PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Newsies — Headlines and Breadlines
By Harry Haun
Meet the first-nighters at the Broadway opening of Disney's Newsies.
It's the hard-knock life for boys peddling Joseph Pulitzer's papers in 1899 in Newsies, which, after some hesitation, finally found a home on Broadway March 29 at the Nederlander, where the Rent-strikers squatted for 12 years.
They've made themselves right at home, too, coming at you in movable steel towers that look like a tenement version of "Boys Town," overstuffed with teeming, young, huddled masses who seem to be singing "it's a fine life." They change their tune quick enough when publisher Pulitzer tries to pinch their pennies to increase his fortune, and the paperboys rebel in what would be the historic New York newsboys strike of 1899. The World, Pulitzer's rag, grinds to a halt. "Newsies Stop The World," sez the head.
Composer Alan Menken and lyricist Jack Feldman have fired up their 1992 film flop for Disney once more for the East Coast, revamping it as a stage musical with a cheerfully functional book by Harvey Fierstein rewriting and refining the unwieldy screenplay by Bob Tzudiker and Noni White.
After its dismal original release, "Newsies" quietly became a cult hit in the DVD bin, and fans began pelting the head of Disney Theatrical Productions, Thomas Schumacher, with requests to do high school and regional productions. Figuring something was afoot, and that Disney could lease to the masses, Schumacher green-lighted a proto production which lifted off under Jeff Calhoun's direction at the Paper Mill Playhouse last year. Even from New Jersey, it looked like a Broadway show, it felt like a Broadway show, it behaved like a Broadway show.
"I'm so proud of the show because it found its own life," a visibly relieved Schumacher beamed a few hours after it became a Broadway show. "It followed a path that wasn't predestined — I love that about it — and this cast is so delightful and so charming and so fresh. These young men are so extraordinary. Their capacity for singing and dancing has really brought this thing to life."
The property's secret ingredient — Boy Power — was always there, even in the movie version which marked choreographer Danny Ortega's directorial debut. He had masses of males hoofing up a frenetic storm, but he didn't know where to place the cameras.
The scientist in charge of dispensing the show's secret ingredient now, choreographer Christopher Gattelli, was spared the camera-placement problem. "When you have a movie, all you can do is stage the numbers," he said. "The thing about this show is that the boys' energies come off the stage and into the audience. It's so hard to ever capture that sort of thing in a film. Even the YouTubes that people watch don't do it. There's still nothing like being in that theatre watching them do it live."
Opening night marked Gattelli's one-year anniversary of taking on the task. Working from the anthem-riddled Menken-Feldman score and with Jeremy Jordan as the lead rabble-rouser, he mapped out his battle plan on the dance floor. "When I went into this, I told them, 'I don't just want to do tricks-for-tricks. I don't want it to look like we're flying around for no reason.' We had long talks about it. There are parts of 'Seize the Day,' the big number in Act One, where you see them becoming this little army. Jeremy starts it, and they join in. The way I thought of the number was the way that an army would work, whether by horseback or Air Force. They would fly in formation, then open up. It was all about how an army would work."
Songs with spine abetted his concept. "The trick was how to make them each different. At first, I was concerned, but, as you track through the show, they all arrive at a very specific point. Initially, it bothered me that 'The World Will Know' comes two numbers before 'Seize the Day,' but, with 'The World Will Know,' they're not that army yet. They're just finding their feet. It was easier to make it about their intent. In 'Seize the Day,' that's when they literally go, 'We're a union. We're coming together, and we're going to do this.' It made the dancing I could do unison dancing, and I could do a little more heightened choreography there because it earned it."
Just about everything dancers can do with a newspaper Gattelli has them do, whether it's an assembly line moving bales of bound newspapers or evenly tearing a newspaper page in half — with dancing feet. "We went through a huge process of how they have to be rigged, but they're real newspapers. They're not like felt or anything like that.
"To see the audience tonight respond to the boys, to see them get their due and have everyone just fall in love with them the way I have was terrific. Just to see this show have its opening night was great. It was never intended. It's a dream come true."
Director Jeff Calhoun was in a similarly dreamy state of mind at the after-party held a half-block from the theatre on 41st Street at shell of the old Liberty Theatre, a former grind house functioning as a handsome, spacious party haven these days.
"This is probably the best time I've had at an opening of any of my shows," he said. "I'm very proud of this show. We are introducing 12 actors who are making their Broadway debuts in this show, and that's why the show works. It's infectious. It's the new generation claiming their stake on Broadway. And you can thank Chris Gattelli. This show, I hope, is going to change his life. His work is superlative!"
