Disney's Newsies at the Fulton Theatre is breathtaking. Everything in this show comes together from the performances to the choreography to the lighting and creates a spectacular production. This production is not to be missed, and honestly, one of the best shows I have seen this year.
I had the pleasure of speaking to three members of the cast who have performed previously in Newsies either in the tour or on Broadway. Angela Grovey (Medda Larkin) and Bill Bateman (Wiesel) both performed in the Newsies tour, and Mark Aldrich (Roosevelt) has been involved with the show since it began at Paper Mill Playhouse. I spoke with these three actors about being in the show and then performing in Newsies again at the Fulton. In addition, they spoke to me about why they think this show infuses the audience with excitement and the importance of live theatre.
Kelli Curtin: Could you tell me a bit about what audiences can expect when coming to see the show?
Bill Bateman: In a sense Newsies is an old-fashioned musical in the way it tells a linear story in a linear way with dance and song. Also, this is based on a true story, the strike that is depicted in the story actually happened. As Medda Larkin says in the show, “Theatre is not only entertaining, it’s educational.” Therefore, people can come to the show and learn things about the time period and the newsboys’ strike of 1899. There is also a lot of talent on the stage.
Mark Aldrich: They can expect a number of things, and Newsies is the classic story of the little guy standing up to the powers that be. They are fighting the just fight. And, this show is very athletic, it is youth oriented. Our “Newsies” are younger and they are really fantastic. The choreography is also fantastic – once it picks up steam it just keeps going and going. Audiences will feel a lot of energy and see a lot of athletics from the people in the show.
Also, the score is really beautiful along the classic theatre lines. Alan [Menken] wrote the score in the late 1980s or early 90s, and that was the heyday of the resurgence of the Disney musical. The new material that has also been written for the show also fits in beautifully. I think the score to this show gets overlooked at times because everyone is so focused on the athleticism and youth of the cast.
Angela Grovey: The music is really smart, it is one of my favorite things about the show. When I listen to the orchestrations of the music there is this electric guitar solo in the song, “Once and For All.” It is the little things that happen within the music that make it complex and so smart. When I listen to the lyrics of some of these songs, like Katherine’s song, “Watch What Happens,” I realize it is a classic patter song. Kate [Fahrner] who plays Katherine does such a great job at telling the story within the song, and it is a really clever piece within the show. There is just such great music in the show.
Kelli: Sitting in the audience you can just feel the excitement from both the show and the audiences’ anticipation. What do you think it is about this show that makes people so zealous about it?
Bill: Partially, I think for the young teenage girls who come to this show, that they are thrilled to see the young teenage boys onstage. Also, Newsies is the typical David and Goliath story and people can relate. Look at the world today, most of us are out here struggling to get ahead, and there is always that person who tries to step on you and put you down. The story of the show is about these young newsboys who strike and make something happen. What people do not realize is that the children who actually went on strike were fourteen years old – fourteen year olds standing on the corner and selling papers just to stay alive and survive. In today’s society people are struggling, look at how we are fighting to raise the minimum wage in order for people to survive. However, you still see people on the street having a difficult time. I really think people come see this show and identify with the everyday struggle these characters endure.
Mark: My journey with this show has been a long one, so it has been really interesting to watch its influence grow. Nobody really knew what to expect from Newsies. I have been with this show since Paper Mill Playhouse, and for me, it was supposed to be a nine week job. No one anticipated it going to Broadway. This show was the most requested Disney title that had not transferred to the stage yet, and people became tired of waiting so they created their own stage version of Newsies, and did what they could from watching the movie. So, Disney started having a musical created. On opening night at Paper Mill it was almost instantaneous, as soon as they started dancing the opening number the crowd went crazy, and it has not stopped since. One of the things that is exciting is it is making it “cool” for young boys to dance, and be onstage. That has not happened in a really long time. There are not many shows where you see a large group of men dancing onstage. The only example I can think of right now is West Side Story. Newsies uses dance as a form of expression. It has been really exciting to see young people respond to it because it gives them permission to be creative and go onto the stage, this show let’s young kids know it is okay to want to be a dancer or actor and aspire to be onstage. For a long time, sports was the physical outlet for boys and now there is a new generation watching this show and the character of Jack and seeing it is cool to want to be onstage.
