THE LEADING MEN: Newsies Sidekicks Andrew Keenan-Bolger and Ben Fankhauser

By Michael Gioia
March 29, 2012

Andrew Keenan-Bolger and Ben Fankhauser co-star as Jack Kelly's trusty comrades, Crutchie and Davey, respectively, in the Broadway production of the new Disney musical Newsies.



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A DISNEY DOUBLEHEADER

When Andrew Keenan-Bolger learned that the Paper Mill Playhouse production of Newsies would transfer to Broadway, the actor packed up his belongings at the New Amsterdam Theatre (where he played the role of Robertson Ay in Disney's Mary Poppins) and moved them across the street to the Nederlander Theatre, where Disney's Newsies officially opens March 29.

Last year Keenan-Bolger — who constantly finds himself in the cast of a Disney production — took time off from Broadway's Mary Poppins for two Disney limited engagements: the world premiere of Newsies at Paper Mill in Millburn, NJ, where he originated the role of disabled newsboy Crutchie; and a full-length version of Aladdin at Seattle's 5th Avenue Theatre, where he played Omar, a character not seen in the animated film. He jumped back into Poppins following his Disney Doubleheader, but he's a newsie again.

How did you first get involved with Newsies?
Andrew Keenan-Bolger: When [Disney] was doing the first reading back in May 2010 — it was right after I finished up with [the national tour of] Mary Poppins — they said, "We know you're available right now because you're not doing our other show! Do you want to come read Crutchie in Newsies?" At the time they said, "This is truly only for licensing. There's no plans to bring this anywhere" — not even a regional production. They just wanted to be able to release the rights to stock and regional companies... We did another reading about six months later, then they announced that they were going to Paper Mill Playhouse. I came in and auditioned for [director] Jeff [Calhoun] and [choreographer] Chris [Gattelli], who had not seen the readings, and I had to do a dance call, which was a bit terrifying! [Laughs.]

Speaking of dance, how much are you doing in the Broadway production? I caught you dancing a bit at Paper Mill — even with the bum leg!
AKB: [Laughs.] During the major dance breaks, you may see Crutchie hobble offstage and cheering from the sidelines, but Chris has definitely given me a little bit of choreography, which has been challenging and exciting because I'm really trying to honor my "crippled" leg, and I never put any weight on it. With any little sequence of movement [I was given], I had to figure out a way to alter it or use the crutch as a pivot point to turn. It's definitely been an interesting exercise.

Andrew Keenan-Bolger and fellow Newsies
photo by Deen van Meer

How do you physicalize Crutchie? What's that process like?
AKB: It was something that I wanted to seem as realistic as possible. I went immediately to the history books, and I tried to figure out what would have made Crutchie have this disability. I found out that the polio epidemic was starting right around the turn of the century — the same time that the newsboys went on strike — so that seemed like a logical [character choice]. I watched a documentary about polio. I looked up a lot of clips because it's still [prevalent] in a lot of third-world nations — a lot of kids still get polio. I was watching videos of the musculature of the leg — the muscles basically wear away, and [the leg] sort of dangles there. I tried to find a way to physicalize that in a way that I can do eight shows a week — it's really turned-in and kind of like a limp. I think it's important to make that be as realistic as possible... [Crutchie is] not just a lame newsie doing all the dances who happens to be holding a crutch. It's a lot more heartbreaking to see this kid trucking it along with everyone and working a job that is hard labor — pounding the pavement, really.

That's what's great about your character. As an audience member, you root for him because he acts as though he is just "one of the boys."
AKB: When approaching the character, you go in with a lot of sympathy. I was directed to play against that. I didn't want to be the sad, little, weak character that everybody is helping along. The way it's written is that he's a wise-cracker. I have these great, dry one-liners. He's really sarcastic — that's a lot more fun to play. I think that in theatre and musical theatre, there is this Tiny Tim-archetype — that the crippled kid has to be this angelic, waif-like character. I'm trying as hard as possible to steer clear of that and make him "one of the guys."

You see that from the very beginning when Crutchie and Jack open the first act with "Santa Fe." Their bond is established from the top of the show.
AKB: Absolutely. I think that's one of the best additions to the piece — strengthening Jack and Crutchie's relationship. You see Jack as the leader of these boys and someone who's willing to go to bat for them. Ultimately, it's a far more rewarding story-arc for Jack. In the movie, he's more of a loner. He's this tortured soul, who just really wants to get out. In this version, you see him wrestling with this urge to make a better life for himself, but also be there for his brothers. The way that the show starts really helps with that. It also is doing something really different. People immediately expect a firework explosion of boys dancing. To start out simply, with character work, lays the foundation. You're not just going to see a big spectacle. You're going to care about these characters and care about what happens to them.

