THE LEADING MEN: Colin Donnell of Merrily We Roll Along and Anything Goes

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12 Feb 2012

Celia Keenan-Bolger, Colin Donnell and Lin-Manuel Miranda
Celia Keenan-Bolger, Colin Donnell and Lin-Manuel Miranda
Photo by Peter Cunningham

Colin Donnell is taking a break from playing Billy Crocker in Broadway's Anything Goes to explore the complexities of Merrily We Roll Along in an Encores! concert.


Both shows are billed as musical comedies, but are worlds apart. The Cole Porter score of Anything Goes is all champagne and broad strokes, while the songs by Stephen Sondheim in Merrily are touched with acid, regret, sorrow and — by the end of the show, blessedly — optimism. The Porter show from 1934 just wants to have fun and get to the next fizzy show tune while Sondheim (from 1981, and revised in the 1980s and '90s) ruminates on the choices made by its conflicted characters. And, to complicate matters, Merrily's story is told backwards, from the 1970s to the 1950s.

In the days leading up to the Feb. 8-19 New York City Center Encores! run of Merrily, we spoke to Donnell about the challenges of playing Franklin Shepard, a golden-boy composer and producer who loses his commitment to art, ideals and friends (played by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Celia Keenan-Bolger) as the days go by.

Merrily We Roll Along is complicated for you in two ways — by the structure of the piece, which moves from "present-day" to past, but also by the shortness of the time you have in the Encores! rehearsal process. I'm wondering how you address building a character in that limited time frame. Do you throw process out the window and focus on mechanics?
Colin Donnell: In the normal process we have, you know, maybe a week or two of being able to sit down at a table and discuss things — read through the script several times. We just don't, unfortunately, have the luxury of that. But, there's something kind of freeing in it, also. Because there's so little time to think, so much of it is based on instinct and what [director] James [Lapine] throws at us and our first impressions of these characters — which, I think, is somehow really well suited for the piece.

It's a tricky piece. These are not easy scenes to play. So, what's been kind of cool is figuring out how to navigate ourselves through all of that stuff. It's been a bit of a mind-warper, but it was so cool to see how all of the scenes actually piece together, and to see how moving the piece was, and see how clear we had made it in such a short period of time.

James Lapine worked with Sondheim and librettist George Furth to revise the 1981 script and score into something more refined in the mid-1980s, and it was further revised in the 1990s. What was James' primary advice to you?
CD: I think our main goal — and his main goal — has been to make these characters as human as possible and make them as accessible as possible for an audience. It's been a wonderful thing for us to sort of key into: finding who these people are, what their friendship is and how much love they have for each other. Not just within the trio [of Frank, Mary and Charley], but also bringing in Gussie and Joe and Beth and finding out how real we can make these people as individuals, and how real we can make the relationships.

I guess you will keep finding things out during the run. The run will be a chance to grow the roles.
CD: I think so. I certainly think the hope doing any piece is that you are able to find new things as you go along. But, certainly, when you only have 12 days to throw something up, I think we'll be learning new things all along the way up until we put the curtain down on it.

Do we have clues about what makes Franklin Shepard so ambitious? Do we know about his childhood?
CD: James made it clear that he's not somebody who grew up with a lot. He's a self-made man. I think one of the interesting things about Frank is that when you really look at it, he's not that different from anybody who wants something in life. He's just somebody who happened to get it. It's easy to sort of demonize him in the first couple of scenes because the wealth and the success and the fame isn't portrayed in a very positive light. But, at least from the way I see it, it's not something that's terribly bad to want.

Yeah. Well, it doesn't make him a villain to be ambitious. Part of the tension is that his friends aren't equally aggressive.
CD: One of the things we talked about, one of the over-arching themes, as James has seen it and that we've tried to devise, is that it's a play about expectations and not necessarily living up to the expectations that your friends place upon you. So, it's not necessarily that it's a bad thing that he's got all the stuff, it's just not what they would have chosen for him in the first place, which is a hard thing. We all have friends and family who see one path for us, and we go a different path and it's not necessarily what they would have wanted.


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