zaks to craft her own version of Dolly.
“They’re not looking for someone to do a version of Bette, because nobody could,” Murphy says. “Bette is Bette and I’d be a fool to try.”