Colin Donnell has had an eclectic career over the past few years, appearing in everything from the City Center Encores! production of Follies to the McCarter Theatre’s world premiere of Me, Myself and I. For the past eight months, he’s been starring as Billy Crocker in the Roundabout Theatre Company’s production of Anything Goes, earning a Drama Desk Award nomination for his work.
Now, he’s on a month-long hiatus from that hit show in order to play successful songwriter Franklin Shepard in Encores! production of Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along — directed by James Lapine and co-starring Lin-Manuel Miranda and Celia Keenan-Bolger — which begins performances on February 8. Donnell recently spoke with TheaterMania about his role in this much-anticipated show.
THEATERMANIA: Was the role of Franklin Shepard always on your radar?
COLIN DONNELL: No. I knew the score better than the actual show itself, and I always thought it was a tremendous score. But when my agent sent me the appointment to audition, the first thing I thought was “Are you sure I’m right for this?” I hadn’t really read the script carefully. And she was like “James Lapine saw you in Anything Goes and thought of you.” Then once I had really read the script, it tore my heart into pieces and I knew I just wanted to do this. And now that it’s coming true, I can’t imagine not doing it.
TM: When you first meet these characters, they’re probably the least likable bunch of people you’ve ever seen on a stage. Did James or Stephen talk to you about how to handle that?
CD: I think Franklin is such an interesting character in that he’s so unlikable, and those are the characters that always fascinate me the most. We’ve had some conversations about the issue. Celia and Lin-Manuel and James and I all got together for dinner and drinks one night and just talked about what we thought the show was about. And I think our task is to just make these people as human as possible. Honestly, I told Stephen Sondheim, “What’s wrong with wanting? Franklin wants more.” Steve even talks about in his book the inherent challenge of playing Frank. So I’m super excited to see if I can navigate my way through to see if I can find something an audience will sympathize with in terms of Frank, and grow to love him throughout the course of the show.
TM: Probably the biggest challenge for any actor in Merrily is playing a 40-year-old, which is about how old Frank is when the show begins, and an 18-year-old within two hours. How do you do that?
CD: It’s something I thought about a lot obviously. I’m looking forward to exploring the older Frank and seeing if I can find things that relate to the missed opportunities and the friendships fading away that he feels. I do think as I’ve gone through my twenties, I’ve had enough life experiences to understand that. Still, I’ve already spoken to my dad about his life, when he was in his twenties and thirties, for his advice. As for playing the young Frank, it’s about finding that playfulness and the naiveté you had as an 18-year-old when you’re not one anymore. That is the most fun part about this show — remembering what it was like when you had everything in front of you.
TM: Merrily goes backwards in time. Do you think people would feel the same way about the characters if you met them first when they were young?
CD: I haven’t even thought about it going the other way. The thing that breaks my heart about this show most is that when you finally get to the song “Our Time,” at the end, you’ve seen some of these things they went through — all this hope, all the wonderful possibilities they had. I don’t think the song would have the same impact at the beginning of the show.
TM: Were you like Frank at 18?
I certainly think so. I went to college and I certainly didn’t have my life mapped out. And I always sort of thought whatever direction this whole theater thing takes, whether it works out or if it doesn’t, I’ll find something else. By the time I made it to New York, I was so excited. I remember getting my first apartment with my three friends and there was always that sense of “we’re gonna walk in and tear the roof off this place.”
TM: One of the other big challenges of doing Merrily is that you really have to believe in the deep friendship of the three main characters. How do you do that with Encores! short rehearsal period?
CD: I’ve known Celia for a bit. She’s wonderful. Her husband, John Ellison Conlee, and I worked together on a play. Actually, Lin-Manuel was the only one of the six principals I hadn’t met before I got the part, but I just have a world of respect for that guy, as a writer, as an actor, as a person. And now that I’ve gotten the chance to hang out with him a little bit, it’s even better. And Elizabeth Stanley, who plays my wife Gussie, and I have known each other for a while. I think we all get along really well.
TM: This is your second Encores! show. What makes them so special?
CD: The cool thing about Encores! is that they are such elaborate productions, but they still are concerts in a way. Trust me, I’ll be grabbing onto that book for my life.
TM: Really? Nobody ever stays on book for very long anymore.
CD: Maybe, but it’s a nice way to remind the audience that something was put up in just eight days. It takes the expectation off them, it takes the expectation off us, and everyone can enjoy the show on a whole different level.