John Ellison Conlee on saying goodbye to ‘The Madrid’ and reprising his role in ‘Murder Ballad’

John Ellison Conlee

John Ellison Conlee

John Ellison Conlee will have just a few hours between his final performance the twice-extended off-Broadway play The Madrid, scheduled for May 5, before he reprises his leading role in Murder Ballad, which he originated last fall, for previews at the Union Square Theatre on May 7.

Ellison Conlee, a former Tony Award nominee for his role in The Full Monty, talked with me about what it takes to transition from one successful show to another so quickly, what he expects from working with Murder Ballad’s new leading lady Caissie Levy, who replaced Karen Olivo after Olivo announced her leave from acting, and his marriage to fellow Tony nominee Celia Keenan-Bolger.

SDD: The Madrid has been extended twice so far. Did you expect audiences to respond to the show as strongly as they did?

JEC: I didn’t know how audiences would respond, but I loved it ever since I got to do a workshop of it. I think it’s such a challenging, interesting and unusual piece. I have heard that it’s going to be MTC’s [Manhattan Theatre Club] highest grossing play in that area. It’s exciting that people are coming to see it and enjoying it a lot.

SDD: What is it like for you to be a part of something that has received such a strong and record-breaking reception?

JEC: It’s just more fun to be in a show that people attend and respond to than not, having done both. It’s not much fun, even if it’s a fun show to do, when people don’t come or when you have to try to get people to come. That’s also true for when people don’t like it, although I have been very proud of some shows I have done that haven’t always been well-liked. In this case, I just love doing the play. It’s a wonderful group of actors, it’s fun to work with them on stage, and this playwright’s work is particularly fun to do. There’s a lot going on emotionally and it terms of what’s actually going on in the play. Much like with real life, most of the talking isn’t about that- it’s more about covering that up. The amount of space that gives us as actors is enormous. It’s really fun for us to play with those slight differences that happen every performance. Liz Flahive and the director Leigh Silverman both came to see the show last night, which was our 57 performance without including previews. So we’ve done it a lot and it’s changed a fair amount since then. They were very pleased to see how it has grown. It’s really the kind of play that allows for that. That’s really exciting and makes it that much more rewarding, even as it continues to play for several more weeks.

SDD: What is it going to be like to say goodbye to the show?

JEC: That’s a good question. It’s either always the last or second to last show that gets so emotional that even as an actor it’s hard to keep it in check. It’s your job to get to let your feelings out but you can’t get derailed by your personal emotions, yet those are what you’re using to do your job. So it’s a tricky situation. Celia and I have talked about that with our previous shows and the second to last show is pretty tricky that way. It’s like what I have been saying about the high background of emotions and certain circumstances are so hard. With the language and with people not saying so much of what they feel inside, I think most of that sense of grieving and loss is going to be pretty emotional for all of us. I worry that our final or penultimate performance will be a little crazy. Maybe we’ll gain a few minutes, which I hope we don’t, and we have already discussed that and our stage manager is on top of it. I have a feeling it will be infused with some kind of personal sadness that affects the play. In some ways it will be great but in others it will be challenging to fight against. It’s always hard to say goodbye to a play and a company you love. The nice thing is that I will only have one day for rehearsal before I start Murder Ballad. There’s a sort of depression period where you have all this unstructured time so I will not have that. Hopefully that will make it a little bit easier.

SDD: I was going to ask about your jump from The Madrid to Murder Ballad. How do you transition from one show to another so quickly?

JEC: I don’t know how that’s going to go exactly. I will start rehearsal for Murder Ballad next week during the day and I will be performing in The Madrid at night. I’ve done that before and that’s tricky. In many ways, it’s actually sort of great. It’s tiring but rehearsing for something brings new things to whatever you are performing at night. I expect that to happen and I look forward to that happening. Just seeing that transition from the final performance of The Madrid to rehearsal and then previews for Murder Ballad, I will be interested to see how that goes.

John Ellison Conlee with the cast of 'Murder Ballad.'

John Ellison Conlee with the cast of ‘Murder Ballad.’

SDD: Can you tell me a bit more about the plot of Murder Ballad and who you play in the show?

JEC: Murder Ballad centers around a woman named Sara who is being played by Caissie Levy. Karen Olivo played the character back when it was downtown, but we are excited to have Caissie playing the role. There is also a narrator and it basically follows the story of Sara. She has this beautiful on and off love affair with Tom, who is played by Will Swenson who is fantastic. He was in the production at MTC. It’s the kind of thing that’s passionate but doesn’t seem like it’s built to last. Sure enough, she extricates herself from that and immediately runs into Michael, who is my character. He’s the possibility of something more stable and we actually build a life together. We have a child and, as happens sometimes in that situation, we stop paying attention to each other. She begins to wonder what she was missing with Tom and begins to arrange to see him and then gets back into a relationship with him. She can’t decide what she’s going to do. Is she going to give up her life with Michael and her child? She eventually decides to stay with Michael but Tom takes matters into his own hands and tries to enter that situation. Then there’s lots of musical mayhem and loud, angry singing at that point. It’s a really fun sort of love triangle story but in this case there’s a fourth element that I don’t think people expect. It’s a great show and it’s a great company. Rebecca Naomi Jones is the other person in it but I can’t tell much about her character. It’s really an exciting company and I’m looking forward to being back in a room with those guys.

SDD: Three out of four of you have already performed this show together. What was it like bringing Caissie Levy into the show? Is there a shift or do you expect things to be different with her?

JEC: I expect it will be different just because different actors bring different things. It’s all about how the story exists between you. I expect it will be different. One of the things about a musical is there is less room for it to be a completely different thing. This is a sung through musical, there are no scenes that aren’t musicalized. There are time signatures to obey and notes to obey, so of course it will be different, but it can’t be so wildly different in a way that a play would be. I can’t wait to work with Caissie and to get back in the room with Tripp Coleman, our director, and Julia Jordan and Julia Nash who created it. It’s an exciting thing to get back into the room. Usually when you say goodbye to a show, that’s it. We had an inkling when the show ended in December that it might come back. I am looking forward to reinvestigating some of that stuff.

SDD: How do you choose your roles and shows that you want to be involved with?

JEC: Sometimes it’s about which ones choose you. There are roles that I would have loved to play that I didn’t get. Basically it’s the roles that you respond to. There have been roles that I have enjoyed and I have responded to that have been primarily funny and lightweight but mostly they are the ones that I have an emotional connection with. What the character’s going through means something to me and I can bring something to that that will be interesting, not only to do but to repeatedly do. If it doesn’t resonate with you, it’s hard to do it a lot. Even if it something that you think will be great for your career, I think the main element is that when you read it on the page, what do you feel? Do you feel like you can relate to the character? Do you think that helps you understand the character more? In The Madrid and Murder Ballad I had that response. I wanted to see what living in this character’s skin feels like.

SDD: Would you ever consider doing a Full Monty revival?

JEC: Well, there’s been some conversation about that every once in a while. I don’t know whether I would do a revival of it or not. I would certainly love to do a concert version of it or something like that. I don’t know if I would want to go back into rehearsals, particularly with another company. I think that would be hard. If we got the whole same group assembled, it would be something that I would consider, but I don’t think we need to do that. I feel like we did it really well and it was very satisfying before. I do really like that book and that score and the people. We have been trying to do a concert version or something like that but we have not been able to make the scheduling work out. I do hope that it will happen because I think that’s a special show and I’d love to be able to sing that great score again.

SDD: That would be a really fun night.

JEC: Yeah, I think people would enjoy it and I would really enjoy doing it.

SDD: I think it would be a lot of fun for people who know the show, or for people to get exposure to it that way.

JEC: I think so too. I think there would be an audience for it. It’s been 11 years. I feel like people would really be brought back. That show was special to so many people. I still, every once in a while, will be working with someone or see someone on the street and they will say, ‘The Full Monty really meant something to me.’ I think it would be nice to remind people of what that was.

