Stamina and Stardom: Newsies Dancers Work as One to Seize the Day
By Jonathan Mandell
How some fancy footwork (and many stairs) made stars of the Newsies newsboys, including Ryan Steele and Ephraim Sykes
At every performance of Newsies, the 14 members of the ensemble don't just do high-flying leaps and midair somersaults. They also climb more than 50 flights of stairs. Some of those stairs are part of the set's three-tiered tower, which the ensemble members race up and down as part of the choreography. But they also have to navigate five flights of stairs to get to and from their dressing rooms, which are on the fifth floor of the elevator-less Nederlander Theatre.
"We need a high level of stamina," says Ryan Steele, in what amounts to an understatement.
"It's not just physically demanding, it's a whole lifestyle change. I've never been on stage with guys who are literally fighting for our lives," says Ephraim Sykes, in what one hopes is an overstatement.
Steele plays Specs and Sykes is Mush, two of the 19th-century newsboys who go on strike in the Disney musical inspired by a true story. Steele is also the Newsies dance captain — i.e., the choreographer's assistant responsible for keeping up the quality of the dancing from day to day and teaching the steps to any newcomers. But it's not just newcomers who must practice. Before every performance, all the newsboys rehearse the three fight scenes in the show to make sure nobody gets hurt.
If all this stair-climbing and practicing and leaping were not enough, the newsboys engage in one more daily activity rarely expected from a Broadway ensemble: After each performance, they sign autographs for the squealing fans who have lined up outside the theatre.
Most any Broadway veteran will tell you two things about ensembles: 1. They are the heart and muscle of a Broadway musical. 2. They do not get the recognition they deserve.
Christopher Gattelli sees that doubly for Newsies, the ninth show he has choreographed on Broadway and the first to win him a Tony Award. "A big part of my Tony is due to my collaboration with these performers," he says. "They are singing, dancing and acting at a level that is unparalleled."
Since there is no Tony Award for an ensemble, Gattelli says, "My dream was that they would have been able to have been nominated as 'The Newsies' for Best Featured Actor." That did not happen, but what has happened since the show opened in March is that an unusual amount of attention has been paid to ensemble members like Sykes and Steele.
Steele makes a particular impression because of what Gattelli calls "his technically perfect movement" — especially noticeable in the number "Seize the Day" — while Sykes stands out with his "breathtaking" leaps at the curtain call, during which he seems to hang in the air forever. Both were among the five Newsies cast members nominated for Astaire Awards for Outstanding Male Dancer in a Broadway Show. (A sixth cast member, Kara Lindsay, was nominated for Outstanding Female Dancer.) Both have appeared on magazine covers and in videos. Each is pictured on his own Newsies trading card. And each has his own fan club, with Twitter feeds @ephsykesfans and @RySteelefans created by the fans themselves (Steele didn't even know about his). Gattelli has observed fans showering them with gifts and crowding the stage door seeking their autographs.
"It's like a big rock concert every night," Sykes says.
Before Newsies, Sykes played Benny the landlord in the Off-Broadway revival of Rent, with perhaps 100 speaking lines. In Newsies, he has only eight, "but people connect to me more as Mush," he says.
If this newfound recognition seems improbable, to Sykes, it is no more so than his career as a whole. "I never wanted to do Broadway," he says. Born into a family of athletes and musicians in Florida, Sykes went to an elementary school that specialized in the arts and was recruited to be a ballet dancer at an early age. "I hated it. I didn't want to do it," he says. He wanted to be a baseball player, and was active in football and basketball as well. But he got scholarships to study dance, eventually graduating from a joint program between Fordham University and the Ailey School, and then dancing with the second company of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. An assistant choreographer at Ailey was the dance captain at The Little Mermaid and told him to audition. He got the job. "Once I went on stage and had to act, a light went off: 'This is why I've been doing this,'" he says. He has rarely been off a New York stage since.
Steele took a similarly serendipitous path to Broadway. Growing up in Michigan, he had just been accepted into a dance company in Texas when, at age 17, he took a trip to New York for a summer dance program. His mentor suggested he audition for the then-forthcoming revival of West Side Story just for the practice in auditioning. It was his first Broadway audition — his first time in New York — and he was cast as a Jet, a role he played for the entire two-year run of the show. Then he was cast in Billy Elliot. He was hooked, he says: "The theatre community seemed very accepting and supportive."
Like many of the Newsies, Steele was a fan of the 1992 movie on which the musical is based — which is why some 1,200 young men auditioned. "That movie showed our generation of boys that dancing, singing and acting were cool," Steele says.
Now they're the cool ones. "I feel dance [often] takes a backseat," Steele says. "To go out the stage door every night and have people call you by your name, it's just so weird."
(This feature appears in the August 2012 issue of Playbill magazine.)
Watch the exclusive Playbill Video about how the men of Newsies warm up before performances.
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