September 3, 2006

JBB EXCLUSIVE: Interview with Donnie Kehr!

September 3rd, 2006

Donnie Kehr

Jersey Boys Blog is thrilled to present an interview with Donnie Kehr, who plays Norm Waxman, and several other roles in Jersey Boys. Donnie talked about the early days of “Rockers on Broadway,” which is now in its 14th year; how it all began for him as a child actor; his passion for writing and performing music; and his journey with Jersey Boys from La Jolla Playhouse to Broadway.

The interview took place in between the matinee and the evening performances of Jersey Boys on Saturday, July 8, 2006, just two days before Kehr’s “Rockers On Broadway” concert, which has been going on since 1993. Donnie said “Rockers On Broadway” was originally inspired by Pete Townshend during the Broadway run of The Who’s Tommy. Townshend wanted to give musical theatre performers the opportunity to experience the feeling of singing with a rock band in a concert style venue, so they could understand and transfer the rawness of that edge to the stage.

JBB: Working on “Rockers on Broadway” with Pete Townshend must have been amazing. Tell us about working with the legendary Townshend at the very first “Rockers on Broadway.”

DK: Well, Pete said to put this band together, and he’d actually come up on stage to do a couple gigs with the band. There were lots of players from Tommy, and each cast member would sing a different song.

In Tommy, I was Pinball Lad 1 and Christian Hoff was Pinball Lad 2. As you know, many legit singers are like, ‘La!’ [Donnie sang this like an opera star], but they were told to forget the “La!” and give us your dream rock song. Singing “Pinball Wizard” with a Broadway orchestra is great, but singing with Pete Townshend next to you?!? Now, that’s a whole other thing–since he’s a legend and a rock god. He inspired the Broadway singers to get to the core. Pete said if rock ‘n roll was going to be on Broadway, it’s not going to be rock ‘n roll unless it’s sung properly.

What Pete wanted to do was take all the preparation away. The Broadway stars would have no makeup, no wigs, no sets, no rehearsals. Each performer would get 15 minutes to go through the song once or twice, then, like a bat out of hell, you’re on stage, and you go! Many Broadway stars can be nervous about being unprepared, but it’s not being unprepared, they’re just totally in the moment. It’s understanding that you have to deliver. Rock ‘n roll is an action, and there’s no time to think. It’s like, ‘This is what the song is saying, and this is what I feel about it.’ It’s quite a learning experience.

What’s so great about this year’s “Rockers on Broadway” is that we’re going to have a reunion of Tommy cast members with Christian, Des, Michael Cerveris, Anthony Barile, who was the original Cousin Kevin, and myself. It’s going to be a real highlight!

JBB: You made your Broadway debut at the age of twelve in Legend. How did you get started at such a young age and what sparked your interest?

DK: When I was ten, I remember seeing two movies with kids in them, “Bugsy Malone” and “Oliver.” I always wanted to be the Artful Dodger, and seeing “Oliver” especially made me want to act. So, I told my mom that I wanted to do this. My mom, who was a ballerina, had a contract to teach at the Jeoffrey Ballet in New York. My mom brought my two older brothers and me up alone. We came to New York when I was 11. So, my mom opened the phone book, looked under ‘talent management’ and we got an appointment with a talent agent named Peggy Branson.

Peggy Branson was this brassy, smokin’ lady who looked like she was right out of a movie. We went into her office and she had me read some lines from a commercial, ‘Gee, I love Coke.’ After I said my line, she said, ‘Sign here, you’re in.’ Two weeks later, she signed me up for this play; it was as an understudy in a show called Legend.

Why did I want to do it? I really liked the idea of playing pretend. I really wasn’t much of a sports guy. I remember playing war with my brothers as a kid. Legend was a western, with guns and everything. F. Murray Abraham and Elizabeth Ashley were the stars. It ran for about six weeks.

When Legend ended, I didn’t do much for about six months, just went back to school. During that time off, I’d go to Central Park a lot with my guitar, put my case out, and start playing. I remember making $50 bucks as a 12 year-old kid, and I was able to buy dinner for my family that night. Six months later, I did a tour production of George Washington Slept Here with Jimmy Coco and Dody Goodman. I toured with that, then just kept working–more plays and more theatre til I was 23.

When I was 23, my mother had a stroke, and I needed to take care of her, and I decided to take some time off. I stopped working for a while, took a break, and took five years off. I went away and grew up, and saw what it was like to be normal. I was inspired to act because it was fun, but as a kid in this business, I didn’t have much of a normal childhood since I was always working. As an adult, you get to an age and you say, ‘Who am I? What am I doing?’ So, I lived life for myself for a while.