Keenan-Bolger at Newsies media day
Photo by Monica Simoes

[SPOILER!] At Paper Mill, after Crutchie is captured and taken to the Refuge, you took on another role in the newsboys ensemble. Are you still playing both tracks for Broadway?
AKB: I'm actually not, in this version. I'm offstage now for a good portion, but that has been great for me. I'm also a filmmaker, so I'm simultaneously editing my webseries, "Submissions Only," as well as filming a lot of backstage exclusive content for Disney — Newsies' online videos. It's the perfect role. I get a lot of glory in the first act, and, in the second act, I get a little bit of downtime to do some creative work offstage.

Can you tell me about your role as a filmmaker?
AKB: I started out making little video-blogs with my friends at North Shore Music Theatre [during the run of High School Musical]. They asked me to do a backstage blog, and I assumed a few hundred people might watch it, and it gained a big random fan-base. As I learned more about filmmaking, it really became something that turned into more than a hobby. I think it's really important, as an actor in this business, to have another creative outlet. So much of what we do depends on decisions of other people. To be able to create something that is truly your own — that you've brought into fruition — and express your own, unique voice is the most rewarding thing at the end of the day. I think it's really helped me in all areas of performing. I now have a viewpoint as a director and as a writer. It makes you more valuable as a performer because directors and choreographers know that you're going to bring something to the table and come up with ideas, so it's not only them doing a lot of the heavy lifting.

As a performer, it helps you understand yourself when you understand the other side of the table.
AKB: Absolutely. I also get to see these Broadway legends, whom I've always looked up to, work. I've gotten to work with people like Kristin Chenoweth and Chita Rivera... Seeing their process is so interesting. Seeing that these people aren't immortal — that they go through the same motions as we do and ask for feedback and break down scenes... They have to work, too, and that's really exciting to see.

With both performing and filmmaking, where do you see your career going?
AKB: Ideally, I would love to create either a television show or a movie and perform it — sort of like Tina Fey or Lena Dunham, who directed, wrote and stars in this new TV series for HBO, ["Girls"]. She's in her early 20s — about the same age as me.

Are there any projects in the works besides Newsies?
AKB: Right now, Newsies is my number one. It's the first time I get to originate a role on Broadway, so I hope to be here for a long time!

Well, you must be busy. Besides rehearsing, you're also recording the cast album.
AKB: As a kid, I was obsessed with Broadway cast recordings, and I would totally mimic and memorize every little choice that these actors made. The fact that there might be some kid in a regional production in ten years doing the random, little things that I chose to do on that recording is a bit mind-blowing.

Ben Fankhauser

A NEWSIE NEWBIE

Ben Fankhauser, whose character, Davey, is the last to join the band of brothers in Newsies, was also the last actor to join the cast. Following a run as Ernst in the first national tour of Spring Awakening, Fankhauser landed an audition for the Paper Mill Playhouse staging of Newsies. After a successful run at Paper Mill, Disney announced that the production would "Carry the Banner" to Broadway — and Fankhauser would reprise his role.

In the final days of rehearsals leading up to Broadway, we spoke to the fresh-faced performer about making his Broadway debut as bookish Davey (whose little brother, Les, is always at his side), working with the cast and creative team and fine-tuning the musical for Broadway. Read more about it.

In Newsies you play Davey, the new kid in town, and you're making your Broadway debut. Do you feel a strong connection with your character?
BF: Yes — exactly for those reasons. I start as a fish-out-of-water, and I can relate to that because I felt like a fish-out-of-water for the first couple of months that I was in New York… trying to find an agent, going on auditions and getting used to the grind. I'm making my Broadway debut with people that have been working on Broadway for years and years, so I do feel like the "new kid in town." That parallel alone is interesting and helped a lot when trying to figure out my character.

Can you talk about how your character has evolved throughout the process? At the final dress rehearsal at Paper Mill Playhouse there was a scene with Davey and his mother. When I went back to the Fan Day performance, the scene had been cut.
BF: Well, Davey isn't like the other newsies. He was raised with a family and he's educated. I think the team wanted to humanize him by adding his mother into the show. Ultimately, what ended up happening was that it wasn't reading. It became extraneous. The woman who played my mother at the time [is ensemble member] Julie Foldesi, who is amazing and has been rolling with the punches. But we found with the Paper Mill production that we didn't need to humanize him that much. It sort of happened on its own, so that's why you saw the differences. Now [his family] is just referenced.

