There’s an old adage in Hollywood that says, “Never work with kids or animals.”
Most people have never tried to stage a musical with kids (or animals), so few can comprehend how challenging it is, but what we pulled off with our “Newsies Against the World” musical was really a minor miracle. Here are a few details you may not have noticed:
There weren’t any adults back stage. The kids did everything on their own. Logan was running the lightboard, a system which can boggle the minds of adults. She had to know which spotlights to bring up and when to dim them, and she handled it all perfectly. Addison was running the music. It may seem simple to merely push play and pause and adjust the volume during the spoken lines, but when she was absent from class one day and someone else tried to do it, it made a mess of our practice. You also might not have noticed that Addison used her singing voice to help keep the actors on stage in sync. Her work was critical to the success of the show. Accolades need to be given to Courtney, too. She was the dance captain and choreographer for the “Sidewalks of New York” song. That a quiet fifth grader could put something like that together is amazing—especially given that her male classmates don’t like to dance and that my class can often be inattentive and sassy. No wonder “Sidewalks” is my favorite part of the show.
Set changes have to be coordinated and practiced. Just getting Luke’s soap box on and off the stage without a fuss was a critical detail. In addition to their acting duties, Owen and Jaylee maneuvered the soap box, the circulation window, and the “alley” flawlessly. You barely noticed them! They were almost professional in their work. Nor did you notice our Newsie extras, such as Lui, DeAna, Molly, and Nico, getting bundles of papers off stage and out of the way. Props in general can be a handful, but imagine how hard it would be to push around a twelve foot trolley car? Devin’s scene with our cardboard trolley was difficult to create, yet he handled it masterfully, ringing the bell, delivering his lines, and reaching for his change all while steering the thing through a narrow exit off stage. Impressive!
Entering and exiting the stage is frequently problematic for young actors. Kids usually tend to stumble in and out, but our Newsies disappeared like ninjas. How on earth did Annie get from singing and dancing during “Ta Ra Ra” to standing at the west side musicless room door by the end of the scene? If you watch carefully during the video of the show, you’ll see Annie, Lilly, Haydn, and others slip off stage in ways that allowed the audience to instead focus on the incoming action.
Missed cues, misspoken lines, and other surprises can derail a play in a hurry. While the audience may have noticed two such moments, there were a dozen others to which the kids were able to adapt. One that you probably did notice happened when one student apparently got a case of “stage fright” and didn’t come out. Jaylee and Maryfer reacted calmly, smoothly proceeding in an effort to cover up the other student’s error.
Our Newsies script was geared for older students. It originally appeared in an issue of Scope magazine, Scholastic’s classroom language arts magazine for middle schoolers. I complicated it that much more by adapting it as a musical, so it’s really quite remarkable a group of fifth graders was able to do so well with it. The amount of memorization alone was tremendous! Luke, Riley, Jenny, Annie, Tyler, Lilly, Valerie, and Haydn all had lengthy and complex lines to learn. Bringing personality to those lines was even tougher. Luke’s enthusiastic rendition of Sully and Will’s spirited portrayal of Hearst set a high standard for the others to follow. And Annie, well, I handed her a challenge that would flummox most fifth graders: that of singing a spotlighted solo a mere five feet from the audience. You can bet it took uncommon bravery, grit, and determination to do that!
And before you go thinking the kids were a little off key once in awhile, please remember that D6 doesn’t have much of a music program these days. These students only get six or seven class sessions of music per year, and most of that isn’t dedicated to learning how to sing. Their growth this trimester has been exceptional. Oh, if you had heard the kids sing “Hot Times” back in February! Had you heard them sing “When You’re Smilin’” even just a couple weeks ago—you might have gone running from the room! Their performance is even more impressive given that, due to state testing, we had only limited access to the music room and stage.
Whoever said, “Never work with kids or animals,” must not have ever had the thrill of seeing something like this come together. When you look at all the little details, you realize the kids created something pretty darn special. It’ll certainly go down as one of the highlights of my career.