THE LEADING MEN: Keeling, Bell and Parlato

This month we chat with Derek Keeling, who is making his Broadway debut as Danny in Grease; [title of show]'s Hunter Bell, who is amusing to no end; and Dennis Parlato, who has returned to a role he last inhabited 23 years ago.

Derek Keeling
Derek Keeling

Once More, With Keeling
Derek Keeling has played Danny in Grease over 600 times in venues all over the U.S. and Canada. As a contestant on TV's " Grease: You're the One That I Want," he came close to winning the part in the current revival but when the role went to Max Crumm, Derek thought his Danny Days were done. He had been working on playing Charles Darnay in rehearsals for the forthcoming A Tale of Two Cities musical when the Grease producers approached him. "When they called me and offered me the show, I didn't know exactly what to think of it because I had moved on mentally," he says. "Now that I'm doing it, I am really glad that this is where I've ended up. This is a show that I've done so many times and a show that I have such a personal attachment to. I couldn't imagine making my Broadway debut in any other show." We caught him on this third performance — only the fourth time he had actually done this version of the show with this cast, a night when Crumm and former Sandy, Laura Osnes, were in the audience.

Question: Are you right back into the swing of all things Grease?
Derek Keeling: It's starting to get more into my body. It's just so quick! I'm having a ball. I'm really having fun with this cast. It's a fun group of people to work with — very welcoming. You never know when you're coming in as a replacement, if they're going to give you a negative energy, but they're all really cool, and I feel welcomed into the cast.

Derek Keeling as Danny Zuko
photo by Joan Marcus

Q: I know it happens all the time, but one really gets thrown to the wolves as a replacement. Do you think it is the best way to go about things?
Keeling: I guess it would be better if I got to do it more before I had to do it in front of an audience, but that's the nature of the beast. I got to the point in rehearsals where I was talking to the dance captains, and they asked, "What do you need?" and I was like, "Well, I just need to do it." It gets to the point where you just need to go out there with the cast and start developing relationships with the other characters. That's what I feel like is happening right now. I felt really good last night. That was the first time I felt like I could start to play a little bit, and I [wasn't thinking], "Oh my gosh, where do I go? What do I do here? Which foot do I start on?" . . . When you are originating a role, you get rehearsals and you get previews and all that stuff before anybody sees you. A lot of the audience, unless they are following the news, doesn't necessarily know that that is your first night or your second. People are still paying for tickets, so you want to seem like you are giving a 100 percent that day as much as any other day. I remember if I'd ever mess up in a show before now, I'd say, "Ah, whatever, it's just Texas, it's not Broadway." [Laughs.] I can't say that anymore. Q: It was cool that Max and Laura came out to show support.
Keeling: Yeah, I didn't even know they were there until I saw them backstage after the show. They were very complimentary and said it was weird seeing other people do the show because they've never gotten to see the show before without them in it. It was weird for them to see other people do their job, but they were very nice and very supportive.

Derek Keeling with Ashley Spencer
photo by Joan Marcus

Q: Ashley Spencer, your current Sandy, was not someone you were paired with a ton on the TV show.
Keeling: I actually worked with Laura a lot. Ashley and I got one quick little dance together on one of the last episodes I did. That was it. We didn't interact a lot in the TV show. It's cool because we understand each other and know what we went through to get here. It's also cool to start a show and already have that camaraderie. Q: On TV, you were presented as "The Wholesome Danny." Do you endorse that version of yourself?
Keeling: I'm from West Virginia. I'm from a Southern Baptist family. I think that's where a lot of that came from. I believe I am genuinely a really nice guy, and I respect people that I work with. On TV, they take little parts of you and want to build it up into a character. I do think I'm a pretty wholesome guy. I am really good friends with my mom — I talk to her every day. I'm very close with my family, and I'm very traditional. I think that has a lot to do with where I grew up and how I was raised, but I do have a lot of those Danny qualities in me too [laughs].

Q: One Danny quality I read about is that you are a former drag racer. Is that true?
Keeling: It is! My dad's a drag racer still. When I was growing up, I probably did it from when I was 14 to 16, not very long because I had other sports. It was like the mini top fuel dragsters. When I started, I was one of the first in the country that did that. That was when they first started that division. There were probably only about 20 of us in the entire country and you'd see the same 20 guys at every race you'd go to. We were the pioneers of the junior drag racing division. It was fun. It was something I could do to bond with my dad and share that experience.