SDD: I think that would be awesome. You have worked with high-profile and interesting people. Are there any words of wisdom or interesting advice that has stuck with you?

JEC: I remember, speaking of The Full Monty, Kathleen Freeman used to have a list of things every equity member should know and you can probably find it somewhere. She used to say that the only way to get better as an actor is to do it. Get out there and play all the different parts that you can. I think that’s right. There are times in my life where I have just waited for work. I always had opportunities, but they were not what I wanted. If you can’t get those opportunities, you have to make your own and keep working at it. I think that’s really important.

SDD: How do you balance such a busy schedule with your marriage? Celia was out in Boston for a month and now you have a few hours between your shows. How do you do that?

JEC: That’s the other thing is to make sure you also have a life. Celia and I have been really lucky in the sense that we haven’t had to spend too much time apart. This year was probably our biggest challenge when she was in Cambridge doing Glass Menagerie and I was here. We started the week after they did in rehearsal so I went up to spend some days with her and she would come here on her days off. It wasn’t that bad at first when we were in rehearsal full-time but the hardest part was not being there to help each other out. We couldn’t see each other’s early previous and talk about what we saw which was difficult. As the run went on it became really hard to just not be together. The good thing is that they were both projects we loved. Neither of us were approaching it like, ‘I just have to do this to get insurance weeks.’ It’s not to say there aren’t times when you have to make a difficult decision where you need this money or something like that. I think that would be a lot harder. In this case, both of the shows were things that we felt like we had to do. It wasn’t forever in the span of our lives and so it’s worth it. We are now very protective of the time we have in the future. I am going right into this other show but we are constantly in touch about when we are going to get some time together and how do we protect that time together. For my day off, we went up to Saugerties and had a great little vacation there. That kind of stuff is really important. We have been really lucky and have mostly gotten to be together. In this case it was worth it but it was definitely difficult to be apart. I still haven’t seen her show. 

John Ellison Conlee with his wife Celia Keenan-Bolger.

John Ellison Conlee with his wife Celia Keenan-Bolger.

SDD: Do you have an interesting hobby or talent?

JEC: I’m a damn good tennis player, how about that? People probably wouldn’t expect me to be a pretty good tennis player but I am.

SDD: Would you play John McEnroe?

JEC: I would love to play John McEnroe! It wouldn’t be a match for him but I am a huge fan and would love to do that.

SDD: Describe yourself in five words or less.

JEC: Lots and lots of hair.

SDD: Describe Celia in five words or less.

JEC: Amazing, beautiful, wonderful, weird and hilarious.

SDD: If you could eliminate any song from existence, which would you choose?

JEC: “You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile”.

SDD: Really?

JEC: I think I just had a bad experience with it as a young person.

SDD: What is your biggest pet peeve?

JEC: I don’t know what my biggest one is but I saw a guy clipping his toe nails on the subway the other day and that wasn’t my favorite.

SDD: What is your current obsession?

JEC: I don’t know if I’m currently obsessed with anything. I am enjoying The Americans on TV a lot.

SDD: If you weren’t an actor, what would you want to do?

JEC: Be a winemaker.

SDD: Nice. Red or white?

JEC: I would make both I think. I prefer to drink red but I enjoy both.

SDD: Would you head out to Napa?

JEC: I think I would try it somewhere other than Napa at this point.

SDD: What’s the last great show you saw?

JEC: The Flick.

SDD: If you could trade places with anyone on Broadway, who would you choose?

JEC: David Hyde Pierce

SDD: Who was the last person who made you feel starstruck?

JEC: Elizabeth Warren.

SDD: If you could have a drink with any Broadway star, which would you choose?

JEC: Well, I get to do it all the time, but I would choose Celia Keenan-Bolger.

SDD: Cute answer. Are you and Celia planning on having little Keenan-Bolger-Conlees in the future?

JEC: Yes. It’s something that we talk about all the time. The timetable is uncertain but yes.

SDD: Do you know how many you would want?

JEC: Not sure.

For more information about Murder Ballad  or to purchase tickets, visit their website

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"I found the theatre and I found my home.” ― Audra McDonald

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