Corrupt business practices and unions may not be the subject matter most audiences expect from a Disney production, but that’s exactly what they’ll witness during the Barn Theatre’s performances of Disney’s Newsies.
The musical is taking the stage Aug. 8-20 under the direction of Hans Friedrichs, who has been a resident director at the Barn since 2011.
Friedrichs saw a production of Newsies in New York City, where he makes his home, and admitted that he didn’t love it because “it was a lot of chorus boys doing pirouettes in a show.” He said he felt the choreography was out of character for many of the actors.
What did resonate with him was the fact-based storyline.
“The real story is quite fascinating,” Friedrichs said. “You have these very young boys who are really only 12, 13 or 14 years old, trying to eke out a living selling newspapers on the streets of New York when they didn’t have child labor laws.”
Danish photographer Jacob Riis captured images of these boys that Friedrichs calls “fabulous, yet disturbing.”
“He brought to light the disparity between the very wealthy in New York and the people who were really out there scrounging for a living,” Friedrichs said. “When you see the actual pictures of these kids and what they did, they were incredibly brave to stand up to newspaper publishing titans like William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer.”
Their stand culminated in the Newsboy Strike of 1899. The strike lasted for two weeks and ended with Hearst and Pulitzer increasing the amount of money newsboys received for their work. Their efforts are among the earliest examples of union-inspired activity and happened well ahead of more organized strikes, particularly those involving the auto industry in Detroit.
Penelope Alex, who co-owns the Barn Theatre with husband Brandon Ragotzy, said it was quite a coup to have Newsies among its season lineup. She said the production will include the Backstage Xperience, which provides opportunities for area youth to attend a performance of the show, learn about acting and engage in a Q&A with the cast and crew. This outreach brings in about 100 children each day, and Alex said it’s an opportunity available to any child in the area.
“We really like to have a little something for everyone, and that includes something for children, whether that be a play or classic musical,” she said.
Despite lukewarm reviews on Broadway and an underwhelming response from moviegoers, Newsies has generated a cult following of young people, according to Friedrichs.
As with the majority of the productions he directs, Friedrichs is doing his homework on Newsies. He has researched the original Disney production and has read through books about the Newsboys Strike and two of the boys who figured prominently in the work stoppage.
“I love when you can learn something new about a piece of American history or history in general,” he said. “I’m hoping to give it a different production, but also meet expectations as well. As with everything, I will try to tailor it to the specific actors as much a possible.”
The cast of 30 or more will be filled with actors who are part of the Barn’s resident theater company, along with a few outside actors. The musical is written for slightly older characters, and Friedrichs said he is starting an active search locally for younger boys and young men in their teens to give the production more authenticity.
“For a long time, I avoided working with younger actors,” Friedrichs said. “But I’ve done enough shows now with younger characters in them that I’ve realized I just need to talk to them as people and not skirt around the issue. Sometimes they’re better actors because they don’t overthink it.”
Actual casting of roles for Newsies don’t begin until the previous production, Lion in Winter, opened on July 25. This is standard practice at the Barn, and a schedule Friedrichs said he’s used to.
Spending the summer working with the Barn’s resident company of actors gives him an opportunity to really get to know them, their work styles and what they’re capable of. He said the actors he works with are there for life lessons and do everything from mowing the grounds to working at the box office and directing traffic on show nights.
“Everything they do at the Barn is an audition, whether it be on the main stage, in bar shows or working in other departments,” Friedrichs said.
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