By Michael Gioia
15 Mar 2012
Photo by T. Charles Erickson
JJ: The first reading was about a year-and-a-half ago. It's funny because, somehow, I wasn't in the initial audition call for Jack. They were only auditioning for Jack and Davey, and they were going to fill out the other roles with guys who had already worked for Disney — just to get it read. I guess they couldn't find the right Jack, so they called up my agent. I came in and got the part.
How did the reading evolve into the fully staged Paper Mill Playhouse production?
JJ: After the reading, [director] Jeff Calhoun came onboard. They actually had a second workshop, which I wasn't able to do because I was doing Bonnie & Clyde, [also directed by Jeff Calhoun], in Florida [at the Asolo Repertory Theatre]. During that time, it was announced that Jeff was going to be the director, but Bonnie & Clyde was coming to New York around the same time. The dates were able to work out if I did a couple weeks of double-duty. I mentioned it to Jeff briefly, saying, "I'd really like to get a chance to audition for Newsies." He said, "Well, I don't think that you're going to be able to do it with Bonnie & Clyde." That was it. Then, a couple weeks later, I got a call from Jeff, and he told me, "Tomorrow you'll be getting a call with an offer to do Newsies." I was like, "I don't even have to audition? That's pretty incredible!" He had enough faith in me after working with me on Bonnie & Clyde. He could tell that I was passionate about it.
Can you explain working double-duty? What did your schedule look like?
JJ: It was a lot! I would come into the city [from my home in New Jersey] and rehearse from 10 AM to 4:30 PM. Then, I would leave, go back to Jersey, get in my car and drive to Paper Mill for a 7:30 PM show. I'd get back home at around 11 PM and do it all over again the next day. They were like 13-to-14-hour days.
Beyond being physically exhausted, were you emotionally exhausted as well?
JJ: It wasn't so emotionally draining as it was physically and mentally. I thought that I was going to get sick and maybe even lose my voice. I did lose my mind! [Laughs.] But, for the most part, I kept it together. I didn't really get to talk much to anybody, including my fiancée, [Ashley Spencer], or my family. I just slept and worked.
|photo by T. Charles Erickson|
JJ: I agree. I approached my character from a personal standpoint. I grew up on the movie, and I remember the movie, but I haven't watched it a lot as an adult, which I am grateful for because I don't have Christian Bale in my brain. I love that [Jack's] an artist… He is the leader of the newsies in the movie, but he's sort of thrust into that position. Here, he's naturally charismatic. Everybody loves him, and they deservedly look up to him — not just because they fear him, but because he's a likable guy. He's really this romantic guy, who just wants to be somewhere else, but he puts up a façade in order to protect himself.
Right. He puts up the "tough-guy" act from the beginning. At what moment in the show does he change? Where do we see his softer side?
JJ: With Katherine, the new character: She starts to see that there's something there that's not quite on the surface. Slowly, she starts to uncover it. He's very resistant at first, but then she just breaks down this barrier, and he allows himself to open up to somebody for the first time. She comes along and makes him feel something more than longing or regret or sadness that he has to cover up. He can really be genuine.
In the stage version, Jack's relationships with the boys are strengthened, making the stakes higher. He wants to succeed, not only for Katherine, but for his friends as well.
JJ: Well, of course. I think when the strike comes along, Jack finally finds a purpose. One of the reasons he longs to be somewhere else is because he's got no reason to be here. If he could go to Santa Fe, he could make something of himself and have a life that could be worth living instead of just making ends meet. With the strike and with his love for Katherine and this "family" that he is thrust into protecting, he realizes that everything that is here is worth staying for, living for and fighting for.
I like how the first act begins and ends with Jack singing "Santa Fe" — it creates a beautiful arc.
JJ: Me, too. That prologue is one of my favorite additions to the show because you expect Newsies to start off with all the boys and the hustle-and-bustle, but you really see — from the get-go — the heart of the piece… You kind of get lost in the excitement and the rallying and the striking, and then you're reminded at the end [of the first act] of the plight of these boys and how devastating their situation has been.