BWW Interview: Ryan Farnsworth Stars in Towering NEWSIES at Utah's Tuacahn
"Disney's Newsies" has been making headlines all this summer at America's regional theaters, from the MUNY in St. Louis to the Music Theatre of Wichita. Others "carrying this banner," Tony-winning musical have included the Wagon Wheel in Indiana, Connecticut Repertory Theatre, Red Mountain Theatre Company in Alabama, the Maine State Music Theatre and Orlando REP in Florida.
But in terms of a towering natural setting, it would be hard to rival the "Newsies" at Tuacahn Amphitheatre in Ivins, Utah. Built in the shadow of Padre Canyon, this nearly 2,000-seat outdoor center is set against a backdrop of 1,500-foot, red rock cliffs. Directed and choreographed by Jeffrey Denman, ''Newsies'' began June 2 and is playing in rep with "Mamma Mia!" and "Shrek" through Oct. 21.
"Tuacahn" comes from a Mayan word meaning "Canyon of the Gods," and its star of "Newsies" has a talent that's just as big as all outdoors. Ryan Farnsworth plays Jack Kelly, the "handsome, heroically charismatic" underdog who leads his newsboys in the 1899 strike against the powerful publisher Joseph Pulitzer. Bruce Bennett of the St. George News raved that the 5-foot-9 leading man is "a true gem - a skilled actor and dancer who plays just the right combination of toughness and vulnerability. In his hands, 'Santa Fe' soars."
In landing the role, Farnsworth, like Jack, had "one more ace up his sleeve'': inside advice about "Newsies" from Ben Fankhauser, the original Davey on Broadway. Farnsworth understudied him on the national tour of "Beautiful" and became fast friends. Fankhauser says: "I knew Ryan was gonna be stellar as Jack. He's got an amazing voice, and he'd be the perfect leader for those newsboys."
We chatted with Farnsworth about headlining "Newsies" at Tuacahn; following in Jeremy Jordan's footsteps, and why doing this Disney musical in the desert is like competing on "American Ninja Warrior."
Congrats on your great reviews for ''Newsies'' at Tuacahn. Jeremy Jordan told me that he watched the 1992 movie ''about a billion times on VHS'' when he was 8 or 9. What's your history with the film, and how's it feel to play Jack?
Aw, man, it's such a dream come true. I missed seeing the movie when I was a kid, but I caught up with it in college (at UC Irvine) and loved it. Then I saw the new filmed version [of the Broadway show] the week after I landed the lead in ''Newsies.'' I was so excited. It was perfect timing. The original film was fun and had a lot of heart, but the Broadway version really dug into all of the arrangements and the choreography, and the whole thing flowed with the relationship between Jack and Katherine. ''Newsies'' is one of the best musicals I've ever seen. It's so rare to have a book [by Harvey Fierstein] that matches the dancing and the great songs [by Alan Menken and Jack Feldman]. The story has this "Braveheart" feel, and I love Jack's scrappiness. He's so passionate that you gotta root for him.
What's it like to belt ''Santa Fe,'' Jack's big soaring solo that closes Act I?
Amazing. The first time I did ''Santa Fe'' in rehearsals at Tuacahn, I was weeping at the end. There's so much emotion and want in Jack. And when the lights drop out after I sing it at the end of Act I, the audience goes crazy. It's so fun, but it's also challenging. We joke that Jack doesn't sing A's until ''Santa Fe'' and then he sings them for the rest of the show, so you have to pace yourself. Luckily, I've had great instruction from my New York voice teacher, Kurt Peterson. And our music director here, D. Alexander Rovang, is awesome.
Describe the scenic natural setting at Tuacahn.
Tuacahn is set against all these red rock cliffs, and that works great in that song. In Jack's mind, Santa Fe is where all the muck of New York is gone. Before I sing, ''Santa Fe, my old friend," the whole canyon is lit up [by Cory Pattak]. And Brad Shelton's set is fantastic. The stage is 80 feet wide, and there's this huge steel structure. I climb it and get in plenty of cardio during the week. Also, the temperature falls between 80 and 90 degrees at night, and Tuacahn is about 3,500 feet up. So I gotta maintain enough vocal strength to do a fight scene, climb a pole and a ladder, and then sing ''Santa Fe'' on a third-floor balcony. It's like ''American Ninja Warrior'' meets Disney.
Kenny Ortega, who directed the 1992 movie, says he discovered that Utah is a hotbed of ''Newsies'' fans after he filmed ''High School Musical'' there. And one of your reviews says it's been ''odd'' to hear ''normally conservative" Utahns cheering for the unions.
No matter what your politics are, you gotta root for kids who are starving and slaving away in factories and slaughterhouses. And our audiences are absolutely amazing. I've been told that Tuacahn gets more than 260,000 visitors a year, and it's the second-largest tourist draw in Utah, next to Zion National Park. During the show and afterward at the meet-and-greet, you feel they are so happy to see you. And with ''Newsies,'' you have folks who grew up with the movie and now they have their own kids who love it. It's a wonderful community that gives us so much.
At Tuacahn, "Newsies'' plays in rep, so you're also in the ensembles of ''Mamma Mia!'' and ''Shrek: The Musical,'' right?
Yeah. We have a cast of 44, and it's a great mixture of union actors and younger actors who are really enthusiastic. Everyone's so professional and dedicated. When I did the tour of "Beautiful," I covered seven parts. But at Tuacahn, some swings cover 18 parts. We perform six days a week, and our off-day is Sunday, but in Utah, everything is closed. However, there is so much natural beauty here, with Bryce National Park and Zion and the Grand Canyon. I've been to all of them, and I can't get enough. I've gone hiking and camping with Jeffry [Denman]. He's a great director and a good friend, and he's shown me so many places to take my family.
Tell me about Whitney Winfield, who plays Katherine in "Newsies" (and Fiona in Tuacahn's "Shrek").
Whitney's one of the most phenomenal actresses I've ever worked with, and she's a fantastic singer. She's very giving, and I don't think "Newsies" works unless Jack and Katherine are great together. We have wonderful chemistry and a really good time.
You've said three of your dream roles are Jack in "Newsies," Clyde in "Bonnie & Clyde" and Drew in "Rock of Ages.''
And Jeremy Jordan has played them all. I joke that I'm always chasing him. I really admire him. He's got a great amount of vocal power, and he plays that guy who's sexy and down on his luck, but willing to make the best of his situation. I love to play those characters.
And you've worked with Jeremy's "Newsies" co-star, Ben Fankhauser. You covered his role as Barry Mann in the "Beautiful" tour. Ben told me: ''Ryan is one of the most focused and hard workers I know. He's hilarious and smart, and I loved working with him.''
Ben's instrument is insane, and his vocal control is so impressive. When he took a two-week leave to film "Newsies" [last September in L.A.], it was so exciting for Ben. But it was also exciting for me because ''Beautiful" was in San Francisco. I'm from Dunsmuir [in Northern California], so my family got to see me go on as Barry. I've made friends on that tour that'll be friends for life, like Ben. He offered tips about ''Newsies'' and got me a copy of the latest script. When I booked "Newsies," Ben was one of the first people I texted.
Ben's also one of your special guests on SingerStories.com, a website you started with your performer-cousin John Walbolt.
It's actually John's idea, but we became co-hosts, so we can have this fun banter. We do podcasts with professional singers, musical directors and vocal coaches. And they offer their insights and advice about Broadway, going on tour, understudying, doing shows in rep, top singer apps, dance-pop and a lot more. We figured it could be helpful not only to us, but anyone who wants to listen.
By the way, your singing led you to selling one of your original songs to Disney. What's the story?
Ted Kryczko was working for Disney Records, and he was a UC Irvine alumnus. We sang backup on a karaoke album for ''Mary Poppins.'' One day, Ted asked if any of us were songwriters, so I brought in one of my better songs. It was about a girlfriend who moved to New York, and how it was hard it was for us to have a long-distance relationship. They really liked it. They were producing an album of songs inspired by [the animated movie] "Up." They asked if we could change the lyrics so it could be about how Carl missed his deceased wife. I said sure, and they changed the title to "Another Day." I still write from time to time, but I'm really focused on being a good actor.
You mentioned your family earlier. Is it true that you're related to famed inventor Philo T. Farnsworth, "the father of television"?
It's true. He's like my sixth cousin, five times removed. But I don't think I'm entitled to any of his TV royalties. (Laughs.) I wish!
Philo T. Farnsworth grew up as a farm boy in Utah, and it sounds like you had a pretty rural upbringing, too.
Yeah, Dunsmuir is a mountain town of about 1,300. I tell people: "Imagine Westeros [from 'Game of Thrones'], and I'm from Castle Black." As kids, my cousin [Justin Stedman] and I would play Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. We'd build rafts and catch crawdads, or play cowboys. I also got into fights, like Jack Kelly. I usually got the snot beat out of me, but in my mind, I was the real winner.
According to your bio for "Newsies," you're also "an avid baseball fan ('GO SF GIANTS!')."
I've always been a Giants fan. My earliest memory is sitting in a car seat as my dad was listening to a game. He was really irritated and said to me: "Whatever decisions you make in life, you HATE the Los Angeles Dodgers!" Many years later, I got to perform the national anthem at AT&T Park, and it was so exciting to sing that for my team. I also was the captain for our Broadway Cares [softball] team and got to hang out with one of my favorite Giants, Jake Peavy, in his apartment. We were playing Southern rock. That was awesome.
Finally, it's funny, but your time at Tuacahn coincides with Major League Baseball. Both of you started in the spring and wrap up your season in October. If you had to choose a baseball metaphor, how would you describe what you enjoy most about Tuacahn?
Everyone in the cast and crew roots for each other. We feel like we're knocking it out of the ballpark. It's a 100-win team. The reviews have been great; our weekend shows sell out, and the Disney folk came to see us and loved it. How can you beat that?
''Newsies'' plays in repertory with "Mamma Mia!" and "Shrek: The Musical" now thru Oct. 21 at Tuacahn Amphitheatre, 1100 Tuacahn Drive, Ivins, Utah. ("Newsies" closes Oct. 18.) Box office: (800) 746-9882 or (435) 652-3300. Website: tuacahn.org.Tickets, $29-$104. For more info, visit: ryanfarnsworth.net and singerstories.com.