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Donnie Kehr Gets Up Close, Personal on His Music, Theater Careers

Donnie Kehr draws from his long stage and music career to offer some insights into such Broadway productions as Jersey Boys, Tommy and Billy Elliot, as well as his role in Rockers on Broadway.

Donnie Kehr draws from his long stage and music career to offer some insights into such Broadway productions as Jersey Boys, Tommy and Billy Elliot, as well as his role in Rockers on Broadway.

One look at Donnie Kehr’s Broadway resume and you’ll see he’s been in some of the Great White Way’s most significant productions over the years, including The Who’s Tommy, Billy Elliot, Jersey Boys and The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

In 2004, he created the role of Gyp De Carlo in the groundbreaking La Jolla Playhouse production of Jersey Boys and was the first to play Norm Waxman in the Tony Award-winning Broadway production.

In the past decade Kehr appeared in the acclaimed musical more than 1,000 times.

Now playing Waxman on the big screen in Clint Eastwood’s movie version of “The Jersey Boys,” due in June, Donnie is the only star from the original La Jolla production to play a major role in the film.

It also stars from the Broadway production John Lloyd Young as Frankie Valli and Christopher Walken as DeCarlo.

Kehr also started the Rockers On Broadway series during his Tommy run with The Who’s Townsend. We caught up with Kehr in a recording studio in New York City for a Q&A with TheImproper.

TheImproper: You’re in the new Clint Eastwood movie, his screen-version of Jersey Boys. Tell us how you came to be involved in the play in the first place.

Kehr: I started the Jersey Boys journey in 2004 when the director, Des McAnuff, called me and said he had something for me. The next thing I know I’m in a room a few days later singing for the legendary Frankie Valli. I created the character of Gyp DeCarlo in the pre-Broadway La Jolla production (which I reprised in 2013 on the National Tour). In 2006, we opened on Broadway at the August Wilson Theatre. On Broadway, I created the role of Norm Waxman, which is the character I play in the film.”

IM: What was it like being directed by Eastwood? Any moments stand out?

Kehr: My experience with Clint Eastwood was great. He is a man of few words, so when he speaks you listen. I was impressed that he keeps things calm and moving on the set. I turned 50 while working on the film and I thanked Mr. Eastwood for the birthday gift of being in the film. He asked how old I was and I replied, ‘I’m turning 50, so I’m getting old.’ His response is my new motto and will stick with me forever: ‘Don’t let the old man in!’

IM: Tell us about how Rockers on Broadway came to fruition?

Donnie Kehr with Vincent Pastore of Soprano's fame.

Donnie Kehr with Vincent Pastore of Soprano’s fame.

Kehr: In 1993, The Who’s TOMMY was preparing to open on Broadway. One day during rehearsals Pete (Townshend) approached me about doing a couple of live concerts around the city. He wanted the cast to learn what real Rock & Roll felt like, and for a bonus they could perform with him. He wanted us to have this experience for ourselves, because it would help translate that edgy rock sensibility into our performances. At Pete’s request I gathered the TOMMY orchestra and formed a band. Once the band was set, I held a company meeting with my fellow cast members and asked them to join in the fun.”

The first Rockers On Broadway was held in the Spring of 1993 at the China Club on 75th Street in New York City. In addition to the Tommy cast and Pete (of course), special guests included Joe Walsh, Linda Perry (4 Non Blondes) and Eddie Vedder. For me, the experience of singing ‘Pinball Wizard’ next to Pete that night changed me forever. It was extraordinary. Really, who doesn’t want to feel like a Rock Star…at least once?

IM: The next edition is slated for when?

Due to the overwhelming support for the Rockers concerts I co-founded The PATH Fund (Performing Artists That Help) in 2007. The PATH Fund gives artists in many fields an avenue to share their unique talents while helping raise money for charities that benefit arts and entertainment organizations. Since the inception of Rockers in 1993, $300,000 has been raised for performing arts charities. Since Rockers on Broadway’s performers came from the New York theater community, partnering with Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS was a natural fit—an acclaimed organization helping members of the theater community in crisis. The next edition of Rockers On Broadway will be in the fall of 2014.

IM: In your bio, there’s a reference to your band Urgent … tell us a bit about that?

Kehr: In the 1980’s, my brothers and I started a band called Urgent. We wrote, played and sang our own songs. We were signed to EMI Manhattan Records and released two albums and two videos. Our first album, Cast The First Stone, produced by Ian Hunter and the legendary guitarist Mick Ronson, made the Billboard 100. We had a song in the film “Iron Eagle,” and fans internationally.”

IM: You’ve been in some terrific Broadway productions; which ones stand out for you?

Kehr: Every show I have been lucky enough to do on Broadway has had importance in my life. Creating roles in the original companies of a show has been extremely gratifying. The stand-outs are The Who’s Tommy and Jersey Boys. Both have significantly helped to define my career. Also, both shows won the Grammy Award for Best Theatrical Recording.

IM: What is it that fascinates you about Broadway the most?

Kehr: The energy of a live audience creates a spark and motivation for the actors on stage, and even though we’ve rehearsed it over and over again, the response and interactions are different every night. That’s what I love about the theatre.

IM: What director haven’t you worked with, that you would love to?

Kehr: For theatre, I’m a big fan of Alex Timbers (Peter and the Starcatcher, Rocky/The Musical), Susan Stroman (Bullets Over Broadway, The Producers), and Michael Mayer (American Idiot, Spring Awakening). For film, Quentin Tarantino and Stephen Spielberg of course.

IM: Is there one play that you’ve wanted to do … and, it just hasn’t happened?

Kehr: I always wanted to play the American in Chess and Willy Loman in Death Of A Salesman.

IM: You’re doing some music production too, right?

Kehr: As a musician and songwriter I have been around amazing music producers for all my life. I have always been inspired by what they do. I began producing my own work and have found a passion and talent for music production. In 2006 I produced “Two Sides” for singer/songwriter Bonnie Mizell. In 2012, I produced the album “Comfortable” for Tituss Burgess (NBC’s “30 Rock,” Broadway’s The Little Mermaid). Currently I am writing and producing songs for an up and coming artist, Megan Rice (age 13) who is sure to be a star.

IM: In Rockers, you have a core series of performers that are always there; who are they?

Kehr:The Rockers On Broadway events have been a fixture in the theatre community for over 20 years. Each year we try to feature performers from current running shows, however fans come back year after year to see their favorites. Broadway Tony Award Winners Christian Hoff (Jersey Boys) Alice Ripley (Next To Normal), Michael Cerveris (Assassins), all who were in the first Rockers are regulars of the series. We’ve also been blessed to consider the legendary DJ “Cousin” Brucie Morrow and the iconic Micky Dolenz, as part of the Rockers family, but the list goes on. See our website for more info on performers.

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