‘Newsies’ opens tonight: Menken shares love of song with cast

Alan Menken with the cast of “Newsies.”

From the time he was the same age as the youngsters in “Newsies,” Alan Menken wanted to be a composer. The acclaimed composer who wrote its score visited Masuk on Thursday, July 26, to talk with the cast, crew and people from Newtown’s NewArts Foundation.

“Newsies” debuts Friday, Aug. 3, at Masuk High, and the foundation is mounting this production with a cast of 106 young people. The visit gave Menken an opportunity to impart some sage advice about both the theater and the world in general.

For starters, Menken grew up in New Rochelle, N.Y., where his mom was an actor, dancer and playwright and his dad was a pianist — and a dentist. As soon as he could reach the piano, Menken began plunking out tunes — including some he wrote himself.

“All the men in my family were dentists, and they wanted me to become one, too,” Menken recalls. “But I always wanted to do this, to write music. At some point all of us have to say to ourselves, ‘I am going to do this. I don’t care if I starve: this is what I want to do.’ And if you look around, the people who are best at what they do love what they do.”

There was no shortage of things the cast members wanted to know about Menken’s life and his craft. One student wanted to know his favorite Broadway musical, which was a tough question.

“My plays are all my ‘children’,” said Menken, adding that, among well-known classics, some of Menken’s personal favorites include “Dreamgirls,” “A Chorus Line” and “My Fair Lady.” Among recent shows, he especially likes “Hamilton” and “Dear Evan Hansen.”

Several kids asked about the mechanics of songwriting. A musical score, Menken says, is an intricate process that usually undergoes many changes. One such example is “Hercules.” The director wanted a gospel sound, despite some initial skepticism from Menken. His score for “Hercules” made it a smash hit.

To get a good start, Menken analyzes the story and the characters — particularly the ones who will be performing the songs. “I also ask, what’s the architecture of the play? How’s it going to be staged?” Menken adds.

Any good songwriter begins with a realization that any play is collaborative, and will necessarily undergo many changes before its debut. In Menken’s view, “Newsies” was especially difficult to bring to life, owing in part to the cast size. The songs and the action all required everyone to perform with an enormous level of energy — and to maintain that high level throughout.

The show fictionalizes the story of an actual strike in 1899 by newspaper delivery boys, so there was some tug and war in the development process about how much the play would focus on the labor movement. The end result: not so much.

“After Harvey Fierstein was brought in [to write the play’s ‘book,’ which combines spoken dialogue, lyrics and stage directions], it all came together,” Menken recalls.

Director Michael Unger has extensive theatrical credentials on Broadway, and off, and his involvement in NewArts was critical to mounting the production of “Newsies.” His cast ranges in age from 5 to 23 and for this group “Newsies” is among its most ambitious.

“For starters, they’re all doing a lot of dancing,” Unger says. “Some of them said they didn’t know any dance when they signed up. But, they have good teachers and they’ve learned quickly.”

Several cast members have been in the troupe since NewArts staged its first musical five years ago. That production was “Seussical.”

There’s a non-theatrical component to NewArts’ mission. The foundation aims to provide kids with enriching experiences through which they can bond together and learn teamwork.
“NewArts has a character-development focus,” said staffer Maddie Oldham, a sophomore studying education and theater at Hofstra University. “After each rehearsal, the kids break up into their age groups and discuss the experience. This way, kids learn how to recognize their own strengths — and those of others.”

Menken touched on that theme himself in his remarks to the cast. He recalled taking a program called Erhard Seminars Training (EST) during the 1970s. Though EST later became the butt of jokes in movies and by comedians, it imparted some useful principles, in Menken’s view.

“An important principle I learned was called ‘choosing it,’” said Menken. “It’s important for all of us to realize that what we’re doing right now is because the choices we’ve made have led us here. If you get stuck — if you think you should have chosen something else to do or somewhere else to be — go and do it.

“By focusing on where you are — and where you want to go, you’ll open up a portal to move forward,” Menken adds.

