Jeff Calhoun has been working on Broadway for more than three decades, so he's seen both sides of the Great White Way. The director and choreographer helmed a successful 1994 revival of Grease and an award-winning 2003 production of Big River with Deaf West Theatre; but he was also behind critically panned musicals Brooklyn (2004) and Frank Wildhorn's Bonnie & Clyde (2011). Now, with Disney's Tony Award–winning musical Newsies, Calhoun's found his sweet spot somewhere between artistic and commercial success. The dance-intensive show, based on the 1992 movie about a paperboy strike in Manhattan in 1899, is celebrating its one-year anniversary on Broadway this month. Needless to say, the show is still selling plenty of papers…er, tickets. Calhoun spoke to us about what it takes to make the year mark, discovering new talent and the best aspects of living in New York City.
For tickets to Newsies, visit nycgo.com.
Why do you think Newsies is still going strong after a year? Jeff Calhoun: It celebrates the best of Broadway. Those boys are true triple threats, and that's what we used to see back in the days of [Bob] Fosse and Michael Bennett. It's also a show that resonates with young people. [Book writer] Harvey [Fierstein] took a movie about a paperboy strike and he turned it into a story about the empowerment of a young generation taking responsibility for making the world a better place.
There have been some casting changes over the past year. The starring role of Jack Kelly, for example, is now being played by newcomer Corey Cott. JC: It's why I love live theater. It's not like, “set it and forget it.” It keeps changing. In honor of all the new boys in our show [choreographer Chris Gattelli] and I re-blocked and re-choreographed the show for the new DNA. Now we have boys doing tricks that they were born to do, rather than asking them to re-create someone else's tricks.
What's your favorite part of creating a show? JC: Working with the designers on the physical production is my favorite part of the process. Second to that would be casting. It's thrilling to have a show, like Newsies, that allows you to discover the next-generation star. When you're doing a show like Follies, you're not going to discover the new 50-year-old—but with this show, every time a young person gets off that bus from somewhere else, you have the chance to discover them. In the year that we've been open, we've given around 25 actors their Broadway debut. I'll bet that's a record.
You're directing and choreographing the revival of Frank Wildhorn's Jekyll & Hyde, starring Constantine Maroulis and Deborah Cox, that's opening in April. What's the best thing about working on Broadway in the spring? JC: It feels like Christmas. I'm very excited for all the new musicals that are opening: Hands on a Hardbody, Kinky Boots and Matilda. In this business, success begets success. It's good for all of the colleagues of the people working on those shows for those shows to succeed, because the more they do, the more people want to invest [in Broadway shows].
What do you like about living in New York? JC: I have a great life in New York. I ride my bike every day to Times Square on the path along the Hudson River. It feels like you're on vacation going to work. I love a restaurant called Wolfgang's. It's right next to the Nederlander Theater, so I eat there and go to the theater. During intermission, I can run back, have a drink and then catch the second act. Another one of my favorites—and it always will be—is Joe Allen. I've been going there for more years than I like to admit. Joe Allen is really the longest-running show on Broadway. Henry's, on 105th and Broadway, is my favorite neighborhood haunt. The owner, Henry, is a fantastic supporter of the arts.