Broadway's Derek Klena is spending his summer in the mountain oasis of Williamstown, Massachusetts, living in an ivy-covered mansion and creating a new character in a fresh musical composed by Michael Friedman. It might be hard to put one's finger on the best part of an experience like that, but Klena knows exactly what it is: slow-dancing with 87-year-old Oscar winner Estelle Parsons.
The Wicked alum and his octogenarian crush star in Unknown Soldier, a new musical by Friedman and Daniel Goldstein, at Williamstown Theatre Festival (WTF) from July 30-August 9. The show is set, in part, in the aftermath of World War I, when an amnesia-stricken soldier returns from overseas with no idea where or how to find his home.
Working on a show that deals with weighty themes like identity and post-traumatic stress can be challenging, said Klena, who plays the soldier of the title, but "when it's hard and heavy, it makes you dig a little deeper." The opportunity WTF provides to do that emotional excavation in the company of an ensemble like that of Unknown Soldier (which also includes Gentleman's Guide Tony nominee Lauren Worsham and writer-actor David Greenspan), is one more bright spot in Klena's glowing summer. The only thing missing, he says, is a Spring Awakening.
Tell me about your character in Unknown Soldier.
When my character came back from the war, not knowing his name, not knowing his past, not having a dog tag, they actually toured him around from city to city hoping that someone would claim him as their own. So all these women [who] were sick from grief would show up and basically convince themselves that this person was [a] loved one they had lost. It's sad…but in a touching way.
What do you like about working on new musicals?
It's freeing. You take the story and make it your own and you have the freedom to do what you want with the character. It's a privilege to get to work on new work from scratch. And that's the purpose of this festival, to figure these shows out and get them on their feet for the first time and work out all the kinks and explore together. And luckily we have a great cast. We've really been playing it together and connecting the dots.
How would you describe the experience working at Williamstown?
It's so beautiful. We're sort of in this mountain oasis out here to work on new shows. It's kind of surreal. I went back to the city last week and once I got back I realized how peaceful and nice it is out here. You get serious FOMO (fear of missing out), you feel like you're missing out on everything. Then you realize that no, it's good. Where you are is pretty special…The equity members are all kind of scattered amongst these graduate-student houses, these big, basically, like, mansions…There's three of us living in the house that I'm staying in…[It] is right next to a museum and it has like fifteen bedrooms and there's ivy climbing on the outside. They're these old amazing homes. And it's dead silent at night, which is also a change from the city.
I love getting to live with your castmates and spending that time working on the show and bonding with people. I think why I love theater and getting to work on shows is the bonds that you get with your castmates and the relationships you get to have with people you work with…It just seems like everybody is so great and the people I've gotten to work with — I actually slow-dance with Estelle Parsons at the end of the show. So that's been the high point.
What is it like to work with Estelle Parsons?
It's been great. We waltz at the end of the show — just like a slow standard waltz. And we were both kind of nervous because we've got to look into each other's eyes so deeply. You know she's eighty-seven and still kickin'. I mean she still goes to the gym every morning. She's awesome. So we have this moment where we're just looking into each other's eyes and dancing at the end of the show. And we both kind of had the giggles when we first started doing it. And then she started cracking jokes to me and I was like, Oh! Estelle Parsons, she's up for jokes. She likes to mess around too. She's really great. I admire her so much. Her career has been so epic and she comes in just with this air about her.
After WTF, what kind of show would you like to do next?
I would love to do Spring Awakening. I'm shooting for that but we'll see what happens. It has always been a dream of mine, and I didn't think it'd come around anytime soon. It was on Broadway when I was [at school] in California. I was itching to [be in the show], and now it's come around. So ideally, I would love to be a part of that.