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Donna Murphy heads into Sondheim's 'Woods'

Donna Murphy attends the

Donna Murphy attends the "Nice Work If You Can Get It" Broadway opening night at the Imperial Theatre in Manhattan. (April 24, 2012) Credit: Getty Images

Two-time Tony Award winner Donna Murphy is known for thrilling Broadway performances, but the Hauppauge native has a secret love few realize.

Before starring in "Passion" and "The King and I," before voicing the wicked Mother Gothel in Disney's "Tangled," Murphy was one mean . . . accordionist. True.

Murphy, 53, is starring as The Witch in Stephen Sondheim's "Into the Woods," which opens Aug. 9, at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park and runs through Aug. 25. This year marks the 50th anniversary of The Public Theater's Shakespeare in the Park at the Delacorte, which has offered free performances of Willie Shakes, other classical works and the occasional musical since 1962's "The Merchant of Venice" (featuring George C. Scott and James Earl Jones). Waiting in line for hours for tickets became a summer tradition, but now you can enter a lottery online (visit shakespeareinthepark.org).

Murphy chatted with Newsday contributor Joseph V. Amodio after torrential downpours flooded the stage and delayed a rehearsal.

What's it like performing "Into the Woods" . . . in the woods?

Well, it's been . . . hot. And now the stage is a pond! Someone said it's like being on the set of "Survivor." I performed at the Delacorte back in 1985, in the ensemble of "The Mystery of Edwin Drood" with Betty Buckley and Cleo Laine. It's magical here.

Funny -- you've done "Non-Shakespeare" in the Park.

Yes. But if there's such a thing as a Shakespeare of musical theater, I'd say Sondheim is as close to that as it gets. He . . . changed my life. Getting to do "Passion." But even just as an audience member, seeing "Sunday in the Park With George" was inspiring. At times when I considered leaving the business, I'd listen to that recording. It became a touchstone. It reminded me how I needed to continue, regardless of immediate opportunities, the people who were saying yes and the ones saying no.

We've something in common, you and I. Same hometown -- Hauppauge.

YOU ARE KIDDING ME! Where did you live?

Near Honey Hollow Elementary School.

I was at Forest Brook! I love all these names -- they're immediately evocative. I was close to that golf course. And the Carvel. That was like a rite of passage, the point at which my mom and dad let us walk to Carvel.

You're the oldest of seven.

Yeah, we were a tribe. I moved after sixth grade. My dad was an aerospace engineer and was transferred to New England. But I'm still friends with some classmates from Hauppauge. And a few teachers. Like Ms. Kahan, a middle school drama teacher.

What was your big middle school show?

It was called "Full Fledged Spirit," all about finding your identity, and it cleverly interwove pieces of literature, poetry . . . and songs from "Roar of the Greasepaint." Although we also did "Aquarius" and pop stuff.

Sounds like Ms. Kahan came up with the first jukebox musical.

Right. Except there was a plot, and it really meant something to us. She managed to spread it around -- almost everybody had a moment.

I hear you asked your mom for voice lessons when you were . . . 3?

Yes. Thankfully, nobody agreed to teach me. My mom had a pretty voice, and she sang around the house. She found me an accordion teacher at 4. I loved the accordion because I could accompany myself -- anywhere. I'd literally put the accordion in my little red wagon and take it to Forest Brook, walking a path in the woods. I'd just play as people came to school. Nobody invited me to do it. It wasn't a vast repertoire -- I remember "Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes." And I'd sing along. It's just hysterical.

Has your daughter asked for voice lessons?

Darmia has not. She's 7. She takes violin. She's unquestionably musical. She's trying to figure out . . . what's hers. She also loves science.

What did she think of you as the voice of Mother Gothel in "Tangled?"

That was complicated. She did not like Mommy playing an evil character. It led to a lot of discussions of what I do. Her friends at school would say, "Your mom's Mother Gothel." And she'd say, "No, she plays Mother Gothel." She's just a huge blessing in my life. As is this show. . . .

You know, I auditioned for the original Broadway production, and was called back for the Witch. Didn't get it. But doing it now, as a mother of a young child, and stepmother to two daughters, and as a woman who's lost a parent -- my dad passed away last fall -- I mean . . . the show is so rich, but the resonance for me is so much deeper now, and I have so much more to bring to it. It's yet another one of those moments when you just trust that things happen when they're meant to happen.

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