Because Davey is so different from the newsies, can you tell me about how you've developed your character? All of the other boys are very tough, and Davey has a soft side to him, especially when it comes to his younger brother, Les.
BF: That's actually the most exciting thing about doing the show every night. I get to play this really satisfying arc. I start the show as a timid kid. He's bookish and timid. By the end of the show, he grows into a young adult, who finds a sense of belonging. He finds meaning in his life, and he finds a reason to take a stand. It's amazing to see that growth and to play that growth — it's satisfying as an actor. The rehearsal process has been so much fun. To start, I'm not as much of a dancer as our ensemble boys, so it's almost automatic — when I look around and see them doing this amazing choreography — that I feel like a fish-out-of-water. And, having these little guys [the alternating Lewis Grosso and Matthew J. Schechter] playing my brother makes it so easy, too. I almost feel like an older brother to them in rehearsals — we hang out during breaks. Developing the character — the whole process — has been a dream come true.

Fankhauser at media day
photo by Monica Simoes
Talk to me about the dancing. You're not doing tumbling passes in "Seize the Day," but you do have a significant amount of choreography. Were you a dancer?
BF: I danced a little bit in college. When I got my audition for Newsies, I heard that the dance call was pretty rigorous, so I got my butt into dance class. I took about two classes a day for a week leading up to the audition — not knowing that I was going to get a callback or anything, but just in case! When I ended up going in, that had really paid off. Being with these guys every day and rehearsing this choreography has been like a dance class that I get paid to take. [Laughs.] To have that kind of talent around pushes me further as a dancer. I think that I've grown miles since I started. And, I even do a little bit more dancing now in the Broadway production than I used to do at Paper Mill. I've always done the tap dance in "King of New York" and I've always done the paper dance in "Seize the Day," but now I dance a little bit more in "Seize the Day," and we've added some new things to "King of New York" that I get to take part in.

The tap dancing in "King of New York" — it's a huge number!
BF: That is the most fun in the whole show! I love doing that number. We've kicked it up a notch, which is hard to believe because I thought it was so amazing back at Paper Mill, but Chris Gattelli is an absolute genius, and we've really stepped it up.

What other changes are being put in place for Broadway?
BF: We're just fleshing out some of the moments that were a little choppy at Paper Mill. [Book writer] Harvey [Fierstein] added some great new dialogue and a great flow to the show, so we've been working on making the storytelling more cohesive and tighter. Chris has been amping up the choreography, and at the same time, making it more character-driven — connecting the story a bit more to the choreography. And, Jeff is really amping up the acting. We're working on the relationships and the characters and making sure that every single [action] on that stage is motivated by something else.

Have you done any research on the time period?
BF: Yeah. I've done a little bit of research, looking into the actual newsboys strike of 1899, but, at the core of this show, it's not about newsboys or selling newspapers. It's really about a young generation finding its voice and taking a stance. Using my own coming-of-age has been the main core of my research.

Did you go back to the film for a base?
BF: When I first booked the job at Paper Mill, I did watch the film to remind myself of the plot, but I knew I wanted to take Davey in a bit of different direction because it's me and not David Moscow.

Did you get to talk to David Moscow at all at the earlier Paper Mill Fan Day?
BF: I did! I think it was more exciting for me than it was for him because it was a while ago for him, and, for me, it's all happening right now. I think he was in awe of us telling this story in the course of two hours as opposed to filming the movie over the course of six months. He was very impressed.

Can you tell me about working with director Jeff Calhoun and coming back to the show for Broadway?
BF: I'm lucky enough that I get to work with masters. Jeff is so experienced and, at the same time, so open. He has a motto that he works by, which is, "The best idea wins." In the rehearsal room, he's open to all ideas to make it work, and that is a pleasure. Chris Gattelli is also so kind and so generous as a choreographer. They're not selfish artists. They use ideas that work on their actors. They don't force anything that's uncomfortable, and they cater to our strengths.

What about the cast? You seem like such a tight-knit group.
BF: We are like a band of brothers. It's not any different on stage than it is backstage. I think we are so passionate about this project because we've all loved the movie at some point in our lives and still do, so to be able to bring this project to Broadway together is such an amazing gift. It's like a party every day at work.

As of this chat, you're about to record the cast album. Have you mentally prepared yourself?
BF: You know, it's weird. [Laughs.] There's not too much time to think about it because we're in work everyday from 10 AM-6 PM, so all you're energy is spent on the show and getting the blocking right and remembering your new lyrics and lines, so there hasn't been much time to stress or get excited. Obviously, I'm so very, very excited to be doing this. I think this is a cast album that's been 20-years-coming. It's something that people are really looking forward to.

(Michael Gioia's work frequently appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com. Write to him at mgioia@playbill.com.)

Watch Playbill Video's interviews with the Newsies: