BWW Interview: Christopher Gattelli Taps into Big Screen NEWSIES and Broadway-Bound FROZEN
By Wayman Wong
I was blown away. Even when they were filming it, we could see from the monitors how gorgeous it was. And I'm beyond thrilled about the reaction. Now, people all over the world are seeing ''Newsies.'' The night it opened, I kept getting tweets, and my phone was buzzing from people in Iceland. And Germany. And Australia. It's all turned out better than I could've ever expected.
Did you need to modify your choreography much for the cameras?
We wanted to retain as much of the original [staging] as possible, but we did add a bunch of Newsies to the cast to give it more volume. We filled out the rally and extended the bows. And in ''Seize the Day'' and a couple of other numbers, I loved how the [filmed version] went in with a Steadicam. You felt like you were really there. There were so many beautiful shots, like the aerials of the boys walking in the line. And the whole cast was on fire. The audience was so supportive and loud, and everyone fed off their energy. [The film crew] took such care in shooting it; they knew the show like the back of their hand. They captured ''Newsies'' with such quality.
I'm so happy Disney brought back Jeremy, Kara, Ben and Andrew. And they were, too. Ben says he was so excited to "put 'Newsies' on film forever.'' And Jeremy tweeted: " 'Something to Believe In' in the movie is soooo much better than our cast recording!"
It's incredible, but they all jumped right back in, like putting on an old glove. They fell right back into character. To be honest, they were even better now because they've had other experiences and just grown as people. Their performances were richer. And I loved Crutchie's new song [''Letter From the Refuge''] that was added for the tour. We also had these young men in the ensemble who first saw our show and were inspired to take dance, and then they got to do ''Newsies'' with the performers they fell in love with.
Growing up, what did the original ''Newsies'' movie mean to you?
It changed my life. This was before the days of YouTube and ''So You Think You Can Dance.'' I was in my little bubble outside of Philadelphia, one of two boys in my dance studio. I was teased for dancing and doing ballet, but I put up with the bullying, because I loved to dance. So when I saw ''Newsies'' and all those guys who were my age and dancing, it was awesome. It really inspired me and pushed me. And when I became a part of the stage version, it was such a gift. I was giving back in a way. Paying it forward. Hopefully, the boys find it's cooler today to dance, and audiences can really appreciate how much hard work goes into it.
And now you're transferring another Disney movie to Broadway: ''Frozen.'' You're choreographing and Michael Grandage is directing. Last fall, you did a lab version with a bunch of new songs, and it'll open in spring 2018. How's it going?
It's going very well. I'd say the biggest challenge is retaining what audiences love about what exists [in the film], but giving it its own life and putting your own take on it. ''Frozen'' feels like it's a natural fit for the stage, like ''Newsies'' did. In both cases, the new material made each of the stories richer in content, and as always, there is something about seeing live performances of the material that ultimately makes the experience more visceral. When you see the boys dance live, you feel it. When you hear Elsa sing live, you feel it. And in both cases, the original material is so fantastic, and the songs already advanced the storytelling, like any great musical does. I don't want to give too much away, but the stage version goes much deeper into the relationships, and I'm loving the new material.
Whom do you identify with most: Anna, Elsa, Kristoff or Olaf?
This is a good one. Ha-ha. Depending on the day, I can feel like all of them! I can start my day feeling like Anna, midday feel like Elsa, somewhere in there turn into Olaf, then slip into Kristoff.
Meantime, you got to choreograph FOR the movies, thanks to the Coen brothers' ''Hail, Caesar!'' (2016). You created ''No Dames,'' a terrific salute to Gene Kelly's sailor-dance routines, and taught Channing Tatum how to tap-dance.
That was a blast. Talk about a workhorse. Tatum had never tapped before, and that man never stopped. He rehearsed about 3 months, and he literally did it all. Every flip. Everything. He was just so game. And we had some of Broadway's best dancers beside him. I told the Coens that I knew of guys in New York that I love who would give them that authentic [MGM] quality and period style. They said, ''Great, okay!,'' so the guys all flew out to L.A. On the first day after Channing saw them, he worked even harder, and the guys were so supportive of him. It was a mutual admiration society. They couldn't believe how fast Channing was improving every day. It was so great. And the Coens were a dream come true. They really wanted to honor the musical genre. They'd ask questions, like ''Do they record the taps first?'' or ''How do they tap on the tables without leaving marks?'' It was so exciting on both ends.
