ELYSA GARDNER: Welcome to Stage Door Sessions, by Broadway Direct. In this podcast, we have in-depth conversations with Broadway’s brightest, bringing you what’s new, what’s noteworthy, and what’s coming next to a stage near you.
I’m your host Elysa Gardner, and this season we’ll be looking at how the Broadway community is coping in the wake of COVID-19. The coronavirus hit New York hard just as the 2019-20 season was reaching its busiest period for openings, and what was at first supposed to have been a pause of several weeks turned into what’s shaping up to be a roughly yearlong hiatus. We’ll be speaking with some of the artists and insiders who have had to persevere after specific projects were delayed, and who have sought to keep connected to fans and to each other.
Our guest today is Derek Klena, who until the COVID shutdown was playing overachieving teenager Nick Healy in Jagged Little Pill, the acclaimed Broadway musical inspired by and featuring the music of Alanis Morissette and Glen Ballard, with a book by Diablo Cody and direction by Diane Paulus. Derek originated the role of Nick in the show’s premiere at Cambridge’s American Repertory Theatre.
Derek’s previous Broadway credits include roles in The Bridges of Madison County, Wicked and Anastasia, where he introduced the part of Dmitry, while off-Broadway he was the original Eddie Birdlace in Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s Dogfight, and also played Tommy Ross in a 2012 production of Carrie. His regional credits include world premieres of Unknown Soldier at Williamstown Theatre Festival and Diner at Arlington’s Signature Theatre.
On screen, Derek has been on “Law and Order SVU,” “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” “Blue Bloods,” “The Code” and “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver,” among other programs and series.
Thank you so much for joining us, Derek. How are you? Are you safe, and well, I hope?
DEREK KLENA: I am well, thank you so much for having me!
ELYSA GARDNER: Good!
DEREK KLENA: Yeah, my wife and I are in New York now, we were just in California for about three weeks visiting our families, mine’s in Southern California, hers are in Northern California, so it’s good to be back in the city and settling back into the swing of things here on the Upper West.
ELYSA GARDNER: Yes, good! And the families are all good as well?
DEREK KLENA: Yeah they are, when we were there, you know, California’s been experiencing some incredible fires, but luckily both our families have stayed safe and well, and haven’t had to evacuate. But yeah, it’s definitely a scary time in California right now so our hearts go out to everybody living through that, but we’re very lucky that our families are safe and healthy.
ELYSA GARDNER: Oh yeah, there’s that as well. Good, I’m glad everyone’s safe. Well – take us back a bit to March, when it was announced that Broadway productions were going to be shut down for about a month at that point, that would of course be extended a number of times…But what were those first days and weeks like for you and the cast and crew of Jagged Little Pill, and your colleagues, for that matter, in the theater community?
DEREK KLENA: You know, it was, obviously it was unprecedented. None of us thought this would.. it would ever get to this. Before this extended shutdown, Broadway had only closed for 2 days, I believe, around the events of 9/11.
ELYSA GARDNER: Right.
DEREK KLENA: But other than that, you know, Broadway has been relentless through time, so when January and February were happening, we had heard global news about the COVID pandemic, and how it may be stretching across the world from China, we never thought that it would.. that Broadway would be shutting down and it would take over the world like it has. I remember Kathryn Gallagher coming up to me a couple weeks before Broadway ended up shutting down, and she was like, “I think this is going to be kinda crazy and a big deal.” And I remember being like “No, it’s fine, Broadway’s never shut down.” So it was just kind of crazy that now here we are. Actually, three days before the shutdown, I was out of the show for a few days, I actually did have COVID. I didn’t know at the time, there were so many unknowns around the disease; the symptoms – you know, all we were getting were rumors and news reports about what people had been experiencing. But it definitely took the Broadway community by storm. We’re definitely a profession and community that it’s kind of inevitable that you’re going to be in close quarters and close contact with your colleagues and the audience members. So, I did, I missed three performances leading up to the shutdown, then found out that weekend that I did in fact have COVID. And half our company, actually, ending up coming out and experiencing symptoms and many tested positive for COVID in the coming weeks. So, it was definitely scary at first, I think it was.. I’m very lucky and a lot of our cast members are very lucky, we didn’t have any severe symptoms. Everybody got through the disease, it came and went. But, it was definitely a shock, we kind of were coming into unknown territory with very little information, like the world, and every other profession. So, our producers and our company have been pretty incredible with trying to keep the cast connected. They have weekly Zoom meetings that we chime on here and there to connect and stay united as a company and as a Broadway community as a whole, through so many political and social rollercoasters over the past few months. So, kudos to our team. We have incredible leadership and we’re really excited to bring this show back into the world after this year, you know, whenever Broadway’s able to resume. Because I feel like, given the events over the past year, our show’s going to be more relevant and more needed now, more than ever. So, we’re really proud of the product we were able to bring to the Broadway community for three months leading up until the shutdown, and are very excited to return when everything is safe.
