Detroit Siblings a Hit on Broadway

FAMILY ACT: Siblings from Detroit are small in stature, but that’s turned out to be a big asset in nabbing plum roles
Celia Keenan-Bolger in Peter and the Starcatcher, a prequel to Peter Pan.

NEW YORK — Before beginning kindergarten, Celia Keenan-Bolger wrote her career script. She was inspired when her parents and grandparents took her from southeast Detroit over the bridge at Fox Creek to see plays and musicals in the Grosse Pointes.

Soon after, she announced that she would be an actress. “This was before she could read,” her father, Rory Bolger, recalls by telephone from Detroit. “It was fairly obvious she was precocious.’’

Three decades later, Keenan-Bolger is enjoying Broadway success with an age-ironic twist. At 34, she earned her second Tony nomination this spring — and for the second time, for playing the role of a girl about half her age.

“I don’t feel drawn to these young roles,’’ says Keenan-Bolger, who is blond, blue-eyed and petite. “But they have found me.’’

This year, she was nominated for Best Featured Actress in a Play for her role as Molly in the acclaimed Peter and the Starcatcher, a prequel of Peter Pan.

Seven years ago, Keenan-Bolger earned a Tony nomination for Best Featured Actress in a Musical in her Broadway debut as the schoolgirl Olive Ostrovsky in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.

Youthful sap runs through the family tree. Keenan-Bolger was speaking over lunch alongside her brother, Andrew, at the Stage Door Deli across from Madison Square Garden. Andrew, 27, currently plays the role of Crutchie, a disabled 1890s newsboy about half his age who goes on strike with fellow street urchins in the hit musical Newsies. “It’s definitely about the 99 percent,’’ Andrew says.

His show enjoyed nominations in several Tony categories, as has Peter. “I will ride it as long as possible,’’ Andrew says of younger roles.

Although somewhat larger than his sister, Andrew exudes a similar elfin quality. He jokes that producers need not “worry about child-labor laws” when they hire actors like them.

As the two siblings work the Great White Way simultaneously for the first time, their middle sibling, 28-year-old Maggie, advanced her career by appearing this spring in the television series The Good Wife. “Lot of reasons for a dad to be proud,” Bolger says.

Maggie also created and produced a play From the Inside, Out about children who cut their own skin, an affliction she battled. And she teaches sex education in the New York Public Schools and works on behalf of LGBT teens, particularly homeless ones.

Maggie draws upon her self-outing at age 14 at Detroit’s Renaissance High School. Devotion to progressive political and social causes, Maggie says, is another family trait. Their grandparents were civil-rights activists; their parents opposed the Vietnam War. As white children, the Keenan-Bolgers were a minority in the 1980s and ’90s in their Jefferson-Chalmers neighborhood.

“We were brought up with a very strong moral base,” Maggie says. “A cross was burned on our grandparents’ lawn because they were welcoming blacks to the neighborhood. We grew up fighting the good fight. I’m incredibly lucky that I have such amazing siblings. We’ve always been super close. The three of us have always been sort of a unit.”

She also shares the family trait of youthful appearance. “We’re all pretty tiny people,” Maggie says. “I’ll be excited for the day when I don’t have to show my I.D. in a bar.”

These three actors and activists trained under Ellen Bowen, a drama/musical theater instructor in Grosse Pointe whom Celia describes as “a tough broad.’’ Bowen doesn’t deny it. “I am, thank you,’’ she explains. “I expect a lot out of my students.’’

Recalling the transition from Bowen’s tutelage to the demands of the University of Michigan’s Musical Theatre Department, Celia says: “I got to college and it was like, ‘This is not that tough.’ I got a good, thick skin early on from Ellen Bowen.”

Andrew Keenan-Bolger (third from right), as a street-urchin newsboy in the musical Newsies.

Bowen recalls that Celia worried about being typecast for younger roles even as a student at Detroit’s Performing Arts High School. “I said, `You’ll see,’ ” Bowen says. “You’ll be in great shape.’ ”

That seemed prescient two years ago when Celia drew raves for a searing interpretation of a troubled young woman in Bachelorette. The New York Times critic wrote: “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.”

Their father, Rory, is a longtime City of Detroit employee and a church musician. He got to know their mother, Susan Keenan, at political meetings and rallies during the Vietnam era. Celia says her parents met at a Socialist Party gathering.

“My parents were hippies,’’ Celia often says, a familiar line that draws a light chortle over the telephone from her father. “I’ve got to talk to her about that,’’ Bolger says. “She doesn’t know what hippies were like back then.’’

Bolger says he has seen his file from the Michigan State Police Red Squad, including a photo of him crossing Woodward Avenue. His wife taught in the Detroit Public Schools and was active in her union but died in 2001 of breast cancer at age 51.

Their children might not yet be the equivalent of Jane and Peter Fonda, but both recalled walking picket lines with their parents during strikes and marching in the Labor Day parade.

In 2008, Celia took a break from her career to work in Pennsylvania for the election of President Obama. “I was obsessed by the election,” she says. “It meant more to me than anything else.”

Her brother, in the restaurant conversation, picks up the drift. “I believe in him in a big, big way,” he says of Obama. With hardly a pause, Celia adds: “For both of us, gay marriage is something we feel really strong about.’’

By now, they’re speaking in one stream, finishing each other’s sentences and completing each other’s thoughts. “There probably is a higher incidence of gay people in theater than in something like coal mining,” Andrew says.

Celia was wed two years ago to the actor John Ellison Conlee. Andrew is unmarried. Their father, who has remarried, recently learned that he may soon be laid off after 26 years with Detroit’s City Planning Commission.

“They eliminated my job,’’ Bolger says. He is not devastated, Bolger adds, because he is old enough to retire and has lots of things to focus on. “I have great kids who love each other,” he says.

When the extended family gathered in Detroit three years ago after the death of Bill Keenan, their grandfather and family patriarch, Celia wrote a sketch for the siblings and cousins to perform in the funeral home, just as they had performed sketches their grandfather wrote for them when they were children.

And Celia sang something she had performed for her grandparents years before on their 50th wedding anniversary, a Sinatra song called “Young at Heart,’’ which ends with, “If you should survive to 105 / look at all you’ll derive out of being alive / then here is the best part / you’ve had a head start / if you are among the very young at heart.”

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