Colton Ryan on Bringing New York, New York to Broadway

Ryan stars as Jimmy Doyle, the character Robert De Niro first played in Martin Scorsese’s film version of the famous musical.

by Alicia Ramírez

Colton Ryan staring pensively into the camera
Photo by Chris Ash

When Colton Ryan arrived in New York City to pursue an acting career, he knew it would be one of the hardest things he’d ever do. “New York City can be so terrible to you. The lows are so low; you watch your dreams slip away. But I wouldn’t trade the highs for anything,” he tells W before a performance of the Broadway musical he’s currently starring in, New York, New York.

Ryan’s own trajectory in New York City has informed his role as Jimmy Doyle, the disenchanted musician chasing superstardom after World War II, based on Robert De Niro’s character in the Martin Scorsese-directed 1977 film. The film’s cast also included Liza Minnelli, who made the opening line “Start spreading the news…” famous—now, it’s being sung by Anna Uzele. This new musical features music and lyrics by John Kander and Fred Ebb (Cabaret, Chicago), who wrote songs for the film, plus additional material by Lin-Manuel Miranda. In the same way the film shined a light on a story of artists in New York City, Ryan and his castmates pay tribute to its richness and countless communities in a way that feels timeless and celebratory for first-time and seasoned theatergoers alike.

Releasing control and embracing disillusionment is an ongoing process for him, even as one of Broadway’s most dynamic talents working today. At 27 years old, Ryan has crafted a career brick-by-brick, both on stage and on the screen, debuting on Broadway as an understudy for the role of Connor Murphy, among others, in the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical Dear Evan Hansen (he then starred in the 2021 film adaptation). He admits he’s mainly played “very sad boys,” on shows like Homeland and Poker Face, and starred opposite Elle Fanning in 2022’s The Girl from Plainville as Conrad “Coco” Roy III, the teen who died by suicide in 2014.

Now in the lead role of a highly anticipated Broadway musical, Ryan is getting used to his success. Below, he talks about leading a Broadway show and his evolving relationship with the city that made him:

Jimmy Doyle could be considered your breakout stage role.

Maybe I'm a cynic, but every time I've done a role in the past three years, many people claim it is my big breakout, so I'm happy when great work shows up. I'm proud of the show, and I hope people will be as enamored with it as I am. But being a young actor is such a strange predicament. You're known but not widely known, so yes, this is my debutante ball, and I get a kick out of it.

What drew you to this role inspired by Robert De Niro’s character in the film, and what personal touches have you implemented?

I've mainly played very sad boys, and I'm excited to play someone my age who isn't afraid to put his love on his sleeve. My father was born in Tipperary County [Ireland], and I have an Irish passport, so I'm on the same boat as Jimmy. My grandfather influenced my taste in music and hoped I'd sing songs that paid tribute to Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra, so I felt his influence. Also, I was drawn to the challenge of playing multiple musical instruments and tap dancing—I didn't know how to tap dance.

How would you describe Kander, Ebb, and Miranda's role in your musical upbringing?

Whenever my grandparents babysat, I watched VHS tapes of musicals like Li'l Abner, Camelot, and Guys and Dolls. I saw Cabaret at 16 and thought it was so dignified. I felt like movie musicals were a guilty pleasure, and I didn't have to feel guilty anymore because Cabaret had so much merit. Lin has challenged the homogeny in musical theater, and to be at the intersection of these two minds is a humbling experience.

What does your collaboration with Kander and Miranda look like in practice?

There's a beautiful moment when I sing Francine [Anna Uzele] a song, but it was initially a monologue. One day during rehearsals, they sat me down, John jumped on the piano, and Lin sang. I was a puddle, and right after, John said he wrote the song just for me. That's the kind of thing I'll take to my grave.

How do you measure success?

If I get to keep acting and looking inward, I’ll hopefully be as content as 96-year-old John Kander. He always tells me that living a life in the theater is the best life you could ever live.

Tell me about your community in the city.

I got my start at 21 and picked out of school to make my Broadway debut [he covered the three male teens in the original cast of Dear Evan Hansen]. I was like Madeline, lost in Paris. Many stalwarts in the theater community picked me up and watched me when my shoulders went from my ears to where they were supposed to be. To return on my terms and reunite with my college friends after this collective grief of being told we're non-essential has been glorious. We're leaning on each other a lot!

New York, New York feels timely. How has this project helped you process the past tumultuous years and your relationship with New York City?

The past few years have made me understand that I can't live anywhere else, or at least I need to be within this place's orbit. I grew up in Kentucky and flocked there during the pandemic. It was lovely and a privilege, but I'll never take this place for granted again. The musical shows the brilliant constitution of this place that always resurrects itself, and I get to play out my adoration and tribulation with it.

New York, New York is now open at the St. James Theatre.