30 November 2013

Kids on the Broadway Boards

Meet Kid Actors From Cat, Annie, Matilda, Drood, and Newsies
By Michael Gioia

With nearly half of Broadway shows currently on the boards populated with children under the age of 18, we sit down with a few of them to talk about what it’s like growing up on stage.

“I never remember deciding that I wanted to be an actor,” explains an 11-year-old Victoria Leigh from her dressing room at Broadway’s Richard Rodgers Theatre. “It kind of just happened.”

While her classmates at New York City’s Professional Performing Arts School were preparing for the school play, Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, Leigh was busy preparing for her Broadway debut as Dixie in the current revival of Tennessee Williams’ Cat On a Hot Tin Roof. The young actress had to back out of the school play to begin rehearsals for Broadway.

Sacrificing extra-curricular activities and time for friends can play a part in an actor’s life when he or she is bound for Broadway at a young age. Jaidyn Young, the 11-year-old swing of this season’s Annie, temporarily gave up life on the West Coast for her Broadway dreams. “I sang all the Broadway songs, and I knew all the Broadway shows, but I never [thought], ‘Someday that’s going to be me,’” says Young, who moved with her mother to Manhattan for the show while her father and older sister stayed in California.

Although friends and family are hours away, nothing beats belting out the iconic Annie anthems on the Palace Theatre’s stage for thousands of New York City theatregoers. “It was very surreal,” says Young—smiling ear to ear—about making her Broadway debut. “In the bed, when we get pushed out [onto the stage], the girl who plays July was squeezing my hand so hard, I thought I was going to lose blood! Everyone was so excited for me.”

Exciting is how ten-year-old Newsies actor Jake Lucas describes his first night “Carrying the Banner” on Broadway. “It’s really, really fun being on stage and dancing with a lot of really incredible dancers—doing all their flips and turns in front of me,” says Lucas, who plays the youngest newsboy of the bunch, Les. “It’s really, really cool!”

Like Lucas, Matilda the Musical’s Jack Broderick and The Mystery of Edwin Drood’s Nicholas Barasch relish the fact that they’re sharing the stage with such talents. Broderick, who will turn 13 by the time Matilda begins previews March 4, starred as the narrator in the 2012 Shakespeare in the Park production of Into the Woods. “It was fun,” he says, “because we had Amy Adams and Donna Murphy and Denis O’Hare, and they were really nice and welcoming.” On the other hand, Barasch, 14, admitted that he was “so nervous, especially when Chita [Rivera] walked in” on his first day of rehearsal for Edwin Drood. With greatness, however, comes great responsibility, and all five actors dish about balancing school and social lives while starring on the Great White Way. “I mean, it gets to be stressful, but you just breathe deep,” explains Broderick during a rehearsal for Matilda. A typical rehearsal for the child ensemble of the new musical consists of “school” in the morning and learning material for the show in the afternoon.

As per Actors’ Equity Association guidelines, child performers who haven’t finished high school must be provided with an accredited tutor from the production’s point of origin until one week after opening night. This applies to original cast members of Broadway shows, tours, or out-of-town tryouts.

After opening, some actors continue to be home-schooled, some return to public school, and some take part in independent studies. “I used to be in a public school when I [performed] at the Met Opera,” says Newsies’ Lucas, “and they didn’t really like me going to rehearsals all of the time, so my dad and I sat down, and we created a spreadsheet—how much time we’re spending at school—and we realized that home-schooling was a better option.”

For Cat On a Hot Tin Roof’s Leigh, being around her peers far outweighs the hectic hours of late-night shows and early-morning school days. “I went to school on Tuesday,” she says, “and I thought, ‘People my age! They exist!’”

Barasch, who plays the Deputy in the acclaimed, and extended, revival of Edwin Drood—and who has yet to begin high school—says, “I will probably go to high school in March when [the show] ends. I would definitely say I’m uneasy because everyone has already settled into the school, and I’m the newcomer. I’m sure the first week is going to be terrifying, but after that I’m sure it will be fine.”

“I do an independent study through my school district in California,” explains Annie’s Young, “so I still can do all of the homework that my friends are doing, which is cool because if I’m stuck on something I can ask them.”

Speaking of school, earnings from the actors’ Broadway careers can provide a nice foundation for a college education. New York state law requires 15 percent of a child’s gross earnings to be placed in a trust fund that can be accessed in his or her adult life.

For now, though, soaking up life on Broadway—the Mecca of theatre and stomping ground of legendary performers—is the only thing on their minds: Thunderous applause. Standing ovations. Signing autographs. Television appearances. Award ceremonies.

“For right now, I love being an actor,” says Barasch. “I still can’t believe it. Every day I think, ‘What am I doing?!’”

[This feature appeared in the February 2013 issue of Playbill.  Playbill.com staff writer Michael Gioia’s work also appears in the news, feature, and video sections of Playbill.com.]

