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A Year Later, He's Still Directing "Newsies" How Jeff Calhoun stays connected to his hit show

By MARK BLANKENSHIP

On a hit Broadway show, a director's job is never quite done. Working with a team of associate directors and stage managers, directors must keep tabs on their long-running productions to make sure their artistic visions are still being honored. They might guide a new cast member, tweak a scene, or even overhaul a moment altogether, all in the name of keeping the material fresh.

That's why Jeff Calhoun is still thinking about Newsies, the Disney musical he directed that opened at the Nederlander Theater in March 2012. "It'll never be over as long as it's running," he says. "It's like you're a parent and you have children: They may go to college, but that phone is still going to ring in the middle of the night."

Based on the early 90s film musical, this story of New York City newspaper boys going on strike has been popular enough to outlast most of its original cast. That means a new crop of performers needs to be directed.

So who takes care of that, especially since Calhoun is working on several other projects? Collaborators like the stage manager might oversee "brush-up rehearsals" and "put-ins" to get the new actors familiar with their roles, but Calhoun has also made it a point to work with the newbies himself. "Just a few weeks ago, [choreographer] Chris Gattelli and I went in and rehearsed with the cast," he says. "We changed the blocking and some of the choreography for the new talent in the show. We wanted to represent the DNA of these performers, so instead of asking a dancer to do the tricks that we set on a different actor a year ago, we worked with what their specialties are."

Plus, he adds, he wants to keep the Newsies stage pictures as elegant as possible. "I built the initial composition around the sizes and shapes of the original cast, and now there are different actors playing those roles. So to me, all the composition felt slightly askew. I just wanted to go back in and re-make the sculpture."

However, Calhoun's continued efforts are about more than technical precision. They're also about maintaining the spirit of the company. "You have to go in every once in a while and remind everyone why we're here," he says. "You have to remind everyone that we're in the same story and are telling the same story. Because the new actors did not have the benefit of those early rehearsals where we organically explored these scenes, but audience deserves an organic experience."

He continues, "It's important to empower the new kids to have ownership of the show. Now they can feel empowered because the director and the choreographer were there and have talked to them about what the show's about and have reblocked things based on their DNA."

The word "empower" isn't chosen accidentally. After a year, Calhoun feels more connected to the story about young people rising up against their poverty and terrible working conditions. He explains, "It's not just a story about a newspaper strike. What [librettist] Harvey [Fierstein] did in the adaptation was make it about empowering kids to take responsibility for making the world a better place. I always knew that, but I didn't know it to the extent I know it now. Now when I watch the show, that message hits more than the simple thing of 'the kids won.'"

To that end, Calhoun and his team are also casting younger and younger actors. For instance, Jeremy Jordan was 27 when he played head newsie Jack Kelly, and his replacement, Corey Cott, is 22. "The mean age today is younger than it was when we opened a year ago, because with this particular show, I think a younger cast means better storytelling," Calhoun says. "The younger the cast, the more wide-eyed the cast, the more that message of empowerment resonates."

There's a parallel, then, between the musical's story about young people finding their purpose and Calhoun's own desire to get young people on the stage.  "I hope the show runs five years, because I think there are kids in junior high who are dreaming of being on Broadway," he says. "I hope we're here long enough to accommodate those dreams."

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Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor