PLAYBILL BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Christopher Gattelli, 2012 Tony Nominee for Newsies' Choreography

By Kenneth Jones
May 5, 2012

Newsies choreographer Christopher Gattelli, nominated for a 2012 Best Choreography Tony Award, talks about collaborating with his young cast to tell story through dance.



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Read more about Christopher Gattelli's Broadway career as a dancer (Cats, How to Succeed..) and choreographer (13, High Fidelity, Women on the Verge..., Godspell and his Tony-nominated work on South Pacific) in the Playbill Vault.

It's rare to see a large ensemble of male dancers together in a musical. They are an arresting sight in Newsies. I'm trying to think of when we last saw an ensemble like this. What's the show that sticks in your mind that was a male dance show in the past?
CG: The one that was inspiring to me was [the film] "Seven Brides [for Seven Brothers]," but I actually [danced in] the Jerry Zaks [tour of] Guys and Dolls [in 1992-93]. Chris Chadman choreographed that, and he was a huge inspiration to me in me choosing to do [choreography] as a profession. It was a group of, like, nine guys — Sergio [Trujillo] was in our group, Andy [Blankenbuehler] was in the group, this crazy-talented group of guys. I remember being surrounded by that amount of male talent and masculinity. And what [Chris] was able to bring out of us was incredibly inspiring to me. That is my last recollection of that kind of ensemble of men — technique, masculinity, the facility that we all had. To me, [Newsies] is that next group.

At the top of the rehearsal experience of Newsies, did you ask the guys, "What are your individual 'specialties'? What tricks can you do?" Everybody seems to have a featured moment.

Aaron J. Albano in Newsies.
photo by Deen van Meer

CG: The boys now call it "Circus McGurkus." [Laughs.] I was those boys 20 years ago. And you work really hard in class to find those special things that you can do, those little extra things that make you special. So, when I had them in the room, I said, "Look, I've been there, I've done this. If there's something that you'd like to do, or I could possibly use in some way to make use of story, but also feature you in a way, let's see it." Not everything they can do is in the show, but if there was a moment that we needed a little something — like Ryan [Steele]'s spins, when he spins on the newspaper. To me, that's a perfect way of marrying what he has to say about that paper — just grinding it into the ground — yet doing a skill that is stunning; it's kind of meshing all those different worlds.

 

It's story.
CG: It's story. It's absolutely story. Even when they back-flip, what that represents is their vitality and their energy and their youth. Pulitzer wouldn't do that. He's grounded. He barely gets out of his chair. So, that's the Old Generation. This is the New Generation — it's them flying and soaring. So every step, even though it may look a little fireworky, is very thought out. Everyone gets their moment to shine, and I'm really proud of them for letting me do that with them.

Kara Lindsay and the newsboys.
Photo by Deen van Meer

Beyond the dancing, the show is a huge cardio workout. There are — what? — three flights of stairs on Tobin Ost's set? They are running up those stairs.
CG: The stairs! And then they're on, like, the fifth floor in the dressing room. [Laughs.] Yeah, they're all over the place with the set. Thank God for Tobin and his genius idea. But, yeah, they're up and down the stairs and they're tapping. And then, what a lot of people don't talk about, which I find is almost the most impressive thing in the show, is the fight sequence after "Seize the Day." These guys have just done a full act. They just did one of the biggest dance numbers they could do, including all of their technique and everything, and then they go into a full-on fight with the scabs and the goons — they're doing full-on stage combat — a stage of twenty men throwing barrels and sliding and driving bats!

You can't be pushing 40 and dancing this show, can you?
CG: No! [Laughs.] I don't think I could do it. They're resilient. [When creating the choreography,] I tried to protect them and their bodies. I said, "You're talented, and I want you in the show...so let's be really smart about how we construct this and what we honestly can do eight times a week."

What debt do you owe the 1992 film, and original choreographer Kenny Ortega, visually or dance-wise?
CG: I absolutely was inspired by it. I was [our Newsies] boys' age when it came out. I'm 39, so it was 20 years ago — I was their age. At the time, we didn't have YouTube, we didn't have these ways of seeing [dramatic dance] … So I go to the [movie] theatre and I see hundreds of boys dancing. They're all amazing. They're all incredible, doing things that like a lot of us couldn't do — pushing the boundaries of what we could do, physically. And to see the way Kenny utilized that to help tell the story, it was completely inspiring — and I think it helped pushed me to do what I do now.

 

Members of the Newsies company
photo by Deen van Meer

Are there iconic dance moves from the film that are borrowed? Choreographers steal, right?
CG: Not necessarily. Kenny made [the dancing] a little more anachronistic. Because of the time, it was '91, MTV was in full — Paula Abdul was popular. It had a little more funk in it, a little more synchronized dancing. When we took another look at it, we wanted it to be a little more grounded in musical theatre. For me, I wanted it to be a little more grounded in ballet and technique. The boys — even though they're rough and scrappy and they live on the streets — they still take pride in their work. Even though they're young, there's a sense of pride in what they do — delivering the papers the best they can, earning a living the best way they know how. That's the way I thought they should handle their physicality.

Discipline.
CG: It's discipline. And, if we're going to physically express ourselves through this, we're going to do it really well and not kind of like messy. They would have pride in the way they're going to tell this. That's why I was really adamant about using ballet.

Stage and film choreographer Michael Kidd, who did the film of "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers," must have inspired you — he was the best of both those worlds, balletic and athletic.
CG: He pushed the guys in those movies. They all could do double tours. They could all do this phenomenal masculine dancing, so he was a big inspiration to me for this show.

(Kenneth Jones is managing editor of Playbill.com. Follow him on Twitter @PlaybillKenneth.)

Watch the Playbill Video "2012 Tony Nominee Christopher Gattelli Gets Newsies Moving":