GYPSY OF THE MONTH: Jess LeProtto of 'Newsies'
In 1899 they were tough-luck kids scraping to get by. In 2012 they're the toast of Broadway. They are the poor newsboys of turn-of-the-century NYC who staged a strike against newspaper barons Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst to protest an increase in what the boys had to pay for the “papes” they then sold to the public.
Thanks to their high-leaping, repeat-pirouetting, backflipping dance numbers, the Newsies are among the most honored performers—and biggest crowd-pleasers—of the theater awards season. Jess LeProtto and his castmates in the title roles of Newsies are signed to ensemble contracts like chorus members of other Broadway shows, but they're really the stars of the new Disney musical. They even get to take individual curtain calls. And they're attracting hordes at the stage door just like some of the Hollywood stars currently performing on the Great White Way.
LeProtto portrays the Newsie named Buttons, who plays the spoons, is often scratching himself because of fleas and—according to the backstory LeProtto conceived for the character—is named Benjamin Davenport but got his nickname because buttons keep falling off his clothes. At just 19 years of age, LeProtto is appearing in his fourth Broadway show. As a child, he covered the role of young Peter Allen in the Hugh Jackman-headlined Boy From Oz; as a teenager, he was a Little Who in How the Grinch Stole Christmas! for two holiday seasons and later one of the Sweet Apple students in Roundabout Theatre's Bye Bye Birdie revival starring John Stamos.
But he's had his biggest audiences on TV, competing on So You Think You Can Dance last year. LeProtto made it to the top eight on SYTYCD, earning a spot on the show's North American tour that followed the Season 8 airing. Due to the So You Think You Can Dance tour, LeProtto was not in the cast of Newsies for its world premiere at New Jersey's Paper Mill Playhouse last fall.
He's done plenty of performing in New Jersey, though, as it's where LeProtto was raised and still lives (with his parents). He participated in school plays even after he'd been on Broadway, playing such roles as the Emcee in Cabaret, Max Bialystock in The Producers, Applegate in Damn Yankees and Pseudolus in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. “I wanted to do as much performing as I could, in front of an audience, doing what I love,” LeProtto says.
He attended his local public high school, Passaic Valley Regional, and trained at For Dancers Only in his Jersey hometown of Little Falls from the age of 3. LeProtto first went to the dance studio when his older sister started taking classes—which he would watch through the crack of the door, until his mother went ahead and enrolled him as well. His father, Gary, had been a professional actor (he danced in the movie Grease) and now works at the same New Jersey middle school as Jess' mother and sister. His sister also gives tap dancing lessons, and his brother's a performer too, playing drums in a reggae band on the Jersey Shore.
By age 5 Jess was taking singing lessons, and soon after he began to audition for shows. His pre-Broadway credits include the off-Broadway musical The People Garden at the York Theatre and a touring production of the Radio City Christmas Spectacular in Nashville. In 2004, at the age of 11, he was a standby for young Peter in The Boy From Oz and went on in the role once. He didn't receive his Equity card until he returned to Broadway in Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas! in 2006, and he was in the yuletide show's cast the following season too. LeProtto also appeared in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn at City Center Encores! In 2005.