ELYSA GARDNER: Well, I’m glad you all recovered, I know the theatre community was hit pretty hard, because it is such a tight-knit community, it’s such a collaborative art form. I’ve been hearing a lot about people who were affected, I’m glad you’re all safe and well now. And I know the musical has tried to keep fans engaged on Twitter and Instagram. You can sign up on the show’s official site to be part of the “Jagged Little Community” and stay connected this way, through social media. To what extent have you and the cast been involved with that personally, and in connecting with fans through your own accounts as well? Last time I checked you had about 33 thousand Twitter followers and 124,000 on Instagram, so..
DEREK KLENA: Yeah, I mean, the support from the fanbase has been incredible. Us as a cast, we’ve been putting out our music out in the world. We did a collaborative music video for Smiling that Alanis Morissette put on her most recent albums. That was really cool to do this. Sidi Larbi, our choreographer, had this idea of bringing the cast together and having everybody film these little snippets of us doing a type of like, interpretive dance revolving around this song. And to use the emotions and all of the feelings that we had been feeling around the pandemic, and around the shutdown and translate it into this art piece. Alanis ended up being a huge fan of what Sidi Larbi was trying to do, and she wanted to collaborate as well and be a part of the project, so it ended up turning out to be this very, very cool edited piece that we put out into the world and that Alanis was a part of, so that was one example of us coming together and still trying to stay creative, and keep our show in the music especially, at the forefront. And we’ve been involved in various events, just trying to stay relevant in any Broadway-centric community events, and there’s still lots to come. There’s lots kind of in the works that we’re excited to put out into the world.
ELYSA GARDNER: That’s great. And it’s also true that the theater community has generally remained active online, through everything from public service announcements to virtual performances, a number of benefits. And you’ve called attention to concerns that have become prominent in recent months, like racial justice; I noticed you’ve tweeted on behalf of Black Lives Matter. Has that helped sustain you and keep you sane during this crazy time as well?
DEREK KLENA: Yes, I think there’s a responsibility to our community especially that prides itself on being inclusive and open to any and all. I’m happy to be a part of the movement, and to be a part of Broadway for Racial Justice. I think that inclusivity and racial, sexual, political diversity in all aspects of what we do is extremely important, so I’m always on board to put that message forward, and to keep striving for change throughout the community, cause I think it’s going to be beneficial for all parties, and it’s very important.
ELYSA GARDNER: Yeah. And that kind of inclusivity is addressed in Jagged Little Pill. For those who haven’t seen it, maybe you can tell us a bit about it and how it addresses issues that have gotten more attention in recent months and years, even during COVID. Is that part of what drew you to the project?
DEREK KLENA: I think so, definitely. I was a part of the development of the project, I was a part of the very first reading. So I’ve gotten a chance to see all the different iterations of this piece and how we got to the final product, which was our opening night performance. So it’s very important. We’ve often got criticized because of the amount of social and political subject matter and controversial subjects, or polarizing subjects throughout our show, but we also pride ourselves on that. I think Diablo Cody, our writer, has been asked that question in the past, you know, Why did you choose to put so many issues and so many topics in this show? It seems like there’s just a lot. And she said, “I wrote a modern story around a modern family that takes place in today’s political and social environment. So, yeah there’s a lot going on, and it’s kind of hard to avoid all of these topics.” Whether it be gender identity, all types of abuse, sexual, drug abuse, addiction, – my character particularly, the pressure that our young society and our young students have put on them to succeed at the highest level all the time, you know the competitive landscape around students selecting colleges, and getting into schools just keeps getting harder and harder. So, we definitely address a lot in our musical, but what we also try to put forward is that there’s just a lot happening in our world right now. It feels like an injustice not to address all these topics and not to shed the proper light on them and to give the importance where its needed. So in that way, our show was extremely relevant in December of 2019 when we opened, and its going to be even more relevant when we come out of this, after such a historic year. So that’s what we’re excited about and it’s a tremendous opportunity and a tremendous privilege to be able to present this iconic music with this new narrative to audiences every night, and we’ll be ready for that connection when the time comes.