Angela: It is really neat for me to see the “fansies” come out because who thought musical theatre would be this cool. [Editors note: “Fansies” is the term that refers to Newsies fans. It is a term they prefer to be called.] This show has changed the way we look at the Arts. It is exciting to be part of a show that represents this. When that first trumpet plays in the beginning, people in the audience start screaming, it is a reminder that this show builds such excitement because people are such huge fans and they know the journey they are about to go on with the show. As an actor, we feel the audiences’ excitement and we just want to come on to the stage and bring our best to them. It is really exciting that art can do that for people still.
Mark: One of the things we have not mentioned is that the original Disney film had a cult following and those people have grown up and grown up loving it. This is thrilling for them because the one movie they have been in love with for twenty-some years is finally appearing live in theatres.
Kelli: Could you tell me a little about your characters? And how they play a part in the show?
Mark: One of the characters I play, Teddy Roosevelt, and even though most people know of him as President Roosevelt, this show actually takes place before he was President. I have done some research about Teddy Roosevelt, and he is really interesting. Newsies takes place when he was the governor of New York, and he had worked himself up to governor from chief of police. It is interesting because he does not make his appearance until late in the show and he is the only person in the show who can go toe to toe with Joseph Pulitzer, and win. Roosevelt comes in with a swagger and he is that historical figure that people envision, he is a larger than life persona. As an actor, I try to bring to life this larger than life person that people are so familiar with.
Bill: No one I play in the show is real, so I have no facts to work with. I have the opportunity to make up the backstories of my characters. Wiwsel is the character who sells the newspapers to the boys, and he is down there on the streets with the boys in the mornings. When the wagons come he loads his wagon with papers to sell to the newsboys. He deals with the newsboys all the time, and he gets a little short tempered in dealing with the young kids. When the Newsies strike he has to hold on to his job too because jobs were hard to come by in those days. Whatever Pulitzer tells Wiesel to do he does, however he does watch the fight between Pulitzer and the Newsies. I think Wiesel is also a survivor, he does whatever he needs to do to get by and survive until the next day. I do not think he is hateful to the boys or views them as the enemy, he is just there to do a job.
Angela: Medda Larkin is a burlesque house owner. When I first joined this adventure I was trying to figure out exactly who she was. In the movie she was not a fabulous beautiful black woman, and even at Paper Mill Playhouse this character did not start that way. Personally, I think the way I depict Medda is different than the way she was portrayed before. I take a lot from the time we are in, it is 1899. Medda is a black woman who is a successful owner of a burlesque house, and that in itself, makes her standout. For me, for my Medda, the fight I have is something that I want to allow Jack to see because he has had to beat a lot of odds, and she wants him to see that eventually things will look bright again. I draw from Medda that she is a powerful woman and she has had to do a lot of things, good and bad, to get where she is. I think that is why she is so determined to do whatever she can for Jack because she sees a lot of herself in him.
Kelli: Is there anything different from the show or with your character from when you did the show previously? What was it like having experience in the show and then coming to the Fulton to do this show with a new director and new cast?
Angela: Marc Robin when we started staging told me to do everything I have always wanted to do with Medda and this particular number. In the production at the Fulton I have been allowed to make it a little more of a burlesque number then it was on the road, which makes playing her fun and different. I take my hat off to Marc for being trusting and letting me explore Medda a little more in depth. It had been really fun for me to look at Medda in a different way. On the day we opened Marc said that we are the first regional production to open. Hearing that excited me in a different way because I think this story is so important and my excitement comes from knowing this show is going to be spread around the world forever. I am so proud that so many theatres are doing Newsies this year, and it takes bravery for directors, choreographers and artistic teams to say we are going to put on Newsies. This show is not an easy show to do. The directors and choreographers have to hunt for dancers that can successfully do this show and singers who can sing this stunning music as well as tell this beautiful story. I am happy to know firsthand that regionally this show is being taken care of.
Mark: It was interesting that towards the end of the tour how up until then it was us – we were the cast of Newsies, and in a way we had to prepare ourselves to let the show go out to the rest of the world, which was bittersweet and exciting. It meant that this beautiful story that we have been living with for so long was going to be reimagined and experienced in different ways by people all over the world. Now it is part of the musical theatre canon. When I saw productions being produced I knew that if I was going to do any regional production it was going to be this one because I wanted to see what Marc was going to do with it. I know how creative he can be and I wanted to be in the room to see this “new” creation of Newsies.
In regards to playing Teddy Roosevelt, I wanted to make sure I gave him more warmth. I wanted to express a more fatherly warmth in this character and show that side to the newsies and to Jack. There is one moment at the desk where Roosevelt gets to say “I hear we shared a carriage ride together.” I wanted this moment to be a human moment where the audience sees him show concern and his humanity for a child who clearly has not had the best path in life. I look to connect with each of the newsies as Roosevelt does his speech towards the end of the show.
