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Building Character: Colin Donnell

Date: Apr 19, 2011


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Welcome to Building Character, TDF Stages' ongoing series about actors and how they create their roles


In the musical theatre, few things are more delightful than a Cole Porter song. His best numbers not only evoke the life of a character, but also display breathtaking craft, using witty rhymes and rhythms that demand their own applause. As Hilton Als recently wrote in The New Yorker"[Porter's] sharpest lines are like strings of bright-colored flags strung across the deck of a long white ship; you want to grab them as they sail by."

But Porter's genius creates an interesting challenge for actors, who have to honor his technique without being overwhelmed by it. They have to make sure they're telling a story and not just singing clever couplets.

That's especially true for Anything Goes which is back on Broadway in the Roundabout's new revival. Written in 1934, the musical follows Billy Crocker, a young Wall Streeter who stows aboard a cruise ship to woo his true love. It boasts so many classic songs---"I Get a Kick Out of You," "You're The Top," "Anything Goes," etc.---that audiences may get pulled out of the plot because they're happily singing along.

Colin Donnell, who plays Billy Crocker, seems undaunted by the legacy of Porter's music. "There is such a style to it, but that's fantastic," he says. "The fun part about performing it has been creating the reality of what all those verses are going to mean and what we're going to accomplish through the song. Hopefully, we're making sure that each song has a specific point and purpose."

Take "You're The Top," a duet between Crocker and his old friend Reno Sweeney (Sutton Foster), a nightclub singer who just happens to be performing on the ship. When Billy's worried that his girl will never love him, Reno bucks him up with compliments like, "You're the top/You're the Coliseum/You're the top/You're the Louvre museum."

Eventually, Billy sings Reno's praises, too, and for Donnell, that's a chance for character development. "You get to see what the friendship between Billy and Reno really is and how special it is that they can verbally spar with each other," he says. "The way we have fun in each performance is really trying to outmatch each other and playing with the words [Cole Porter]'s given us. It helps us flesh out that wonderful friendship that's implied."

He adds that director-choreographer Kathleen Marshall has encouraged the actors to keep finding new moments: "When we had done it a few times, she said, 'Okay, six months down the line, I want you guys to have the freedom to do whatever you want to make each other laugh and keep each other on your toes.' So we do. It's little stuff for us, little physical things or the way the words fall out of our mouths, but if you were to come back night after night, you'd hopefully see us trying little stuff that would give it a nice little spark."

Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor