Southern California musical theater fans know Derek Keeling from his starring roles in All Shook Up and The Wedding Singer (at Musical Theatre West) and Happy Days (at Cabrillo Music Theatre), while TV fans will recall his appearances on Grease: You’re The One That I Want, which led to Derek’s starring role on Broadway as Danny Zuko, a role the handsome triple threat has performed nearly 1000 times, in New York and on the road.  Derek is about to star at the Segerstrom Center For The Arts in the Broadway smash Million Dollar Quartet, in the role of none other than the immortal Johnny Cash.  We caught up with Derek recently for the following chat.

   Derek as himself, and as Danny Zuko in Grease

Hi Derek!  Congratulations on the Million Dollar Quartet tour!  The very first time I saw you was about eight years ago when you were touring as Danny Zuko in Grease at the Pasadena Civic!  That was several years before TV’s “Grease: You’re the One that I Want” and your subsequent Broadway starring gig in the same role (and more than a thousand performances as Danny).  And now you’re touring again as none other than the iconic Johnny Cash.  How are you enjoying being back on the road?

It’s a lot of fun being back on the road, and it’s great to be with a show like Million Dollar Quartet.  The audiences just love these icons and their music.  It’s really a pleasure to get to bring that music to life every night.

Derek Keeling as Johnny Cash in The National Tour of Million Dollar Quartet  Photo: Jeremy Daniel

When you’re recreating such a well-known figure as Johnny, how did you research and prepare? 

These days with YouTube and other resources on the Internet, there’s so much material out there to draw from.  This is the first time in my career that I’ve every played a person that actually existed.  That brings a whole new set of challenges, but in the same respect, you do have a pretty good outline for how to play the role.

How much of Million Dollar Quartet’s Johnny Cash is Derek and how much is Johnny?

I think there’s a lot of Derek in Johnny Cash.  We were both from similar religious backgrounds and both came from rural communities.  I’ve really learned a lot about myself by playing Johnny Cash and have gotten in touch with writing my own music again.  I’ve written several Johnny Cash-inspired songs since I’ve been on the road.  I recorded a few of them at Sun Studio this year with some of the band.  We just released them a few weeks ago.

That’s exciting news for your fans, and for fans of Johnny as well!  What do you think distinguishes Million Dollar Quartet from other biographical musicals, say Jersey Boys?

A major difference in our show is that we are the band.  There’s no orchestra; just us.  I think that brings a whole new energy to the show.  It allows the audience to feel like they were really there for a minute.  And it helps make each one of our casts so unique.

Southern California theatergoers, including this one, have seen you in numerous starring roles in locally produced musicals including another jukebox musical, All Shook Up, in the role of Elvis-like Chad.  How does creating a real-life Johnny compare with bringing to life a fictionalized version of The King?

Like I said before, being able to play someone that really existed gives you a lot of material to draw from, but in the same respect you do have pretty high stakes.  People have a certain expectation when it comes to Johnny Cash and you have to be true to that.  Playing Chad in All Shook Up, I had a lot more freedom to do what I wanted to artistically.

  Misty Cotton and Derek in Happy Days  Photo: Ed Krieger

You also starred as Fonzie in Cabrillo Music Theatre’s production of Happy Days—another iconic figure.  Any difference in your approach to recreating Fonzie compared to Johnny?

I think you have to be so much more grounded when playing Johnny.  Fonzie is kind of the super-ego bad boy of the 50’s.  That kind of guy can’t really exist in the real world.  Johnny is more of the “speak softly and carry a big stick” kind of guy.

  Cody Slaughter as Elvis Presley and Derek Keeling as Johnny Cash in The National Tour of Million Dollar Quartet  Photo: Jeremy Daniel

Having appeared in local productions that get rehearsed and opened at a breakneck pace, how does that experience (including last summer’s The Wedding Singer) compare with that of a touring production like Million Dollar Quartet?

We had a long rehearsal process with this show.  Around five weeks.  Most of my West Coast contracts don’t even last that long INCLUDING performances.  That being said, we got through most of the music in the first two days.  It was very different working with all of these musicians.  The music came first and we took the first month to fill out the story.  It was nice to be able to take the time and make sure it’s right before we opened.  There was a whole lot more to learn for us though.  Not only did we have to learn all of the songs and dialog, but we had to learn to play it ourselves.  That was a new and exciting challenge.

What’s your favorite part of touring, and your least favorite?

It’s amazing to get to see new cities every week and have an audience see your show as new almost every night.  The schedule is pretty grueling when you add in the press and travel.  It’s a bit tougher than I remember it being when I was right out of college.  I do look forward to being in one place for a while after this.

This is one case where O.C. audiences will get to see you ahead of L.A. audiences this summer.  How does it feel to be performing “back at home,” so to speak?

I think it’ll be great.  I’m so excited for my friends in the area to get to see this show.  It was fun to get to go out on the road and bring a show back to my second home in L.A.  I’ve done a lot of work there in the last few years and am eager to get back.

 Derek Keeling as Johnny Cash in The National Tour of Million Dollar Quartet  Photo: Jeremy Daniel

You’re the very definition of a triple threat, but I’m curious.  Which threat would be the most difficult to give up, acting, singing, or dancing? 

I think the singing would be hardest to give up.  I know whenever I am sick and can’t sing, I don’t really feel myself.  It’s really been a source of therapy for me over the years.  I love what I do and am very lucky to get to continue to do it.  I’m very thankful for that pleasure.

With your looks and talent, you’re the quintessential leading man.  Any interest in non-musical roles, or dramatic/comedic TV or film work, or does you theatrical career take precedence?

I think at this point I would jump at the chance to do some TV/film work.  I’ve really enjoyed being on stage, but it would be exciting to tackle a new field.  I’m sure I would keep singing in some fashion if that opportunity came around.

With luck, some TV/film folks will see you as Johnny and realize what a great catch you’d make!  For this reviewer, at least, it’s been a real privilege to have gotten to see your career blossom in the years since that first Grease!  I’m excited to welcome you back to Southern California, and can’t wait to see you on Opening Night at the Segerstrom Center For The Arts.


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