On the Phone With Colin Donnell

On the Phone With Colin Donnell

Darkly handsome, Broadway leading man Colin Donnell is on the fast track to becoming a matinee idol. Currently starring in the Broadway premiere of the musical Violet (first produced Off-Broadway in 1997), Donnell previously made his mark in Jersey Boys and the Tony-winning 2011 revival of Anything Goes in which he and his Violet co-star, Sutton Foster, first got a kick out of each other. Here he takes a break from rehearsals to dish on the chemistry between him and Foster, finding life after death on TV and why good looks may be in his genes, but live theater is in his blood.

Can you tell me something about your character in Violet?

His name is Monty; he’s a soldier and a bad boy, who is ultimately affected by Violet, her personality and journey as much as any person in the show.

It must be quite a jump going from the sophistication of Anything Goes to Violet, a grittier musical. How different is Monty from Billy Crocker?

Sutton and I were talking about that. There are moments in rehearsal when we look at each other, as if to say, this is different, isn’t it? Parts of each character are similar. I find a lot of the characters I end up playing have something in common with each other. Billy and Monty are guys who love fun, they love a little bit of trouble and they love the people that are around them. But it’s a different world that we’re all living in this show as opposed to Anything Goes. That was quite literally the champagne toast of musical theater. Violet is the kind of story-driven musical that Jeanine [Tesori, music] and Brian [Crawley, book and lyrics] do so well. It’s almost a180 turn from what we were doing in Anything Goes and so much fun.

You had the opportunity to sing so many great standards in Anything Goes—“Easy to Love,” “It’s De-Lovely,” “You’re the Top”—how does the score of Violet stack up?

It’s beautiful.

More character-driven, less jukebox?

Anything Goes is really a collection of Cole Porter’s greatest hits. That’s not to say that each of those songs doesn’t serve a great purpose in forwarding the story and becoming part of the piece as a whole. What Jeanine and Brian have done, what they’re continuing to do actually, is make sure that each of their songs serves a very, very specific purpose in giving insight into a character, a moment, the piece as a whole. What’s been fascinating is to watch them 17 years later come back to their score and tinker and play with it. There’s a new song that I think I’m allowed to say is coming for me that hasn’t been written yet [this interview was conducted on March 4, when Violet was in rehearsal]. The score is a great mix of gospel, bluegrass, country and blues. Jeanine and Brian jump from style to style. Jeanine is so specific when she works. What’s been cool during rehearsals is sitting down and working through the songs and having her ask questions for us to be able to get a better understanding of what’s going on and what purpose the song serves.

What is it like having a composer, like Jeanine Tesori, write something for you? I mean Cole Porter wasn’t around to write for you.

It’s thrilling. You know, to be the canvas she gets to paint on, I wouldn’t even say it’s intimidating because there’s so much fun in being that person she gets to write for. It’s cool.

You weren’t part of the 2013 Encores! Off-Center concert production of Violet?

No, I was over in [Central] Park last summer [doing a musical adaptation of Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost].

So you’re the new guy in town.

There are a few of us in the cast who weren’t part of the Encores! production. It felt on the first day [of rehearsals for the Roundabout Theatre Company production] as if we were all starting from zero, because of the nature of what that concert was [five performances and a short rehearsal period]. For me, personally, I’ve known Josh [co-star Joshua Henry] for a while, though we’ve never gotten to work on anything together before this. Obviously, Sutton and I have such a good relationship already. We really felt comfortable from the get-go a couple of weeks ago. We trust each other to have a good time and are doing our best to create something that is memorable.

I wanted to talk a little bit about your relationship with Sutton Foster. What’s she really like?

She’s a big nerd. [Laugh] There’s nothing about her personally that she doesn’t give to the audience. She is as magnanimous a person offstage as she is onstage. She is loving and giving. One of the big draws of coming to do Violet was actually that Sutton was going to do it. Just to have the opportunity to spend time with her again. She’s such a giving person onstage and such a wonderful person to be around offstage. That just makes work not seem like work.

Can you define or describe the chemistry that you two have? Because obviously there is chemistry. What is it about you that she relates to?

Maybe she finds a fellow nerd in me. [Laugh] I think there’s a level of comfort. I know that I trust her 100 percent, and we can be silly and be serious and be honest with each other and really sort of let ourselves be vulnerable with each other. I think once you’ve gotten to that point with somebody you can have just a ton of fun. Maybe that’s what makes it so special working with her. There’s complete trust and a really cool freedom. It’s not being afraid of falling on your face. Somebody’s going to be there.

Sounds like a perfect partnership. And perhaps there’ll be more work ahead?

I can only hope so.

Violet’s about an image-obsessed society and the heroine’s quest for beauty. You’re a good-looking guy: Do you think your looks have played a significant part in furthering your career?

Oh, gosh.

Violet may be set in the 1960s, but isn’t 2014 as image-obsessed as then?

Certainly. That’s one of the great things about Jeanine and Brian’s show that resonates today. We’ve become the society of Twitter. Beautiful people everywhere surround us, and what does that mean for young people, looking at photos of quote unquote perfect human beings? I think it would be silly to deny that I have chosen to be in an image-related business. I just finished working out right before I called you. [Laugh] There are unfortunately certain standards that you have to live up to [in this business]. But credit due where credit’s due: My parents gave birth to me. [Laugh]

Thank God for your genes.

Yeah. I think one of the cool and interesting things about Sutton in particular playing Violet—and Leigh [Silverman, the director] has brought this out in rehearsals—is that she’s a beautiful, beautiful woman. This is a story about a woman with a horrible disfigurement because of an unfortunate accident. So it’s going to be a challenge for the audience to look at this beautiful woman and see the scar. They’re also going to be challenged to recognize a scar that is on the inside as well. Because as beautiful as somebody might be on the outside, we’ve all got things going on beneath the surface that are hard to deal with. It speaks to a large portion of the population. We all have something that we’re trying to figure out and deal with. It’s always fun to be a part of a work that puts an audience in the position of having to think. Discussion, I think, is the greatest thing that can stem from a piece of work like this.

Your character on Arrow, Tommy Merlyn, was killed off at the end of the first season. Having enjoyed success on TV, why return to theater now? Why not pursue another series?

I was very happy to be on the show and working, but there’s just something you don’t get on TV. For 10 years before being lucky enough to get on Arrow, I’d been a theater rat. I made my living and made a career out of being on the boards. Being able to come back and do Love’s Labour’s Lost [at The Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park] for a couple of months last summer was a little taste of what I’d been missing. So, when this opportunity came along, it was the right time and the right people and the right piece and the right part. I hope, as things continue in my career, I’ll be lucky enough to get back onstage a least once a year.

Is there a role or several roles that you would love to sink your teeth into?

I’ve always loved being part of a new project. I’ve been lucky enough to play some of the parts that I looked forward to playing when I was starting out in the theater. Playing Billy was amazing. Getting to play Franklin in Merrily We Roll Along was a pipe dream come true. And hopefully now that I’ve started this relationship with The Public, I’d love to work with them again. Shakespeare at some point. I’m just seeing where the wind takes me at this point.

It seems to have taken you to some really great places.

Thank you.

»Violet, Roundabout Theatre Company at the American Airlines Theatre, 227 W. 42nd St., btw Seventh & Eighth aves., 212.719.1300. Previews began March 28 for April 20 opening, runs thru Aug. 10