DEBUT OF THE MONTH: NEWSIES' Ben Fankhauser
Ben Fankhauser is currently making his Broadway debut in Disney’s NEWSIES. The show, featuring music by Academy Award winner Alan Menken, lyrics by Jack Feldman, and a book by Tony Award winner Harvey Fierstein, opened on March 29th at the Nederlander Theater. Ben reprises the role of newsboy ‘Davey’ which he originated in the 2011 Paper Mill Playhouse production. NEWSIES is based on the 1992 Disney movie about the 1899 strike of New York City newsboys.
Before joining the production, Ben played the sensitive gay teen ‘Ernst’ in the first national tour of the Tony-winning musical SPRING AWAKENING. He is a recent graduate of Ithaca College where he received his BFA.
In a recent chat with BWW, Fankhauser spoke about why he believes NEWSIES is a timeless 'coming of age' tale of a group of boys who work together and make their voices heard.
What were some of your earliest theater experiences and at what point did you know this was something you wanted to pursue professionally?
Well I started doing theater as long as I can remember. I went to a theater day camp when I was a kid and we actually did an illegal production of NEWSIES at that time. It was an hour-long show with a bunch of kids running around, everyone had a couple of lines and all that. And I would say probably at that point, especially over the summer, making such good friends, doing theater and working together and becoming a community, I sort of latched on to that idea and knew there was something special about it, even at such an early age. I did theater all through middle school and high school and did community theater around town and I applied to colleges studying musical theater. I ended up going to Ithaca College in Upstate New York and having a great four years there. While I was at Ithaca I was auditioning for a bunch of things in New York and actually got cast in the first National Tour of Spring Awakening. It was summer of my sophomore year there.
It was. I took my junior year of college off and I toured the country with Spring Awakening. After being off the road, I took credits at a community college in the summer and I was able to finish my senior year on time to graduate which I was really glad about. I'm really happy I went back to school and got my degree because part of me was thinking 'I've done this show on the road, I think I'm ready to go to New York' even though I didn't know how I'd do there. But I'm also very glad that I went back to school. And after school I moved right to New York and started auditioning and I landed the Paper Mill production just a month after I got here. Very lucky.
Luck and a lot of talent as well as I would say!
Well yeah. I'm very grateful for that.
So by the time you got to the Paper Mill production you were already familiar with NEWSIES and I assume had seen the film.
Yes. Well that time period, in the early 90's was when I got to know the movie actually. When we found out at camp that we were doing it, we were so stoked. We were a bunch of nine year olds, you know, 5th and 6th graders, and that film was such a hit among our generation when it came out. We all knew NEWSIES like the back of our hand. And even after that summer it continued to be one of my favorites. I had 'King of New York' and 'Santa Fe' and 'Carrying the Banner' in my audition book at one point and I would always sing them. Even in High School I did choir and we did 'Seize the Day'. You know the music is so tuneful and the story is so heartfelt and exciting. I think it really might have been a little bit ahead of its time with the film and it might not have worked as well as they wanted it to with a big budget Hollywood action musical movie. I think it might have needed a different vehicle. But it's clear that the story prevails and I'm glad that we get to sort of try again in retelling it through a different media. So yes, I was a fan of the movie from very early on. Even when I did the illegal production of it!
It sounds like you were destined to be in it.
I know it's crazy right? There are so many stories among the company like that. It's really interesting that so many of us feel the same way about the show.
At what point during the Paper Mill production did you receive the news that it was going to Broadway?
You know I found out that it was going to Broadway with the rest of the public. I knew that I had been offered to do the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade at the very end of our Paper Mill run. On the closing day, our producer told us that news, but that's all that we knew and we had to keep that news under wraps. Then the week leading up to the parade I remember the Disney musical web site and all the theater web sites posted online and twitter that NEWSIES was coming to Broadway and that's how I found out. I was like 'uhhh I hope I have a job!' Then a couple of days later before our performance at Macy's I got a call from my agent offering me the job which was just amazing. Before that, it was a hopeful thought that it would have further life just because we knew it was so special. But you can never really put your eggs in one basket in this business and you have to roll with the punches and we did and I'm really glad it happened the way it did because it was such a surprise. It was a treat to experience it in real time and not have one of these things where you have a job lined up six months down the road and you wind up twiddling your thumbs till then.
Were there adjustments and changes made in preparation for the Broadway production?
