Broadway leading man Derek Klena is back on stage as Nick Healy in Jagged Little Pill, an original musical featuring the music from Alanis Morissette’s hit 1995 album. The talented actor made his Broadway debut as Fiyero in the 10th anniversary company of Wicked, following Off-Broadway productions of Carrie and Dogfight in 2012. Since then, he’s appeared in many regional productions, on Broadway in The Bridges of Madison County and Anastasia, for which he originated the role of Dmitry, and made appearances on several TV shows, including an unforgettable role as DJ Fingablast on Netflix’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Earlier this year, Klena participated in a one-night concert presentation of Dogfight at Second Stage Theater, solidifying his place in our hearts as U.S. Marine Eddie Birdlace.
Klena looks back at some of these roles and shares what resonates with him most.
The Dogfight concert in March reignited the desire in fans for a revival of the Benj Pasek-Justin Paul-Peter Duchan musical. Though the show received rave reviews, it ran for less than two months at Second Stage. Fans want to know if there’s any talk of Dogfight making a comeback, especially considering the recent successes of songwriting team Pasek and Paul, including Dear Evan Hansen, La La Land and The Greatest Showman.
“It’s been getting thrown around over the past few years,” Klena said, and mentioned there have been a couple of opportunities over the years, but nothing came to fruition. “I feel like the story line is even more relevant now than it was seven years ago when we first did it.”
Dogfight revolves around U.S. Marine Eddie Birdlace and shy waitress Rose in 1963 San Francisco. His fellow Marines rope Eddie into participating in a cruel game they dub the dogfight. The rules are simple—whoever brings the ugliest girl to the party wins. The musical is an adaptation of Nancy Savoca’s 1991 film.
He added, “I hope it does [have a revival], but by the time it does I’ll probably be too old to play him unfortunately. I think it’s going to be a Violet situation, where it’s going to be a cult classic for a long time and then all of a sudden they’ll do it down the line. Hopefully [it will happen] down the line, I don’t think anytime soon unfortunately.”
Klena had an exceptional experience working on Dogfight and he says he learned a lot.
“I was so young when I got to do it. I was 20 years old and I was new to New York. So to have that opportunity to work with Benj and Justin, [costar] Lindsay Mendez, [director] Joe Mantello, Peter Duchan, who wrote our book, it was an amazing team and I learned so much,” Klena said. “I’d just seen Joe Mantello in A Normal Heart on Broadway. As an actor, to get to work with him, he taught me so much and I feel like I learned how to be a responsible actor working on that show.”
He added, “So that was huge. It was an amazing opportunity for me both personally and professionally growth-wise. It really pushed me.”
Wicked took Broadway by storm in 2003, telling the previously untold origin story of the Wicked Witch of the West and Glinda the Good Witch.
“Wicked was amazing. It was the first Broadway show I ever saw, so to get to be able to be part of the 10th anniversary production was kind of a full circle moment,” Klena said. “And to get to do that with Lindsay Mendez was really special. We still have a great relationship today and are good friends.”
Bridges of Madison County
In 2014, a musical based on Robert James Waller’s 1992 novel premiered on Broadway with a book by Marsha Norman, music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown, directed by Bartlett Sher and starring Kelli O’Hara and Steven Pasquale.
“Jason Robert Brown is one of my favorite composers ever. I think Parade is probably in my top two shows, so getting to work on an original JRB musical was a bucket list moment, and to play Kelly O’Hara’s son wasn’t too shabby either,” Klena said. “She was incredible and listening to her and Steven Pasquale sing that score every night was crazy. They’re both insane.”
If Parade is in Klena’s top two shows, it begs the question, what’s number one?
“Well, top three,” he said. “It’s between Next to Normal, Ragtime and Parade.”
All fine choices.
The 1997 animated film is a classic to anyone who grew up with it. The 2017 musical merged elements of the animated movie with previous versions, including the 1956 Ingrid Bergman-Yul Brynner film.
“I got to work with Christy Altomare again, which was very cool,” Klena said. The two played high school sweethearts in the Carrie revival Off-Broadway. “Like I said, Ragtime is one of my favorite musicals, so to get to work on the show with Stephen Flaherty and Terrence McNally was another kind of bucket list moment.”
He added, “This was also a movie I grew up with. I was a kid watching Anastasia and that was one of the roles I was like, ‘man, if they ever made this a musical, I would love to play that role someday.’ So the fact that the stars aligned and it happened when I was the right age and I just happened to get cast in it was kind of a dream come true.”
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
Klena has made appearances on television series such as Law & Order: SVU, Blue Bloods, Quantico and the very funny “Doping” episode of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. But no role is as memorable as DJ Fingablast on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, the Netflix sitcom created by Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, starring The Office’s Ellie Kemper in the title role.
“The difference between working on a comedy and working on a drama is that there is such a formula to the dramas that you don’t often really get to stray from that,” Klena explained. “But the thing with Kimmy Schmidt, they had so many people from the theater world and so many amazing improv actors and writers, they were constantly trying new material and we were ad-libbing and playing around. That was such a fun, free experience, and to get to create that character and play that character over multiple episodes was a lot of fun. They were just so free and willing to make mistakes and goof around. It was such a cool inviting set.”
He added, “And I also got to do Wicked with Carol Kane. Getting to see her on set was a lot of fun. She’s incredible on that show and in everything that she does.”
Catch Derek Klena in Jagged Little Pill, now on Broadway at the Broadhurst Theatre, 235 W 44th St., NYC. For tickets, visit jaggedlittlepill.com.