Carrying the Banner: Christopher Gattelli talks cinematic Newsies

On February 19, the live filming of Broadway hit Newsies hits Australian cinemas, finally giving Australian audiences the chance to see the beloved show. Winning the Tony Award for best choreography for his work on Newsies in 2012, Christopher Gattelli flew straight from his engagement with Australia’s My Fair Lady to be at the live taping of Newsies last year.  

Newsies tells the story of the 1899 New York City newsboy strike, led by rebellious dreamer Jack Kelly. Jack and his friends take action against media mogul Joseph Pulitzer when the newspaper prices rise at the Newsies’ expense, forcing already disadvantaged workers into conditions of even greater hardship. Young female reporter Katherine Plumber writes about the newsboy strike, and soon New York City’s eyes are on the Newsies, as they discover their collective power and rise up.

Newsies is a stage adaptation of the cult favourite movie musical, with award-winning music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Jack Feldman. Gattelli notes that it is hard to put into words how important the 1992 movie was to him.

“This movie made me want to dance,” says Gattelli.

“I watched it in the movie theatre as a boy, in the days before Youtube. I didn’t see a lot of dance. There was only one male dancer at my school. [In Newsies,] I saw a stage full of hundreds of men dancing – amazing dancers. It pushed me to go, ‘Wow. I can do this. I want to be better at it’… It changed my life.”

The score of Newsies has proven to be timeless, featuring  soaring ballads and comedic interludes, but where it shines the most is in the huge ensemble numbers that ooze with palpable energy and spirit. It’s the characters, the story, and the remarkable score that inspires much of Gattelli’s movements in Newsies.

“I took my lead from Alan Menken and Jack Feldman, who wrote the music… It’s mainly a rule of mine. I let the music lead, and let the score kind of dictate what I do with it… I generally try to take the lead from the music and match that.”

Though it is set over a hundred years ago, the music is “able to capture what they were fighting for and wishing for in a way that [feels] contemporary… The score definitely has an underbelly of a contemporary feel in the sound.”

Newsies tells an inspiring story of unionisation, and the unique and innovative way the dance sequences tell that story is undeniable. Gattelli’s movement vocabulary for Newsies, and how it reflects and furthers the story arc, represents the coming of age of the Newsies as they find their voice and unified power. Gattelli explains that the actors who bring the Newsies to life must have a “raw athleticism”, but also be able to execute meticulous choreography.

“The boys are a ragtag group of boys, selling papers, but they do it with integrity. As the show begins, they start rough around the edges; they don’t point their feet. There’s a lot of physical composition to it, going from the loose, athletic, scraggly, fun dance, to watching their technique [develop] through the show to become men in front of their eyes.”

“As the show progresses, they get more technical and cleaner with their dancing, and have more responsibility. They can do exciting things and it feels like they’re flying. There’s youthful energy and athleticism; technical and refined, clear movements.”

The remarkable way in which the ensemble works together, becoming one entity in their rebellion, is jaw-droppingly exciting and truly stirring for audiences. Gattelli explains this coming-together of the Newsies.

“At the top of the show, when you meet them, they are young kids playing games in the streets. Then when they finally take the stand, it’s the first unison movement they do in the show. They are bonding as a unit… In Sieze the Day, they turn into men and physically go to war with Pulitzer, then carrying the banner on top of the world.”

The wonderfully athletic tricks that embellish the stage in Sieze the Day aren’t just performed by a few token trick dancers, either – every ensemble member comes from a classical background, and shares in the responsibility and thrill of performing breathtaking tricks.

Christopher Gattelli’s choreography in action.

“That so many boys could do all those incredible things, it lessened all of their load. There was always someone to push to the front to tell that part of the story and do something… No matter where you were on stage, we knew that person could do it. Singing and acting, too. It was great to have that incredible palette to work with.”

The audition process was a revelation for Gatelli.

“We went into the auditions hoping to find boys who could do one or two things. What came out of the woodwork was 1100 boys auditioning for the regional production. We were blown away by the talent. It was truly unique and special.”

Newsies has always been more than a Broadway show; it was a phenomenon. Fans championed the production from the beginning, spreading the word online and celebrating their love for the show far and wide, well beyond its closing. Culturally, we have not yet seen the extent of the imprint Newsies has made on the world. Gattelli hopes that perhaps the upcoming screenings will inspire the next generation of dancers and choreographers, in the same way that the movie inspired him.

“To be a part of it, is to give back in a way. If someone sees the show on the big screen and says ‘wow I want to do that’, they might end up being a choreographer, too. To quote another Disney movie, it’s the circle of life. It’s a great way to honour what I love.”

It is truly a special event when a Broadway show is immortalised on film and shown all over the world, and the original production of Newsies is certainly not something to be missed.

“When you see it, you’ll feel like you’re at the show. People [will] get to feel as if they saw our show… Expect a live experience. The feeling of sitting in a Broadway theatre.”

Those kids will live and breathe right on the screen, and once they’re center stage, just watch what happens.

Newsies is a one day only event on Sunday 19 February, so we recommend you book your tickets to avoid disappointment.

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Saskia Penn is a guest writer for AussieTheatre.com
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Carrying the Banner: Christopher Gattelli talks cinematic Newsies
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