Yes, and that was really thrilling for me too. Just because this was my first Broadway show and it's my first original musical as well so I got to be right there with the creators, sort of flushing out the rough spots. The show was pretty solid at Paper Mill but there were always some moments that we knew we needed to work on. Getting back into the rehearsal room we had to work with a whole new draft of the script which Harvey Fierstein really tightened up. He changed some of the dialogue and he really made the storytelling very cohesive. Once we got into the rehearsal room we got to work with Jeff Calhoun the director, and he really amped up our relationships on stage and our comradery among the boys to really give the show a rooted, grounded story that we needed. It's not a Disney musical that is about spectacle. It's a period piece at its core and it's important that we told the story that way, because it has so much heart and it is based on a true story so we needed to treat it as such. We really focused on that and that really amped up the acting and the storytelling. And the choreography - I don't even know where to begin.
Yes, the dancing was phenomenal. Certainly Tony Award-worthy!
You know what, it is some really, really exciting choreography and Chris [Gattelli] has just gone back to the storytelling and the characters and that is so inspiring to see how he works. He has made the dance really move the plot forward and not only is the dance character driven, it's so athletic and aerobic and acrobatic, it's just high-flying and its amazing. I actually get to dance a little bit more than I used to at Paper Mill which to me is very exciting because I'm not a trained dancer. I danced in college and I take class in New York City but compared to the boys in the show, I wouldn't call myself a trained dancer. For me to get to be able to dance on Broadway next to what I think is Broadway's new generation of dancers is a thrill beyond belief!
Well, you certainly were able to keep up with them on the tap dancing numbers.
Thank you. Thank you. Yeah, I like tap dancing a lot because you don't need to be flexible. You don't need to have years of training and flexibility to be able to tap dance. You can practice and you need to know a little bit of technique and you need to have a little bit of musical sense and that's why I like tap dancing. You know you don't need to be trained in ballet for seven years for you to go for it. But yeah, the dancing is really what makes the show come alive and it really brings the boys together as an ensemble. We're just having such a fun time telling the story and doing the choreography and singing this music. It's really a treat. It's a dream come true for everyone.
And as you watch the show you get the sense that it's a really close-knit cast.
That's absolutely true. It's like that off-stage too. And we're really lucky because often times you don't get to be in a company where everybody is happy to be there. And it's lucky that everyone's so nice to each other and there's no drama going on backstage. The crew and the creators and the cast, we're like one big family and I attribute a lot of that to Jeff Calhoun. I sincerely think he is a genius. He is so selfless in his work. He's not married to any of his staging or his blocking and he really caters to what we do best on stage. He wants us to all be a family and he's so genuine about that and about having the new generation sort of step up to the plate. I think there are twelve Broadway debuts in this company which is astounding and I think he's the one who couldn't be more happy about that. And that really goes along with the story of our show. It's the new generation, standing up and gathering and finding our voice and demanding our place. So Jeff is like that in nature which is why this is the perfect project for him. He's excited for this next generation of Broadway performers to take the stage so to speak and really show Broadway what it's all about it!
Along those lines, do you feel the story behind NEWSIES has significance in today's times?
Oh yeah. I mean I think the story is timeless. I think especially now with movements like 'Occupy Wall Street' so prevalent today. It's so exciting to get to be a part of this show for that reason. We tell that story and people are telling that story throughout the world in various ways. People are telling it through protests, much like in the 60s when people told it through sit-ins, and now I get to tell it on Broadway in a theatrical sense. It is about this new generation realizing that they do have a place at the table and this is their world and that we have to work together to make a change and that we can make a change. And that's been happening throughout history. To me, this is just a different medium of how to convey that message and it's storytelling and it's exciting and it's got heart and it's got truth and yeah I think the story is timeless, but especially today with our economy and our culture in the United States.
I agree. Your character Davey is very unique from the other newsboys in that he comes from a family and a home. Throughout the course of the show, he really goes through a transformation from a young boy to an adult. That must be a very rewarding challenge for you as an actor.
You know Davey is really important to the story. He brings a sense of knowledge and understanding about unions and forming a strike and a rally and making a change. He brings that knowledge to the streets, to the newsboys. And he is a fish out of water at first. He's not an orphan, he has a family and has an education and that does make him a little bit different than the other boys. And I can relate to that and I think everybody can. I moved to New York a year ago and I was a stranger here. I'm from Cleveland, Ohio. So I made my way over. But I think everyone can relate to feeling like the new kid in town and that's scary at first, especially for Davey. When he realizes he has a place among friends and that he has an importance in their lives, that opens up his world and he comes out of his shell in the two and a half hours I get to play this part, this timid boy who has a lot to offer but is scared.
