Keenan-Bolger
Andrew Keenan-BolgerCelia Keenan-Bolger at Musical Theatre 25th Anniversary CelebrationAndrew Keenan-Bolger in U Prod 'Seussical'Andrew Keenan-Bolger

Made in Detroit, Mastered at Michigan:
Siblings from the Motor City Take Same Path

It all started with a Detroit community theatre performance of Sound of Music. There in the audience sat five-year-old Celia Keenan-Bolger (BFA ’00). And she didn’t blink, not even once. On the drive home in the car, she announced, “That’s what I want to do.”

Yes, yes, of course, said her supportive and obliging parents. We’ll fit it in between your soccer and gymnastics lessons. But this fancy wasn’t just passing through.

That five-year-old knew what she wanted. Soon performing had eclipsed all other extracurricular activities. Next thing you know, younger sibling Andrew Keenan-Bolger (BFA ’07) had caught the bug, showing up on Broadway as a child actor in Seussical (Jojo), Beauty and the Beast (Chip), A Christmas Carol (Turkey Boy).

Both Keenan-Bolgers grew up in Detroit, third generation, in the same neighborhood on the southeast side of the city. Their grandparents were hometown boosters, dedicated to keeping Detroit neighborhoods integrated and diversified. Their parents subscribed to the same credo, Mom a teacher in the inner-city schools, starting a breakfast and lunch program for the children of Detroit, Dad an urban planner working for the city.

“We all went to Detroit public schools for pretty much all of our education,” Andrew says. “I think it was a great life experience to grow up around people who didn’t have disposable income and who weren’t used to being given everything they wanted.”

When it came time to college shop, Celia seriously considered another musical theatre program, mainly guided by the impulse so common among budding adults:  wanting to be on her own. After the thrill of receiving her letter of acceptance, she went for a weekend visit, but came home less excited.

“Then I got accepted to Michigan and did the same thing. I spent the weekend and stayed in a house where Gavin Creel (BFA ’98) lived. And I thought, you know what, this just feels like the place for me. I think having a program that fosters such a non-competitive, supportive environment helps you figure out the kind of person you want to be,” Celia says, “which is what college is supposed to be about. And the class I was in was so incredibly talented and enormously intelligent.”

By the time Celia was settled in New York City in 2000, little brother Andrew had enrolled in U-M’s musical theatre program. He had no doubt about choice of schools. “Since Celia went there, I grew up seeing all the productions,” Andrew says. “Some of them were better than shows I’d seen on Broadway.”

While Andrew was learning the ropes in Ann Arbor, Celia was in New York, making a name for herself in musicals:  as Eponine in Les Miserables, Clara in The Light in the Piazza. She originated the role of Olive Ostrovsky in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, first with the Barrington Stage Company, then Off-Broadway at the Second Stage, before her Tony-nominated run in the Broadway production.

These days, Celia’s taking a new direction, exploring serious theatre:  first Adam Bock’s A Small Fire, as a bride-to-be in a family caught in the midst of a serious medical crisis, then in The Bachelorette, Leslye Headland’s take on a toxic pre-wedding party of old chums.

Charles Isherwood of The New York Times wrote of The Bachelorette, “Although the cast is terrific across the board, Ms. Keenan-Bolger is outstanding … [her] performance, boldly colored and emotionally raw, brings home the truth that even intellectually shallow people can possess frightening emotional depths.”

“With musicals, I started getting opportunities where I didn’t even have to audition,” Celia says, “particularly with workshops and readings. But for years I could not get cast in plays.”

The tide, it appears, is turning. “It feels that way,” she admits, “and I’m so excited about it. I think that’s the key to having a long career, keep trying new things. In this business, you’re constantly proving yourself; you’re an ongoing work-in-progress.”

When we caught up with her in February, by phone, from her apartment stoop enjoying an unseasonably sunny day, she was in the midst of rehearsals for a production of Peter and the Starcatcher at the New York Theatre Workshop, the very space where Rent was born. The only female in a cast of 12, Celia marveled, “It’s just a really amazing piece, a prequel to Peter Pan; there’s very little set and almost no props. It’s very rigorous—one of the most physically demanding shows I’ve ever worked on.”

When it opened in March, Celia’s performance was called out by Jennifer Farrar of the Associated Press: “… the boldest of the children, and true hero of the play, is plucky 13-year-old Molly Aster, played in a wonderful, heartfelt performance by Celia Keenan-Bolger.”

Meanwhile, Andrew, the old pro, is on Broadway, in the cast of Mary Poppins. “The show’s been running for four years,” he said. “It’s still doing really well and it’s one of the few children’s shows, so it’s always thrilling to see young faces going to the theater.”

Even with eight productions a week, he still has time for other interests. “It’s actually very rewarding,” he says, “and it’s nice being in New York because there are so many other things to get involved in.” Andrew’s name keeps turning up in the entertainment media:  a concert of songs by composer-lyricist Ryan Scott Oliver at Joe’s Pub; a reading of a new musical, Hello Out There at Playwrights Horizons.

He also pops up regularly in cyberspace—just Google his name. It started with a blog he was asked to create for a North Shore Music Theatre production of High School Musical. That led to his own blog. Then he got on board with The Battery’s Down, an online series about a day in the life of a struggling New York actor, and, more recently, as host of MTI Showspace, an online network for theatre professionals and fans.

“In a business that relies so much on other people, on what’s being written and cast, it’s hard as an actor to just sit back and wait for opportunities. Now, especially with YouTube and the Internet, it’s become a really cheap and easy way to work on something you love and mass produce it.”

Both Celia and Andrew are in regular touch with their classmates. “Everyone who goes to Michigan is so supportive of everyone else; it’s like a shared fraternity,” Andrew says. “The program is really good at building you up so that you have great self esteem, but it keeps you humble at the same time.”

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