Newsies on Broadway is an absolute joy to see. The music and choreography help make it a modern classic, but what stands out most about this production is the immaculate set that caters to and escorts in a New York unseen since the turn of the 20th century. The stage at times is so full of people and large towers that you actually get the feel of a crowded morning in Lower Manhattan.
I was so struck by this performance that I reached out to director Jeff Calhoun to find out about the decisions and the mechanics that went into staging this incredible production.
Q: The set is magnificent and really delivers on what Lower Manhattan probably looked like for these kids at the turn of the 20th century. What were you hoping to illustrate about their lifestyle?
Calhoun: It was necessary that the set be another character in the show. At times it needed to be Goliath to the boys David, a vertical city scape meant to dwarf and intimidate while at other times representing the city's obstacles that the boys must scale and traverse to escape trouble and create cinematic scene changes. It was also important that the set be able to 'dance.' Even though each of the three towers weigh two tons, you would never know it by how gracefully they slide, turn and morph into whatever architecture the script calls for.
Q: The dancers never seemed to stop moving, and at times it seemed like there were about a hundred people on stage at once. Their scrappiness really came out. Was that intended to echo the precariousness of the lives of these orphans, constantly on the run from authority?
Calhoun: Yes, absolutely. A sedentary life was not the life of a struggling newsboy at the end of the 19th century. The conscious decision to always keep the boys on the move is a metaphor for their precarious life on the streets and their journey from hardship to a more equitable and better life. There is also the practical benefit of looking more populated than we actually are by having the boys constantly moving.
Q: The actor who played the young "Les" stole the show at times. What was it like to direct such a young child and to give him such a central part?
Calhoun: With any role, I look for actors who possess similar attributes to the character. Those intrinsic qualities are as valuable and advantageous as any direction I might give. This is true whether you are looking for a seasoned actor to play Pulitzer, a newcomer for the role of Jack Kelly, or an eight-year-old boy as is the case for Les. We are lucky to have found exceptionally charming, funny and talented kids to play Les. In fact, we actually alternate between two young actors because of the heavy demands of doing eight shows a week.
Q: This show has noticeably few female roles. Was that difficult to deal with as you envisioned the show?
Calhoun: Not at all. NEWSIES is a testosterone driven show mostly about a group of street boys. By surrounding our two principal women, Katherine and Medda, with all these newsboys it enables their characters to stand out, giving their feminine perspectives a strong influence over the boys and the story.
Q: Toward the end of the first act, the fan-favorite "Seize The Day" quickly gives way to an intense dance sequence that exhilarated the audience. Can you talk about what went into that showstopping number?
Calhoun: Being the penultimate moment of the act, we knew that the only thing left for the newsboys to do after all the discussing and singing about the paper strike was to DANCE! There is something so completely visceral about watching these boys dance with complete abandon that it is the perfect way to personify the emotion of the moment. Dance is such a potent way to communicate, It transcends words and lyrics. The audience gets worked into a virtual frenzy because they are watching the most talented dancers in the country execute ingenious choreography that all brilliantly supports the high stakes moment confronting the newsboys. It would be difficult to separate the boys' virtuoso performances from the reason they are dancing, the two are inexplicably linked.
Q: And, finally, what's your favorite song from the musical, and why?
Calhoun: Honestly, each time I watch the show I have a new favorite song. That said, I'm rather partial to ONCE AND FOR ALL. I get goosebumps every time the boys infiltrate all three levels of the set creating a phalanx of metal and humanity while the towers slowly move downstage.
Q: Jack's love affair with Katherine adds another layer to the story, but it could also be easily seen as an avoidable distraction. What do you think having that love interest adds for Jack's character?
Calhoun: Personally, I believe the creation of Katherine was one of the many crucial contributions from our book writer Harvey Fierstein. I can't think of many commercially successful stories that don't include a love interest. It also expands Jack's world and keeps it from being solely about the newsboys. Jack not only finds his own voice while fighting for a better world for his generation but he learns the importance of listening to other voices, among them is Katherine's. The stirring of hormones in adolescence only makes the story deeper and more interesting from my point of view.
Q: The audience seemed to be delighted by the second act's "Brooklyn's Here" anthem. Do you think Brooklyn and Manhattan still have the kind of brotherly relationship depicted in the musical?
Calhoun: I think as long as there exists a Manhattan and a Brooklyn there will be a mutual love/hate sibling rivalry.