But eventually he does come out of his shell and he grows into a young adult who finds the meaning in his life and finds a cause to take a stand for. I think that's something at the core of our lives, something we all can relate to, something we all hope for. We all want to find meaning in our lives and stand up for something we believe in, whatever it may be. I feel really lucky to play this arc and tell the story to an audience. I think everyone comes of age at some point and the core of my research was my own coming of age really. It's been a pleasure to get to play with this character and I'm still playing with him. That's what I love about theater. It's never the same show twice. I get to grow up everyday for my job in two and a half hours and I get to do it differently every night, within the confines of the show of course. But it really is up for interpretation and however I'm feeling that day might affect Davey's coming of age. Or if an actor is out and an understudy is on, they do have a different relationship with that person and that affects everyone's story as well. So it is something so thrilling and electric and exciting and it's a really fabulous story that I get to tell every night. Yeah Davey's very special in that way. I did take the character in a different direction from the movie. I gave him a little more of an earnest quality. I'm happy I got to take the original story and put my own spin on it in terms of the way I play him.
Is there one particular point in the show that you feel is the turning point for Davey, or is it more of a gradual change?
Yeah, I think there definitely is a turning point that occurs over about a ten or fifteen minute period of the show. It's really 'The World Will Know' number. And I loved the way the blocking worked its way out for that scene. Davey's on one side of the stage and Jack and all the other newsies are on the other side of the stage. They're saying 'you know this is unfair, we have to strike' and I'm saying 'no there's no way we can strike, ya gotta think this through. There's a lot of stuff that goes into forming a union' and they say 'no, we just want to do this. We do this because we believe in it.' And it's at that moment that Davey realizes 'ya know what , its' now or never," and he walks across the stage and he joins the boys. And they all cheer and they welcome him and we sing 'The World Will Know' which is this epic anthem about telling the big guy that the little guy demands a place at the table. We get to go through this journey of this song about going to the headquarters and talking to Joseph Pulitzer and being kicked out and that only makes us want to work harder. So I think that is a turning point for Davey. He realizes, right now, today is when we need to take a stand. And in the next two scenes he sings 'Seize the Day' and I think that is Davey gaining confidence. So 'The World Will Know' is when he realizes, 'I'm in and we can do this' and 'Seize the Day' is the first time he has to speak to the guys without Jack. He's always relied on Jack before that point. He'd tell his ideas to Jack and Jack was the voice. So 'Seize the Day' is the first time he is testing the waters of speaking to the boys directly. It doesn't work at first but eventually it does. In Act Two he gets some great stuff and he really comes out of his shell. I mean he tap dances on a table for God's sake!
Can you tell us what Opening Night was like for you?
Oh man. I wasn't really sure what to expect. I've had Opening Nights before on other projects but I never did it on Broadway and I knew that was something special. You only get one Broadway debut and it exceeded my expectations in the greatest way.
Everyone's dressing room is so filled with flowers you can't even see in the mirror to get ready for the show. It's like this buzzing energy on stage and everyone is so over the top happy and there's so many cards and gifts and chocolates and treats it really is hard to find anything to compare it to. It's really something special. And you know the gypsy robe tradition is really exciting to take part in because that's a long-lived backstage tradition and so iconic and so exciting. I also learned this tradition about Broadway shows sending Opening Night faxes to each show opening so we have a whole wall of all the different shows on Broadway wishing us the best and good luck and that is really a nice testament to the Broadway community. And now I get to send out Opening Night faxes to shows that are opening. And that is really awesome for me.
The whole energy of that night, before the show we were all just so excited backstage and then the audience gets in and oh boy their response was just not to be believed. They were giving us standing ovations and clapping and cheering and giving us so much love and it really was one of the best moments in my whole life. And the party was so amazing. Everyone was so happy to be there. What can I say, it was fantastic!
NEWSIES is currently running at the Nederlander Theatre, 208 W. 41st Street, through August 19th. For tickets, please visit ticketmaster.com or visit the NEWSIES box office, open Monday through Saturday 10AM to 8PM and Sundays 10:30AM to 7PM. Times may vary. For further information, please visit: http://www.newsiesthemusical.com/