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Why the Chance to Play Roy Scheider Brought Him Back to Broadway

By: Jen Gushue
Date: Aug 11, 2023

Colin Donnell on starring in The Shark Is Broken about the making of Jaws

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"It's fucking amazing—please quote that! There's no better way to put it," enthuses Colin Donnell about returning to Broadway in The Shark Is Broken, a new comedy about the stormy making of Steven Spielberg's 1975 cinematic blockbuster Jaws. It's ironic that Donnell uses the f-bomb in conversation. As the late, great actor Roy Scheider in the three-character play, he's the only one who doesn't constantly curse. Instead, he acts as mediator between his volatile Jaws costars: Richard Dreyfuss, embodied by two-time Tony nominee Alex Brightman, and Robert Shaw, portrayed by the late actor's real-life son, Ian Shaw, who also cowrote the show with Joseph Nixon.

For the few who haven't seen Jaws, it's the story of three disparate men—Scheider's police chief Brody, Dreyfuss' marine biologist Hooper and Shaw's professional shark hunter Quint—teaming up to kill a bloodthirsty shark that's terrorizing beachgoers in a New England town. Much of the drama stems from the characters not getting along. Reportedly, the actors didn't enjoy each other's company either, and the tension was exacerbated by shooting delays caused by inclement weather, a glitchy mechanical villain and too-much alcohol flowing on a too-small boat. The Shark Is Broken is an affectionate, fictionalized take on the behind-the-scenes drama featuring three actors who have an uncanny physical resemblance to the '70s stars they portray, enhanced by spot-on costuming by Duncan Henderson.

Best known for his turns in musicals (Anything Goes, Violet, Jersey Boys) and on TV (Chicago Med, Arrow, Irreverent), Donnell is making his dramatic Broadway debut in The Shark Is Broken. It's something he's long wanted to do. "I've done musicals on Broadway, I've done Shakespeare in the Park," he says. "I've done wonderful, wonderful things that I'm so appreciative of. And now I get to also say that I've done a play on Broadway."

Speaking to Donnell, he exudes a Scheider-like levelheadedness. That's part of why Shaw wanted him for the show. "He evokes an air of trust and avuncularity," says Shaw, who starred opposite different actors in the Olivier-nominated production of The Shark Is Broken on London's West End. "Roy was quite a sort of centered man, you know, balanced. And Colin has all those qualities and more."

It certainly requires self-assurance to play the calm and quiet one in between Shaw's boozy interpretation of his dad and Brightman's neurotic Dreyfuss, but Donnell is undeterred. In fact, he revels in it. "It's a wonderful, unique challenge," he says. "Audiences tend to check in with Roy to see exactly how we should be feeling. It's all part and parcel with being connected and as in the moment as I possibly can be alongside Alex and Ian."

Colin Donnell, Ian Shaw and Alex Brightman in The Shark Is Broken. Photo by Matthew Murphy
Colin Donnell, Ian Shaw and Alex Brightman in The Shark Is Broken. Photo by Matthew Murphy

To play such a well-known actor—Scheider's 50-plus-year career included movies, TV and theatre until he died of cancer in 2008—Donnell knew he had to do the research. He watched Jaws promotional interviews and archival footage and read articles about the film to get a sense of who Roy Scheider was off-screen. And, of course, he talked to Shaw who, as Robert's son, had unprecedented access to his father's journals.

"Roy was a fascinating guy and Ian wrote a lot of that into the show," Donnell says. "Roy was the consummate professional. He was always gonna deliver. I find a certain kinship to the way that he worked. I try to be that kind of person who shows up, does his work, goes home and is able to leave it all behind at the end of the day."

Another parallel between Donnell and Scheider: they're both family men. "That part comes easy now that I'm a dad," Donnell says. In the nine years since he was last on Broadway, Donnell married his Love's Labour's Lost costar Patti Murin and welcomed two daughters. Being a hands-on father is why he was cautious about returning to theatre's punishing schedule. "I am aware of what's going on at home," he says. "To be away from that, it had to be something really special. I'm loving the work. It makes the time away no less difficult, but there's a feeling that it's worth it."

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TDF MEMBERS: At press time, discount tickets were available for The Shark Is Broken.

Top image: Colin Donnell as Roy Scheider in The Shark Is Broken at Broadway's John Golden Theatre. Photo by Marc J. Franklin.

Jen Gushue is a freelance theatre writer with bylines in American Theatre, HowlRound and Business Insider. They are also the Senior Product & Reviews Editor at The Good Housekeeping Institute. Follow them on Twitter at @jengushue. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.