Donnie Kehr – From Broadway’s Jersey Boys To Clint Eastwood’s
Updated: May 12, 2020
Donnie Kehr discussing his role in “Jersey Boys” at The Hourglass Tavern in New York City. Photo copyright 2014 Brad Balfour.
From Broadway’s Jersey Boys To Clint Eastwood’s, the Actor Has Oh What a Night
by Brad Balfour
Actor/musician Donnie Kehr may not have a shitload of face time in the cinematic version of Jersey Boys but as loan shark Norm Waxman, he has the right moments that not only showcase his talents but places him skillfully in critical scenes that move the story and characters forward.
Maybe that why the film’s 84-year old director, the legendary Clint Eastwood, wanted him along for the ride, because Kehr’s managed to be a part of this remarkable jukebox musical from its origins to this filmic plateau. Though there are other vets from various versions of the stage production, he’s the only one who made it all the way through from the off-off-Broadway version — which was really off-Broadway as in La Jolla, California. That’s where the first work-shopped version was developed by originating director Des McAnuff — who had already transformed Broadway with his stage version of The Who’s Tommy.
In telling the tale of the chart-topping ’60s pop quartet The Four Seasons’ rise, fall and rise again, both the film and theatrical musicals not only charts a classic arc but also demonstrates the power pop music can have to define a generation, a community and reflect the drive a great singer or musician must have to rise above poverty and limited possibilities of a core community — in this case, New Jersey’s working class Italians.
Though just across the divide from an opulent Manhattan, it was worlds away from the group’s street-born late ’50s rock & roll scene. Out of this world came the Four Seasons, Italian-born performers who rose above their mob-ridden community to become successes without having resorted to crime to get there.
For years lead singer/songwriter Frank Valli and collaborator Bob Gaudio felt their story could be told as a stage show which hopefully would land on Broadway. Not only did they craft a production that worked (with the help of a book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice), it won numerous awards including a Best Musical Tony and is now a bedrock on Broadway.
Its first lead John Lloyd Young became a star and it ultimately led to this film version out this June. The film stars stage vets Young as Valli and Erich Bergen as Gaudio, with Michael Lomenda as Nick Massi and Vincent Piazza as Tommy DeVito. Like the stage show, the film is structured around the four members’ perspectives as they speak from stage or screen directly to audiences and reveal viewpoint on the origins and evolution of the group.
Detailing the quartet’s rise from virtual street thugs in the late ’50s to become the biggest American group this side of the Beatles. From ’62 to early ’64, only the Beach Boys matched the Four Seasons in US record sales until times and styles changed as the music scene shifted from top 40 hits like “Sherry” and “Big Girls Don’t Cry” to progressive album rock.
As a theatrical performer the 50-year old Kehr himself has had an oddly jukebox musical experience as a singer, musician and actor. He’s put out albums, been in films, on Broadway and in the touring productions of many decades of various musical styles and annually promotes Rockers on Broadway.
In fact, when this exclusive interview took place, it wasn’t in the haute-society Waldorf Astoria Hotel (which has a cameo in the film on Rock Hall of Fame night and hosted the film’s distributor Warner Brothers’ press conference) but at the classic Broadway haunt, the Hourglass Tavern, shortly before the film’s release.
As a bow to the enthusiastic Kehr, he provides his own endorsement of the place: “The best after-theater hangout in New York City is the Hourglass Tavern. There’s no other place. All these other places try to be this, but none of them get it. This is the place.”
You were a rock musician, and yet you don’t sing in the movie. Was that frustrating for you?
No, actually, I was fine with not singing in the movie.
You sang in the play…
In the play, I sang “Trance.” When they’re doing the backups, I’m the one who sang, “Late last night/She put me in a trance.” It’s on the record. It’s when they’re doing the backups, when they’ve been hired by [the group’s producer] Bob Crewe to sing backup vocals on the third song that they sing for it.
The difference is in the show, I played eight different roles. I was a featured ensemble. Then when I did the movie, they added two… I just got Norm, and what was great about it is that it’s [like], okay, I can just act, I don’t have to worry about singing or dancing or anything. Except at the end, in the final number, we all sing “[December 1963] Oh, What A Night.”
And you get to dance with Christopher Walken in that closing number.
That’s right, that’s right. That was pretty neat.
You had about as much screen time as Christopher Walken as Jersey mob boss Gyp DeCarlo does, maybe a little more.
Yeah, I do.
How was it dancing with Christopher Walken? He had experience [on Broadway].
