Killian Donnelly: ‘Being a swing was my training – it made me the performer that I am’
As Killian Donnelly, one of the West End’s finest and hardest-working musical-theatre performers, takes on the role of Valjean in Les Miserables, he talks to Mark Shenton about his remarkable career – from his roots in amateur dramatics, to learning from four Phantoms and returning a decade on to the show that started it all for him
When Killian Donnelly was 10, his father gave him a CD of Irish singer and actor Colm Wilkinson, saying: “You want to hear a voice? That’s a voice.” The young Donnelly was particularly taken with the seventh track on the disc, which had Wilkinson, as Jean Valjean, belting out Bring Him Home from Les Miserables. A little over two decades on and he is singing the showstopping tune himself in the West End.
In taking on the lead role, Donnelly has come full circle to where it all began for him as a humble swing, shadowing 10 of the supporting roles in the long-running West End hit set in 19th-century France.
Since landing that job in Les Mis in 2008, he has never been out of work, and now at 33 is one of the West End’s hardest working most dependable and in-demand leading men. He is also one of its best. Seasoned viewers of musical theatre put him somewhere near the top of the current crop of West End musical theatre performers. After supporting roles in The Phantom of the Opera and Billy Elliot, he broke out as the lead in The Commitments in 2013.
Donnelly did not look back, with audiences falling for his extraordinary vocals and boy-next-door charm first in 2014’s Memphis and then as Charlie in box office smash Kinky Boots two years later. What came next was Valjean.
From Ireland to the West End
The role inevitably has him thinking about his break, and how another Valjean – back in Ireland – was instrumental in that. The executive producer and musical supervisor of Les Miserables came to see Sweeney Todd at the Gate in Dublin to scout its lead David Shannon as a potential Valjean.
Shannon offered to introduce them to Donnelly who was in the ensemble. “Because I was young and stupid, I didn’t think this was a big deal,” the performer winces a decade on. “In the bar, he introduced me to Stephen Brooker and Trevor Jackson, and told them he thought I’d make a great member of the Les Mis family. And that was it.”
Six months later, Donnelly was working in a bar in London. Of the 20 agents he had contacted, only one replied. “I told him my story and he said he’d get me seen for Les Mis when it came up.” Donnelly walked out to audition and sat in front of him were Brooker and Jackson. “I squawked my way through it because I was so nervous, but what they saw was potential.”
After four rounds, he got the job. “When I got the call that I had it, it was incredible; the best feeling in the world. At home, the longest job you do is about eight weeks. This was a 12-month contract.”
Killian Donnelly’s top tips for aspiring actors
• Go and see as much theatre as you can, and as much film as you can. Really support what you love.
• Look after your voice.
• You can always get better – don’t take criticism to heart. There is constructive criticism. I’ve been told in
so many auditions, ‘You need to work on your acting or your voice’. You leave defeated, but you can focus on it. But when someone says you’re a bit too young or too old, there’s nothing I can do about that.
A decade of singing in amateur dramatics had left Donnelly somewhat unprepared for life in the West End. At his first audition they had sent him material for the character Enjorlas and he had confused this with the Angelus, a catholic devotion accompanied by the ringing of a bell. “When they asked me about Enjorlas, I thought that was what they meant,” he says.
Even after he had secured the role, his amdram past proved more of a hindrance than a help. In his early teens he was told that those with black shoes and black trousers could be in Oliver!. “When I was first being fitted for Les Mis, I said: ‘I’ve got my own black trousers and black shoes.’ They replied: ‘I think we’ll be okay’.”
That first role was a ‘swing job’ – something Donnelly had never heard of before – which meant knowing the lines and moves of 10 supporting characters. “I covered all the students – Combeferre, Courfeyrac, Feuilly and the rest,” he says.
For Donnelly, who had learnt his craft through singing in choirs and amateur dramatics, it was, he says now, “my training, and it was from doing that for a year that I built my voice up”.
His desire to progress impressed the top brass at the production. He turned down the chance to cover the role of Grantaire because he wanted to “keep learning” and shadow several parts. “They loved that,” Donnelly says, and he was given the job of covering Enjolras and Javert and was even emergency cover for Valjean.
‘When I was Enjolras, I’d watch Valjean; and being Raoul, I’d watch the Phantom’
In his third year as a member of the cast, he landed the featured role of Enjolras, but the shadow of Valjean was never far away. A week after playing the student Courfeyrac in the 25th-anniversary concert of Les Miserables at the O2 Arena he was asked to go on as the lead.