Q: Taylor Hicks is currently Grease's Teen Angel. Have you had a chance to talk with him?
Keeling: Yes, he's a really cool, down-to-earth guy. He kind of got here in the same way, though on a bigger scale, that I did. He knows what it is like. One of the things that has happened with a lot of us [from reality shows] is people see you on a TV show and think that's the first thing you did, when a lot of us had been working in the business for awhile. I got my first professional job ten years ago. Taylor said the same thing. He said he'd been on the road for about 15 years at the point of "American Idol," going around as a musician. He said, "I worked 15 years to establish myself, and now I've been working the last couple years to re-establish myself." I really understood what he was saying because I've had people come up to me and say, "Hey, welcome to the business. Welcome to New York." And I say, "I've been here for awhile, but thanks!"

[ Grease is playing the Brooks Atkinson Theatre. Tickets are available by calling (212) 239-6200 or by visiting www.TeleCharge.com. The Brooks Atkinson Theatre is located at 256 West 47th Street in Manhattan. For information, go to greaseonbroadway.com.]

Night of the Hunter


Hunter Bell

I don't know if [title of show] is too clever for the common man, but my mother did wonder why I had mistakenly left out the title of the show in my interview with [title of show]'s Jeff Bowen last month, until I told her that [title of show] was actually the title of the show. Once she got it, however, we had a good laugh. Now, for more good laughs: I spoke to the other half of [show]'s dynamic duo, Hunter Bell. Roughly the Gracie Allen to Bowen's George Burns, the Tuscaloosa-born Bell ("I still say 'y'all' even though I've been here 15 years"), who calls himself a natural hambone, was last on Broadway in The Grinch and has written for Ringling Brothers. Has his life become a circus since the show opened? Let's see. Question: One month in, how are you enjoying Broadway stardom?
Hunter Bell: [Laughs.] It's going great. After the opening, which was as amazing as it gets, it is fun to be settled into the run. So far, so good!

Q: You're not burned out yet?
Bell: Not yet, call me in another week and I'll be all jaded, just really calling out sick a lot…[Laughs.] It's a total dream to be on Broadway, and to have something that we created is another part that adds to the amazing-ness, and to get to do it with my friends, it doesn't get any better than this, truly.

Q: Have you enjoyed the responses you've been getting from Broadway crowds?
Bell: A month into it, audiences have been really supportive and really diverse, and my hope is that that continues. There was a group of women from Texas the other day who were like, "We just wanted to see something different. We didn't know what this was, and we loved it."

Q: What do you say to people who feel like there are insider jokes and references in the show that might go over people's heads?
Bell: I think the interesting thing is — and audiences hopefully will prove this — that people have been coming and having a great time who are not of the theatre, who just want to come and see a great show and see something original and new and different. Are there inside references? Totally. Do they cheat an audience from knowing what's going on or having a great evening? I'm hard-pressed to think that because somebody doesn't know who Betty Buckley is that it sends them spiraling and they just shut down completely. The people that accuse it of being insider-y are on the inside, and we get a lot of, "Well, I love it, but there's no way anybody else will get it." It's interesting that somebody can't stop with, "I love it." I think it speaks to the fact that Jeff and I did not set out to write an obscure, insider musical. We set out to tell our story, and it was about two guys writing about musical theatre. I've said before, if we were baseball fanatics, we'd be writing about statistics and talking about games. My brother is a television sports producer. Friends of his were here last night. They work producing NBA games and baseball games. They don't know about Mary Stout, but they do know about the bigger themes that resonate: how hard it is putting your stuff out there and achieving your dreams. People are smart. They have the internet. We got a letter from a kid in Iowa. He said he's coming to see the show in October, and he watches all our clips on youtube. The internet has changed what information is available. The New York Times is online. Playbill.com is online. You can read an update every day about David Hyde Pierce. It's not limited to the tri-state area. The internet has changed the game about what people's knowledge is. People are smart everywhere is what I tend to believe.