The Who’s Tommy was a great way to come back to acting when I was 28, first at La Jolla, then on Broadway. After Tommy, I got married to a wonderful, wonderful lady, Lisa Mordente, who is Chita Rivera’s daughter. It lasted ten years. It was a great time in my life. Although we’re no longer married, we’re still friends. Then, I did the European tour of Tommy in Germany.

I also did some movies, “Chaplin” and “Wall Street.” My line in “Wall Street” was. ‘Buy 10,000 shares of Blue Star.’ It was amazing to work with Oliver Stone for six weeks; I learned a lot about film, and I got to watch everything.

JBB: Is there a big difference between film acting and stage acting?

DK: In film, all you have to do is think about what you’re going to say, and the camera will pick it up. If you lift an eyebrow on stage, people may not always see it, but if you lift an eyebrow on film, it’s going to be huge. On stage, you have to present things in a different way. In film, it’s a different form of acting, one I’d like to try more of in the future.

JBB: In addition to acting, you’ve been in a musical group with your brothers called “Urgent,” and you’ve recently done a solo recording. What inspired you to be a musician?

DK: I’ve been writing music since age 11. My brother taught me a couple of chords on the guitar, then I learned piano, but I don’t read music. Reading music is alien to me. When I’m learning parts, I have to take a recorder with me. Thank God for these mini-recorders. It’s all by ear for me; I have an awesome ear. Melodies sometimes come to me in dreams. One song I’m thinking about was called “Catch Me When I’m Falling.” It made it to Number 3 in Europe.

I recorded two albums on EMI with the band that included my two brothers called “Urgent,” and I wrote about 80% of the songs on the albums. I recently recorded a solo album called “Shift.” I hired some of the best musicians I knew, and I think they’re ten of the best songs that I’ve ever written. I’m very proud of that.

JBB: What do you like best, music or acting?

DK: It’s like apples and oranges. I like them both very much. Acting has been a living for me, and musical theatre is the best of both worlds. Both music and acting are things that I’ve been blessed with. I love my music and I love writing songs. It’s like being my own director–I’m a musician. In a show, I have a script, and it’s somebody else’s words. I’m the paint, and the director is the artist. My job is to satisfy the artist, and I like satisfying the artist.

JBB: You’ve been with Jersey Boys since the very beginning at La Jolla Playhouse. When you first read the script for this role, what did you think of the script?

DK: In the La Jolla production, I played Gyp DeCarlo. It didn’t matter to me who I was going to play. When I read the script, and I knew Des was going to direct, and the script with the music– I knew from day one this was going to be a huge hit! I even told some investor friends of mine before we came to New York to put all of their money in Jersey Boys, and I guaranteed them that they’d get their money back, because it was going to be such a huge hit! I’ve been an actor for 31 years, and this is the best show I’ve ever, ever done. It read off the page! When Des got a hold of it and put it on its feet with his brilliance and his vision–it was the perfect match!

At the first day of rehearsals here in New York, I remember Sara Schmidt, who was new to the production asked me, ‘Is this going to be good?’ I told her, ‘This will be one of the best experiences you’ve ever had.’ When you get a new show, you never really know, but this is a gem.

JBB: What is it about the story and the music in Jersey Boys that makes the audience feel so connected?

DK: Because of the truth–absolute honest truth. Truth to me is about closest to heaven you can get. Even if it’s bad stuff, the fact is, things happen in life, and you go through stuff. For the people who make that extra effort to hang in there, it’s rewarding. As long as you come from honesty and truth, you can’t go wrong.

JBB: What’s your favorite song in Jersey Boys?

DK: Well, my favorite Four Seasons song didn’t make it into the show and that’s “The Sun Ain’t Going to Shine Anymore.” Bob Gaudio really wanted it in the show, but it didn’t make it. But my favorite song in Jersey Boys is “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You.” It’s one of the most well-written songs.

JBB: What’s your favorite scene in Jersey Boys?

DK: I have so many, but I’d have to say it’s the sit down scene. There are not many musicals have a ten-minute scene. These guys are now grown up, and you get that from the dialog, without them being gray.

We would like to thank Donnie Kehr for taking the time for this fascinating and insightful interview with Jersey Boys Blog.

1 Comment »

  1. WOW!
    What a great interview. We love Donnie, he is a very humble person and funny too!
    I got the pleasure of meeting Donnie at the Rockers on Broadway benefit at the cutting room in July. I have to tell you this was on of the best benefits I have been too. We all rocked all night and it was great to see Michael,Christian,Anthony,Donnie,and Des all do the Tommy Reunion which I truly loved and have great pictures of their performance. We all had a great time.

    I am only hoping that at “The Who” concert in MSG on the 18th of September that I get to see all these guys with Pete on stage.
    This would truly be an amazing experience!

    Keep on Rocking and Rolling Donnie!

    Love You!

    Comment by Damaris Dugan — September 4, 2006 @ 10:40 am

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