And that could be a valuable lesson for anybody.

From the time he was the same age as the youngsters in “Newsies,” Alan Menken wanted to be a composer. The acclaimed composer who wrote its score visited Masuk on Thursday, July 26, to talk with the cast, crew and people from Newtown’s NewArts Foundation.

“Newsies” debuts Friday, Aug. 3, at Masuk High, and the foundation is mounting this production with a cast of 106 young people. The visit gave Menken an opportunity to impart some sage advice about both the theater and the world in general.

For starters, Menken grew up in New Rochelle, N.Y., where his mom was an actor, dancer and playwright and his dad was a pianist — and a dentist. As soon as he could reach the piano, Menken began plunking out tunes — including some he wrote himself.

“All the men in my family were dentists, and they wanted me to become one, too,” Menken recalls. “But I always wanted to do this, to write music. At some point all of us have to say to ourselves, ‘I am going to do this. I don’t care if I starve: this is what I want to do.’ And if you look around, the people who are best at what they do love what they do.”

There was no shortage of things the cast members wanted to know about Menken’s life and his craft. One student wanted to know his favorite Broadway musical, which was a tough question.

“My plays are all my ‘children’,” said Menken, adding that, among well-known classics, some of Menken’s personal favorites include “Dreamgirls,” “A Chorus Line” and “My Fair Lady.” Among recent shows, he especially likes “Hamilton” and “Dear Evan Hansen.”

Several kids asked about the mechanics of songwriting. A musical score, Menken says, is an intricate process that usually undergoes many changes. One such example is “Hercules.” The director wanted a gospel sound, despite some initial skepticism from Menken. His score for “Hercules” made it a smash hit.

To get a good start, Menken analyzes the story and the characters — particularly the ones who will be performing the songs. “I also ask, what’s the architecture of the play? How’s it going to be staged?” Menken adds.

Any good songwriter begins with a realization that any play is collaborative, and will necessarily undergo many changes before its debut. In Menken’s view, “Newsies” was especially difficult to bring to life, owing in part to the cast size. The songs and the action all required everyone to perform with an enormous level of energy — and to maintain that high level throughout.

The show fictionalizes the story of an actual strike in 1899 by newspaper delivery boys, so there was some tug and war in the development process about how much the play would focus on the labor movement. The end result: not so much.

“After Harvey Fierstein was brought in [to write the play’s ‘book,’ which combines spoken dialogue, lyrics and stage directions], it all came together,” Menken recalls.

Director Michael Unger has extensive theatrical credentials on Broadway, and off, and his involvement in NewArts was critical to mounting the production of “Newsies.” His cast ranges in age from 5 to 23 and for this group “Newsies” is among its most ambitious.

“For starters, they’re all doing a lot of dancing,” Unger says. “Some of them said they didn’t know any dance when they signed up. But, they have good teachers and they’ve learned quickly.”

Several cast members have been in the troupe since NewArts staged its first musical five years ago. That production was “Seussical.”

There’s a non-theatrical component to NewArts’ mission. The foundation aims to provide kids with enriching experiences through which they can bond together and learn teamwork.
“NewArts has a character-development focus,” said staffer Maddie Oldham, a sophomore studying education and theater at Hofstra University. “After each rehearsal, the kids break up into their age groups and discuss the experience. This way, kids learn how to recognize their own strengths — and those of others.”

Menken touched on that theme himself in his remarks to the cast. He recalled taking a program called Erhard Seminars Training (EST) during the 1970s. Though EST later became the butt of jokes in movies and by comedians, it imparted some useful principles, in Menken’s view.

“An important principle I learned was called ‘choosing it,’” said Menken. “It’s important for all of us to realize that what we’re doing right now is because the choices we’ve made have led us here. If you get stuck — if you think you should have chosen something else to do or somewhere else to be — go and do it.

“By focusing on where you are — and where you want to go, you’ll open up a portal to move forward,” Menken adds.

And that could be a valuable lesson for anybody.

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