THE LEADING MEN: Joshua Henry and Colin Donnell Test "The Luck of the Draw" in Broadway Premiere of Violet
By Carey Purcell
Starring in the Broadway premiere of the musical Violet, Tony nominee Joshua Henry and Colin Donnell are experiencing different kinds of homecomings.
Taking on the roles of Monty and Flick, traveling soldiers who both pursue relationships with the leading lady in the musical Violet, Tony nominee Joshua Henry and Colin Donnell are both returning to familiar ground.
The Broadway premiere of the award-winning musical, which is helmed by Leigh Silverman, marks a reunion of sorts for both Henry and Donnell. Henry is returning to the role of Flick, which he played in college, and Donnell is back together with two-time Tony winner Sutton Foster after the two co-starred in the Roundabout production of Anything Goes in 2011.
"This score has stayed with me for a very long time," said Henry, who has performed on Broadway in Porgy and Bess and American Idiot, and who was directed in college by the original Off-Broadway Flick, Michael McElroy. "I first discovered it when I was 18 years old. And being able to sing a song like 'Let It Sing' again has so much more meaning for me now that I'm a little bit older."
In the time that has passed since Violet's Off-Broadway bow at Playwrights Horizons, as well as Henry's first performance as Flick, the musical has been adjusted, with significant changes and cuts made to the script and score. The Broadway production features the shortened version that played City Center as part of its 2013 Encores! Off-Center season. The concert presentation, which starred Henry alongside two-time Tony winner Foster, ran an intermissionless 90 minutes.
The show's original creators, Jeanine Tesori and Brian Crawley, contributed to the retooling process — a process that Donnell, who has also performed in Jersey Boys and Love's Labour's Lost, described as exciting.
"It's such a cool piece, and it really feels like it's getting its day," he said. "It's quite a bit of time later, and seeing how much excitement Jeanine and Brian have for their baby, and the way they're really re-attacking the piece — they're so involved. It's infectious."
A coming-of-age story that takes place while on a long-distance bus trip, Violet, which was adapted from Doris Betts' story "The Ugliest Pilgrim," touches upon themes of inner and outer beauty and acceptance, as well as racial and sexual prejudice. Henry credits those themes, and their timelessness, to Violet being finally ready for its Broadway bow.
"It's always relevant — moving forward into the future and finding out who you are," Henry said. "I think those themes never get stale. This originally debuted in 1997, and there's a reason I think it took a little nap, but it didn't go away forever. It's great to be bringing it back in 2014.
"We all have something in our past that is gripping us, and Violet is very much about leaving those things behind," he added. "The themes of leaving the past behind, moving forward and finding out who you are as a person, not letting the past define you. Everyone's got something that they've held onto from their childhood or from a past relationship, someone who's told you what you are and it's leaving all that behind and living a happy life and realizing that a lot of that is inside you — really uncovering that. The story — those themes — are heavy themes that everyone can connect to."
"Maybe not everybody has a physical scar that they're carrying around, but they certainly see the plight of a girl who is just trying to make things right in her life," Donnell added.
Monty meets Violet while traveling with Flick, a self-assured African-American soldier traveling in the South in the 1960s, who performs one of the score's most well-known songs, "Let It Sing." Returning to the role of Flick after the 2013 City Center concert, Henry said he is excited to explore the character further.
"We're really getting to dig really deep to the bones of these characters, what makes them tick," Henry said. "And Leigh is amazing, asking these really hard questions to find out why. Why does he sing 'Let It Sing?' Where are they in their journey at each moment?"
Flick's confidence, which Henry said is expressed through "Let It Sing," compares drastically to Violet's insecurities about the scar on her face that she believes defines her as ugly. Physical beauty and how it restricts Violet is another aspect of the play that both Donnell and Henry enjoy exploring.
"I love the idea of challenging what the standards is," Henry said. I think we're starting to see in Hollywood, a lot of people take stands. People like Jennifer Lawrence, who are like, 'Look, I don't have to fit this mold.' That's Hollywood. And here we're telling this story on Broadway. It's very relevant."
Donnell mentioned watching the Academy Awards, adding, "You see the red carpet news and the breakdown the next day of everything... it is the way it is. We're all interested in what people look like and the way people carry themselves, especially celebrities — but it really is what's going on inside that counts. I think [Violet]'s a great story for that.
"More than ever, when you look at a magazine, when you look at television, Twitter, Instagram... we're such an image obsessed culture," he added. "For better or worse, mostly for the worse, I think people would agree, and when you start telling a story that focuses so much on inner beauty, it becomes a really beautiful story to tell. And, I think that hopefully we start a discussion and we would love to move people. We would love people to get involved in the fun of the score and how beautiful the score is, but at the end of the day, it's a really powerful thing to tell something that hopefully can have an impact."
(Carey Purcell is the Features Editor of Playbill.com. Her work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com. Follow her on Twitter @PlaybillCarey.)
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