It appears that Andrew Keenan-Bolger has found the secret to eternal youth.
As Jesse Tuck in Tuck Everlasting, Keenan-Bolger plays a 17-year-old who, along with his family, is frozen in time. The 30-year-old also played a teenager in his last Broadway role as Crutchie in Newsies four years ago. Keenan-Bolger’s youthful appearance and demeanor allow him to play these roles with ease.
In addition to being a mega-talented Broadway actor, Keenan-Bolger is also a skilled director, videographer, and the author, along with Kate Wetherhead, of the children’s book series Jack and Louisa. The series, which follows two 12-year-old theatre kids, has received great acclaim from readers and critics alike.
Keenan-Bolger caught up with Stage Door Dish to discuss his six-year journey with Tuck Everlasting and his views on themes found within the inspired Broadway musical.
You’ve been with this show for quite a while, so it must be surreal to have Tuck Everlasting on Broadway.
It’s true. I started working on this show six and a half years ago for the first table read. To see what it’s grown into, this incredibly big production playing at the Broadhurst, is totally surreal.
Was it always in your mind that you wanted to come back to this project?
When I was in high school I was super obsessed with these two songwriters, Chris Miller and Nathan Tysen, who not many people knew about. I found them through my sister, who had met them at the NYU writers grad program. They were students at the time, and she gave me a demo of their music, and I was so addicted to it. It was like nothing I had heard before. It was this folk, Americana sound and something that I didn’t see anywhere else in the musical theatre genre. I started emailing them for sheet music and would do their stuff in auditions. When I found out that they were working on Tuck Everlasting, I prepared more for the audition than almost anything. I really, really wanted to be in it. Of course, my sights had always been set on getting to do this project. Right away, from the first reading, I knew this was a character I could really get into the skin of and that I would love to do this on Broadway.
I’m glad that you brought up Miller and Tysen already because their music is so unlike anything else this season on Broadway, where most of the songwriters are from Hollywood and are well-known. These two guys are basically the underdogs. Can you speak a little more about the music in the show and what it’s like to work with these emerging artists?
It’s rare that for a big property like Tuck Everlasting, which is one of the most beloved children’s books of all time, has had a successful movie, and has been in the cultural zeitgeist for the past 41 years, they would trust an unknown team of artists. It speaks a lot to the producing team that they were not trying to choose the flashiest people, They were trying to choose the people that were best for it. The story of Tuck does have a folk vibe, and they’re able to write it really authentically but also have the training of knowing musical theatre, so it does sound like a musical but it’s seen through the lens of the folk genre. They’re super hard working. I think they’ve thrown out about as many songs for the show as they’ve written, probably more, trying to cook up the perfect recipe for the show. It’s difficult music to sing, but it’s really exciting music to sing. If you would have told me, when I was in college and obsessed with these guys, that my first leading role on Broadway was going to be in their musical, I think my head would have exploded.
This is your first time being a leading man in a show. What has that experience been like for you?
If I’m being totally honest, it felt like a lot of pressure. The other shows that I’ve been in, I got to be the fun, comic sidekick, where I could come onstage, do my bit, and then go chill in the dressing room. With this, I almost never leave the stage. There’s a lot of responsibility, especially right now while we’re in previews and there are new lines going in and new songs, and I feel like I’m often at the brunt of a lot of the heavy lifting. It’s a really big team of principal actors in this and a really well-used ensemble, so I never feel alone up there. I’m getting to do scenes alongside people I’ve been such a massive fan of since I was a kid. I guess I say more lines than other people in the show, but when you’re working with theatre legends, it’s hard to ever feel too big for your britches.
You’re working with Carolee Carmello and Terrence Mann, just to name a few. It’s so incredible. I want to talk about Tim Federle because he and you make such a good team. Did you know him before this project?
