Even though we're terribly far away from the East Coast, Dallas frequently plays host to some of the most beloved Broadway shows when they head out on the road. If you're interested in the theatre and don't mind seeing a touring cast, you can damn near see any Broadway musical that you like via the AT&T Performing Arts Center's Lexus Broadway Series.
This time, they've brought the stage adaptation of Newsies, a Disney film about a paperboy strike that originally starred Christian Bale, later adapted for an incredibly successful run on Broadway -- including a Tony Award for best choreography. The man behind that choreography, Chris Gattelli, has choreographed some of theater's best loved shows, among them South Pacific and a forthcoming version of The King And I and has starred and directed in plenty of others. Ahead of Newsies' run in Dallas, we talked to Gattelli about his first exposure to Newsies, how he came to work on this incredibly successful show and how he hopes that his work inspires a future generation of dancers.
What was your first exposure to Newsies? Were you a fan of the film when it was released in 1992? I was a little older than a kid when the movie came out, but I was in my very late teens. It blew my mind at the time. This was back in the day before YouTube and all those really popular dance shows on TV. To go to a theater and see so many male dancers my age was really exciting and inspiring.
How did you come to choreograph this production of Newsies? I ran into a friend who was working for Disney Theatrical at an industry event. We were catching up, and when she told me that Newsies was setting up their line up, I basically dropped to my knees right then and begged her to let me choreograph it. Then, of course, we went through meetings with the director and rest of the creative team and the normal hiring process, but it was great to get that heads up so I could really pursue it. That's how passionate I was about being involved with this show.
What was your process for choreographing the dancing scenes? Being a fan of the movie and knowing that there were so many incredible numbers like "Seize The Day" and "King of New York," that was really thrilling. I had to first get together with the director and see where we wanted to dance, and where we could add dancing to enhance the story. Then we would go through each of the numbers and chart through the show, sort of figuring out when and why the cast would be dancing. After that, we started blocking the scenes and the shapes all sort of started to come together.
Newsies has a huge cast of dancers. Was this your first show with such a large cast? Newsies was really my first big dance show in general. I'd done musical staging and plenty of other work in the theater, but the fact that everyone kind of took a chance on me and gave me this opportunity was really wonderful. It's so rare that you get that many male dancers in one show ever, so to have all these 20-something-year-old guys who can do all of this really incredible dance in one place is a miracle in and of itself. To have that all come together in this show was really incredible.
The hardest thing about choreographing this show was creating dance numbers that served the piece well and were really exciting for the audience, but also work that our dancers could do eight times a week. It's one thing to film a movie and capture these really elaborate scenes, but to maintain something that is exciting and keeps our dancers healthy was a huge priority for me. These are all very young dancers, and I didn't want something to happen to them. They're all very talented and at such early points in their careers, they have so much time ahead of them. I wanted to show off the best of their abilities, but maintain safety and structure. We had a lot of very interesting practices, but we all worked very well together in terms of collaborating. The dancers were so eager and wanted to push themselves so much that we had to have these long sit-downs where we would talk through our reasoning for the choices that we made, and that always came back to the fact that we wanted them to be able to continue doing this for a long time.
As a fan of Newsies, what's your favorite scene? It has to be "Seize The Day." That song has the most storytelling in it, and it's really the most important song for the characters in a way. That was what was mot exciting to me in terms of what I could accomplish physically and with the story. "Seize The Day" is so important to Newsies, so I knew I had to get it right.
Did your favorite scene change as you were working on the dance numbers? When I would work on any number, it was my favorite. There was so much work to do and things were constantly changing. In the finale ultimo, there's a sort of dance battle, and I didn't even really know that was going to happen. The director thought that we needed to do something at the end that really bled out into the show, so we added the "battle" component. There were so many surprises along the way that I never saw coming. At one point, Disney asked us to put 20 percent more dancing in the show, and that really pushed us to make the dancing mean that much more to Newsies.
How was your relationship with Jeff Calhoun, the director of Newsies? How did you work together to blend the story and the dance? Great. The best thing about Jeff is that he's a choreographer in his own right, he's been incredibly successful as both a director and choreographer. It was really great to have his eye throughout the whole process. He's incredibly talented. There couldn't have been anyone better to work with during the show. The tour is great in that we felt like what we did in the original show worked, but when we got ready to go on the road we were able to go back and make it better.
I had essentially written the dance numbers for the cast that was on Broadway, and to have a completely new cast with all they brought to the table, that was really exciting. They brought all their talents and the things that make them unique to this show, and it was really great because we got to give the show a whole new shine with this incredibly talented group of new guys.
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How would you describe the aesthetic that you were going for in choreographing Newsies? People gave described it as athletic. It's a very physical show. The main thing I wanted to capture was the youth and vitality of the cast, and the energy of that. It's very physical and these dancers are flying, and it serves as a sort of metaphor for this up-and-coming generation. They want to fly and challenge themselves, but you don't see the older generations dancing much. That was a conscious decision, to have these younger characters in the air. There's a physicality that is very mascuilne, young and vibrant. I tried to capture that physicality while making the dance technical and worthy of a Broadway show.
Is it difficult to field an entirely male cast of dancers?
Yes, definitely. Since the dawn of time there have always been more women than men in dance. But now, you have dance being exposed on TV and film more than ever, and that's given boys a new look at dance. I think Newsies does that in a way, too. I think boys will come to this show and see that it's really cool and want to start dancing. I've gotten letters from parents and kids themselves who were inspired to start taking dance because of this show.
To me, that's the best compliment in the world. I know how much the movie meant to me when I was young, and the fact that I've been able to inspire anyone into dance class -- men or women -- that's a really exciting thing. To be able to play a part in inspiring even one person to dance, I've accomplished my goal. The movie affected me so profoundly, so I feel like I'm giving back in a way and saying thank you to Newsies for what it did for me as a teenager. If this show does what it did for me for one boy or girl, that feels really great.