Derek Klena on a more true-to-life Anastasia and the evolution of the highly-anticipated new musical

Derek KlenaDerek Klena plays Dmitry in the highly-anticipated musical adaptation of the 1997 movie Anastasia. Directed by Tony Award winner Darko Tresnjak of A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, the production also boasts an impressive creative team. The team includes Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens (both of whom worked on the original film) as well as Terrence McNally and Peggy Hickey. The show, which is slated to make its grand Broadway entrance in the 2016-2017 season, began previews at Hartford Stage on May 13.

Avid fans of the film waited with baited breath to see who would be cast as the romantic leads, and it seems certain that Klena and Christy Altomare will live up to the high expectations placed upon them. Their previous experience playing a couple in the Off-Broadway revival of Carrie: The Musical proved that they have the chemistry to carry the show – and an Instagram video posted by Altomare further supports that claim.

In addition to Anastasia, Klena recently appeared as a dog masseuse and DJ-wannabe on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. While Klena’s theatrical roles so far have been serious for the most part, his performance as Douglas showcased his natural aptitude for comedy.

Klena found time between Anastasia rehearsals to discuss adapting a childhood favorite for the stage, Darko Tresnjak’s meticulously-researched vision for the show, and his now-famous friendship with former Dogfight and Wicked castmate Lindsay Mendez.

How are rehearsals going?

They’ve been pretty amazing. Everybody is in a good place, and we seem to be clipping along. Darko is so efficient, and he comes into rehearsals having such a clear vision of what he wants to do, which is so helpful for both the writers and the actors. So everything has been pretty efficient, quick, and to the point. Everyone knows exactly what they are doing rather quickly, so it’s been so far so good. The rehearsal process has been as good as possible, in my book at least. I think everybody is feeling that sense of – I wouldn’t say ease, but a sort of satisfaction and pleasure in getting to put this together every day. It’s been an amazing experience so far.

 What’s it been like to play another romantic duo with Christy Altomare?

Christy’s great. Part of that nervousness going into a show and playing opposite another character is wondering, ‘Are you going to get along? Is this going to be an easy process? Are we both going to be on the same page?’ There’s a lot of trust involved. So working with Christy in the past and knowing that we both trust and enjoy each other and have a pretty easy time being around each other helped to put us both at ease when we found out we were cast in these roles. Even when we were auditioning, Christy showed up the same day that I was there and we ended up reading together. She said, ‘They told me to come back and read with my old boyfriend!’ I was like, ‘This is going to be great!’ So we went in and sang through one of the numbers and did a little scene together. But she’s amazing. We were both super thrilled that we got to work on something together again.

Another one of your costars is John Bolton, who plays Vlad, your partner in crime.

Oh yeah, he leads the crime. I’m a huge fan of him. I’d seen him in numerous things, but when I saw him in A Christmas Story, he blew me away. I got to go to the opening of that show, where he played the father of the family. So finding out he was going to be, like you said, my partner in crime, that was pretty exciting. I knew that he had this energy and enthusiasm about him, and he’s such a good guy and such a good person. We have fun exploring and finding the kookiness in our scenes every day, because we are roustabouts. We’re a con-man duo. We’re both rough around the edges, but we’re good at heart. He’s just the most inventive, creative guy, so getting to explore these scenes with him every day has been really fun. I’m excited to get further into the process and see what he comes up with.

What kind of vision does Darko have for the musical?

He wants to bring out a lot of the realistic elements. The movie is so well-known, obviously. People have this fairytale image of Anastasia and the events that occurred that were animated and elaborated in a way that wasn’t exactly historically accurate. He’s pulling it back and making it a little less of a fairytale and a little more human while still keeping those fairytale moments. The story that we’re creating and taking from the movie still has a fairytale sense about it and it still has a happy ending, but it was such a dark and important time for the Romanov family and for Russia. He’s trying to bring out those moments and to humanize the story without making the whole piece dark, which has been tricky because that’s a very fine line to walk. We, and Darko especially, are trying to stay true to the Russian heritage and the Russian stories. We’re trying to keep as many facts as we can straight so we can pay homage to the country and this family and what they went through. It’s important to him and to all of us to get it right. That’s been his main focus in adapting this for the stage.