ELYSA GARDNER: Yeah. And you’re working with, as you mentioned and I mentioned, a number of high-profile talents with diverse backgrounds on this show: Alanis Morissette, Diablo Cody, Diane Paulus, whose Broadway productions have included really exhilarating revivals of progressive and youth-driven musicals like Hair and Pippin. What’s your experience been with them, and what has their interaction been like with each other and with the cast?
DEREK KLENA: I think one of the greatest aspects of this process as a whole is how collaborative it has been. Very rarely do you get to be a part of a company and a production that is so open to ideas, open to everyone’s input. Our creative team – you know, this is Diablo’s first play script, that’s written for an onstage performance and so she’s been very open about that, and she’s been very open to feedback, and making sure we all feel comfortable, and so that has been really rewarding too, to get new material and be able to read it at the table with such incredible minds, Diablo and Diane, and Sidi Larbi, and Tom Kitt, and Alanis and hash out these scenes, being able to give honest feedback that will benefit us, and benefit the company, and then have that be taken seriously and incorporated into the show. So, the fact that they’ve given us that ownership and allowed that kind of feedback throughout the entire process is a huge gift, and I think it just goes along with the message of our show. You know, everybody having a voice and everybody being taken seriously during the process, because we touch on so many said issues or different topics in our show, we met with various members of community organizations to talk about and to make us more informed about some of the topics that we were addressing, like gender identity, like sexual and drug abuse. So I think that was very important for us to prepare us to handle interactions with certain audience members that were touched severely by some of the subject matter that we were going through, so I thought it was very important that they really put the importance on making sure that we were knowledgable and informed about the subject matters we were talking about, and yeah, it’s a dream team, and we do have such a diverse, amazingly talented cast, and it’s kind of been a trickle-down effect. It starts at the top, and everybody at the top has been so generous and so creatively open, it’s been a great journey.
ELYSA GARDNER: Yeah, I imagine you have also gotten some really intense audience feedback?
DEREK KLENA: Yeah, all of the feedback or the response that we’ve gotten post-performances has been extremely positive. People reach out especially to Kathryn Gallagher after the show because her character specifically goes through a sexual assault, she is a victim of rape in our show, and so we have a lot of people who have dealt with that in their personal lives, that connect to that character and connect to Kathryn’s performance. So her, Elizabeth Stanley, who deals with some drug addiction in the show, we have a lot of people that come up to them at the end of the shows and thank them for their portrayal and thank them on shedding light on such a serious topic. So it’s been very rewarding to know that we’re touching people in that way, and that people are moved and are affected by the music and the words that we’re sending out, and I think it will only be more impactful when we do return. So it’s been an incredible ride and I’m really proud of what we’re doing.
ELYSA GARDNER: Yeah, and it’s one of the shows from the past season that is eligible for this year’s Tonys, which were of course delayed and therefore can’t represent a number of shows that were supposed to have opened or that only opened recently when the shutdown happened. What’s the feeling about the awards that are now set to be given out in a digital ceremony, in the fall – do you think that will be a bittersweet occasion, or an opportunity to galvanize the community for next year, or both maybe?
DEREK KLENA: think the Tonys represent a celebration of the season’s performances and how Broadway progresses year to year. And I feel like by excluding half of the, or you know, having half of the shows that weren’t able to open and therefore aren’t eligible for this immediate season is tough, and not quite a representation of the entire Broadway landscape as a whole. I would love to have one big 2 or 3 year Tony extravaganza down the road as we get closer to Broadway reopening so therefore it can be a true celebration of the past, and how Broadway has overcome the events of the past six months and maybe the next year. So I hope it does get even pushed out a little bit further so that we are able to celebrate with more companies and with more shows, and we are able to use the Tony Awards as a springboard to give our production as well as other Broadway productions that kind of momentum to get off the ground again. Because our producers are amazing, and trying to do all they can to make sure that our shows are ready to reopen again and that we all feel really good about it. So I do hope that the Tonys even do get pushed back even further so that we are able to use it as kind of a springboard, and celebrate properly.