Yeah, he was a Broadway boy. He’s been around, dancing for quite a while. He’s very talented at it, very good, and a lot of fun. As Eastwood said, “You know, he kind of beats to his own drum.” And, it’s a very good drum.
He danced in a Fatboy Slim video, “Weapon of Choice.”
Walken’s a great dancer. I learned a lot from watching and working with him. When you’re working with him, you don’t think that he’s doing very much. You think, “Wow, he’s hardly doing anything,” but then when you watch him on film, you see all this magic. He’s pretty magical that way.
Donnie Kehr discussing his role in “Jersey Boys” at The Hourglass Tavern in New York City. Photo copyright 2014 Brad Balfour.
Didn’t you start out as a rock & roller?
To tell the truth, when I was 12 years old, I did my first Broadway show, a play called Legend with Elizabeth Ashley and F. Murray Abraham in 1975. When I was 16, I did my first movie, Baby It’s You, with Rosanna Arquette and Vincent Spano. It was a John Sayles movie. And it was a bunch of us, me, Robert Downey Jr., Fisher Stevens.
So the acting came first?
I was playing instruments since I was 11. I played four different instruments because my brothers are musicians, so I’d always watch them and learned a lot by watching them. I just picked up these instruments and started playing. By the time I was 21, we created a band, my brothers and I, called Urgent. We were on EMI Manhattan Records. Then we actually had two videos out, we got number 56 on the top Billboard in 1984. It was a song called “Running Back for More.” We did pretty well. That video was seen a lot.
What brought you back to both movies and the stage?
Here’s the deal. I loved working as an actor, and that’s something that’s been my bread and butter all my life. But music has been my passion, it’s been more my soul. The difference is that when you act, you’re the paint for another artist. When you do music, you are the artist, and the painter. It’s from a different place.
Acting is an amazing experience on the level of presenting yourself as a different person, or becoming a different person. Whereas with music, in order for it to be pure, it has to come from an organic place. And that, to me, is the only way I can define it because they’re both really important to me.
How many people survived the process all the way through to end up in the movie?
I’ll tell you exactly. I’m the only guy in the movie from the original La Jolla production. I did the original La Jolla production, then the Broadway production, and then I did the movie. I’m the only one that hit the trifecta.
John Lloyd Young only did the Broadway production which won the Tony?
Pre-Broadway was everybody but John Lloyd Young. A guy named David Norona was Frankie and he was a genius. A really talented great actor but he lost his voice. We had Des, our director, he was a genius.
We rehearsed for a month, and here’s the guy playing Frankie Valli, singing all that for eight hours a day, high pitch, hitting everything. It got tired. So three weeks after we opened in La Jolla, he was starting to lose his voice, and he had polyps, and then had surgery and all that. He was so great, and John Lloyd Young was so great too.
Of the Broadway show, who are the survivors?
Okay the Broadway show. It would be myself, John Lloyd Young, and Erica Piccininni [as Lorraine]. Of the original cast, we’re the three that are in the movie. Oh, there’s Heather Pond, she was our original swing, she’s also in the movie, she has a moment in there. But I think from the original Broadway cast, there’s only the three, maybe four of us.
It’s amazing to make it through to that…
Now, the other actors like Michael Lomenda, who did the national tour, he plays Nick Massi. Eric Bergen was also in the first national tour, and I also think he came into Broadway for a minute. But all the original Broadway people are myself, John Lloyd, Erica, who plays Lorraine, and Heather Pond, who was a swing.
As a featured ensemble, you probably had more strenuous work than any of the Four Seasons. Not to diminish John Lloyd Young’s skills at recreating Frankie Valli, that’s always impressive, but as a featured ensemblist, how do you do that? They’re all different from each other, and every night, you’re the one who has to play eight distinct characters and make them look different. What were the eight distinct characters?
I was a featured player, [I had] eight different roles. I played Nick DeVito, Tommy’s brother. It’s hard for me to remember because, let me explain something. In the La Jolla production, I was the first guy to play Gyp DeCarlo, who is played by Chris Walken in the movie.
When it went to Broadway, Des asked me to play Norm Waxman, because I can also play drums and guitar, so that’s why I became that featured ensemble [member], because that feature part [requires] that I can play all these instruments and act.
I got a lot more things. But they didn’t want Gyp DeCarlo to play instruments. But my parts… I played in the car, with the shooting, when they shoot the guy in the car, there’s a guy named Donnie in that, that was named after me. Because what happened, there was a lot of Italians back in the day that did that sort of thing, and so we didn’t want to step on anybody’s toes, so we used an unusual Italian name. Like Donnie, exactly. I played him, I played Nick DeVito, I played the cameraman when they were filming “Sherry,” then I became… What else did I do?
