Derek Klena reveals his crazy journey to Broadway

It’s no coincidence that Derek resembles Dmitry from the 1997 animated movie, Anastasia. With his adorable dimples and boyish charm, he is bringing the character to life onstage at the Broadhurst Theatre with added dimensions. We spoke to him about his crazy journey that led him to Broadway and what it is like to originate a dream role.

Joy: Was there a specific moment or age that you knew you wanted to be an actor?
Derek: I started acting and doing theater when I was six. Neither of my parents were performers, but my mom got us involved in children’s theater and we started taking voice lessons from a friend of the family. I always had a knack for it when I was young. As I got older and I played sports and did a lot more theater, I got to love it. It wasn’t really until high school that I started doing more professional regional and dinner theater performances that I started to picture my life with theater as a career and something sustainable that I would want to do. I played baseball my freshman year in college, then realized that I didn’t want to do that. I did a singing competition in L.A. and got an agent out of that and started doing some more regional theater around the area. That’s when the career aspect of acting kind of came to fruition. I really wanted to pursue it. So it wasn’t really until later that I started thinking of myself doing this professionally and for a living.

Was it your mom who inspired you to get involved with theater?
Yes, my mom started me and a lot of actors along the way. Norbert Leo Butz, Hugh Jackman. All those – Steve Pasquale who I got to work with on Bridges of Madison County. I just idolized these guys. Gavin Creel. Aaron Tveit. I mean, these guys were playing the roles that I would love to play someday and listened to them on soundtracks and hoped that I would get that opportunity. It’s kind of surreal to be originating my own role at this point.

What was the journey like to get to Broadway and was it harder than you expected?
It was kind of a crazy road for me. It all started when I was doing the singing competition in L.A. to get an agent. If you were in the top five of this competition, you got to do your own cabaret at the space. I decided to sing a song from Catch Me If You Can, which at the time was doing it’s out‑of‑town performances in Seattle. I saw this song that Aaron Tveit was singing online called “Goodbye” which is his 11:00 number of the show. The music wasn’t out yet, but my accompanist was able to figure it out and he said we can do this. A reviewer from Broadway World actually reviewed the show and mentioned that I sang that song, and then Marc Shaiman (who wrote Catch Me If You Can) actually messaged me on Facebook saying, “I heard you sang the song, did you sing it good?” At this point I didn’t really know who he was. I was kind of like, “I think so,” and then I looked him up and I am like holy crap, this is Marc Shaiman. And he said, “well, if you do sing it again, send us an mp3 because we are going to be looking for Aaron’s cover when we transfer it to Broadway.”

Derek Klena with his Carrie co-star, Christy Altomare

I ended up singing it at another event and they got the sheet music from Marc Shaiman. Marc requested that I send them an mp3 before he gave them the okay. So I recorded an mp3 at a friend’s studio, sent it to Marc Shaiman, and he was like, “this sounds awesome. I am going to forward this to our casting director, Justin Huff, at Telsey and we would love to have you come out and audition for Aaron’s cover.” Then Justin Huff reached out and set up the audition, so I ended up flying out. I went to a dance call, went to a final callback and work session for the cover and then they determined it just wasn’t going to work out for that time. I needed to get a few more credits under my belt, but Telsey said there were a couple of other projects that they wanted to bring me in for, one of which was Carrie. So I ended up sending in a videotape for Carrie, they flew me out for callbacks for the last workshop/lab that they were doing and I booked the lab. That two week lab for Carrie was my first actual experience working in New York. Soon after I got the offer for the off‑Broadway run. I had just finished my sophomore year at school and I would have had to leave after my first quarter of my junior year. So I decided to make the move to New York. I really had no intention of staying past Carrie, but then towards the end of the Carrie run, I auditioned for Dogfight.

When Dogfight happened, that was kind of the beginning of the end. That’s when I knew, I am going to be here – if I am going to do this, I am going to go full‑fledged into it. My parents were supportive and I was just lucky to have those opportunities and experiences, but it was kind of all just a crazy turn of events, all from Marc Shaiman messaging me on Facebook.

That’s amazing. So you never finished school?
I have not finished school. Although my mom reminds me constantly that I need to take classes.

