Pop-Culturalist Chats with Derek Klena
For a certain age group, Anastasia is a beloved animated film whose romantic lead elicits swoons and the plucky heroine is admired. So when it was announced that Anastasia would be a musical, fans waited with baited breath to see who was cast and if the stage version would live up to the delightful film (spoiler: it does). Stepping into the role of the romantic lead, Dmitry, Derek Klena’s perfectly combined boyish charm and appealing vocals surpass fans’ expectations.
Derek Klena is no stranger to this type of romantic leading man—he made his Broadway debut as Fiyero in Wicked. In addition to other stage credits, like originating the role of Eddie in the acclaimed production of Dogfight by Pasek & Paul (of Dear Evan Hansen fame), Klena can be seen on the small screen. He’s been in television shows like Quantico and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.
Pop-Culturalist was able to chat with Derek Klena about Anastasia’s journey from Hartford Stage to Broadway, his career, and why it’s so important to be kind.
P-C: So, Anastasia. What has been the biggest change from Hartford to Broadway?
Derek: In my role, specifically, I had some musical additions that weren’t there in Hartford. My big song in the show, “My Petersburg,” changed a lot so I was adjusting to that. Also having Ramin Karmiloo in the cast play Gleb [was new]. He wasn’t with us in Hartford.I feel like his take on the role and his command and power on stage really changed the dynamic of the show and the feel of the show. It was interesting to adjust to that—in the best way possible. Everything [in general] was expanded upon. It was very much making it a Broadway production that was exciting and fun.
P-C: With your role as Dmitry, it has a dedicated fan base. was there a lot of pressure for that? What were the challenges you had in making such an iconic role with a dedicated fan base your own?
Derek: There was in a way and there wasn’t. I had always had my eye on this character and this particular story because I grew up with the movie. It was always something that I thought would make an amazing musical; so to be in this position, originating this role, it’s kind of surreal for me. [laughs] You know, it’s one of those shows that I would have wanted to play if I hadn’t gotten the chance to. What Terrence [Terrence McNally, Book] has done with Dmitry’s character and what Stephen [Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, Music & Lyrics] has done—he didn’t really have a singing voice in the movie—is give him this new voice in the stage production that has enabled me to create my own Dmitry out of it. So, yes, there is his persona in the movie, and the basic plot structure is the same. The journey that he goes on [is the same], but there’s so much new material that’s been added to the stage production for Dmitry. There are so many songs that he didn’t get the chance to sing in the movie. I’ve really been given this amazing opportunity and gift to create this character of my own which takes away some of the pressure that would be there by people comparing me to the film. I’ve really gotten to create this character from scratch and really make him my own which has been the greatest gift and privilege.
P-C: You said you’ve always wanted this show to be a musical. Is there another film or book or something that you have thought would make a good musical and that you’d want to be a part of.
Derek: Anastasia WAS the one thing…I know there’s been The Princess Bride that’s been thrown around. I also think that would make an amazing musical. Recently, I sang a duet with Taylor Louderman from Tangled so that’s another one that I hope comes to Broadway [laughs]. The Flynn Rider character is similar to Dmitry in a lot of ways so that would be fun.
P-C: What is your favorite moment in Anastasia?
Derek: Toward the end of the show, when we’re all at the ballet, and we present Anya to the Dowager Empress. Then I go into the song, “Everything to Win.” [Dmitry] goes back and forth on whether he’s happy for the moment, or sad as he discovers his true feelings at that time. That three scene stretch for Dmitry tells so much, and it’s really the climax of my story. Getting to roll with that every night, have that moment, do those three scenes, and end on the fight with the Dowager, I actually find enjoyable and rewarding. It’s fun to get to explore that every night and ride with the audiences’s reactions and how they interpret that whole situation. That’s probably got to be one of my favorite parts of the show.
P-C: The response that you get everyday and the reaction of the fans…how has that been different for this show than other shows you’ve been a part of?
Derek: It’s just been overwhelming. We knew coming into this the following that Anastasia has, but I don’t think we knew the global impact that this show has had and the type of anticipation that people have had for it. People jump out of their seats at the end of the show; it’s probably the most consistently vocal audience that I’ve been able to experience on stage. Even as an audience member myself, I’m not necessarily the most vocal. The gasps and the laughter and all the vocal responses has been an amazing surprise for all of us. It really gives us this energy on stage, and it fuels us. It’s an amazing experience. Getting that type of crowd every night, is so rare. Everybody that’s come to the show has had huge hopes for Anastasia becoming a musical and all of them overwhelming felt or said that it gave them everything they wanted in the stage production and more. Our jobs of putting this iconic movie on the stage is to do just that: pay homage to the movie, grow and expand on the material, and make it our own. The response that we’ve gotten is that we’ve done that. It’s a large feat, and it’s rewarding to know that people are happy. The “fanastasias” approve!
P-C: For one day, if you could play any other character in the show, no matter age, gender, whatever, who would it be?
Derek: Vlad Popov just because John Bolton is one of my favorite humans on the planet. To watch what he gets to do every night and the freedom that he gives to the role…he just makes it such a joy to be on stage with him. It’s such a joy to watch him that I can’t imagine getting to play that role would be any less than that. He’s a master of comedy and physical comedy, and he’s a genius. So that’d be a fun role to get to do.
P-C: If there was a Broadway revival of your choice, what would it be and what is the role?
Derek: Joe Hardy in Damn Yankees. I know they’ve been toying around with a revival, and I’m eyeing that one because I have a huge baseball background. I grew up playing baseball, and I pitched my freshman year in college. So, to get to play that role is another dream of mine, and I hope it comes around soon.
P-C: You’ve also done some television work. What do you think has been the biggest challenge in the transition between the different mediums? Do you have a preference for one over the other?
Derek: Preference-wise, I’ve just grown up with theater. It’s almost second nature to me. I know the process. Having to adjust to the television medium was a learning experience. Now that I’ve gotten a few opportunities to do that, I’m much more aware and knowledgeable with that side of things. I’ve grown to like it. At first, it was a challenge and stressful. There’s just so many different elements, and the work style is just so different; but, the more I’m on set and the more opportunities I get, the more I do enjoy it and want to do more of it. Musical theater just has always been my first love. I grew up doing it, and it’s what I know. The comfort is there. The love is definitely there for theater and getting to develop those bonds with your cast mates over a long period of time and basically shape this larger piece with them. When you’re doing film and TV, you’re piecing together this puzzle slowly, one piece at a time. It’s just different, but I’ve grown to love it.
P-C: Best piece of advice you’ve gotten that you would pass on to young performers?
Derek: Two things. One: it’s a very small world when you get into New York and LA. A lot of people know a lot of people so always take all relationships with importance. Always be good to people. The better a person you are, the more people are going to want to work with you; that will hopefully lead to more opportunities in the future. Two: put yourself out there. I know in this industry it gets hard—especially in New York—and [you can] take certain opportunities for granted, or you think certain opportunities aren’t going to matter. In fact, every opportunity has unique importance. You never know who’s going to be there, or who’s going to watch you perform which could lead to another job. So, I always say if you get the opportunity, just put yourself out there no matter what. Good things will happen to good people.
POP-CULTURALIST SPEED ROUND
Guilty pleasure TV show
Survivor. Or, actually, Million Dollar Listing New York.
Guilty Pleasure Movie
Favorite play or musical
I guess baseball isn’t hidden…I used to be really good at yo-yos when I was little.
Go to karaoke song
Journey and Boston are always good go-tos.
Dinner with 5 people
Hugh Jackman. Ryan Reynolds. Kevin Spacey. Michelle Obama. Lady Gaga.