BWW Interview: Coming Together to Bring Change, Panel Discusses NEWSIES

BWW Interview: Coming Together to Bring Change, Panel Discusses NEWSIES

"Newsies is a hit wherever you take it; it had a highly successful Broadway run and national tour and now in these first regional productions, it is the kind of show that brings people from all over to see it again and again. It reaches so many people with its great music and dance and inspiring story. It's a brilliant piece of theatre, and I am honored to be a part of it."

Actress Angela Grovey is waxing eloquent about her role as Medda Larkin in the Disney musical about the 1899 newsboys strike that has had its East Coast premiere at Maine State Music Theatre this summer, following its first regional production at the Fulton Theatre in Lancaster, PA. Grovey is Joined At The last Peek Behind the Curtain panel on August 16, 2017, by fellow cast members, Blake Stadnik, who plays Crutchie, Brian Sutherland who portrays Joseph Pulitzer, MSMT Managing Director Stephanie Dupal, and Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold, Broadway World's Maine Editor, to discuss the creation of this final MSMT main stage show that is currently playing to virtually sold out houses until August 26th.

Dupal begins the discussion by recounting the challenging process it is for Artistic Director Curt Dale Clark and her to obtain the rights to big new titles like Newsies, for which they were one of only three regional theatres nationwide to receive permission this season. "Curt and I have made a real effort to develop good relationships with the rights houses." Citing the many factors which come into play in such a decision, among them perseverance, box office sales, and national reputation, Dupal says, "It also comes down to things like friendship and the way MSMT is always meticulous in paying their royalties on time. We were trusted with Mamma Mia! last year and now Newsies, and we hope we can continue to be the theatre that brings some of these major new shows to you first!" Noting that Newsies is a Disney property, Dupal also comments on how involved and protective of their brand the Disney organization is. "We proposed eight poster graphics, for example, before they approved the one we're using."

Grovey, who has been involved in the developmental process of finalizing the licensed production of Newsies seen on tour and here, talks about how the original movie writers as well as the new creative team for the musical "all sat in a room, and there were lots of opinions that had to be considered before coming up with the present version. So naturally, there were lots of compromises." And responding to Forecaster critic Scott Andrews, who commented from the floor, that he liked the show for its dance and music but found the book simplistic and the characters cardboard, she added, "As actors it is our job to justify why people do what they do to make as much sense as we can of the characters we are given, and to bring to life the material decided upon" - a comment with which Sutherland agrees, saying "We actors have to try to find as much human complexity as we can in our characters and then how that is received is the prerogative of each audience member."

Finding their individual characters in Newsies is something which this cast has been working on since rehearsal began at the Fulton Theatre in May and has continued when the show transferred to MSMT to be retooled with changes in the ensemble, the choreography, and other elements of the staging. Sutherland speaks first about playing the "villain" of the piece, publishing mogul Joseph Pulitzer. "I tend to do research whenever I am playing an historical figure, so I delved into all kinds of information about Pulitzer, and it became quickly apparent to me that the character Disney had written was not the real Pulitzer, who was a champion of the common man, an Hungarian immigrant who had pulled himself up by the bootstraps and a pioneering journalist. So I decided to forget all about the historical Pulitzer and came up instead with a persona that would resonate in the world of the musical. I liken the experience of playing Pulitzer to my playing Zach in A Chorus Line. One reviewer accused me in that show of being a snarling presence, and it was true. I felt the harder Zach was on the line, the more the audience would root for the dancers. And the same is true in Newsies. I the meaner I am and harder on Jack, the more the audience wants the newsboys to win."

Yet despite making Pulitzer hard hearted and self-interested, Sutherland believes "No one is completely evil, so I try to find ways to understand Pulitzer's motivations. He doesn't see himself as a bad guy; he believes he is fighting to keep his business successful, to protect his daughter, and to preserve jobs for his news empire."

Dupal jumps in to second these comments, saying that the line that resonates most with her is the one where the character says he is against the newsboys because they "are striking against me. You look at things differently when they affect you personally. I know this myself as the businessperson of the theatre. There are times Curt and I have to look at the bottom line, so I understand where the character of Pulitzer is coming from."

Grovey describes her take on Medda Larkin, whose character is significantly transformed from the one Ann-Margret played in the 1992 film to the African-American burlesque house owner in the musical. "When I had the pleasure of doing the national tour, we worked with the writers of both the film and the stage version, and I got to ask them why they changed things as they did. Harvey [Fierstein/book] and Jack [Feldman/lyrics) told me they were inspired by many colorful women in their own lives and put pieces of those women into the show. I think my Medda is like an aunt to the newsboys. She tells it the way it is in a loving way. She is a little hard on Jack and says things he may not want to hear. But I feel that she plants a lovely little whisper in his ear."

Continuing the discussion of characters, Stadnik explains why he feels it has been important to include Crutchie's touching solo, "Letter from the Refuge" - a song that was added to the licensed version beginning with the tour. " When this song wasn't in the Broadway show, many people thought Crutchie had died, so it serves the purpose to let the audience know he is banged up, but alive. It also reinforces his relationship with Jack as his big brother - Matt and I decided Jack was seventeen and Crutchie probably fourteen - and gives the newsies a person to fight for. Crutchie becomes a martyr for the cause." Stadnik, who has been legally blind since he was seven years old, yet has an impressive resume of leading roles, says "My disability helps me relate to Crutchie. Being legally blind I could have gone one of two ways; I could have become very introverted or I could open up and allow myself to trust other people. I chose to do the latter. Crutchie is that way, too. He is very trusting, and if someone is kind to him, he will give them his whole life."

Developing the detailed relationships among the characters is something which the entire panel credits to the genius of director/choreographer Marc Robin. Sutherland says, "Marc is a very special director. I had not worked with him before, and they say it comes from the top down, but the tone Marc sets in rehearsal is pure joy. It is genuine, and it becomes infectious. We all work really hard to bring to the production everything we've got. And we all know he is a great choreographer, but he also did some amazing, meticulous scene work on this show."

Stadnik continues that thought: "This is my seventh production with Marc Robin and one of my favorite things about him is that he involves you in the process of building the character. He sat all the newsies down to talk about their relationship to one another - where they fit in the gang, what each brought to the team, where they acme from. He allowed us to create that and have ownership of that piece f the production. That raises the stakes for you as an actor, and it allows you to put into it everything you have."

Grovey says that as an actress, it is "my job to listen to my fellow actors, and each time it will be a different conversation." Noting that when the principals came from the Fulton to MSMT, there were ten new cast members joining the production, she adds, "I felt there was a great new energy when we got to Maine. Adding new faces made our production take another step forward. It is so exciting to have these young people [interns and other new cast members] working so hard to bring this production to life. What they bring to the production is unbelievable, and it inspires us meet them where they are. A little bit of a planned shakeup can be a good thing for a show."

Dupal adds that from the theatre management perspective Marc Robin is "one of those very few directors that can put up a show in the very limited time we have here at MSMT. He comes completely prepared ahead of time; he knows how to get the actors to where they have to be in order for them to shape their individual characterizations. For us, it is a priceless thing to have a director who can get as complex a show as Newsies up in our short time frame."

The panel also sings Robin's praises as choreographer of genius. While none of the three principals on the panel is involved in the big, athletic, acrobatic newsies dance numbers, they have all experienced the thrill of them onstage and in the rehearsal process. Grovey remarks how she always notes at a Newsies audition how the boys go into a room with the choreographer, who asks them to "show me your tricks. And they start tumbling, and flipping, and leaping, and doing what they do best. It allows the choreographer to pick out those who inspire him and eventually to use some of their talents as part of the [choreographic] process." Sutherland adds that he believes a good part of the thrill of Newsies as a dance show lies in the fact that these are all men dancing, and there is a virile, vital male energy."

Such choreography comes with high risks, and this MSMT production has already had several occasions where substitutions in the cast had to be made because of injury or illness. Dupal explains that budgeting constraints do not allow MSMT to hire swings or understudies very often, but in this show, realizing the inherent risks and the complexity of every tiny detail, they did prepare - something which has already proved fortuitous when Jack Kelly's understudy Kevin Murray went on for two shows on August 15th and Donovan Hoffer was flown in from the Fulton to replace an injured Elliot Marach for three performances, and as swings Austin Nedrow and Hoffer have gone on several times already in the ensemble. "It's a scary tightrope we walk here," she says with a smile.

Asked what the panel thinks can account for the way in which Newsies developed from a box office flop as a film to the mega hit it became on Broadway and now beyond, each responds individually, with Stadnik saying he believes it was a generational thing for him because he grew up watching the film over and over again even in school, while Grovey says she got introduced to Newsies through her friend Jeremy Jordan who was in the Broadway cast. But whatever the individual access points to the material, each of the panelists believes the work, as it exists in the current musical version, has a powerful message for contemporary audiences.

Noting the persuasiveness of the story told in thrilling dance and song, Dupal comments mischeviously: Strikes in the world would be so much better covered, supported, and resolved quickly if people actually danced and sang that well!"

Sutherland says the theme of Newsies remains especially relevant today because "We are certainly all paying attention to how power can be expressed. I don't think it's coincidental that the populist rage that is floating about these days has some form of expression in this show. It is easy to root for these underdog characters."

Stadnik's take-away of the show's special meaning is a very personal one. "The theme that runs through Newsies that resonates most with me is that we are a family. All the newsies come from different backgrounds, but they are all the downtrodden of the city, and they form a chosen family. For me who has a mixed family, this has special meaning. In the theatre," he says with obvious emotion, " we all come together to perform in groups, to tell these stories and to impact audiences to make their lives better. We actors form ourselves into this kind of chosen family, and that is what this show is about."

Grovey picks up the thread saying "This show has changed my life. It contains a story that needs to be told again and again: that we as human beings can come together to effect change. Watching these young people tell this story on stage makes me feel I can go home and make an impact on things that matter to me in the world. And I am grateful to theatres like this one [MSMT] for charging more and more artists to tell this kind of story. I think it was difficult for our cast this past weekend with the events unfolding [in Charlottesville] to tell the tale, but it was important for them to do it. It is important for everyone to support live theatre because it can tell this kind of story and make people think about things in different ways. Art is truly transformative, and I hope Newsies empowers people to believe they can bring change and make a difference."

Photo courtesy of MSMT, Olivia Wenner, photographer

The Peek Behind the Curtain series is sponsored by MSMT and held at the Curtis Memorial Library each summer. 2018 will feature four panel discussions at noon in the Morrell Meeting Room: June 13 Million Dollar Quartet, July 11 Beauty and the Beast, July 25 Saturday Night Fever, and August 15 Singing in the Rain.

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From This Author Carla Maria Verdino-S├╝llwold

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