ELYSA GARDNER: Yeah.
DEREK KLENA: Because I think that it’s such an event that we all dream to be a part of and the fact that our show is going to be a part of it is incredible, but I hope that we are able to celebrate properly.
ELYSA GARDNER: Well, that’s very generous, wanting more competition. [laughs]
DEREK KLENA: Yeah! [laughs]
ELYSA GARDNER: I totally see what you mean!
DEREK KLENA: This year, I mean it kinda does put things into perspective. Even though you have shows that are so successful, you have shows that maybe aren’t as successful, you have shows that maybe haven’t gotten off the ground yet, shows that have less funding or more funding, this year has leveled the playing field in a way, at least in my mind. It puts into perspective what really is important. Why we do what we do, and it is to offer an escape for people who come to see these performances, and then hopefully, change their perspective or give them something to think about walking out of the theatre. We all do the same thing, so the more that that can be celebrated, the more that we can come together as a community. Regardless of how many nominees there are, how many people are competing for the single spots, I think this year has kind of made that less relevant, and more relevant that we all, the most amount of us, can stand together as one, and really make this a statement piece, I think it’s important, and I think that if we move too abruptly into a Tony Awards that excludes so many and is limited to so few, I think we can represent Broadway a little stronger, so that’s what I’m hoping for.
ELYSA GARDNER: Well, like I said, very generous. [laughs]
DEREK KLENA: [laughs]
ELYSA GARDNER: Well, on that note, let’s talk about you a little bit, about your journey into theater. You’ve done a lot in a short time – you’re still late twenties, am I right?
DEREK KLENA: I am, yes. Almost 29. [laughs]
ELYSA GARDNER: Almost 29! Just starting out. And I’ve gleaned that as recently as high school you divided your time on stage with baseball, and you’ve spoken – one interview I read about wanting to play Joe Hardy in Damn Yankees…
DEREK KLENA: Yeah!
ELYSA GARDNER: …and that made me think of Bob Fosse, who staged the musical numbers for the original Damn Yankees, because he was apparently, this all-American boy in high school who led a bit of a double life dancing in burlesque clubs at night. I realize that’s not your story…
DEREK KLENA: No, not quite [laughs]
ELYSA GARDNER: Unless there’s a part of your story I don’t know! [laughs] But was it in any way a weird duality being both this athlete and a theater kid, who was doing theatre professionally, early on? I mean, dancers are athletes, but…
DEREK KLENA: Yeah, definitely. It was definitely a High School Musical upbringing. I was constantly going back and forth between sports and high school, – and doing Big River at the local dinner theatre, “Joseph” with one of the children’s theatres that I grew up doing, so my whole life was going back and forth and luckily I had very supportive parents – I do have very supportive parents, that gave me those opportunites to pursue both – my dad was often the coach of my soccer and baseball teams, so that made it a little easier, to have to run directly off the baseball field into my mom’s car and then jam to a production of Sound of Music at the local dinner theatre. [laughs] And to make it by curtain!
ELYSA GARDNER: Ah! [laughs]
DEREK KLENA: So, that was an often occurrence when I was growing up. But I’m super lucky to have those opportunities, I think staying well rounded and experiencing as much as you can from a young age, and having those experiences is really important, it’s made me who I am today, and I feel like it’s really added to my work ethic, that carried over to me pursuing theatre as a career. So it was very much a part of my life, I had a lot of very intense conversations with [laughs] coaches or with directors about me having to maybe leave rehearsal or leave practice early, or somewhat to accommodate the other, but I had a lot of great role models and coaches growing up that supported me and I was lucky.
ELYSA GARDNER: Yeah.
DEREK KLENA: But, definitely the athlete theatre kid, for sure.
ELYSA GARNDER: Well, you know – dancers are athletes! Of course…
DEREK KLENA: Yeah! Exactly.
