by John Stark, Program Manager, Musicals
Above: Students from the cast of Newsies on set with their printing press.
Each year Project SUCCESS thoughtfully tailors our musical season for each of our partner middle schools. With strong input from the artistic team and school administrators, we aim to provide opportunities for students to collaborate artistically and gain key skills and self-confidence. The three shows of the 2018-19 season, Newsies, Dear Edwina Jr., and The Lion King Jr., each feature young protagonists finding their own voice within a larger community.
As the artistic team began planning for Sanford’s fall production, Newsies quickly rose to the top of our list. The musical tells the story of young people banding together in the face of adversity, standing up for what they believe in, and lifting each other up when they are down. As the character Katherine says in Act 1, “Give those kids and me the brand new century and watch what happens…”
But this is the first time Project SUCCESS has ever produced Newsies, and we have faced some unique challenges and opportunities in adapting the show. Because the rights to Newsies just recently became available for middle school, Sanford is among the first schools in the Twin Cities to put on the production.
The Tony-Award-winning score by Alan Menken and Jack Feldman was written for Broadway, with soaring melodies and intricate harmonies. Our music director, Cheryl Reeves, has worked hard to make the material accessible to students in grades 6-8. Costume designer JoEllyn Jolstad is fearlessly costuming the 73 cast members in period-appropriate attire. Choreographer Trudy Monette has taken a nod from Christopher Gattelli’s Tony Award winning choreography, but has translated the movements in a style that works for middle school performers.
Likewise, the rehearsals have presented new opportunities for student growth and development. Each week Project SUCCESS facilitators Ryan and Sarah join the cast to explore how the themes of Newsies apply to the students’ lives. Students compared their daily routines with the routines of newsboys at the turn of the 20th century. They considered the relationships that newsboys had with each other, how they lifted each other up and encouraged each other. Then, as a group, the cast discussed plans to encourage each other through the rehearsal process. They’ve shared their dreams, their hopes as leaders, and the commitments they have made to their community.
The exceptional growth we have seen in students stems from this story – because it resonates with them. As a community of artists, the Sanford students bring passion, joy, and righteous anger to the stage. In the production students get to experience heights of elation and triumph, but also have an opportunity to express their sorrows, doubts, and fears. Our rehearsals are a safe place for students to explore the possibilities of self-expression without fear of judgment. This is an opportunity for students to become other people: a newspaper tycoon, hopeful revolutionaries, ever-patient nuns, and even Teddy Roosevelt.
As we draw nearer to opening day, more and more of our rehearsal time is spent cultivating the ensemble feel of the show. This is not the story of one person, but the story of an entire class of workers standing up for their rights. This ensemble feel translates through the choreography, blocking, and even line work. Almost every student has a featured moment, solo vocal line, or choreography spotlight. Students are experiencing the joy of being part of something much larger than themselves, working towards a goal that they share with more than 70 of their peers.
Ultimately our aim is that this production catapults students forward on their journey towards finding their own voices. With the skills and self-confidence that they’ve learned through rehearsal, students will enter high school more prepared to dream and plan for their futures. As the character Jack says in one of the final lines of the show, “Don’t take much to be a dreamer, all you do is close your eyes.” But when you come to see Project SUCCESS and Sanford Middle School’s production of Newsies, you won’t want to close your eyes, not even for a moment.
See Newsies at Sanford November 30 and December 1, 2018.