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.
|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.
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