Looking at the names associated with Signature’s World Premiere of Diner, it’s easy to see why many expect the show to be heading to Broadway in the not-too-distant future. There’s a score by nine-time Grammy winner Sheryl Crow, a book by Academy Award winning screenwriter Barry Levinson and it’s being directed by Tony-award winning choreographer Kathleen Marshall.
The musical is based on the 1982 Levinson coming-of-age movie about six twenty-something friends in 1959 Baltimore who talk about love, life and sports at their local diner.
The cast for the movie included a number of then-unknown actors who would soon make it big—including Kevin Bacon, Paul Reiser, Steve Guttenberg, Daniel Stern, Tim Daley, Ellen Barkin and Mickey Rourke. It was their natural chemistry and camaraderie that made the movie a classic.
Hoping to replicate some of that same chemistry, the actors appearing in the musical of Diner have done their best to spend lots of time together off the stage—going to movies, DC hotspots and of course, a diner or two.
“The first week we were all together, we went to a diner in New York and Barry joined us, and it was just so much fun,” says Derek Klena who plays Boogie, the role Rourke rode to fame. “Being at that diner with Barry, we were able to hear some of the background stories on some of these guys the characters are based on and quirky things they did that inspired this story.”
The movie works so well, Klena thinks, because the guys are so close and the cast found a similarly natural bond in rehearsals and have seen it progress throughout the process.
“One of the best parts of this whole thing has been how we have bonded and how well we get along,” he says. “We’re all on the same page, and I think that’s a recipe for being a strong musical. We all look forward to hanging out together.”
In the script, the characters are all boyhood friends who talk about the minutia of their lives, waxing poetic about sports, music, movies and their troubles and struggles. Klena says that when the cast gets together for lunch, they often find themselves talking about the same subjects.
“You realize how similar the dynamic is in our group to what was going on in the movie,” he says. “I think a lot of that has to do with a great job of casting.”
Klena didn’t always want to be an actor. Although he performed in plays in high school, he was just as drawn to the ball field and was considered a great high school baseball player. He attended UCLA and walked onto the baseball team his freshman year, but eventually, the acting bug took over.
“While I was in college I did a singing competition and that got me an agent so I stopped playing baseball,” he says. “Sports and theater have always gone hand-in-hand in my life and the path just started pulling me more toward theater.”
To get his sports fix, Klena plays on the Broadway softball team in Central Park during summers, and he’s happy to still have his foot in the game.
It was while in New York that Klena first auditioned for Diner several years ago, but at the time, it was for the role of Fenwick (the part Bacon played in the movie). He didn’t get it. As the show continued being developed, he was called back a year later, but this time for Boogie.
“Honestly, before I got the audition, I didn’t know anything about the movie,” he says. “When I first saw it, I thought it was this great complex relationship type of movie and I was excited about the chance to work on it—especially with Sheryl Crow’s music.”
Klena says that both Crow and Levinson have been a big part of bringing this production to life and he’s grateful to be working with such legends.
“They are both iconic and listening to their stories—there’s so much I have learned from them,” he says.
The script of the musical is very loyal to the movie, with only little things changed here or there to make it more appropriate for the stage. Memorable scenes such as the “movie bet” and the infamous football quiz remain, and some of the action has been beefed up a little.
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He admits, taking on a role made famous by someone else isn’t always easy.
“You don’t want to fix something that’s not broken but as an actor, I try to take as much as I can from what Mickey did, and also incorporate some of my own,” he says. “People who saw the movie expect to see certain things and you try to identify those but also give your own feel as to who the character is.”
Although he hasn’t had the chance to talk with Rourke, he does know the one question he would like to ask him about the role—“Why does Boogie always wear an opera scarf?”
“He wears one in every scene and I heard it wasn’t scripted, but something Mickey brought to it himself,” Klena says. “I wonder why he thought it was necessary. I have to wear one so I would love to know the background as to why.”