I did. It’s pretty remarkable, actually, how much the entity of Tim Federle has had on my life. Originally, he was working on Tuck Everlasting as Casey Nicholaw‘s assistant in the early stages, helping out with choreography and some of the direction. He went away from the project and became Tim Federle, the children’s author. It was the success of his book, Better Nate Than Ever, that got the attention of Penguin Random House, and they realized that this was a genre for which people had underestimated the audience. It was really successful, super well-reviewed, and Penguin decided that they wanted a series of their own that dealt with kids who had a passion and love for musical theatre. We took our first meeting with them right as Better Nate Than Ever was coming out and immediately talked about Tim in our interviews. He went on to write the pull quote on the front of our book and now I’m saying his lines every night on stage. It is super full circle. Our lives have been incredibly intertwined, and he’s one of the funniest, most dynamic human beings you’ll ever meet. Even if our business paths had not crossed, I would want to be in his circle.
What did you learn through this process of six years with this show and company?
I’ve learned to never get comfortable in who you think a character you’re playing is. With Jesse Tuck, right off the bat, I felt like I had a strong grip on who he was. He’s the one character in the show who sees this eternal life as a blessing rather than a curse, and he’s wide-eyed and excited to experience the world. I was very much that person when I first moved to the city and was auditioning for this. As I grew up, I began to worry how I was going to keep playing this character, especially because I was getting further and further from the age of 17. It was actually within that that I discovered a whole new side to the character. Of course he is 17 and still young and has his whole life ahead of him, but he’s also someone who has spent the last 85 years feeling stuck while the entire world grows up around him. There’s a real loneliness and sadness to feeling like you never get to become a man. That was something I had never considered in the first three or four years of doing the show, and if I hadn’t gone through the same experiences in my life of love and loss, then I don’t think I ever would have given this character the complexity that he deserves.
Has Natalie Babbitt been involved in the show? I know she visited the show.
Yeah, she has been very involved from the beginning. I think she was at our first reading just to check it out and guide our hand. She’s been very generous with her praise for this production. Of any of the entities of Tuck Everlasting, I think we’re the closest to what she envisioned for the book. We got to perform it for her early in previews and she got to see Tuck Everlasting performed on a Broadway stage for the very first time. It was a very emotional show, and I got to give a speech after the show acknowledging her, which brought me to tears. This was one of the first books my mom read to Maggie and me as kids, and to see how much this story affected me as a kid and continued to grow with me and become more meaningful as I got older, it was surreal. It was a beautiful thing to get to experience.
Other than Tuck, what would you say are your favorite childhood stories?
So many of these are ones that I have memories of my parents reading to me. I loved Charlotte’s Web. I remember my mom reading and just crying so hard. When I was more the age of Winnie Foster, 11, I really liked the book From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, which is about 2 kids who run away from home and live in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. I liked a lot of books that people might not consider children’s books because they dealt with serious subject matters, like Bridge to Terabithia and Number the Stars. There is a reason that books like that, and Tuck Everlasting, have such an impact. I don’t think we give kids enough credit to understand these complex themes, but they do. It’s people like Natalie Babbitt, who talk to kids about life and mortality, that are remembered the most and are the most influential upon people’s lives.
What were you like at 17 years old?
Oh gosh, I was the most awkward, weird, insecure kid ever. People always ask, ‘If you could stay 17 forever, would you?’ No, not for all the money in the world. I went through puberty pretty late, so I wasn’t comfortable in my body, I had really terrible posture. 17 was the summer I discovered Sun-In, so I was putting that in my hair to bleach it because m parents wouldn’t let me dye my hair. It was a bad time. I look at pictures, and I just want to give that kid a hug and tell him it’ll get better.
If you could say anything to your younger self, what would you say?
I would tell him to follow any creative impulse. I feel like I spent the first few years after I graduated having these ideas and thinking, ‘But how would I do that? It seems too hard to do.’ As I got older, I started trusting that voice and thinking, ‘Maybe I’ll try it. Maybe I’ll fail, but maybe I won’t. What do I have to lose?’ Being able to do that, I have gotten to be so fulfilled outside of my career that it’s made the time when I’ve been able to work even more special.
This show deals with conquering fears and mortality. What are your biggest fears and how do view your own mortality?
I definitely have a lot of fears. That’s one of the things that drives me. If I were super confident and self-assured, I would not have become a creator. I started writing and directing stuff because I was scared that I wouldn’t get hired and I wouldn’t have a career as an actor. It was almost an insurance policy. I still feel that today. I’m still always pretty sure that whatever job I’m working on is going to be my last one. It can be healthy in some ways, as long as you don’t let it rule your life and don’t let it get between you and being creative.
