In the heart of Washington, D.C., Arena Stage artistic director Molly Smith relishes the opportunity to make a statement with the work she puts on the stage. But that doesn’t mean she shies away from gold standard musicals—she reframes them.
Having directed productions of Anything Goes, Oklahoma!, My Fair Lady, and more, when planning Arena’s 70th anniversary season, Smith wanted a contemporary musical that, like those Golden Age musicals, would stand the test of time. “It needs to have melodies that you can carry out of the theatre … great opportunities for dance and artists,” she says. But most of all “it is a story that has meaning.” When her longtime choreographer Parker Esse suggested Newsies, he hit the nail on the head. Their production begins November 1 and runs through December 22 on the Fichandler Stage.
Smith sees Newsies as a show about a children’s crusade. “There are two children’s crusades going on right now: with the Parkland students around gun control and the climate emergency with Greta Thunberg and the millions of young people around the world marching,” says Smith. “[Our production] is still set in 1899, but some of the language in some of the songs is completely analogous to the fight today.” Not to mention, the themes of the haves and have-nots.
But more a commonality of hot button issues, Smith also chose to cast the production in order to reflect contemporary values. The titular newsies are a chorus of newsboys and newsgirls. Smith points out that newsgirls did exist in 1899, albeit less commonly than newsboys; her casting is a statement of historical accuracy, representation, but also an exploration of emotional depth.
In this production, Jo Jo, Tommy Boy, and Splasher are played by female performers. “In 1899, there were mostly young boys but there were also young girls and people of color working as newsies,” says Smith. “By casting a diverse group of actors, we are making an accurate and invigorating picture of New York during the news strike.”
Smith also cast actors of all ages, including five actors 17 and under, in hopes that audiences the capability and passion behind these young faces resonates with audiences on a deeper level. What’s more, Smith hopes to ignite a fighting spirit in these young actors off the stage. “For the actors, I think it will be a seminal experience,” she says. “Being a part of a group in this way, learning what it means to speak out for what you believe in. It’s our first amendment rights and they’re living it out on stage.”
Cumulatively, Smith’s perspective, gender-bending, and age-appropriate casting highlight the parallels between 1899 and today. As the director says, “Why direct a musical unless it’s about this moment in time?”