Among his numerous other accomplishments, Donnie Kehr has managed to rack up over 1,000 performances in Jersey Boys, the musical that began in the La Jolla Playhouse and then moved on to become a smash hit on Broadway! On June 20, the story opens on the big screen with Kehr playing Norm Waxman in the Clint Eastwood-directed film. The 37-year theater veteran is the only star from the original production who made it through to the cinema.
His bio proclaims him an “actor, singer, musician, songwriter, director, and busy music producer,” but that only scratches the surface. Donnie Kehr doesn’t just dabble; he excels at everything he sets his mind to. For instance, he wasn’t just a musician, he actually spent a couple of years in the 80s as an EMI Manhattan Records’ rock star in the band Urgent with his brothers. As an actor, he not only played roles, he originated most of them. That’s just the kind of work ethic Donnie has; he does a lot of things, but he manages to do them all very well.
“I’ve been around long enough that I can do a lot of different things,” Kehr stated in a recent interview with AXS.com. “It doesn’t matter what position I’m in; I just want to be involved.”
Donnie recalled his childhood being a little rough. His mom earned a living as a ballet teacher while raising three boys in New York City, which meant they were pretty poor. But what his mother couldn’t provide financially, she offered in abundance through her nurturing. “She was very supportive, she always kept me busy, artistically. She would say, ‘Why are you not playing piano?! Do something!’ She was always up my butt in regards to something like that.” Kehr paused. “I owe a lot to her, she kept me focused. She always told me, ‘If you love it, then just do it. It doesn’t matter what you do in it, just do whatever is necessary.’”
So Donnie followed his mother’s advice and took it upon himself to ensure he was, indeed, prepared to do whatever was needed. The determined artist proceeded to learn everything he possibly could, every aspect of “the business of show,” so he would be equipped to offer his services in any manner that might be required of him.
In regards to how it all started, where did his Jersey Boys journey begin? The actor recalled that it was a Saturday night and he was working a gig in Las Vegas when he got a call from Des McAnuff, director of Broadway’s The Who’s Tommy — Donnie had worked with Dez on the production. McAnuff was promising something big for Donnie and all he had to do was be in L.A. by 9:30 a.m. on Monday morning. But the famed director couldn’t offer any details on the production.
“But I had to work till 4 in the morning in Vegas that Sunday night!” Kehr pointed out. Donnie missed his chance to book a flight, so at 4 a.m., he left Vegas and drove straight to L.A., met Frankie Valli, and proceeded to give the worst audition of his life due to sheer exhaustion. Dejected, Donnie headed back to Vegas and left a phone message with Dez apologizing for letting everyone down.
Ten minutes later he received a return call. “It was Dez, and he said, ‘I told you this was for you. You got it! This is happening!’”
As previously noted, Donnie Kehr doesn’t just play roles, he originates them. Jersey Boys offered him the opportunity to do just that. “I originated roles in six out of the seven Broadway shows that I have been in. What that means is I met with the director or I knew someone from the show or I knew someone from the original creative team, and so when I auditioned and I got the role, I did the workshop and I went through that whole process from the ground level up ... and that’s where you originate a role.”
And that’s exactly what Donnie did in the La Jolla production of Jersey Boys with the role of Gyp De Carlo. He was also the first to play Norm Waxman in the Broadway production.
When asked what it’s like to watch someone else take on a character you once portrayed or originated, Kehr responded, “I’ve seen a lot of other people play Norm Waxman — the character I play in the movie — and everybody tries their own take on it. But because of the way it’s so specific, there are some things that I did that will probably never go away. I’ll always be a little part of it in some way. Maybe there was a gesture I did or something, but it seems that every actor who learns it from the Broadway people, tends to do it that way. It’s very interesting and it’s a great honor. Hey look, it’s a great honor just to be in a show and get to work as an actor,” he remarked.
Since Kehr was playing Norm Waxman in the film, that left the role of Gyp De Carlo open. Consequently, Gyp De Carlo is being portrayed by none other than Christopher Walken. AXS.com mused, “Was there ever a moment when you went up to Walken and said, ‘Hey, you’re playing this all wrong?’”
Donnie laughed, “No Way! He’s f***ing Christopher Walken!”
“It was really weird going to work every day,” Kehr continued. “In the morning, I’d be staring at my coffee, getting myself ready, and this guy would walk up to me and say, ‘Hey Donnie, good morning.’ That was Clint Eastwood! I had to pinch myself every day to make sure I wasn’t dreaming! I mean there I was with Clint Eastwood, Frankie Valli, and Chris Walken!”
One of Kehr’s most memorable moments on set? “At one point, we were shooting this very heavy scene. It’s a long scene, and it was me, Walken, and the four boys. We’re having a meeting and it gets heated. Now, Clint is famous for only wanting to do one or two takes — you have to come prepared because he only does that one or two takes and then you move on. In this particular instance, Chris Walken was just not feeling it. But you have to understand, most of us — three of The Four Seasons and me — we had been in the Broadway show, so we knew the timing of the scene, and we already had the flow of the scene going. So, Chris Walken said, ‘Wait a minute, I’m just trying to find myself in this. I’m going to need three or four more takes.’ And Clint responded, ‘No problem.’ After about four takes, the whole room was starting to get a little tense, so Clint Eastwood turns to Chris Walken and he says, ‘Alright Chris, let’s do it again... only this time, I wanna hear more cowbell!’”
“Chris kind of just rolled his eyes and walked away,” Kehr continued, laughing. “But then he came back and gave the best take of the whole day! That is why Clint is such an amazing director, he was able to say something to lighten it up. He’s a really, really good, like wow!-good, director. He’s very considerate of actors and he makes it easy for you to deliver the goods. Clint runs a tight ship and always comes in under budget. It just doesn’t get any better in American filmmaking. There are new kids coming up and they are all good, but he’s classic!”
In closing, Donnie expressed, “Everybody did a really great job on this movie! I got to see a private screening a couple of weeks ago and it’s really good. It’s like Goodfellas The Musical. It’s just really kind of neat! And, it’s a Clint Eastwood film, so it has that feel of a big movie! I hope people like it.”