If you could be immortal, would you choose that for yourself?
I’ve always said I would choose immortality if I had an amazing person to share it with.
There’s only one book left of Jack and Louisa. What should people expect from the last book, and what are you and Kate Wetherhead considering working on together next?
Book three is great because our characters turn 13 and it’s the first real coming-of-age story in the Jack and Louisa story line. It’s my favorite one and I think Kate agrees. We get to see these characters grow up, and when you’re 13, you start to deal with real life issues that are more than whether you make the soccer team or whether you get cast in the show. I’m excited to dig a little deeper with these characters and excited to share it with everyone. Kate and I are always spit-balling ideas. We shot this film called The Ceiling Fan, which we’re going to start pitching around and submitting to festivals in hopes that it will gain us some street credibility so we can start directing our first feature film, which will hopefully happen in the next year or so. We still have no ideas on what that’s going to be, but if anyone has a good idea, send it our way.
On top of everything else you do, you also direct. What can you tell me about Sign?
Sign is a short silent film told all through vignettes that spans the entire relationship between a hearing man named Ben and a Deaf man named Aaron. My collaborator, Adam Wachter, and I originally got our idea out of necessity, to be honest. I had just shot The Ceiling Fan, which we had just spent a lot of money to do sound mixing, and we were interested in what kind of story we would tell without using any words. Immediately, the idea of sign language came up- Adam knows sign language. I didn’t totally feel comfortable having the agency to tell that story, and there are a lot of talented Deaf actors, Deaf directors, and Deaf writers in our community, who have not gotten to show their incredible talent. We teamed up with a bunch of people and tried to write this script that would reflect honestly about the Deaf community. I worked with a woman named Alexandria Wailes, who is an actress and director and was in Spring Awakening. She became my director of ASL and culture. We shot it over the course of 4 days. It was really long hours, really fast and dirty, and we shot in 10 locations. We ended up with one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever worked on. I’ve showed it to people and the response has been overwhelming, which makes me so happy. It’s a really beautiful film. It’s about the gay community and the Deaf community, which share a lot of similarities and are incredibly rich communities that have been underexposed in film, and we’re able to tell a story that I have not seen told. I’m really excited about it.
Is that your first time working with the Deaf community?
My sister Maggie, with Honest Accomplice, had worked with a number of Deaf actors and I had done a couple readings with a few people, who were actually all in the movie. I’m not fluent in ASL; I know just enough to give directions on set. I had seen a lot of these actors perform in things, especially the main actor, John McGinty. I got to see him in a play and was so completely blown away by him. Calling him a ‘Deaf actor’ is reductive. He is a genius actor by any definition. I was interested in working with this community, and surrounding myself with as many Deaf volunteers, who were able to help on set as interpreters or directors, I could be comfortable telling this story in a way that wasn’t exploitative and wasn’t appropriation and was honest.
Is there anything you haven’t done that you would like to try?
I would love to develop an app or a game. That’s going to be the next thing on my checklist, just so I can add a hyphenate to my list of hobbies.
I want to talk about a new addition to the Keenan-Bolger family. I heard that he’s seen the show and was a fan. How has William changed not just Celia and John [Ellison Conlee]‘s life, but your whole family’s lives?
He’s changed it for the better times a million. He’s the greatest. It’s the first baby in the Keenan-Bolger family, and especially getting to do a show like Tuck Everlasting that deals with life and birth, it was incredible. I see my sisters more now than I ever have in my whole life. He is so wonderful, and my sister and John are such great parents, and Maggie and I now get to be the cool aunt and uncle who babysit him. It’s the biggest blessing.
Why is Tuck Everlasting right for Broadway right now?
First and foremost, it’s a new American musical, which is always exciting. There are no huge stars in our show and it’s not written by super famous people, but the story we’re telling is the best that can possibly be told. It’s also a family musical in a season where people are looking for something to bring their whole family to see. It’s one of the most universal stories ever told. It’s about life, death, love, friendship, and family. Everybody has some kind of attachment to that, and I think everyone is going to be moved by it. I’m just excited to be a part of this season. It’s already such a great season, and I like that we’re able to add something else to it. Even being here feels like we’re already winning.
Brooke Robinson contributed to this story.