The phrase, “A dream come true,” is bandied about a lot, but for actor Chaz Wolcott, who’s featured in a new production of Disney’s Newsies now in residence at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., the statement could not be truer.
Wolcott notes that he basically “grew up with the movie,” which came out in 1992 when he was just a little boy.
“I always hoped to see it on the stage,” he adds. “I wanted to BE a Newsie.”
The Disney film, written by Bob Tzudiker and Noni White, deals with the battle between turn-of-the-20th-century newsboys and newspaper giants Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst. It starred a teenage Christian Bale, along with a number of other well-known actors (most notably Robert Duvall, Bill Pullman and Ann-Margret) and featured music by Disney Legend Alan Menken. Still it was met with less-than-stellar reviews and an absence of movie-goers. It was actually pulled from many theaters after its lackluster opening weekend.
But a funny thing happened on the way to filmdom obscurity — Newsies gathered a cult following who practically demanded a stage show, with a young Chaz Wolcott among its members.
“I was a big fan of Gene Kelly and his movies,” says the actor, whose swing-dancing parents taught him how to cha-cha when he was still in diapers. “But his style was so elegant, so different. For me, seeing Newsies was as opposite as you can get to him and other musicals, to see all those Newsies dancing with such masculine energy. It gave me something to strive for.”
Eventually, Disney capitalized on the film’s cult status and turned it into a Broadway smash, with a book by Harvey Fierstein, and additional music by Menken and lyrics by Jack Feldman. The Tony Award-winning musical featured show-stoppers like “King of New York” and “Seize the Day.”
After the show’s Broadway run, it lived on with a national tour — and that’s where Wolcott came in. He spent two years, 2014-2016, touring as Buttons in the first national tour of Disney’s Newsies, visiting 70 cities and performing in more than 750 shows.
“It was really a full-circle moment for me,” he says. “The movie was such an inspiration, to become part of its legacy was amazing.”
Wolcott continues his involvement with the show at the Arena Stage, adding that the new production still resonates with audiences, and perhaps is even more relevant given today’s social climate.
“A lot has changed in the world since the movie first came out, even since the Broadway show came out,” he notes. “The original film was about children leading their own revolution. I find it interesting now that we’re seeing the same sort of thing, like with the children activists campaigning against guns as a result of the Parkland shooting in Florida.”
As the tough-talking character Race in this new production of the show, Wolcott says he is facing several different personal challenges. “I played Buttons for so long, that it’s interesting to step into new shoes. Now I have to learn how to sing and dance with a cigar in my mouth the whole time! No one ever teaches you how to do that.”
The Arena’s Fichandler Stage itself also presents a new twist for the Newsies veteran and his colleagues, as it’s a theater-in-the-round.
“It really enhances the theatrical storytelling,” he notes, “when the audience is within spitting distance of the cast. You can have the Newsies moving around the theater in every direction. It’s a fully immersive set-up.”
Wolcott adds that he hopes this new staging puts the show “under a different lens” for today’s audiences who may be seeing it and learning the story for the first time.
“This story, from the time it was a movie until now, has always been sort of ‘the little engine that could,'” he points out. “I’m really very proud to call it a highlight of my career.”
Disney’s Newsies, directed by Molly Smith with choreography by Parker Esse, is running now through December 22, 2019, at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater in Washington, D.C. Tickets are available on the Arena Stage website.
You can see Wolcott featured as Buttons in a live film version of the show, which was released in movie theaters as Disney’s Newsies: The Broadway Musical. The movie, filmed at Hollywood’s Pantages Theatre, is available for digital download on iTunes, Amazon and Disney + (when the new streaming service launches on November 12).