Were you familiar with any version of the Anastasia movies beforehand? What about the history of the Romanov family?
Yes. I grew up with the animated movie so I was very familiar with it, and I was one of those that always had hoped it would go to Broadway because I would love to play this role. I was not really familiar with the actual historical Romanov story. So all of that and what Terrence McNally had done to the script was very new to me and educational. When we did the Hartford run, they put together this report on the Romanov family and all the characters and the people in the show and background information on the family tree and everything, so that really helped wrap my mind around the world in which they were now telling the story. So I learned a lot about the Romanovs through that. I grew up with the movie. That was my generation that was always loving the film.

Christy Altomare, Derek Klena, and the cast of ANASTASIA in ANASTASIA on Broadway, Photo by Matthew Murphy, 2017What’s it like to be a part of Anastasia and bring this wonderful story to life? Do you feel a lot of pressure from the fans to deliver?
Yes and no. We are all pretty proud of the show that we accomplished and my role in particular, it’s grown so much from the movie to the stage that I feel like I have been given so much new material to kind of recreate this role with. So even though people have high expectations from the film and Dmitry in general, we have just given him a whole different persona and scope and more background information, so that when you come to see the show, this is like a new Dmitry, this is a new character, this is a new story. That has helped free me up from the expectation and the mold that the animated film has created and has given me the freedom to do what I want. That’s been super rewarding, and the fans have approved so far.

What’s your favorite number in the show?
It kind of changes. I do enjoy the ballet through the meeting between Anya and the Dowager and then I sing a song “Everything To Win.” It’s kind of the apex of my character and a lot of things coming to the surface that I enjoy. It’s the nice string of scenes they pieced together for me. I also love “A Rumor In St. Petersburg.” John [Bolton] and I have a lot of fun. There are a few moments of this and that where we get to just hang out a little bit, which is fun.

What do you like most about your character, Dmitry?
There are just a lot of layers to Dmitry that I feel define him as a – not only an animated character, but this person. I mean, he is rough around the edges. He has to put on this face because he has grown up in such a tough environment. He has had to be this man of the house from such a young age, that he has this wall up. But then as the story goes on, he slowly sheds that wall and you see him transform from this roustabout boy to having to man up and be a man. That’s one thing I like about the show – he doesn’t have as big a journey in the movie.

Derek Klena, Christy Altomare in ANASTASIA on Broadway, Photo by Matthew Murphy, 2017What’s the best part about working with your co-star Christy Altomare and the rest of the amazing cast?
Christy is amazing and coming into this process we were so lucky because we already got along and had been friends for five years. (We previously did Carrie together.) So having that comfort with somebody, especially with these roles that are on stage, we would spend most of our shows together. That was a huge bonus and relief.

Everyone else in the cast, we just constantly rave about each other. That’s one thing that’s been so amazing about this process,. From the creative team to our onstage and offstage relationships, there are no weak links or bad personalities. Everybody is just the most pleasant which doesn’t happen. I mean, this industry is filled with so many good people, but there rarely is a cast that we just all gel and there is not one person that I don’t call a friend and we are all so close. To get to live in this run, with this group of people has been super fun to experience and with every week we just get more and more comfortable with each other and we get to have fun, which is why we do it.

Do you have any onstage mishaps or backstage secrets that you could share?
Well, for the first few weeks of the run, we were breaking a lot of the music boxes that I give to Anya leading into “Once Upon A December.” We finally fixed and built a compartment into the bag that I carry around that will shield the music box from any banging around, so that was a feat that we had to accomplish. What else happened? There have been a couple of times where the train will stop. It has gotten stuck, but that hasn’t happened in a long time, knock on wood.

I am sure there will be some crazier things to come, but so far so good. We haven’t had any crazy mishaps. We have had some set pieces knock around backstage. Oh, we had a light that was going crazy during one of the shows. A light had burnt out or something and it was buzzing really loud and then finally burnt out and the light stopped, but then the lights were like discoing for a few seconds during “A Rumor In St. Petersburg.” That was fun. If that’s the worst of our problems, I guess we are in decent shape.

You’ve had the opportunity to originate a few roles. What has that been like and what is the best part of being able to create a new role?
The freedom that you get when creating a role and developing it with the creative team and the director. That’s the experience that you can’t really replace, getting to hear it from the mouths of the writers and director. It just gives you another level of confidence that you wouldn’t necessarily have if you were recreating a role. Getting to do Wicked, it was always a dream of mine, but there were ten, fifteen versions of Fiyero that people were comparing my performance to and that I had to go off of and somehow make my own. Although that was an amazing experience, it’s also just a different experience and more difficult in some ways. So to get to create your role from scratch and have nobody to compare it to, then you know there are no wrong answers. We are all finding these characters and this show together, so it really becomes a team sport. It’s more rewarding when you do get it right and you feel like everything is clicking into place because you have found this thing all together and you have ownership of that. That’s the cool part about getting to create these.

