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Meet Killian Donnelly, Breakout Star of the Brand-New West End Musical The Commitments

Meet Killian Donnelly, Breakout Star of the Brand-New West End Musical The Commitments
Killian Donnelly in 'The Commitments'
I eat a bag of chips while singing 'I Heard It Through the Grapevine.'

The Commitments is the first in a series of high-profile musical premieres in London this fall, a lineup that includes The Light Princess, From Here to Eternity, and Stephen Ward. If there is any justice, director Jamie Lloyd’s raucous production will make a star out of 29-year-old leading man Killian Donnelly, who more than gives his all as the big-headed yet soulful Deco, lead singer in the Dublin band that gives the show (and the 1991 Alan Parker film) its title. Broadway.com caught the irrepressible Irishman in his Palace Theatre dressing room just hours before the show’s October 8 opening night performance to find him bubbling over with energy, enthusiasm and, yes, commitment.

Congratulations on your high-intensity performance as Deco, the hothead who sings the lion’s share of soul standards in The Commitments.
We have 19 songs in our show, and I think I sing 17 of them! It’s about pacing yourself, really. Everything’s do-able if you prepare for it, and I’ve got strategically planted cups of tea or water, so there is always some warm liquid for me to consume. I was told once that you have to be a slave to a show, and that is certainly true of this one.

Do you wake up these days nervously testing your voice?
I do. Every morning I go [makes strangulated sound], and if it grumbles like that I’m fine. As long I can do that throughout the day, I know I’m okay. But I do find myself making the weirdest noises. I was actually doing a rehearsal the other day for “Mr. Pitiful” and “Midnight Hour” in the musical director’s dressing room. He had the window open and I was screaming the songs out on to Shaftesbury Avenue. I guess you could say I was bringing soul to the people! [Laughs.]

You do a lot of singing while eating.
Yeah, I eat a cream éclair—a full one—and then a plate of actual cooked spaghetti, and I eat a bag of chips while singing “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” At one point, Jamie Lloyd, our director, said, “Make sure to sing through the chips, Killian,” and “Don’t belch at that point, Killian, belch at this point.”

Those are unusual notes from a director.
[Laughs.] They’re just the best. I’ve been tweeting them as #directors quotes!

Nothing you’ve done in London to date—Les Miserables or The Phantom of the Opera or Billy Elliot—can have prepared you for this.
Well, this is the first time I’ve originated a role. When you take over in a show, you sort of know what can be done with it, but when you’re starting something from scratch, it is down to you to make it your own and to figure out a way to get through eight shows a week—seven once we open, since from that point on, I won’t be doing the Sunday evening performance.

That seems fair, since this show is a physical workout for you, not just a vocal one.
It is. There are, like, four or five fights and I unfortunately end up on the ground in most of them, so we do a physical and vocal warm-up. I also warm down after the show, which I’ve never done before.

You get dramatically headbutted on stage at one point, and I bet you’re going to tell us that the actor [Joe Woolmer] who does that is the sweetest guy in the world.
He is! I’d love to have some stories for you, but the fact is, when we’re out at the weekend he will always buy me a pint and say, “There you go, mate.” That part of the show always gets a great reaction, which is how you know you’ve done your job. Later on, we’re high-fiving to show that there’s no harm meant.

You were a kid when the 1991 Alan Parker film of Roddy Doyle’s 1986 novel came out, so how did you know this material?
I would have been seven at the time, and I remember my older brother going to see it at the cinema and my asking him what it was like, and him saying, “I’m not going to tell you, you’re too young; there are curses in it.” When I got the script for the musical and he asked me what it was like, I said, “I’m not going to tell you; you’re too old!”

Does it seem odd that you’re almost twice the age that 16-year-old Andrew Strong was when he played the same role in the film?
What’s great is that Roddy [Doyle, who wrote the book for the musical] and Jamie [Lloyd] have allowed us to come up with our own characters. Andrew Strong did it his way in the film, I’m doing it my way in the play, and it’s nice that we’re each our own entity; this isn’t a tribute act.

You spent three years in Les Miserables and appeared in the film [as Combeferre]; now you’re in the theater where Les Miz first played the West End.
That show was such a huge thing in my life! I never trained professionally, so Les Miz knocked the amdram [amateur dramatics] out of me and made me grow as a performer. From what I’ve been told, I have what was once Colm Wilkinson’s dressing room, number seven, which was also Tim Curry’s in Spamalot. And I'll bet you that on their opening nights they weren’t sleeping on their couch! I have nowhere else to go before tonight’s show, so I’m going to have a kip [nap] here.

Do you and your castmates feel competitive with Once, another Dublin-based musical playing just minutes away? Your show is certainly the louder of the two!
I saw Declan [Bennett] in that, and he was glorious. All I’m saying is that I cannot wait for the two shows to get together in a pub. We’ll have the biggest session ever. I bet it doesn’t stop until 6 AM!

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