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By Sylviane Gold
Newsies’ boy ensemble hits Broadway.
“It will be like Billy Elliot times 100,” Christopher Gattelli told the Disney brass when they interviewed him for the choreographer’s job on the new musical Newsies.
Gattelli was talking about giving audiences a stage full of dancing boys, not picketers. But both shows also feature bitterly fought strikes. Newsies, for those who don’t know the 1992 Disney movie, is based on the New York newsboys strike of 1899. In addition to winning a better deal for themselves, the strikers also managed to inspire first a movie musical and now a Broadway show.
Gattelli remembers Danny Ortega’s film fondly. Still in his teens, and just starting out in the New York dance world, Gattelli was impressed: “It was so exciting just to be able to go to a theater and see boys of our age featured so prominently.”
Whether it was his enthusiasm, his line about Billy Elliot, or his Broadway resumé, which includes a Tony nomination for Lincoln Center’s 2008 South Pacific, Gattelli got the job. Director/choreographer Jeff Calhoun was hired to direct. Gattelli says he didn’t mind having to report to another choreographer. “I knew these boys had to dance, and I knew he would be supportive of that,” he says.
He was also not intimidated by the movie’s massive numbers. The stage, he notes, can’t accommodate scores of boys, or duplicate tracking camera moves. “Also,” he adds, “the boys onstage are singing live. You have to construct the numbers so they can breathe. They can’t be upside down. The different set of rules let the show be something different.”
One of the biggest differences is the gender of the reporter, now played by Kara Lindsay. “We always joke that she’s going to be the envy of every girl who sees the show,” Gattelli says, “because she’s getting to dance along with all these boys.”
Originally, she was not meant to dance at all. Lindsay auditioned as a singer and an actress. But, says Gattelli, “we made the candidates dance—I always do it just to get information, just in case.” Lindsay, it turned out, had trained as a dancer through high school. She did “a beautiful job” on the combination, he says. And when he asked for an improv, she “grabbed her leg, lifted it over her head and turned. And I was so excited. I was like, ‘Omigod, please let it be her.’ ”
To his delight, she won the role, and now the number that opens the second act, “King of New York,” features her “kicking and turning and tapping,” he says, “and it’s pretty thrilling.” Gattelli is equally enamored of her newsboy sidekicks, most of them making their Broadway debuts. They range in age from 16 to their early 20s, and, he says, “when they come together to strike, the flips and all the tricks that they do represent their youth and their vitality. It’s a metaphor for their strength and their youth, and for the boys on a personal level, it’s showing them off at their best.
“Maybe,” he adds, “there will be young guys who come to the show and it will inspire them to dance.” Billy Elliot times 100.
Sylviane Gold writes on theater for The New York Times.
Guy power: Showcasing the newsboys’ moves. Photo by Charles T. Erickson, Courtesy Paper Mill Playhouse.