“I had an hour’s recap rehearsal and I was on,” Donnelly says. “When I think about it now, my voice was so young. I was 24 or 25, and I could ping the notes, but my voice was so youthful.
“It was an incredible experience. The building was just staring at me – not just the 1,000 in the audience but also 120 people backstage, urging me, ‘Go on’.”
A string of West End hits
Just a week after he left Les Mis, he got the call for The Phantom of the Opera, in which he took over as Raoul: a baritone role that proved a very different challenge to the tenor needed for Enjolras.
Donnelly never stopped training, watching and learning. Doing Phantom, he recalls standing in the wings and just taking in the performances of all four of the Phantoms he worked with. He says: “I’d think, ‘How do you do that every night?’.”
Watching his colleagues proved to be an inspiration and training. “When I was Enjolras, I’d watch Valjean; and being Raoul, I’d watch the Phantom.” Speaking to me soon after he’d taken over as Valjean, he now wonders: “I can’t believe how they all got through this too.”
The demands of being the lead are such that he has to go to extra lengths to protect his voice. “I’m now a monk for Valjean,” he says. “You have to be – the company all went out bowling last night, but I didn’t. I thought if I go I won’t be able to sing.”
Donnelly has earned his stripes not just as a singer but an actor as well. The turning point was after leaving Phantom, he says, when he was in Billy Elliot playing Tony, the title character’s older brother. “It’s just an acting role. When you have that on your CV, it means you can act. It was an incredible experience,” he adds. “We had big beer bellies and were dancing. Then these kids come on and knock it out of the park.”
‘You’ve got to be unemployed to be employed when you’re an actor’
He talks admiringly of associate director Julian Webber, who gives the actors a chance to mould each part in their own image. “He asked me how old I was. I was 28, so my Tony was 28. You’re creating the role again, not just putting on someone else’s shoes, and that changed how I approach a role.”
He was signed to a six-month contract, but turned down the chance to extend it to a year. “I like the idea of doing a contract and leaving if I can’t progress any more. But there was also a show called The Commitments, directed by Jamie Lloyd. I’d done the workshop and wanted to be available for it. You’ve got to be unemployed to be employed when you’re an actor.”
Auditions for The Commitments took place a month before Donnelly was due to leave Billy Elliot, and just three days before the end he found out he had got the job.
“I had three months off before starting rehearsals, so I went home to Ireland for the summer. A friend called to say there was a nine-week gig at the Helix in Dublin doing a musical called The Promise, so I did that.”
Donnelly believes playing Deco helped get his name out there: “It ticked so many boxes for me. The Commitments is nearly the Bible at home, and Roddy Doyle is God”, he says.
The team auditioned all over Ireland to find the cast, and landing the lead role meant the whole country was behind him. “I was on national TV at home,” he says.
Andrew Strong played Deco in the movie adaptation. “He was a big guy with long hair,” Donnelly says. “But Jamie Lloyd was so open to creation. We just did the opposite, because I couldn’t put on weight that quick.”
So he shaved his head and grew a beard, but as well as a new look, he needed to find a new way of singing soulfully.
“For the first three or four months, it took a toll on me,” Donnelly says. “Every song was a number one hit, and it needed projecting. The whole place was up on its feet screaming. It was like a rock concert, and you needed the energy.”
The weekends were particularly tough, with two performances on Saturdays and Sundays. “You’d be in Boots on a Friday night buying your toothpaste and they’d say, have a good weekend. And I’d think, I’m not even halfway through my week now.”
Q&A: Killian Donnelly
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
Look after your voice more. I did not respect it enough before – it’s my mortgage.
Who or what is your biggest influence?
Probably my dad. He never shied away from playing music publicly.
What is your best piece of advice for auditions?
Go in and trust the panel – they want you to get the job.
If you hadn’t been an actor, what would you have been?
A primary school teacher, on the basis that all the people in amdram were teachers. They had their nights and summers off, so they could do it.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
Not really, but if I catch myself whistling in the dressing room, I stop immediately.
By contrast, Memphis proved to be a lighter workload. “I went from 19 solos to three, it was the most beautiful feeling ever.” But there was no respite in his schedule: “I finished The Commitments on Sunday night and on Monday we were in rehearsals for Memphis.”
The big challenge there was the choreography. “I could do a stupid sort of dancing, but the choreographer, Sergio Trujillo, said he’d get me dancing,” Donnelly recalls. With the song Tear Down the House, they had to keep stopping for me, but it was the best feeling in the world when I got to dance and kick my legs in time with everyone else.”