I did the tour for like, nine months, and that’s when Clint saw the show. I played Gyp DeCarlo. It’s a very different situation in the [road] show than it was [on] Broadway. Yeah, because the role of Gyp DeCarlo, he plays three roles, four roles in the show, which is the judge, Gyp DeCarlo, the priest, and the bowling alley guy. So that’s all for that track.
Oh, I played Charlie Calello, I was one of the New Seasons, so I was playing guitar on stuff like “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You,” or “Let’s Hang On,” or “Workin’ My Way,” all of those. I played guitar on all those, but I got to play drums on “Dawn” and “Big Girls.” That was fun.
Donnie Kehr, John Lloyd Young, Erich Bergen and Michael Lomenda in “Jersey Boys.”
People hoped that John Lloyd would be the guy picked for the movie, but how was it seeing him? He is this amazing, he is really unpretentious about this.
At first, when we were in the Broadway production, he was nervous because he was coming into something that had already been established in La Jolla. So he came in not knowing, not sure where he fit. But after a while, he got it. And by now, he’s calm and he doesn’t have to prove anything. But I’ll tell you, when we were shooting, he came up to me and hugged me a lot, and was just always saying how happy he was that I was there and a part of this.
It’s rare to make it all the way through to the movie.
It sure is, man. It sure is.
How is the movie different from the show?
The tempo of the movie is different from the show. The look and the tempo. In the show, the theater piece, it’s very… What was amazing was that it was staged amazingly because the actors moved the set pieces so that suddenly, things are changing and moving and then we’re in another scene, and suddenly everything changed. Des did an amazing job at staging and seamlessly putting together the actors that would seamlessly move these set pieces. In the movie, the difference is that everything is real. You’re there, you’re not imagining it.
That’s the incredible Eastwood touch, to make it real.
Oh yeah, no doubt. He’s a master at that.
He didn’t make it a mythic thing, it was a naturalistic, realistic.
I’ll say this: to me, when I saw the movie, I went, “Oh, this is Goodfellas: The Musical,” because that’s really what it looks like. The guys are narrating to the camera, they’re talking and telling the story, and then getting back into the action. It feels a bit like that.
Was that weird, seeing it break the fourth wall?
No, that’s exactly like the play.
But the play’s a surreal version of life. Theater is not life. Theater is theater. Whereas movies are more like life.
In the movie, when they’re narrating to the camera, they’re telling you stuff so you know what’s really happened. It’s a bit of them letting you in on how they were dealing with it and what their opinion was, because if you notice, the phrase is, “Everybody remembers it how they need to,” well, the point of it is, all the Seasons are speaking about their experience as they remember it.
When you saw it at the premiere, was that the first time you saw the film?
No actually, I saw it twice before that.
The coolest thing about the premiere was who’s in the audience!
[Laughs] Yeah! I took some very important people that are in my life, that I care very much about, because that’s important to me. As much as all the publicity and the stars, and all that’s exciting, this thing is, if you don’t take someone you care about and can share it with, that’s kind of a lonely life.
That’s probably what Clint saw in you — an interesting guy to put in the movie.
Thank you very much, thank you.
Who did you talk to at the premiere that you had hoped to talk to?
Oh, I talked to everybody. I spoke with Clint, with Billy Magnussen, who’s got Into the Woods coming out at the end of the year. Lena Hall, who just won the Tony for Hedwig [and the Angry Inch], we’re old friends, and so we were talking. Who else? I met Clive Davis, Barbara Walters, that was cool.
Christopher Walken, Donnie Kehr, Vincent Piazza and Erich Bergen in “Jersey Boys.”
Did you run into Sopranos creator David Chase — who did his own rock film?
You look a little like him.
I do? Actually I didn’t get to meet David, but I know he saw me.
And did you met Ron Delsener — the original concert promoter for New York, who produced the Four Seasons live shows?
Ron Delsener was there, that’s right.
How many of The Four Seasons, or the people surrounding them, how many of the real people did you meet?
Oh, I met all of them, all those guys.
Everybody’s still alive?
Not all of them. Nick Massi is gone.
How old is Frankie Valli now?
I don’t know, he’s in his 70s. Tommy DeVito’s in his 80s.
What was their impression of you?
I’m still very close with Frankie. He called me last week and we spoke.
Was he at the premiere of the film?
No, he didn’t make this premiere. I don’t know why. There’s one in LA too. He lives in Los Angeles now but we speak, because we kind of knew each other before the movie. They’re still alive. Bob Gaudio and Frankie Valli financed half the movie.
