BWW Interview: Extra, Extra, Arena's Molly Smith & Parker Esse Explore NEWSIES at Arena Stage
When thinking of the great composers and playwrights whose works have graced Arena Stage, these are the names that come to mind. So when Disney's Newsies was announced for this season, it is understandable why some were shaking their head quizzically. But for Director Molly Smith and Choreographer Parker Esse, the cult-favorite was a natural choice for carrying on the company's tradition of staging entertaining, yet socially conscious musicals.
"The truth is I have a passion for golden age musicals. But having directed 18 of them, there are less and less for me to interpret. So I wanted to direct something I thought would be a new gold standard musical and Parker [Esse] suggested Newsies," says Molly Smith in a phone interview.
By now, Washington audiences have become accustomed to seeing a musical from Broadway's golden age at Arena during the holiday season. From My Fair Lady and Carousel to their landmark revival of Oklahoma! the hallmark of these has been first-class productions, reinterpreted with a strong social message.
"Even with gold standard musicals, we are constantly trying to improve upon, reinvent and update how they relate to a modern audience. Newsies is modern but historic; the time period, our vision, as well as the modern sensibility of musicals today, all help to define the vocabulary I will create for our version of Newsies," says Esse.
"What makes a gold standard musical is that they have great meaning and can stand the test of time," adds Smith. "You know musicals are the most subversive form of entertainment, because we can say things in them through song that if said in a play, would have audiences running for the doors."
Unlike other Disney movies which were adapted to the stage - The Lion King, Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast - Newsies was not a hit upon its 1992 theatrical release. Nevertheless it built a cult following over two decades leading to a 2012 Broadway production. Still, the story of the newsboys, or newsies, strike of 1899 may seem irrelevant in an era of cable television, social media, and news apps.
"For me, this musical is about the Children's Crusade and how we are currently in the middle of two children's crusades - one on gun control, and one on climate change," says Smith. "We auditioned a lot of young artists for this production, we have 5 actors under 17, and I made it a point to ask each one 'what is it about this musical?' And they responded, some with tears in their eyes, that they love this musical, because it is about their generation."
"Molly and I are also highlighting a generation willing to put their livelihood on the line to force change, much as we are currently witnessing right now in this country and around the globe. It's an extremely timely story, mirroring the young adult crusaders in our modern world," adds Esse.
With a score by Alan Menken, lyrics by Jack Feldman, and a book by Harvey Fierstein, the show has come to be defined not only by its message, but also by the youthful energy of its characters. Almost every ad campaign for both the movie and the musical versions featured a newsie jumping in the air. So, where does one start?
"I direct each musical as if it were a straight play," says Smith. "We begin with a week of table work, and improvisations, because it is about the story, the plot, and the acting. I take the art form very seriously, it needs to be profound, it needs to be deep, it needs to be exuberant, and when you have all those elements the show itself is deeply moving."
"Well, first, I began by running 5 miles a day to get my cardiovascular muscles working as this show is quite a cardiovascular feat to behold," says Esse. "But seriously, this show is a physical depiction of the newsies' inner struggle and fight to be heard, to be validated, to create change. I want my choreography to reflect a buoyant but percussive muscularity that is just as explosive, determined, and fiercely passionate, as those who fight to change their world."
Another shared aspect between Newsies and the previous golden age musicals Arena has staged, such as last season's Anything Goes, is the presence of big song and dance numbers. The difference now is that with Newsies, audiences have the movie version to reference. Does is faze Esse to be staging such well-known and loved numbers such as 'King of New York' and 'Seize the Day?'
"No, I have never allowed a movie or previous incarnation to dictate my vision as a choreographer or storyteller," says Esse. "Ultimately, each of these versions are all telling the same story with a different viewpoint and perspective offered up by each new creative team. However, I have always believed in paying homage and celebrating those who have come before us as they have paved the way for each new generation of storytellers."
As theatre and audience-tastes evolved, what separated the golden age musicals from the mega and jukebox musicals that would follow was an underlying social conscience. It is also that conscience which has come to define Arena's artistic legacy over seven decades, which is why, when you think about it, Newsies is a natural fit.
"This is a moment to speak out and speak your truth. It is something we encourage our audiences to do, our artists to do, and even ourselves, speak out and speak the truth. And that is what makes Newsies the perfect musical for us," says Smith.