“Headlines don’t sell papes; Newsies sell papes!”
Fun, energetic musical delivers lessons on performance
(Ms. Meg teaches dance and musical theater for Mayer Arts at Woodbury, Shoreview, Inver Grove Heights, Maplewood and other locations.)
I visited my family in Chicago over the holidays and had the immense pleasure of seeing the national tour of Newsies at the Oriental Theatre downtown.
The movie version of Newsies came out in 1992, when America had exactly zero appetite for new movie musicals. Starring a dreamy 18-year-old Christian Bale, a glorious rainbow of singing-and-dancing teen boys, and Doogie Howser’s best friend, the movie captured the heart of teenage musical theatre nerds, but was generally panned by movie critics.
For years, my sisters and I dreamed of a stage version of Newsies, and in 2012 Disney finally brought it to Broadway, where it ran for over 1,000 performances. The national tour was in Chicago this Christmas (2014), and though the tour isn’t making a stop in the Twin Cities, you can watch clips of many of the musical numbers online — or watch the original film — to enjoy some wonderful singing and dancing for some fine family entertainment.
Of course, I’m here mostly to talk about the dancing. Newsies is full of athletic jazz choreography that dance students at any level can appreciate, with luck recognizing some of the moves they may be learning themselves. The young men in the cast are clearly accomplished performers. The dances are a joy to watch because they are so clean. “Clean” in this sense doesn’t mean “appropriate for children” (though it is that, too), but more “polished” and “together.” “Clean” dancing often involves very simple movements that are done beautifully and precisely, with every individual dancer giving full energy, fully under control, and the entire ensemble moving as one. The Radio City Rockettes (http://www.rockettes.com/), I would argue, are the “cleanest” dancers in the world — precision and uniformity is the number-one goal. Newsies is a bit different from that — each individual “newsboy” is a different character with a different personality that comes out through his performance — but their dancing is still marvelously clean. There’s a moment in the song “Seize the Day” when the entire dancing ensemble (about 15 young men) does a double pirouette. It’s a relatively simple move for experienced dancers, but it was so perfectly spotted and timed, my heart leapt in my chest. As a dance teacher, I know how hard-fought that sharp precision is. I appreciate the hours that go into building dancers’ core strength and body awareness that allows them to do exactly the same move at exactly the same time as a dozen of their peers.
I also appreciate the seasoned performers’ ability to infuse extremely simple moves with a huge amount of energy and personality. Sometimes, especially in a class or show with students with a wide range of experience, young dancers complain about certain moves being “too easy.” But this is a wonderful opportunity to learn how to really perform. I tell my theatre students, “Real acting can only begin once your lines, blocking, and choreography are fully memorized.” When you’re trying to remember what comes next, you’re still worried about the mechanics of it. But when the muscle memory is established, then your personality is allowed to shine through. Same thing with dance. We’re telling a story, not with words or our voices, but with our bodies. We dancers are still acting, still playing a character. I’ll often make up a story to go with our dances, to give students a little idea to spark some acting. It can be as simple as “we are snowflakes!” or more complex, with dynamic characters that change in the course of a three-minute song. The “acting” can help quiet, introverted students open up (I may be shy, but my character isn’t!); it can also give some necessary direction to extremely energetic students.
Newsies offers lots of opportunities for character acting, different interpretations of New York accents, and of course the exuberant dancing. Check out how high those guys can jump! Another great thing about this show is that, though there are certainly named characters with solo lines and songs, the true star of the show is the dance ensemble. I tell my students all the time about the importance of the ensemble — how every actor onstage is a vital part of the “puzzle” that is the show — and there couldn’t be a more shining example than Newsies.
One more lesson from watching Newsies: we sat in the sixth row. We could see spit flying and caught every facial expression and costume detail. In my experience, it is always worth it to spend the extra money to sit up close at a big show. However, for community theatre, or in a small house (under 300 or so seats), sitting far away gives you the best view.
Musical numbers of note:
- “Carrying the Banner” and “Seize the Day” — the two signature big production numbers from the show (both live and movie).
- “King of New York” — in the live show, this is a wonderful tap number (videos available online). Movie version features my favorite dance move involving a ceiling fan.
- “The World Will Know” — videos of the movie version easily accessible for free online.
- “Santa Fe” — this is not a dance number in the live show, but the movie version features Christian Bale doing some wild rodeo moves.