Thursday, May 02, 2002

'Cowgirls' takes classical turn

Violinist Mary Murfitt writes dynamic play withher music in mind

By Jackie Demaline,
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        When Mary Murfitt was growing up in Kansas, her music teacher mother had her playing violin almost before she could walk.

        She practiced and practiced and broke her mother's heart (well, only a little) by rejecting a scholarship to Juilliard School of Music to go into theater.

        “I saw Funny Girl with Barbra Streisand when I was 12,” says good ole gal Ms. Murfitt. Another problem with a potential concert career was that she didn't like being on stage alone.

[photo] Rhonda Coulett (left) and Mary Murfitt in Cowgirls
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        So it's a tickle that Ms. Murfitt's onstage performing career was jump-started by a gig playing violin in a New York pit orchestra.

        That's where she bumped into a former roommate who had become an agent. The ex-roommate sold the creative team of Pump Boys and Dinettes on Ms. Murfitt's musical talents and “relentless” vocal range.

        Suddenly Ms. Murfitt was co-writing a show, and she and her violin were making their New York performing debut in a little musical comedy called Oil City Symphony. The charmer, which brought together former music students to celebrate their retiring teacher, became a giant off-Broadway hit in the late '80s.

Hard to break type

        Ms. Murfitt was nominated for lots of awards (and won some of them, including a Drama Desk Award), and she didn't have to be on stage alone.

        She was so good at creating a character in Oil City “that I got a lot of attention, but I couldn't get arrested as an actress” because people kept expecting her to be what she appeared to be on stage.

        She decided to keep writing for herself, and off-Broadway seemed like a fun and easy way to make a living. Ms. Murfitt looks back at her naivete and laughs, but the fact is she has made success look easy.

        What else would a classical violinist from the plains write but Cowgirls? Sure enough, it had a healthy off-Broadway run starting in 1996 and is being revived by Ensemble Theatre through May 19.

"Nashville' references

        Cowgirls was sort-of born of Robert Altman'sfilm Nashville.

    What: Cowgirls
    When: 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sundays and May 18, through May 19.
    Where: Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati, 1127 Vine St., Over-the-Rhine
    Tickets: $28, $25 students and seniors. 421-3555
    Read the review: Friday in Tempo
        “I never saw myself as a composer,” Ms. Murfitt says, laughing, “but when I saw Nashville, I thought the songs were so funny, so for fun I started writing funny country songs.”

        A friend of hers saw them and said she should put them into a cabaret act about an inept country-western singer. The friend was Rick Lewis, who wrote The Taffetas. They bonded when they were making a living working at word processors in a Manhattan law office.

        Ms. Murfitt gave it serious thought, but she still didn't like being on stage alone.

        She was playing classical violin one day for fun when a girlfriend observed, “Isn't that odd, someone like you from Kansas playing the violin.”

        Says Ms. Murfitt, “I thought, "That's it!' and it was easy after that.” (There's even a lyric in Cowgirls that goes “thank you, mom, for making me practice.”)

        She imagined a show about Jo, who has 24 hours to save her late father's once-famous country-western saloon (in Kansas) from foreclosure.

        Jo books the “Cowgirl Trio'' who turn out to be the classical Coghill Trio. The clock ticks as Jo attempts to turn violins into fiddles and Beethoven into bluegrass. (Betsie Howie wrote the musical's book.)

        Ms. Murfitt will reprise her original role as one of the Cowgirls. She'll be joined in the trio by Lori Fischer, fresh from Barbara's Blue Kitchen at Playhouse in the Park, who was also an off-Broadway Cowgirl, and Sherry McCamley, director of theater at Anderson High School.

        Rhonda Coullet, who originated the role of Jo, plays her again at ETC. Amy Church was also a member of the New York cast. Beth Harris completes the cast.

Historical musical

        When she's not a Cowgirl, Ms. Murfitt is developing a new musical, Orphan Train, based on the movement that sent between 150,000 and 200,000 orphaned, abandoned or homeless children west from New York to be placed with families. Often the children ended up not as family members but as unpaid farm laborers.

        “I've been thinking about it for 10 years,” Ms. Murfitt says. Kansas was a primary stop on the train route and “there were eight orphan train children in my home town (Lindsborg) of 2,000.”

        Orphan Train follows the story of Anne Fuchs, adept at organ, piano and cello and who had a happier life than many. The musical will have a workshop this summer at Laguna Playhouse in Southern California.

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