Broadway veteran Donnie Kehr, who has graced the stage in iconic shows like “Jersey Boys” and “The Who’s Tommy,” got his start on the Great White Way at just 12 years old.
Growing up in Hell’s Kitchen and attending the Professional Children’s School, his mother, a ballerina, found him an agent in the Yellow Pages. Since then, he’s enjoyed a career on stage with highlights that include playing Norm Waxman in “Jersey Boys,” both on Broadway and in the film adaptation, and being the first to sing the theatrical version of “Pinball Wizard,” which earned a Grammy.
It was through his part in “Tommy,” that Kehr was asked by The Who’s Pete Townshend to form Rockers on Broadway, a band comprised of Broadway musicians. Now celebrating its 23rd year, their annual concert benefits the PATH Fund, which stands for Performing Artists That Help. The nonprofit, which Kehr started to give back to arts education, provides students with scholarships through the money raised at the show, which will be held on Nov. 14 at Le Poisson Rouge.
Tell us your “Jersey Boys” story.I had worked with the director, Des McAnuff, in “The Who’s Tommy.” I had seen him at an event and he said, “Hey, I’ve got something for you, but I can’t tell you the name right now.” About six months later, I got a call to go to L.A. from Des’ assistant who said, “You’re going to go tomorrow and meet Frankie Valli.” Des asked me to bring my guitar and sing something. So I got there, met Frankie Valli, sang a song and read some sides. It was like the worst audition I ever had because I didn’t sleep at all. I drove from Vegas to L.A. I worked until 2 in the morning and had a 9 a.m. meeting. I didn’t have time to book a flight; it was all last minute. I called Des on his cell and left a message saying “Thank you so much for the opportunity. I’m sorry I wasn’t up to par, but thank you.” He calls me back 10 minutes later and says, “Donnie, I told you I had something for you. You got it. This is it. It’s called “Jersey Boys.”
What was your role in the show?I created the role of Gyp De Carlo in La Jolla. Then when we came to New York, he wanted to change the part to Norm Waxman because he could use a musician in other areas. So I took on that role for Broadway. And then also played drums on songs like, “Walk Like a Man,” “Dawn,” and also played guitar on “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You” and “C’mon Marianne.” It was fun to be able to be in a Broadway show and also be playing real instruments. We won the Tony for Best Musical that year, which was amazing. I was in the show for another two years and then left to go do “Billy Elliot,” which won 11 Tony Awards. And then I broke my back on stage.
I was actually going to ask you what has been a memorable on-stage moment.What happened was I was crossing the stage in the middle of the first act and my whole left side went numb and I fell and couldn’t get up. So the crew had to drag me off stage because otherwise the scenery would have killed me. So they leave me over on stage left. They didn’t stop the show. At intermission, four guys pick me up and throw me in a cab and I get sent to the emergency room. I didn’t know what’s going to happen. I’m thinking my career is over. I ended up having surgery and went back in the show after about nine months for a month. I just couldn’t do it anymore; my back didn’t allow me. So I went, “That’s it for dancing.”
How did your part in the movie come about?Then I got a call to go on tour with “Jersey Boys” and finish their first national tour. And this one day, I’m going to Starbucks before I go get ready and as I’m walking in, Clint Eastwood is walking out. I said, “Hi Mr. Eastwood, you don’t happen to be seeing “Jersey Boys?” He goes, “Yeah, can you tell me where the will call is?” He goes, “Are you in the show?” And I said, “Yeah, my name’s Donnie Kehr. I’m from the original cast. I’m here doing this now and having a blast.” He sees the show, comes back afterwards and said, “Great job, pleasure to meet you. I’ll see you again.” I thought nothing of it. Three weeks later, I get a call to do a screen test for the movie “Jersey Boys,” that he directed. I got it and recreated the role that I did on Broadway, Norm Waxman, in the movie.
What was the set like?The set was amazing. You had to be on your game. I got to work with Christopher Walken for nine days and that was fun, because most of my scenes were with him. He taught me a lot, actually. He taught me a very valuable lesson about the difference between stage acting and film acting and taught me how to rest my eyes. [Laughs]
How did Rockers on Broadway first come about? We were doing the run of “Tommy” on Broadway and Pete Townshend and Des brought me aside after a rehearsal and said, “We want you to bring the cast together to sing and put a band together and do a couple of club dates.” Pete said, “I want to join you. I’ll play with you. I want these Broadway types to understand who I am and where I come from. So I want to do a rock show with them.” I got the orchestra from the show and we did it at the old China Club on 75th. And I said, “I want to do this again.” And Pete said, “Well, if you do it again, make it a charity.” So I just kept it going.
Tell us about the PATH Fund and its mission. I started it with my producing partner Cori Gardner. For years that I was doing the show, I would do it at a club and be putting up all this money and losing a lot of it. And it is a way of giving back to the community. One of the things I’ve always believed in is arts education. I think we’re lacking that in our schools. When I was young we had band and drama and all that stuff is gone. And that’s what has given society a fabric of creativity in the sense of bringing creative people together. It’s kind of what keeps peace in the world. So I believe in that, so that’s what I donate to. We give between 12 to 15 kids scholarships to learn the arts every year through Rockers on Broadway.
To learn more about Donnie, visit www.donniekehr.com
For more information on the PATH Fund and Rockers on Broadway, visit www.thepathfund.org