Once upon a time, the internet didn’t make it easy to publicly express one’s opinions, share stories, or spread fake news. Once upon a time, news had to be printed before it could ever reach its intended readers—if and when circumstances didn’t make it difficult for the papers to land on people’s doorsteps.
Loosely based on the Newsboys’ strike of 1899, Disney’s “Newsies” is set in an era when it’s nearly not as easy to spread stories—legitimate or otherwise—and where the power of the media is restrained by the selfish interests of capitalists. While the strike occurred more than a century ago, thousands of miles away in New York City, the struggles back then are not far from things that many are either taking for granted or struggling with today: fare wages, capitalism, abuse of power and conflict of interest within the media. Its themes resound with today’s young generation in the same manner it would appeal to a middle-age history professor.
The “Newsies” film released by Disney in 1992 didn’t even reach high tide in the box office; but the theatrical version, staged in Broadway in 2012, was a Tony Award-winning success. The musical, with music by Alan Menken, book by Harvey Fierstein and lyrics by Jack Feldman, is what we will be able to witness come July—a grand production meant to be showcased live on stage.
There, we shall find a stellar combination of veteran actors and a pool of fresh talent. Out of over 500 people who auditioned, 18 underwent rigorous training. A workshop dubbed “Training Ground” was conducted so the Newsies could become triple-threats for the show. It wasn’t enough that one could act and sing; they had to be able to act and sing and dance, possibly all at the same time. They had to hit high notes and hold long notes while dancing. Dance is an integral part of this musical production that PJ Rebullida pilots as the choreographer.
Training Ground transpired over a period of six weeks; and the participants worked for six to seven hours daily. Rebullida was at the forefront of Training Ground, which, despite his experience, proved to be quite a challenge. He talks about the experience in an interview with Inquirer Super.
“It was difficult putting these guys together. Explosion of energies. The hardest part was actually controlling them (laughs). Because there are boys. You know how boys are—they’re boisterous. And then you put musical theater, ballet dancers together—explosion of energies. So that was the hardest part, finding focus in the work.”
More than improving every individual’s craft, the workshop established something else that is equally as important. “What’s nice is that they found it in themselves, because we all wanted to do a good show. I think it was good that we did a lot of trust exercises. I gave some, and so did Franz (Imperial) and Robbie (Guevara). There was a group dynamic that was developed.”
“It’s nice that the advanced dancers helped the beginner dancers, and the advanced actors helped the beginner actors, and the advanced singers helped the beginner singers. They found their own clusters; they have a go-to person if they have problems—from singing and dancing to emotional issues,” Rebullida explained.
It was challenging for the workshop participants in as much as it was challenging for Rebullida to train them. Rebullida shares, “There was side coaching from me and the more experienced dancers, but I had to find the healthy compromise also. That was also my job during Training Ground; to see what I could give them that made them look good. So I am making choreography that challenges them, but still makes them look good.”
“It’s a balancing act. I’m not yet done; there’s still two more weeks of the balancing act. If you ask them, they’re going crazy because I’m changing things, I’m demanding things from them that I haven’t done before. Even me, I go crazy every now and then (laughs), finding the right way of getting the message across.”
Now for the cast. As mentioned, it is an assembly of both new and seasoned stars. Leading them is singer, recording artist and actor Gian Magdangal in his comeback role as Jack Kelly, the ambitious young man who leads a band of newspaper boys in protest against publishing giants Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearts, in a struggle for rights and a better life. Prior to joining the “Newsies” cast, Magdangal worked as a performer in Hong Kong Disneyland and Universal Studios Japan for three years.
Danielle Chopin plays young reporter Katherine Plumber in her Philippine stage debut. The Filipino-American’s US stage credits include “Into the Woods,” “Hair” and “My Fair Lady.” On the other hand, Luis Marcelo makes his professional theater debut in the role of Crutchie, Jack Kelly’s friend. MYX VJ and Star Magic Circle member Alex Diaz is expected to shine in his theater debut as one of the Newsies.
Playing Davey is two-time Gawad Buhay winner Jef Flores, who has also been making the rounds in Philippine theater as the new “It” boy. Alternating in the role of Les are Daniel Drilon and Tory Cortez, who were recently scene in “Fun Home” and “A Christmas Carol,” respectively.
Another Gawad Buhay awardee and “Miss Saigon” alumni Ariel Reonal takes on multiple roles as Wiesel, Mr. Jacobi and the Mayor. Seasoned thespian Raymund Concepcion will also portray multiple roles, including Governor Teddy Roosevelt and Nunzio. Another theater veteran, Pinky Marquez, who we also recognize as a singer, recording artist and host, plays theater owner Medda Larkin.
Starring as Newsies are Anton Posadas, Ian Ocampo, Erick Arenas, Stephen Viñas, Ronelson Yadao, Jim Ferrer and Jourdan Bartolome, as well as Chesko Rodriguez, Jon Abella, Kendrick Ibasco, Vyen Villanueva, Jan Mayo, MC de la Cruz and Clark de la Riva, who will also take on other roles in the show. Joni Galeste and Melissa Bell play the Bowery Girls.
Being the choreographer for “Newsies” adds a different dimension to Rebullida’s growing plethora of achievements.
“Oh my, this is the most daunting; because you have to adhere to the level of excellence that Disney adheres to, for one. There’s a premium on their brand—why? Because the quality, standard. Wherever you go that there’s a Disney logo, you know it’s good work. It’s something you bring your children to. It’s something that you can pay good money for. And that’s hard.”
One of the challenges the creative team faces is that 9 Works Theatrical has to come up with its unique version of “Newsies”; it can’t replicate previous productions, especially the shows on Broadway.
Rebullida explains, “We have to create our version. Built into the music is a storyline. And when you listen to it, it will tell you to do things. And a lot of the obvious choices were, from what I understand, were the ones already done on Broadway.”
“So how do I bring in a different perspective to what has been built into the show. That is the most daunting part. Plus, the expectations of my dancers, my creative team, the people above. There are expectations all over; from the people who have watched my shows, the people I have worked with. Everyone is expecting great work. We built so much hype. We have to exceed expectations.”
Rebullida confesses that he, aside from being excited, feels rather anxious. “I’m scared. I’m really scared. I don’t know if we will exceed expectations but I’m pushing for it. And the only people I can trust now are the people I am working with, the instincts that we have, and the story. With Robbie, I just hope we can tie a great show together,” he said in conclusion.
Globe Live and 9 Works Theatrical’s production of Disney’s “Newsies” is directed by Robbie Guevara, together with PJ Rebullida as choreographer, Franz Imperial as assistant director, Daniel Bartolome as musical director, Yek Barlongay providing additional choreography for tap, Ed Lacson as set designer, Eric Pineda as costume designer, Martin Esteva as lighting designer, GA Fallarme as video and projection designer, Myrene Santos as hair and makeup designer, and Dong Calingacion as technical director.
Heading the production team are executive producers Joe Caliro (Globe Live) and Santi Santamaria (9 Works Theatrical), Denise Seva (Globe Live director for events and production), with 9 Works Theatrical’s Anna Santamaria as company manager, Jonjon Martin and Issa Tuason as PR managers, GM Hernandez as marketing manager, and Arma Bonilla as stage manager.
“Newsies” will be staged July 7-9, 14-16, 21-23, 28-30, 8 p.m., at the Globe Iconic Store Bonifacio High Street Amphitheater, Bonifacio Global City.