Bill: I played Bunsen on the tour, and I understudied the roles that I am doing now, so to get to do that makes it almost a new show for me. I had been in the tour for two years, so I was ready to do something different with the show. I feel that if you do a show long enough the same way it is as if you become numb, so I always look forward to doing a show I have already done in a different way. I have worked with Marc at different theatres and we all trust Marc and put our confidence in him. However, I have never worked at the Fulton before, and it is a great theatre. My three criteria for taking a job at this point in my life is that it is either a new theatre, a new show or a new director. For me, this would be a new version of the show and a new theatre.
Kelli: As an actor, what give you the most fulfillment onstage?
Bill: Stage gives me the most fulfillment, I really just like the audience there. In theatre you have the opportunity to explore the character, and I really love to hear the reaction from the audience. I usually do a lot of comedy onstage, and if I am going to get a laugh I like to hear it. In film, I would have to buy a ticket to a movie to see if they laugh. In theatre I know if they laugh right away, and if they do not respond then I have the chance to fix it. I love the process of live theatre from the first audition to closing night.
Angela: It is a tricky question to answer because if you would ask me what my favorite part of the process is my answer would be the rehearsal process. I love it when it is just us in the room working it out – there are no costumes, no lights and no microphones – we are just having a conversation with each other. I am also amazed when we are in the technical process when everyone comes together, and magically we all find the groove together to create a beautiful piece of theatre in which we all are in it together as a team. Also, it is great to get on the stage and have a real connection with not only the person that is in the scene, but also the audience. There are a lot of things that make me excited and fulfilled about theatre, and it is hard to put my finger on just one thing.
Mark: Personally as an actor I love when you come off the stage and you have been inhabiting your character so much that you do not really know what happened onstage, but you know it was right and that we were all in it together. In addition, what brings me the most fulfillment is that there is this flow - when you are onstage you feel everybody, those onstage, as well as backstage, the audience, front of house, etc., when everything is firing on all cylinders and there is an energy that we all can just feel. This does not happen with every single show, but when it does it makes us proud to be part of the collaboration, there is nothing like the excitement.
Kelli: Why in your opinion is live theatre important?
Angela: I think supporting live arts is important. Personally, I am very passionate and an advocate for homeless youth. I run two programs that work with them and we work under the umbrella that Art can transform lives. To my core, I believe that whether it is drawing or playing in the sand and creating something, I think that what we do as artists can change people and make them think, feel or realize something inside of them. I feel like I would not be whole if I was not part of the Arts on any level be it the stage, on a set, working with whomever out in the world. I am an artist and in order for me to be an artist there should be an audience, and that audience can be one person. I can share a painting with someone, and that is me giving of my Art. I think it is important to share Art with people and to actually experience it.
Mark: For me, I think as long there has been people the storytellers get up in front of other people and tell their story. Story telling is as old as we are as a human race. There is a communal nature to being onstage in front of a group of people and sharing a story with them. In live theatre we are all creating this story together new every night. Every performance is different because of the people watching and the people telling the story. Human beings have always felt the need to share in that way, and there is no way to duplicate it without actually being in the room together. It is one of the most human things we can do and one of the few really connected ways to share new thoughts and ideas and be creative together, which we have lost in so many other ways in our society right now. I think there will always be stages and there will always be storytellers because human beings crave it and need it.
Bill: Theatre is a reflection in a mirror to what is actually going on in the world. Sometimes you are telling a story about something that is happening, and other times people show what their political views are on a particular story you are telling, and it is sharing a part of yourself with the audience. Also, for kids Arts in schools is important. People are not always good at sports, and kids sometimes find a home in Arts. Arts gives a lot of people a place to find their passion. When you find theatre in your life you find out you are not the only one, and there are a lot of people who are passionate just like you who come together to tell these stories. If Arts is kept in the schools it would give a lot of kids a place to fit in or a place to go and a place to belong.
Newsies runs at the Fulton Theatre through July 23, 2017. For more information and tickets please visit their website at www.thefulton.org or call the box office at 717-397-7425.
Photo Credit: Kinectiv
Kelli Curtin is founding editor and writer for theatresensation.com. She has maintained a love of the performing arts since a very early age and she is excited to share her passion about theatre and the Arts with her readers. Kelli can be found on Twitter, Facebook and on Instagram.