Derek Klena has had a fast-rise in musical theater, having jumped from leading roles in the off-Broadway musicals Dogfight and Carrie to the biggest-of-the big Broadway blockbusters, Wicked. The California native, who joined the show in late May, is putting his own spin on Fiyero, the Winkie prince who captures the heart of Glinda and Elphaba. Broadway.com recently caught up with the 21-year-old actor to chat about leading the 10th anniversary cast, reuniting with his Dogfight co-star Lindsay Mendez and how he went from baseball player to Broadway star.
We love watching you on Fly Girl. How is acting on Broadway different than your experience leading an off-Broadway musicals?
The stakes are a lot higher on Broadway; there’s so much more going on and everything’s so much more intricate. It’s definitely more intimidating. And going into Wicked, I don't have the privilege of originating my role like I did with Carrie and Dogfight.
What makes your Wicked and Dogfight leading lady Lindsay Mendez the ultimate co-star?
We just instantly clicked! We’ve developed this great friendship, and that’s been the key to us being compatible on stage. Anything that she does or anything that I do, we are there 100% for each other, and that’s all you can ask for in a co-star—trust and respect. That’s what makes this show so much more enjoyable, having someone like that by your side—a co-pilot.
Wasn’t Wicked your first Broadway show? How did it feel to make your debut in it?
Surreal. When I saw the show eight years ago, I had no idea I would get the opportunity to perform it someday. It was just a dream I had when I was younger. It’s kind of unbelievable to be working with Joe Mantello and the group at Wicked, which I’ve idolized all these years. Fiyero is a role I’ve always wanted to play, and I’m actually getting to experience that on the Broadway stage.
What would you have said if someone had told you eight years ago that you'd be playing Fiyero in the 10th anniversary cast of Wicked?
I would have said, “Yeah right, I want to play baseball.” [Laughs.] At the time, I was pretty into sports; I didn’t know yet that this is what I wanted to pursue. Seeing Wicked definitely sparked that in me and pushed me to pursue it as a career. It’s kind of bizarre that it took me to Wicked.
When you were growing up, was it hard to be the jock who also did theater?
Yeah, it was harder when I was younger because my friends didn’t understand yet. But once high school and college rolled around, my friends matured and understood it’s kind of a cool thing; they were were blown away with the theater side of me. They grew to respect it, which was really cool to see.
Was it difficult to give up baseball?
It was. I got into UCLA for theater, and I had to make a decision whether to let baseball go. I ended up switching out of theater; I figured I could still do theater outside of school. I played baseball my freshman year as a pitcher, but at the end of the year, I realized that my true love and passion is in acting and singing. I’m glad I made that choice. I play in the Broadway softball league and a restaurant league, so I still get that sports atmosphere. I feel like I get enough playing recreationally and casually.
What is the secret to wearing the infamous Fiyero pants?
Just being fearless. The first time I put them on I was a little doubtful, but you have to wear them with pride. A lot of people come to the show knowing those pants are coming, so you’ve just got to wear them with pride.
You’re a California transplant living in New York. What’s your favorite part of the city?
I love Lincoln Center—being there right next to Juilliard, surrounded by the iconic theaters and performing spaces. We have the Ahmanson Theatre in L.A., which is similar, so it reminds me of L.A. in that sense. But there’s also Times Square, which I traveled to with my family, dreaming of performing there someday. Being in Times Square is special in its own way.
It’s almost like you’re on the Aaron Tveit career track. Which actors do you admire?
Aaron’s life right now isn’t too shabby! [Laughs.] I wouldn’t mind going that route. Norbert Leo Butz is someone I’ve looked up to for a long time. He’s gotten to play so many different roles, and I’d love to have the opportunity to play diverse characters.
Tell us about the TV pilot you shot for the CW network.
It’s called Tomorrow People. It’s about the evolution of man—people developing super powers and being hunted down by an evolutionary biologist who disagrees with humans transforming. I played a bully on the pilot who helped the main character discover he had powers. He kicked my butt! Film and television are a different beast, having grown up in theater but I definitely want to get into it more over the next couple of years.
What are your must-see TV shows? What would you want to join?
Sadly, Breaking Bad is ending, but Breaking Bad is pretty amazing. Boardwalk Empire is awesome; there are so many great characters. And Homeland. Those are my top three shows, and it would be incredible if I got to go in for one of them.
Tell us a little bit about your girlfriend, Elycia. Did she move here with you, or did you meet in NYC?
We met at UCLA, and she had an internship here last summer, while I was doing Dogfight, with a fashion start-up company. It was really cool that she got to be here for that time. For the first year I was here it was long distance and she would visit every month or two, but she moved here officially in January.
Is New York more romantic than Los Angeles?
[Laughs] I think it is, actually. There’s a lot to do. The thing about New York is you don’t have to drive anywhere. You can take the subway for 10 minutes and pop up somewhere completely different. It’s a really cool city.
See Derek Klena as Fiyero in Wicked at the Gershwin Theatre.