So have you been researching that time period and the Romanov family and all the events that unfolded?

Oh yeah. When we first showed up, they gave us a 130-page thesis paper about the Russian family, that time period in Russia, the Romanovs and all their ordeals, how long they were held captive, and the Anastasia story. We have been briefed and coached on the history of Russia and the Romanov family. They made sure of that. Showing up and getting big packet with news articles and detailed outlines of each member of the family was daunting and very helpful at the same time. It’s great that we’re all aware and we’re all on the same page, because obviously the writers have done very thorough research.

The entire story of that family is kind of morbid, but it’s also so interesting.

Yeah, it was a dark and tough time, but the story of their lives and everything they went through is pretty fascinating.

A lot of people who are now adults grew up with the movie Anastasia. What does it feel like to know that you’ll be performing this story, albeit with some differences, that was a big part of people’s childhoods?

I like to think myself as one of the now-adults who grew up with the movie. I’ve been a huge fan of it since I was younger, and my girlfriend was as well. Dmitry is one of her favorite animated characters, so she was thrilled. It is a dream come true to be able to play this almost anti-prince. He has all the prince-like qualities that everyone loves, but he also has this edge. He’s a bit of a rascal, but he’s good at heart. His character has everything that I’ve dreamt of playing and creating, and getting to work with Darko and this team is amazing. I’ve been a huge fan of Ahrens and Flaherty and Terrence McNally since I was younger. Ragtime is one of my favorite musicals ever. So getting to work with them on this particular project with this cast and crew has made me feel very fortunate, and I’m grateful to be a part of it.

You mentioned Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, who also wrote the music for the film, but they’ve now written 16 new songs for the stage. What do you love most about the score they’ve composed for this?

I love that they wrote a lot of new songs for Dmitry! Anastasia’s songs from the movie ‘Journey to the Past’ and ‘Once Upon a December’ are the ones that stick in everyone’s head when they think about Anastasia. But for this production, they had to fill out Dmitry’s character and give him a little more backstory so that when he, Vlad, and Anastasia go on this ride to Paris, you know a little bit about each of them. I have reaped the benefits of having a lot of amazing new material written that is so great to work and play with. Because it’s new and fresh and they’re still shaping our characters throughout this process, it’s been really fun to work out some changes and figure out what works and what doesn’t. It’s also helped me to develop this character from scratch, in a way, rather than having this template. I mean there is the template of the movie and the things that people loved about Dmitry in the film, but they’ve created this story around him that is new and original that I’ve really enjoyed shaping in my own way.

I’d never really thought about it before, but you’re right. He doesn’t get to sing much in the movie.

Yeah, he doesn’t have any solo songs. He and Vlad sing a little bit in ‘A Rumor in St. Petersburg’, but Stephen and Lynn have written these new songs that I’m thrilled to sing and I think everyone else will be excited too. They’re so smart and so quick. In this development process, getting writers who are so aware of the changes that need to be made and who are willing to make those changes to get everything to click into place is essential. It seems like it’d be a no-brainer, but it’s tough. It’s tough for writers who worked so hard on this material to let it go if it’s not working. Lynn and Stephen are the most willing and the most giving in that process. They’re always trying to fix things to the point where they’re almost over-fixing because they’re perfectionists. Darko has to pull them back and say, ‘You know what, guys? Give me a couple days. I think this is going to work.’ But yeah, I’m definitely living my childhood dream in all facets of this process.

If you could play a role in any other musical that Stephen and Lynn have worked on, which role would you like to play? I know you mentioned Ragtime.

Oh gosh. I mean, Coalhouse Walker in Ragtime ­– that’s a miscast role, but he’s one of my favorites.

You could play him in the MCC’s Miscast gala though, there you go!

Yeah, that could work! I would love to sing a Coalhouse Walker song at Miscast. But I also love ‘The Streets of Dublin’ from A Man of No Importance; that’s one of my favorite songs. That’s an amazing part, and I got to work with Steven Pasquale, who originated that role. I idolize him. That’s another show that I’d love to do someday.

What’s your favorite scene or song from the original movie Anastasia?

‘Journey to the Past’. We’ve placed it in a different point in our show, which works for what we’re doing, but it’s such a magical moment in the movie. The way that they paint it, with her release from the orphanage and moving on, it’s great. It initiates the story in such a good way within the shape of the movie. That’s one of the scenes that I remember most vividly.

Do you have anything in common with Dmitry?

Too much. I like to think of myself as a warm person. I care a lot, and Dmitry cares a lot, but he also has a lot of reservations with people and the way that he goes about life. I think that’s a very universal feeling. But yeah, I’m a little rough around the edges too and I have some soft spots, I guess, so I can relate in that sense. In the right time and right place I can open up, but it’s not always the easiest thing to do. That’s why he’s so likeable. He has those qualities that everyone has a hard time expressing.

He’s not the perfect Prince Charming; he’s got flaws.

Yeah, he’s the troubled prince. He’s a prince of thieves.

What was your favorite animated movie growing up?

It’s a toss-up between The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Hercules. Those are both at the top of the list.

Which classic cartoon character do you relate to most?

Dmitry is probably one of them. He’s up there with Flynn Rider from Tangled. They’ve both got kind of that same vibe. They’re the most human. There are many Disney princesses, but the princes that have personality are few and far between. It’s slim pickings, but it would probably be Dmitry or Flynn. Don’t ask me why I know that, but I think that might be it.

You appeared as Douglas on the new season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Could you talk a little bit about that experience?

That’s my new life goal, to be a regular on a 30-minute comedy. It was the most enjoyable set and so much fun to work on. Tina Fey and all those writers were present. It was their second season, so everyone was really excited. It was towards the beginning of the season, so everyone was getting back into the swing of things and it was a great environment. I had such a blast. And I was fortunate enough to have Jane Krakowski as my scene partner for half of my episode, which isn’t too shabby. Getting to mess around with her and find humor in those scenes, and getting to work with those writers and have them throw funnier and even more ridiculous lines at me, that was a very fun time. I wish I could have played Douglas the dog masseuse for a few more episodes before he decided to transition to a DJ, but you know, what are you going to do. And I got to work with Carol Kane, who I was in Wicked with. One of our days lined up so we got to be on set together. She’s just the sweetest, most lovely people, so I loved getting to hang with her. She’s amazing on the show.

Since Douglas’s dream was to be a DJ, what would your DJ name be?

So many embarrassing names come to mind, like DJ Twinkle Toes or DJ Prance-A-Lot. For some reason, dancey DJ names popped into my head. Maybe the Dancey DJ? I don’t know.

Everybody loves the friendship between you and Lindsay Mendez, of course. What other Broadway show would you like to collaborate with her on if given the chance?

I’d love to work with Lindsay on a new show. We got to be in Wicked together, which was a bucket list opportunity, but our real friendship got its spark from getting to create these characters in Dogfight. That’s how we got to know each other so well. Getting to shape something around our relationship and bringing our individual lives to a particular project would be a lot of fun. That would be the dream, to get to work on something new and fresh with her again. It would be special, because that’s the type of process that we met doing.

If you had to be trapped in an elevator with three other Broadway stars, which three would you pick?

Hugh Jackman is a Broadway star – well, he’s an ‘everything’ star, so I’d pick him. Then I’d probably also pick Norbert Leo Butz and Brian d’Arcy James. Those are my three kings, my three idols in the theatre world. I love just about everything they do, and they’re also good people. They work really hard and they’re well respected. That’s what I’d want to be surrounded by in an elevator if I had the chance.

What do you think audiences are going to love most about Anastasia the musical?

They’re going to love all the old favorite songs from the film. I think we highlight them in a great light, and Christy is the best. They’re also going to really enjoy the new material because we only took five or six songs from the film, so there are a good 13 songs that are brand new. It’s music that no one’s heard before. It’ll be exciting for everyone to take what they know from the film and learn a lot more about these characters individually and about the actual real-life story. Knowing all of this detailed historical information about her and her family also raises the stakes of Anya and her journey. People will really get invested in that sense and take this journey with her.

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About Brooke R.

"Don't wait for people to tell you who you are. Show them." - Laura Benanti

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