He is full of admiration for his Memphis co-star Beverley Knight and the example she provided. “I love it when someone has [the] status that she does and loves what she does too. Every single show would be 100%. She never missed a show and knocked it out of the park every time.
“She really looked after herself,” he says, before again referencing the popular West End cast activity of tenpin bowling. “We’d all go out to a bowling night and she’d be there having fun. But she wouldn’t scream and the next day would smash it.”
From Memphis he took the lead in Kinky Boots, another Broadway transfer to the West End. “That’s when the jokes started. Neil Patrick Harris was doing Hedwig and the Angry Inch on Broadway, and people would say to me, ‘we hear a rumour that it’s coming to London – congratulations’.”
Rapport with audiences
Donnelly has earned his success and connects with audiences partly because of an authentic, everyman quality. “That’s probably my parents,” he says. “They would knock the shit out of me if I ever got too big for my boots.”
He cites his father as the biggest influence of his life and was thrilled when he could introduce his old man to one of his heroes, returning a favour 23 years in the making. “One of the best and most incredible moments of my life was when Colm Wilkinson was playing in Dublin at the Bord Gais Theatre, and I got to take my dad. I knew his manager, so we got to go backstage, and I introduced my dad to him [in person], whereas he’d introduce him to me on a CD. It was such an amazing feeling.”
The affable Donnelly likes to connect with his own fans, and freely offers advice to other aspiring performers. “When I’m asked what advice I’d give for auditions, I always say I don’t put on a leading man sort of thing. I just trust the panel. It’s not The X Factor or American Idol, where you’re there to be judged. Here they want you to get the job.”
Each job brings serious challenges and serious rewards, too: “I love every job I’ve done.” Last year he ticked off another accomplishment when he starred in his first play: the world premiere of Frank McGuinness’ Donegal at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, after completing his London run in Kinky Boots.
“It was about a young lad born in Donegal who went off to America and became a country and western singer and had a bit of success. The play starts when he comes back to a family get-together [and they] are really bitter about him going off and being successful. Frank McGuinness had told the producers this role is a Killian Donnelly type of a role, and so they called me.”
It coincided with an invitation to go to Broadway with Kinky Boots. He met the producers at the Olivier Awards last year, who said they did not want him to leave. But Donnelly was already contracted to do a play at the Abbey: “It’s the Irish national theatre and I’d always wanted to appear there.”
The producers said they would honour the contract for Dublin, but wanted him to be Charlie on Broadway. “I dragged my mam over, who was my date, and said they want me to go to Broadway. She turned to the producers and said, ‘Wowee, isn’t that good?’.”
After finishing Donegal in November, he flew to New York. He had four days to get over the jet lag, and six hours of rehearsal for a show he had not performed in three months. “Then I was on. It was like riding a bike; it all came back to me.”
It was while there that Brooker and Thomas Schonberg from Cameron Mackintosh came to see him in Kinky Boots. They were there launching the Broadway revival of Miss Saigon. A few months later, he got a call from his agent: they wanted to see him for Valjean in London. He went in to the auditions singing the Soliloquy five times in a row – and Bring Him Home once – and the next day he was told the role was his.
So, once again, there was no time to rest. Donnelly’s Kinky Boots contract didn’t end until the end of May, and the new Les Mis company took over in mid-June. Given his scheduling, they had to start rehearsals without him. “When I landed, I had two days off, then I arrived at the theatre. I walked through the stage door and Mark Donovan, who is the stage doorman in the daytime, gave me the biggest hug. I was home.”
Now Donnelly is home for the next year, at least, in the show that started it all for him. He’s just bought himself a house in south-east London, so it is home in other ways too. “When I went to New York, I wanted two questions answered: could I live here, and do I want to work here? I definitely want to work there, but it’s too far from Ireland [to live] and London is now my home.” That will be music to West End audiences’ ears.
CV: Killian Donnelly
Born: 1984, Kilmessan, County Meath, Ireland
Landmark productions: Theatre: Les Miserables (Queen’s Theatre, 2008); The Phantom of the Opera (Her Majesty’s Theatre, 2011); Billy Elliot (Victoria Palace Theatre, 2012); The Commitments (Palace Theatre, 2013); Memphis (Shaftesbury Theatre, 2014); Kinky Boots (West End, 2015; Broadway, 2016); 25th anniversary concert of Les Miserables (02 Arena, 2010); Film: Les Miserables (2012)
Agent: Jorg Betts Associates