ELYSA GARDNER: …so I always hesitate to draw a line but it is different groups of kids, different cultures, so that’s great that you were able to do both and that you had so much encouragement from adults – that’s terrific. Well, assuming that we do return to some degree of normalcy in the spring, whatever normalcy will be, or sometime next year, whenever… do you think you’ll have taken anything positive away from this strange and not very popular year that is 2020? Has it provided you with any learning experiences, or time for reflection that could maybe affect your path ahead?
DEREK KLENA: Totally. First thing that comes to mind is: my wife and I, we met in college, we’re both California kids, and after I moved to New York my junior year at UCLA – I still haven’t finished college, my mom lets me know, she’s like “you should be taking classes right now!
ELYSA GARDNER: [laughs] Kinda busy, Mom!
DEREK KLENA: It’s like “Mom, it’s on the plate, it’s definitely something I’ll get to!” But then my wife moved out to New York for an internship, we’ve been in New York now.. gosh, almost ten years? So, over the past year, we’ve spent more time with our families than we have since we left for college, honestly. I have a younger brother who’s seven years younger than me and I’ve brought this up a lot, that now getting to be with him as an adult and spend time with my parents, and spend time with my grandparents, and spend time with her family, it’s been something we’ve never been able to do because of work, or because of whatever. So that’s been a huge takeaway this year, and a huge plus. Also, in our industry, especially in the entertainment industry, it’s always about the next thing and climbing this career ladder, and we never really get a chance to… I mean, even if we are employed, especially actors – you’re always auditioning for the next thing. You’re always looking out for that eventual unemployment. And during this year, where everybody’s kinda in the same boat, there is no career that is taking your attention, there is no ladder to climb – it puts things into perspective. What are the things that are important to me aside from my career? And that is some amazing time that I’ve spent with my wife and my family. My wife works in the fashion industry and when I’m on a show schedule, we don’t ever get to see each other. And now she’s been working at home for the past six months, we’ve been negotiating the apartment to make our both lives fit but we’ve spent more time together over the past eight months than we have in six years, so that’s been a huge plus. It just takes the pressure off, I think, of having that career and always striving for the next best thing. I think it will affect my career going forward, I think I will take into account my personal happiness and how a role or a production or an opportunity will add to my life’s happiness rather than my career progression, if that makes any sense.
ELYSA GARDNER: Oh, yeah.
DEREK KLENA: Because we’ve learned this year, like that *snaps fingers* all of that could stop at the drop of a dime, and if you don’t have other hobbies or other passions in your life or other things that make you happy, that you’re left kind of twiddling your thumbs wondering what’s next. So, this has definitely been a great time to reflect, look at the choices I’ve made, and the choices I want to make going further, so that I can stay as fulfilled and happy as I can be while also doing what I love, so in a way, this year has been… so yeah. Those are definitely positives that I’ve taken from it. Do I want to be performing again and seeing the people that I love? Of course!
ELYSA GARDNER: [laughs]
DEREK KLENA: [laughs] Because that is another thing I love about the industry, and I think once we’re back on stage, it’s just going to be so emotional. Because the reason why I love theatre and why it will always be my first love is because of that relationship that you have with your castmates, because of that connection you have with your audience members, because it is such an intimate and personal, and collaborative medium, that can’t be replaced anywhere else, it can’t be replaced virtually. So, that’s why Broadway will always be special, and that’s why we will be back, and I can’t wait to see everybody and share that feeling with the people in the room again.
ELYSA GARDNER: Yeah.
DEREK KLENA: We’ll just build off this year. [laughs]
ELYSA GARDNER: Yeah. Well we certainly hope to see you back on stage soon.
DEREK KLENA: Yeah, absolutely.
ELYSA GARDNER: Thank you so much for joining us and having this conversation—and please, stay safe!
DEREK KLENA: Thank you! Thank you so much for having me, this has been awesome, and stay safe as well, thank you.
ELYSA GARDNER: And though theaters are dark, you can still get updates on Jagged Little Pill and join the Jagged Little Community at the musical’s official Broadway site, jaggedlittlepill.com.
For all things Broadway, and to find tickets to your next show, eventually, visit BroadwayDirect.com. This podcast is produced by Broadway Direct and the Nederlander Organization with Iris Chan, Erin Porvaznik-Wagner, and hosted and produced by me, Elysa Gardner. Thank you for listening, and remember, it’s Only Intermission and we look forward to seeing you again on Broadway.