They picked Clint?
Clint Eastwood isn’t thought of as a guy who does musicals even though he loves music, but not necessarily rock and roll or jukebox musicals — we think of him as a jazz guy. You could see him doing the hard-bitten part of Jersey Boys. But would it be a Clint Eastwood film?
That’s the thing, when I first heard Clint Eastwood was going to direct it, I thought that was an interesting choice. Now, I know that truthfully, Frankie and Bob, they really were thinking that they wanted Scorsese to direct it. But Scorsese had other things lined up and the scheduling didn’t work out.
It’s not that he wasn’t interested — he was very interested. He’s invested in the show. But if it wasn’t for Des McAnuff, this would never have happened, let’s say that because it’s absolutely true. Des made all of this happen. He was really the catapult for all of it.
He’s done some unique stuff on Broadway.
A really smart man. He’s been great to me. He sure has changed Broadway. For instance, he came in with The Who’s Tommy. Tommy broke major ground on Broadway, it was the first time rock & roll was accepted on Broadway. Other than Hair, but Tommy was really rock & roll. Like, The Who, who thought they would get to Broadway? Well, he made it happen.
He’s a visual genius. He did that, and then ten years later he calls me and says, “I’ve got something for you,” and I said, “What is it?” And he goes, “Ah, I can’t tell you,” and I go, “Why’d you even tell me this?” And he says, “Just be ready.”
So about three months later I get a call, “Uh, Donnie, Des and Frankie Valli would like to see you on Monday morning at nine a.m.” And I’m like, “Where?” “Los Angeles.”
I was in Las Vegas at the time, doing a piano gig out there, and I was working until four in the morning on Sunday, so I had to drive that night, Sunday night, to get to my appointment by nine. I had worked all night the night before. I go to this meeting and meet Frankie Valli and Des, who he gives me some scenes to look at, and says, “Hey Donnie, would you play ‘Stay.'”
So I did, and read the scenes. It was really the worst audition I’ve ever had in my life, because I hadn’t slept in 24 hours. I was exhausted. So I got there, and I did the thing, and then I left, and called Des on his cell phone, and said, “I’m sorry, dude. Please forgive me, that was the worst audition I’ve ever had, but thanks for thinking of me.”
And he calls me back ten minutes later, “You’ve got it! I told you I had something for you, and this is for you!” And I was like, “Okay, great,” then I read the scripts, and heard the music while I was reading the script, and read it for the first time for La Jolla. And I went, “Oh my God, this is golden. This is gold.”
I even tried to defer my salary when we came to Broadway, I said, “Keep my salary, use it as an investment.” And they wouldn’t do it.
You would’ve really been rollin’ in cash! Is this movie is going to be a huge hit?
I think so.
Des, obviously, had to defer… he has his production. But if you’re going to defer…
You might as well defer to Clint Eastwood.
You’ve could have had Martin Scorsese, or Brian De Palma…
No it was Jon Favreau, who directed Elf. He was actually going to do it before Clint, then he lost the option or something. They went into turnaround, lost him, and Eastwood was a go.
What was the process of Clint Eastwood seeing you? That is not something that happens to everybody. I can understand it happening to Chris Walken.
I was in San Francisco, we were on the last leg of the first international tour, and I had joined the company for six months to play Gyp. So we’re in San Francisco, the closing city, and we had about two or three weeks left of the tour. And I’m going to the Starbucks before my half-hour call, just to get my cup of coffee. So I go in, I’m getting ready to go into Starbucks, and coming out of the Starbucks is Clint Eastwood.
The theater’s right across the street, so I said, “Hi, Mr. Eastwood, my name’s Donnie Kehr, are you going to see the show?” And he said, “Yeah, can you tell me where the will call window is?” So I take him across… I forget about my coffee. So decided, well, it’s Clint Eastwood, so I take him across to the will call window, and he said, “Thank you so much,” and then he comes back after the show.
And he’s just coming to see the show?
I knew he was going to do the movie. I knew he was coming to do research. I heard that he was going to direct the movie, so he was there doing research. So, I met him and he said, “I saw the show,” and after the show he came backstage and shook my hand and said, “You know, great performance, I’m very impressed.”
Two weeks later, I get a call that he wants to see me screen test, it’s a screen test for both roles, Gyp DeCarlo and Norm Waxman. So I did the screen test, never spoke to him again, never met him, never talked to him again. Well, six weeks go by after the screen test, I hear they have offered Gyp to Walken, so I was like, oh well, okay.