*  *  *  *
by Alastair Macaulay

Bit by bit, to marvelous effect, the choreography of the Broadway musical “Matilda” becomes central to the whole production. Most of its characters are caricatures. Their movement takes that caricaturish quality and makes it vivid in terms of rhythm, gesture and formal dance steps.

During Act I Matilda’s ghastly mother, Mrs. Wormwood (Lesli Margherita), turns “Loud,” the song in which she announces how to deal with life, into a big flashy rumba with her dance teacher, Rudolpho. Soon a wall lifts, two other rumba couples strut their stuff, and four chorines at the back are acting as judges. Rumba is a dance form that’s been wrecked by competitive dance; all that’s left is acrobatic brashness. But that’s perfect for “Loud.”

Although I’ve seen four other Broadway musicals recently, none was half so memorable in any way. “Matilda,” at the Shubert Theater, is a leading contender for the Tony Award for best choreography, to be awarded in Sunday night’s ceremony. Other contenders are “Bring It On,” now closed, with choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler; “Kinky Boots,” choreographed by Jerry Mitchell; and “Pippin,” choreographed by Chet Walker.

The “Matilda” choreography is by Peter Darling, whose other credits include “Billy Elliot: The Musical.” Sometimes he gives single dance steps to characters — and the steps transfigure them. Bertie Carvel’s performance as the headmistress, Miss Trunchbull, is altogether amazing, but early on in “The Hammer” he points a leg behind him in arabesque and then briefly takes flight, both legs outstretched in grand jeté. It’s so daft and so perfect to find this gorgon releasing her energies in these little balletic touches that we see whole new facets of her.

The body language of Matilda’s father, Mr. Wormwood (Gabriel Ebert), likewise stays in the memory. He’s what we Britons call a spiv, a dandified minor crook, and his knees seem to stay perpetually bent, often grotesquely so.

Most of the movement in “Matilda” is carried by the children, who are tiny and wonderful; it’s with them that we’re most repeatedly aware of choreography. With rhythmic movement, more than sheer dance, they indicate their frustration, rebelliousness and hope. As they move around their classroom — sitting on desks, stomping, folding their arms — the angry pulse that accumulates is terrific.

There’s plenty of movement in “Pippin” (Music Box Theater) — the central device of Diane Paulus’s staging is that the story is told in circus terms — but Mr. Walker’s choreography, in the Bob Fosse tradition, makes even the motions of warfare horridly sexed-up. Only with Andrea Martin, as Pippin’s grandmother Berthe, does the use of trapezes and acrobatics become entrancing, funny and breathtaking.

In one dance during the ballroom scene of “Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella” (Broadway Theater), Santino Fontana, as the Prince, lifts Laura Osnes’s Cinderella in a way that seems physically impossible: at the matinee I attended, it looked as if he was supporting her upside down at the end of one extended arm. If I went back, that’s the moment I’d like to check out; but otherwise Josh Rhodes’s choreography is efficient without being memorable.

And the dances in “Kinky Boots” (Al Hirschfeld Theater) aren’t as striking as their subject matter — drag queens wearing flashy footwear — deserves. Mr. Mitchell both directs and choreographs; the dances are lively, enjoyable, but without any striking detail. Still, one simple movement is haunting: the hilarious way Annaleigh Ashford, as the factory worker Lauren, puts her head to one side while opening up to the audience about her crush on her boss. She has no clue whether she stands a chance with him; she hardly knows what this new emotion is; and this funny, pensive, near-defeatist twist of the neck wins everybody’s heart.

For sheer dancing, “Motown: The Musical” (Lunt-Fontanne Theater) is better than all of these. The problem here is that the show, which tells the story of Motown Records, doesn’t release the full potential of any song. But from the first, the choreography by Patricia Wilcox and Warren Adams shows that Motown is full of dance energy: you see steps, rhythms, phrases from overlapping groups and from individuals. Their dances make the hits all the more infectious.

These shows demonstrate the wide variety of what Broadway choreography can include: people doing social-dance steps to popular music, a drag headmistress quickly doing a formal jump, a girl tipping her head while finding she’s falling in love, a grandmother swinging upside down from a trapeze, a prince supporting the heroine on one hand in a ballroom number. I never envy the Tony judges here.

As a Briton going to shows on Broadway, may I add what a fun surprise it is to hear, in two different productions, the British glottal stop? Lauren in “Kinky Boots” speaks of going to “I’aly”; and Mrs. Wormwood in “Matilda” says “Bu’ I’ve go’ a baby.” In Britain the glottal stop is never heard in polite society. In America, however, it’s an exotic thrill.

[Alastair Macauley is a dance critic for the New York Times.  This article originally appeared in section C (“The Arts”) of the New York Times on 8 June 2013.]


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