By Sheila Wickouski
Newsies is the story about kids who fought for what is right in the Newsboys’ Strike of 1899 in New York City, when they took on two of the most powerful men in the country, Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph. And they won! This inspirational musical about dreams of a better life is at Arena Stage in time for the holidays from Nov. 1 to Dec. 22.
Director Molly Smith stated that, “today’s young people fight passionately for gun control and climate protection legislation in [a] new children’s crusade…this is the right time for this story.”
We asked some of the youngest members of the cast just what it was like to be playing the boys and girls from over a hundred years ago who stood up for themselves and fought for fairness.
Were you familiar with the story of the newsboys and how they challenged the two most powerful newspaper owners in America, and won?
Ethan Van Slyke: I’ve gotten more familiar with the history behind the Newsboys’ Strike of 1899 as my love for this movie/musical has grown. There is so much more that I have yet to learn about that revolutionary time period.
It is an incredible experience to be able to tell a story that is based on historical events because of the raw [s]torytelling that can come out of it. It is so easy for a person of my age to respect and be inspired by the drive and motivation behind what these kids were fighting for.
Josiah Smothers: I saw Newsies for the first time about 2 years ago on Netflix. It quickly became one of my favorite musicals and I knew one day I wanted to play the part of Les Jacobs.
Hazel Hay: Only a little bit. As soon as I got the audition, my mom made sure I knew what the story was [about] and the style and stuff like that. But I didn’t know all the background and as much history about everything like I do now. I love New York and I love history and I love theater, so it’s been really fun to learn so much about all of those things.
Emre Ocak: It’s one of my favorite musicals. I can relate well to the characters since I am around the same age as some of the Newsies. One of my favorite messages of the story is that regardless of age, you can always stand up for what you believe in!
What is your character like? What is it like preparing for this role?
Ethan Van Slyke: Davey certainly is set apart from the rest of the Newsies. He and his brother live with their family in a slightly higher class level in which they can pursue an education and have a home to return to at night.
There is an arch that Davey goes through during the show. He goes from a reserved and focused worker to a passionate and influential leader for his fellow Newsies.
The research and analysis in telling Davey’s story is the foundation for what I am using to build upon my role in this production.
Josiah Smothers: My character is a lot like me — he wants to do crazy things and wants to help do everything and help other people, like me! He likes being around the older Newsies.
I prepare for a show by stretching, doing my ballet and going through my notes and warming up my voice. I also run lines with my mom and dad and they help me to memorize my script.
Emre Ocak: As one of the Newsies’ ensemble members, my character is driven and determined to do whatever it takes to seize the day and fight injustice. In my preparation for this role, I have studied the history of this story, reviewed the score and script, watched clips of the show, and have been singing and dancing every day.
Hazel Hay: He is feisty and fearless. He’s not really scared of anything. He also has a big heart and really looks up to Jack (the leader of the newsies). He really looks up to everyone who’s older than he is because he just wants to be big and do big things. That makes it really fun for me because Les has a huge personality and gets to do really fun things in the show, which means so do I.
How does it feel to be a part of this show at Arena?
Evan Van Slyke: Arena Stage is one of the most incredible places to create art and tell stories.
I am humbled and privileged to be one of the youth that gets to represent the young boys who fought so hard for their rights during the 1800s.
I feel like Molly’s direction has always been so inclusive, diverse, and effective and I think the casting of this show is no exception. It is a pleasure to be on [a] team of artists I look up to so much.
Being a 17-year-old employee at one of the most highly respected theaters in the country is crazy enough to think about, but will bring only the greatest education I could ever receive.
Josiah Smothers: I’m so excited to get to play this part at Arena Stage. It is one of my dream roles. I’m especially excited to do it at Arena since this area is home for us — and to be home after being on the road for Finding Neverland for 10 months!
Emre Ocak: I’m very excited to be making my Arena Stage debut in Newsies! I can’t wait for rehearsals to begin, and I look forward to performing in all the shows. Everyone here at Arena Stage has been so welcoming and kind. I am thrilled to be involved in this production.
Hazel Hay: Amazing. Everyone at Arena is so nice and welcoming. And SO talented. I get to learn from these people every day and it’s just amazing. And the theater is incredible. I can’t wait to see the set in there. The model that they showed us was so cool so I can’t wait to see it come to life.
Did you see the movie or the Broadway show? Thoughts?
Evan Van Slyke: I watched videos on YouTube, Tony Award performances, and broadway.com videos. When I saw the National tour of the show in D.C a couple years ago, I was absolutely star struck. I felt like I reached some sort of checkpoint just by seeing the show and couldn’t ask for anything more at the time.
The fact that this Disney movie wasn’t about a princess or a magic kingdom caught my attention very easily and only made me love it more. I think the movie and musical tell the story so brilliantly and I love how both of them tell it in pretty different ways at points.
Josiah Smothers: I saw the movie and LOVED it! I wish that I would have gotten to see it on Broadway but I don’t think I was born yet?
Emre Ocak: I saw the movie, and am familiar with the Broadway version of the show. The Newsies story inspires me to always try to stay positive, even in tough situations. It also reminds me of the importance of staying loyal to your friends, and how working together helps you reach your goals.
Hazel Hay: I hadn’t seen it before I auditioned. There was a long time between my first audition and when I got the call. I was OBSESSED with the show during that time and wanted to know everything about it. I had totally fallen in love with the music, the dancing, and my character. I just loved it all. So I downloaded the filmed Broadway version and I think I’ve seen it about 100 or more times by now. No joke. Right before rehearsal started, I had to stop watching it because I didn’t want to copy the performances. I knew I’d have to make sure I found my own ‘Les’ and that’s been really fun.