Hunter Bell in [title of show]
photo by Carol Rosegg

Q: Some of the heavier moments in the show, the battles you guys get in when you adapt the show for Broadway, how real are those?
Bell: It's interesting. I had a great writing teacher, Lynda Barry, who wrote, "The Good Times Are Killing Me," and she had this great word to describe her work: autobiofictionography. And, that sounds like us a little bit. There were things that were heightened and condensed because we wanted to write a musical comedy, not a documentary. That being said, everything you see onstage came out of seeds of stress. It was inflated a little bit because I tend to think we've had a lot of therapy, and we really respect each other as collaborators and peers. Rarely would we just storm out of a room or fight. That's a little bit heightened because it's fun to watch onstage. I don't know if it is as fun or interesting to watch people calmly, collectedly, respect each other, but the seeds of what you see are absolutely true. The questions of do we belong on Broadway, do we need to change to fit people's preconceived notion of what a Broadway musical is... I think what you don't see in the show is that all of us shared those fears. Sometimes Jeff would have them, sometimes I would. For the purposes of [title of show], the musical, what you see on stage has been heightened. Q: Jeff told me you guys were invited to game night at Joanna Gleason's. How did that turn out?
Bell: We haven't gone yet, but in my mind I hope we will be re-enacting Into the Woods while we barbecue chicken. That's my goal. Then we'll move into a came of Celebrity. Although, what is a game of Celebrity like when you actually play with celebrities? But that's been amazing, the icing on the icing on the icing on the cake. Joanna Gleason has been a hero of mine. I came up to New York and saw Into the Woods with her in it. To have people whose work rocked your world and blew your mind, to have them come to see your work and get to meet them…Normally I would be at the stage door with a Playbill and a sharpie — and I still am — but to talk to them about their work and how they influenced you. From Joanna Gleason to Andrea Martin to Bob Martin to Des McAnuff to John Kander, the list goes on and on. Bill Irwin was at the show the other night and sent back a nice note. That blows my mind. That's part of the walking dream.

Q: It must be tempting to find a way to write such moments into the show.
Bell: Peter Gallagher came to the show the other night. Now, for an opening-night gift, Ken Billington, who designed our lights with Jason Kantrowitz, gave Jeff a Grind show jacket and me an A Doll's Life show jacket. I think they had been in Ken's closet until the opportunity came for the right people to pass them on to. So Peter Gallagher came to the show, and I ran up to him with my A Doll's Life jacket, and so many things came together in that moment! He was like, "Where the hell did you get that?"

[ [title of show] is at the Lyceum Theatre (149 West 45th Street). Tickets are available by calling (212) 239-6200 or by visiting www.TeleCharge.com. Also check out the " [title of show] show" on youtube for further adventures of Hunter and the gang.]

Parlez-vous, Parlato?


Dennis Parlato
photo by Ron Rinaldi

Since July 17, Dennis Parlato has been urging us to "Try to Remember" as El Gallo in The Fantasticks at the Snapple Theatre. Parlato didn't have to try too hard to remember his lines, as he had played the role back in 1985. Okay, maybe 23 years is a long time to hold onto lines, but the L.A.-born Parlato did have a familiarity with El Gallo that made it easier for him to join the cast. The show, having returned from a winter hiatus with previews in June, is now doing what The Fantasticks has done more-or-less for nigh 50 years: "It invites an audience to remember and live and rejuvenate and rekindle those sparks of youth," Parlato says. Q: How did you end up reprising your El Gallo?
Dennis Parlato: I saw that they were going to do it again and asked Tom Jones if they would consider bringing me back, and he said yeah. I'd been wanting to play this role again ever since the year 2000, when I saw the 40th anniversary performance and thought to myself, "I gotta get up on these lines and get on the sub list" because they didn't have understudies when the show was downtown, so they would call people who had a costume hanging there and say, "We need a sub, c'mon in." But by the time I got it together, they closed downtown. I knew from 2000 that these are wonderful words to say and the story is tightly woven together. It's a great role.

Q: I must ask you what I ask everyone who I talk to in the show, which is, what makes The Fantasticks so timeless?
Parlato: The best thing happens to you that can happen in theatre, where you are brought out of the present time and space and transported into a universal truth area, which has to do with love, tested love, deep love and the realities of the seasons: dying, growing. What more can you ask for?

Q: It's a show where the depth can sneak up on an audience.
Parlato: The Fantasticks is a great example of a seamless presentation of story, spoken word, music and lyrics, and the whole story moves smoothly through those elements. It's very skillful, the writing and the staging. It doesn't pretend to be the most powerful piece ever presented, but it's not just light, frothy, charming romance. It has some bite to it. The second act, I often think, is much more for the adults than for kids.

Q: Tom Jones is not appearing in the show, currently, correct?
Parlato: He wanted to get back to his writing. It was my one disappointment. Not that J. T. Waite isn't wonderful, but I've never been onstage with Tom. However, Tom gave me more direction, actually, and insight into the piece than he was able to give me back in 1985 when he was busy with other things.

Emily Rabon Hall with Dennis Parlato in Paint Your Wagon
photo by Robert Clayton

Q: You recently did Paint Your Wagon out West. How did that go?
Parlato: It was at the Pioneer Theatre in Salt Lake City, and it was a revision of the Broadway version that looked at the father and his daughter in the mining camp and how things develop there. It was a much-improved book written by a Hollywood writer. There were attached producers who hoped to shepherd it to Broadway, but it didn't get picked up. One of the problems turned out to be the attached producers couldn't get the money people they wanted to get to Salt Lake City in time. . . .They couldn't get the money people there in time, and too many members of the cast voted against allowing them to make a video of the production, so it was unfortunate. But it was a really good experience. I got to play Ben Rumson, a really great role with great range of stuff that he goes through, and beautiful ballads. For "Maria," we had more than 15 guys singing that. Q: I saw that you had been nominated a couple times for Best Villain by Soap Opera Digest. Do you enjoy playing the heavy?
Parlato: On soaps, definitely. If you're not the heavy, it is too saccharine for my tastes. The men, they sweeten them up too much. It's too Hallmark card. I remember once on "Guiding Light," which I was doing for awhile, they decided to have the middle-aged guys have these love scenes, each with their lovers. These poor guys! One was in a bubble bath, and another guy was on a couch in all these awkward positions. Kind of typical, right? The heavy, me, I got to be on a studio beach with my lady, just us ripping each other's clothes off in a nice animalistic way, so there was nothing Hallmark card about it. I was especially glad to be the heavy that day.

Q: Lastly, how do you go about singing a legendary song like "Try To Remember" each night?
Parlato: As simply as possible. It's not about the singing voice or anything like that. Just a simple, poignant invitation to relax and remember.

[ The Fantasticks plays The Snapple Theater Center, 210 West 50th Street; call (212) 307-4100 for tickets.]

Hither and Yon
With all the talk of Hair possibly making a full-fledged run at Broadway, I had the opportunity to see the group that had the charting massive hit single of "Hair," The Cowsills, at B.B. King's last week, and they sounded nothing short of fantastic. It's not many bands known for a handful of hits that sound great playing new and fresher material as well, but the Cowsill family was blessed with numerous skilled songwriters among their ranks, and you can never beat the sound and tightness of family harmony. I hope they make it back to NYC soon. Head to www.cowsill.com for info on the band, and check out www.bbkingblues.com to see what else is happening at King's…Cowsills bassist, Tad Armstrong, a great songwriter in his own right, besides being a childhood pal of mine, has a new full-length album out. Check out www.tadarmstrong.net for details… Much congrats to one of Broadway's nicest fellows, and a friend of the column, as well as a heck of a rapper, Jeffry Denman, on his impending nuptials to Erin Crouch. Here's wishing you both many encores together… Travis Nesbitt should kill as the new Mark in Altar Boyz… Last month I queried about your favorite instrumental LPs of Broadway shows, and I got some great responses. Some obscure, like a Maury Laws album of the songs from Do Re Mi; some awesome, like Stan Kenton's West Side Story. Mark F. wrote in to alert me that Percy Faith's Subways are for Sleeping is on CD, paired with Do I Hear a Waltz. "You can't not buy that CD!" Mark says. I like the way you think, sir…Topic for August: Best albums of show tunes by a vocal group. The Four Aces' "Hits from Broadway" has gotta be right up there. What do you folks think? Email me, and I'll be back next month.

Tom Nondorf can be reached at tnondorf@playbill.com.