In 2015, you debuted ''In Your Arms,'' a dynamic dance-theater piece that you directed and choreographed at The Old Globe Theater in San Diego. The all-star cast included Donna McKechnie and George Chakiris. The show revolved around romantic vignettes written by Douglas Carter Beane, Nilo Cruz, Christopher Durang, Carrie Fisher, David Henry Hwang, Rajiv Joseph, Terrence McNally, Marsha Norman, Lynn Nottage and Alfred Uhry. But I gotta ask you about Fisher's piece called ''Lowdown Messy Shame.'' It featured Jenn Harris playing Fisher (with a Princess Leia hairdo), as a blocked author. What was it like working with Carrie?
It was really special. Carrie was so easy to work with. She signed on immediately. And we spent most of the time talking about her mother, Debbie Reynolds, or she'd show me pictures of her dog. She was so down-to-earth and great. She literally sent me her piece in days. And Carrie was a character in her [segment], so it was very [characteristic] of her wit and style. I was really excited for her to see it, so it was heartbreaking [when Carrie died in December] because she never got to see her piece. And it's one of my personal favorites in the show. Hopefully, we'll get to do [''In Your Arms''] again, and her brother and daughter and loved ones will get to see it.
Speaking of loved ones, you've done ''In Your Arms'' and ''Silence! The Musical'' with your husband, Stephen Bienskie.
We've done many shows together now, and I always love it because we have the same sensibility and can cut right to the chase. Plus, Stephen's such a creative, smart actor. I can throw him anything, and he can pretty much make anything work. He was in Chris Durang's piece in ''In Your Arms'' as a Russian ballroom competitor opposite Jenn Harris (another one of my favorites). And he was Buffalo Bill in ''Silence!'' (he even did the tuck, which we have funny stories about). He helped create those characters as much as he performed them. And he was my associate on the "My Fair Lady" I did with Julie Andrews at the Opera House in Sydney, and it was incredible.
You and Stephen will be celebrating 18 years together. How'd you guys meet? And what caught your eye?
We met doing ''Cats'' at the Winter Garden. We saw each other at the theater. Then, I went on a two-week leave and came back and played a different cat (Mistoffelees), and Stephen played Rum Tum Tugger. But we couldn't figure out who each other was for a bit. He couldn't find the brown-and-gray cat he saw, and I didn't realize who he was in his makeup until I saw him out of it. But even in the makeup, Stephen's smile caught my eye. And the day marriage equality passed for New Jersey (where we live), Stephen took me back to the Winter Garden. They were loading out a show, so our doorman (who was still there) let us up to our old dressing rooms where we met. We proposed to each other there, and now we're married. That theater will always mean something special to us.
Currently, you're choreographing ''War Paint,'' which begins previews March 7 and opens April 6. It must be cool to collaborate with Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole, who play the rival cosmetics queens Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden.
I'm loving it! I've worked with Patti before [on ''Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown''], but she and Christine are just forces of nature. They treat the material with such respect and ask whatever they need to get to the deepest performance. We know how incredibly talented and unique Patti and Christine BOTH are, so it's a pleasure to see them bring [Rubinstein and Arden] to life. With regards to the dancing, it runs the gamut from the 1930s to almost the 1960s. The ensemble does most of the choreography I'd say, but Patti and Christine are both deeply interested in how these women move, walk and stand [because] that was part of who they were. And the show couldn't be more timely. It was great when we tried out in Chicago, and now it digs deeper. It's about how women are treated and talked about, and it has a lot to say. It's got everything you want in a musical, and it's been such fun to work on.
What a coincidence that ''War Paint'' plays the Nederlander, where ''Newsies'' opened five years ago. Remember when ''Newsies'' tried out at the Paper Mill in New Jersey? I told you that you'd win a Tony for it - months before it came to Broadway.
Oh my god. And now it's getting an encore screening on March 4. It's like the little show that could. I'm just so proud of it!
For more information about the March 4 encore screening of ''Newsies,'' go to FathomEvents.com.