Then a week after that, I got the call that I was Norm Waxman. And when I got the call, I started crying like a little baby ’cause I thought, this is really wild, you know. This is really unusual. What’s really unusual is that I started something from scratch in La Jolla, California, and it became this phenomenon, doing the movie. And it’s kind of weird, it’s like…everything Jersey Boys, for me.
You’ve got to hold your own going against Christopher Walken. How was it, working with Walken and Clint Eastwood directing? There are scenes where it’s basically just the two of you.
Chris Walken gave me a huge compliment at the premiere the other night. I said goodbye to him after five weeks of working together, so he saw me at the premiere, and came up to me and said [imitating Walken], “Hey, you’re really good! So what was it like? I’ll tell you this, my first day of shooting was my 50th birthday, I was turning 50. And I was like, oh my God, this is one of the best gifts ever. So I went up to Clint and said, “Mr. Eastwood…”
You didn’t really call him Mr. Eastwood, did you?
I did! I called him Mr. Eastwood. I said, “Mr. Eastwood…” and he says, “Don’t call me Mr. Eastwood,” I said, “Okay, Clint. Thank you so much for the birthday gift. This is amazing,” he said, “Really, how old are you?” And I said, “I’m 50, I’m gettin’ old,” he said, “Don’t let the old man in,” and walked away.
I was like, “That’s going to be my mantra.” So that was my first experience there. He makes things easy, he gave me such a great amount of confidence, and just having that kind of person who is large and in charge gives you that kind of confidence, I really felt like I could’ve been up against Laurence Olivier and been fine because I had his confidence. So I call him the gentle giant because he is tall and kind. He’s gentle. For instance, he doesn’t say, “action,” he says “go” and then “okay, stop” instead of “cut”]. And he’s very calm.
He gave me some pointers about when you smoke in films, when you light your cigarette, and with my glasses — I wore glasses in the movie — it’s a matter of when you take the glasses off, or when you put the smoke in your mouth. If you’re going to use props, you’ve got to use them right, on the action of the words, because you wouldn’t take your glasses off and then speak, you’d take your glasses off while you were speaking. You see, it’s action on the word, so it’s a lesson I learned. I also learned something from Christopher Walken. In between takes, we would go back to this room, and he would sit there with his eyes closed.
At first I thought, “This guy’s fucking rude, what’s the matter? I’ve never heard of that.” But he did this, and like, five times he did this. Finally I go back there, and I say, “Hey, are you okay?” He said, “Yeah,” and I said, “Why do you rest your eyes like that? Why do you close your eyes like that?”
He goes, “You have to understand, when you’re doing film, your eyes are the first thing to get tired. So, when you’re in between takes, rest your eyes, because they are your point.”
How many Broadway shows have you done, and how many films? You did Billy Elliot, four or five years ago. The kid who played Billy Elliot was fantastic.
Three kids did it! I had a good time with that show. Well, I didn’t have a great time with that show because I broke my back during that show, on stage. I was out for nine months, I couldn’t do anything.
I’ve done six films and seven Broadway shows, but I did a lot of tours when I was younger. I did a lot of national tours, Aida, Jersey Boys, West Side Story…
Which version of West Side Story?
I did the 1980 revival. I did the one in 1980, but I just did the national tour, I didn’t do the Broadway on that one, but it was fun. I’ve definitely done more theater than film.
This is the biggest director you’ve ever worked with?
[Clint Eastwood] wasn’t the biggest director. I was in the movie Chaplin.
What did you do in Chaplin?
I played Joseph Kehr, spelled just like my last name with Sir Richard Attenborough; now he’s a big director.
Yeah, with Robert Downey, Jr.
Robert and I did a scene where he asks me, “Who’s the most famous ballet dancer?” And I say Nijinsky. And he said, “Well, if the Tramp came out and said, ‘I’m going to do this, I’m going to do that,’ well, the magic would be gone. Tell me I’m right,” and I said, “I have to say that you’re wrong, because I’m in the word business.”
I was the guy bringing sound into the movies. So anyway, they showed that scene on the Oscars when he was nominated. It was pretty neat. Robert and I go back since we were 15 years old. I’ve known him for a long time.
What are you doing now?
I have a few projects in the works, but nothing I can talk about. The next thing that I know my schedule is having, is that I know that I’m going to be doing another Rockers on Broadway, we’re honoring teen idols, and we’re honoring Micky Dolenz.
You’ve done Tommy, which is one era, West Side Story, another whole era, and now this, another era of music, both in terms of Broadway and rock & roll. I can’t think of anybody else who’s worked like that.