Heretofore, Calhoun choreographed as well as directed, but this time he had no problem un-hyphenating himself. "I've had four knee operations and a back surgery, and, when they asked me to do this show, I knew I needed a choreographer who can do what I can't do anymore," he explained. "I saw Chris' work in South Pacific at Lincoln Center, and I went, 'I don't know who that guy is, but I want the guy who did that choreography because it was such smart storytelling.'
"Eventually, we met in San Diego. I was doing a show at the Old Globe called Emma, and he was doing one with James Lapine at La Jolla. I invited him to see opening night of Emma because I wanted to meet him, and, in five minutes, I offered him the job. I just knew he was the one for this show."
Menken, ever hoping for a Tony to punctuate his monotonous line of eight Oscars, was already "moving on" at the after-party. With Newsies firmly in place at the Nederlander and Sister Act at the Broadway, he is on the brink of "pulling an Andrew Lloyd Webber" — having three shows running simultaneously on Broadway (a remarkable feat that the Lord Lloyd Webber is currently repeating).
Coming soon, Menken takes an all-the-way Leap of Faith, which will open the last day of Tony eligibility. "This season," he said, "I'm my own rival, which is kinda weird. God knows, we'll see how that one does. I'm really excited about that show, too. Leap of Faith started rehearsals the same day as Newsies."
Lyricist Feldman was pleased with the work done on the show since the Paper Mill launching. He and Menken wrote a snappy number for Capathia Jenkins' Music Hall headliner ("That's Rich"), a comic villainy number for John Dossett's Pulitzer ("The Bottom Line") and a new love duet ("Something To Believe In"). "The book has undergone revision," he said. "It's basically the same show, but I think we've improved some things. I've had the best time of my life. I have to tell you those kids are so phenomenally talented. Our choreographer helped them become a family off stage, and they brought it on stage. When they get that applause, I just lose it."
Jordan, who gets a curtain call all by himself ("I certainly didn't ask for it, but I didn't say no"), is comfortable in the head hero slot. "I love that he's layered," the actor said. "Underneath it all, he's this romantic dreamer, and then he's got all this fear on top of that, and on top of that he has the charm and the boyishness that he shows everybody. As the show progresses, you slowly sorta see that deeper side of him."
The character has been with him an awfully long time. "I was in love with the movie as a kid. I grew up with it so to be the one to lead it on the stage is pretty incredible. The young me would probably be freaking out if he heard."
He's the happy half-recipient of the love-song addition. "It's a joy to originate a great, new, quintessential Disney love song. It feels like it's our version of 'A Whole New World' or something."
The object of his vocal ardor is a feisty news-hen of the period, played by a properly feisty Kara Lindsay. She makes her way in this man's world with confidence and fits in perfectly with the boy-dominated dancing. "That's one of my favorite moments because that was a fear I had at first, tapping with all these so-you-think-you-can-dance guys. I'm not that. I used to competition-dance when I was growing up. I hadn't done it in a while, but getting back into my tapping shoes was interesting at first. It was like riding a bike. It's so fun — the camaraderie and the excitement. To get to feel what they feel in all those group numbers — that's the coolest."
The inevitable, sympathy-pulling disabled urchin of the lot — "Crutchie," of course — is played by Andrew Keenan-Bolger, and with forethought: "I have a very specific musculature with my leg. I really wanted to honor the disability and place it somewhere when Crutchie is suddenly able to dance. Everything that I do in the show, I never bear weight on my right leg. I dance a little in the show — I'm given a little bit of movement — but all of it is sorta based around what I can physically do. As far as how difficult it is, I think I get off pretty easy. The rest of the boys are some of the most athletic, insane dancers I've ever seen so being able to bow out of a few of those crazy specialty tracks is okay with me."
The standout among the dancers is a bespectacled tall-drink-of-water named Specs and played by a super-gifted Ryan Steele. "It's funny," he mused, "I have 20/20 vision, so it's sort of ironic that I need specs. There were lenses at the beginning, but during tech all the lights made a glare and they were hard to dance in."
Ashley Brown Broadway's first Mary Poppins, levitated into the celebrity trenches which were filled with the likes of Ashley Spencer, Tommy Tune, Pixar creator John Lasseter, composer Mary Rodgers, director Jack O'Brien, Bare's Michael Arden (who's on F/X now, supporting Charlie Sheen's "Anger Management"), Claybourne Elder and Melissa van der Schyff from the recently disbanded Bonnie and Clyde gang, Max Casella from the "Newsies" film, Andy Cohen, actress Orfeh, Paper Mill Playhouse's Mark Hoebee, Tony-winning director-choreographers Rob Ashford and Casey Nicholaw, Marilu Henner and her teenage sons, Joey and Nick Lieberman.
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