NEW YORK — Growing up in Texas, one videotape that got a serious workout in Jeremy Jordan's home was the film "Newsies."
The musical about a bunch of turn-of-the-century newsboys who band together to strike against the publishing empires of Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst touched a chord in the future Broadway actor.
"I was very shy and I always felt like I was the little guy. I mean, I was little – I was small. So something like that really inspires you and makes you feel like, `OK, yeah, I can do big things even though I'm a little guy,'" he says.
Now, years later, Jordan finds himself playing a charismatic newsboy leader in "Newsies," a Disney-produced musical stage adaptation of the film he so adored.
"It's one of those weird, amazing things," he says.
It almost didn't happen. Jordan was committed to playing a less heartwarming figure – the murderous Clyde Barrow in the Broadway musical "Bonnie & Clyde" – when word came that "Newsies" would make the jump from the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey to Broadway.
Fate intervened when the musical based on the bank-robbing legends closed after playing only 69 performances. While the failure was painful, it freed Jordan to rejoin the cast of "Newsies."
"I can't express how grateful I am for the lucky breaks I've been getting. I'm just happy to be able to do it all," he says, wolfing down a salad during a break in rehearsals. "Hopefully, this one'll be a hit."
The new musical is based on the 1899 true story of child newspaper sellers in rough-and-tumble New York. The 1992 film, starring Christian Bale, Bill Pullman, Robert Duvall and Ann-Margret, did poorly at the box office but has become something of a cult hit. Alan Menken and Jack Feldman, who wrote the original music and lyrics, have reworked the score, and Harvey Fierstein wrote a new story.
Jordan, 27, has been with the project for years since it began as a workshop. The Ithaca College graduate's other Broadway credits include Tony in "West Side Story," and he was in the original cast of "Rock of Ages" as an understudy. He also recently starred in the feature film "Joyful Noise" with Dolly Parton and Queen Latifah.
Menken, an eight-time Academy Award winner for such shows as "Beauty and the Beast" and "Aladdin," calls Jordan an uncanny talent who reminds him of a young Marlon Brando. "He's so charismatic. He's tough and he's tender and he's smart. He's pretty great," says Menken. "Our job when we're around him now – he knows we love him and respect him – is to keep his head normal-sized."
The new musical retains the memorable songs "Santa Fe," "The World Will Know," "Carrying the Banner," "Seize the Day" and "King of New York," but adds a young female reporter to the story. Fierstein teased out a love story between her and Jordan's character, the newsboy leader Jack Kelly, played in the film by Bale.
"It's a great addition because with any musical there's got to be some romantic element. It's a driving force in musical theater and you can't just half do something like that," says the actor.
Jordan, who grew up in Corpus Christi, Texas, says fans of the movie have gone through four stages as they learn that it has been turned into a stage musical. Stage One: Elation. Stage Two: Utter Disappointment when they see clips online that characters and lyrics have changed. Stage Three: Back to Elation when they come and see it.
"The final stage is always Acceptance," says Jordan with a smile.
He recalls the hours he enjoyed watching the movie as a 9-year-old. It was a Disney movie like "The Lion King" and "Aladdin," but "Newsies" had no yucky princesses and starred real guys being cool and gritty. He hopes fans embrace the stage version.
"It does what a great movie-musical adaptation should do. You're going to always have that movie. The movie is never going to change. It's always going to be there on your DVD or VHS, whatever you have it on," he says.
"So why not get a new experience of that same sort of story that you love so much but told in a different sort of way? Why rehash the exact same lines, the exact same lyrics? It's not a singalong. It's something that's supposed to move you and make you feel something and excite you and be something that you can be surprised by at the same time. It seems only right to change it up a bit."
The $5 million musical, which is directed by Jeff Calhoun, comes at a time of economic strife and follows a period in which people have risen up against social systems across the Arab world and here at home in the Occupy Wall Street movement.
"You can definitely draw inspiration from our modern-day events," says Jordan. "I think it's become relevant. I'm not saying that we made it relevant, but it might have been one of the reasons it spoke to so many people."
It's been a hectic few months for the young actor, who has been in workshops or attended readings for a variety of shows over the last few years, including a musical based on the dark film "Heathers," a show based on the movie "Dogfight" starring River Phoenix and "A Pretty Filthy Evening," a musical about the porn industry. ("I've never been a part of anything so raunchy," he says.)
In his private life, Jordan lives in an apartment in West New York – a New Jersey town near the Hudson River – and recently became engaged to Ashley Spencer, who was a finalist on the "Grease: You're the One That I Want!" reality TV series and is now in "Priscilla Queen of the Desert, The Musical."
Alternating between "Newsies" and "Bonnie & Clyde" was hard on Jordan – for a two-week period he did both, rehearsing "Bonnie & Clyde" in Manhattan during the afternoon and then taking a ferry and driving to the Paper Mill Playhouse about an hour away for performances of "Newsies."
"I think I only lost my mind for about one day during that. It was a Friday. I remember walking to the ferry and my brain couldn't even form thoughts. But I breathed and it passed."
He says it was bittersweet when he left the tightknit cast of "Newsies" for "Bonnie & Clyde" and then bittersweet again when he returned, leaving behind a deflated cast on Broadway. "I wish that everyone could go straight into something else," he says.
As his profile rises, Jordan is starting to feel that fellow actors, especially the younger ones in the "Newsies" cast, are starting to consider him a role model. And he's generating his own fans as a budding star.
"It's weird to hear that because I don't feel any different. I still go home, eat dinner, play video games, watch my DVR, play with my puppy. I don't have glamorous things happening to me," he says. "I just want to be normal."
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