Do you have any pre-show rituals?
I have been playing a lot of music in my dressing room which I usually don’t do, but I am on the same dressing room hall as John Bolton and Ramin Karimloo, so I try to pick a different classic rock band to rock out to every day. That’s been kind of fun. Just stretching. I am not much of a stretcher, but this show is very physical, so I have had to really warm up for it. That has been a challenge and new for me. Other than that, that’s about it.

If you could put yourself in any other show currently on Broadway, which would it be and what role would you play?
Oh, boy. Maybe Miss Saigon because I am very good friends with Katie Rose Clarke and I always wanted to play Chris and sing those songs. I think that would be a cool experience to have.

Christy Altomare, Derek Klena in ANASTASIA on Broadway, photo credit Matthew Murphy 2017Any dream roles?
It’s hard to say because this is a dream role of mine. I am getting to live it. It’s kind of surreal. That’s the cool thing about creating roles too, you are doing this all from scratch, so it’s not like something that’s been done before. And Dogfight was kind of the same way. That and this role I think have been two epic experiences that are going to be hard to top. Of course, there is always Jean Valjean in Les Mis. That would be incredible to play someday. Oh, I would love to do Damn Yankees someday. Play young Joe. I think they are working on a revival so I am putting good vibes out there.

What’s the craziest experience or interaction that you had with a fan?
I haven’t had crazy experiences. Everyone has been pretty awesome. Fans have been respectful. Kudos to the fans. I got a jar of opening well wishes from a bunch of fans, and they all put little messages in this jar. That was really, really cool and sweet. And a lot of amazing artwork on the show, which has been kind of incredible. It’s fun that this was an animated movie, so we have been getting some really cool artwork. Fanastasias have been good.

Derek Klena and Kelli O'Hara in The Bridges of Madison County
Derek Klena and Kelli O’Hara in The Bridges of Madison County
 (© Joan Marcus)

In a few words, describe your experiences in each of these shows:

Dogfight: Educational and rewarding.

Wicked: Broadway debut. That was always a dream of mine, so dreams come true.

Carrie: New experiences, new city, new world that I was thrust into. You know, this amazing Broadway, off‑Broadway community.

Bridges of Madison County: Epic music and unbelievable cast and team. To get to play Kelli O’Hara’s son, not many people could say that. And Hunter Foster.

What’s the best advice someone has given you about anything and what advice would you give someone who wants to pursue a career in theatre?
Be yourself. Keep all these idols and people that you respect that you want to be like someday, just remember that you love them and what they do because of who they are as a person. You can only bring what you are to the table, so if you try to be someone else, it’s not going to come off as authentic and it’s not going to be as rewarding. Present who you are and what you can bring to a role, and just represent yourself in the best way possible, then you are never going to have a bad audition. You are always going to walk away with something rewarding and you are always going to walk away with something educational about that experience and that’s all you can really have control over, just have the best experience in the room as possible from your end of things. And you know, the rest is up to the theater gods and there is nothing you can do about it. That’s a hard thing to stomach and hard thing to walk away with, but it’s just going to bring you the most happiness in the end. Good things will happen for people that work hard and put themselves in a position of success.

Do you have any hidden or quirky talents?
I was pretty good at the yo‑yo when I was younger. And I played baseball until I was in college so I am pretty good around the Broadway Softball Leagues these days. Anastasia doesn’t have a team but I am actually playing on Cats. I have some friends in that company.

If you could play any Disney prince on Broadway, who would it be? Do you have a favorite Disney movie?
Flynn Rider from Tangled. He is probably the most Dmitry‑esque character and also the most intriguing that I think I would want to play. Hunchback, Hunchback was always my favorite Disney movie growing up. I just loved the music.

Favorite thing about living and working in NYC?
The people and the opportunity here is what I have enjoyed. I love the work atmosphere. I love that there are so many talented people that you just surround yourself with, gifted and dedicated people. I have made a lot of great relationships and experienced a lot of amazing people on the way.

Transcribed by Yaffi // Interview has been edited for clarity

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