Michael Ryan is living the dream. It wasn’t all that long ago that the young actor was sitting in Boston’s Opera House enjoying a performance of “Wicked.” The Braintree native returns to the scene later this month, but this time he’ll be standing center stage, appearing in the national touring company of Disney’s high-energy hit musical, “Newsies,” playing from June 23 to July 5.
It has all happened very fast for Ryan and he’s enjoying every moment of the experience. He attended school in Braintree, participated in two summer theater programs on the South Shore and studied musical theater at Pace University. Following graduation, he performed on a cruise ship for seven months. When that ended, he returned to New York. Two weeks later he auditioned for the national tour of the Tony Award-winning “Newsies” and got the job.
“It was unbelievable,” he said by phone during the show’s run in Dallas. “I was shocked and so lucky.”
“Newsies” first came to life as a 1992 Disney film inspired by New York’s real-life newsboys strike of 1889. The story tells of Jack Kelly, a charismatic newsboy who rallies New York’s ragamuffin band of newsies in protest when publishing giants Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst raise distribution prices at the newsboys’ expense.
Unfortunately, the film was not a hit. However, over time it developed a cult following on video, leading to the creation of a stage version in 2011.
With music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Jack Feldman, and a new book by Harvey Fierstein, “Newsies” opened at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse in what was expected to be a stand-alone production. The goal was merely to create a show that could be licensed to stock and amateur theaters. What the creators hadn’t counted on was a diehard fan base (known as Fansies), plus overwhelming critical acclaim.
Riding on that success, the show transferred to Broadway where, again, a limited engagement was planned. The show ultimately ran for two years, playing to sold out houses and picking up Tony Awards for its musical score as well as its phenomenal choreography.
Ryan plays Morris Delancey in addition to understudying the lead role of Jack Kelly.
Q. So were you a fan of the movie version of “Newsies?”
A. I was a big fan of the movie growing up . . . The music was great. I think that’s what really turned people on to the movie...[Alan Menken] said that whenever he would go out and play concerts, he’d play a song from “Newsies,” the movie, and it would always get a huge reaction. That’s kind of what sparked the idea that maybe this should be a stage show.
Q. How were the wheels set in motion?
A. He got back together with Jack Feldman, the lyricist, and they wrote some new songs and tweaked some lyrics. And Harvey Fierstein came in and wrote a brand new book. So it’s the same story but it has some new characters. It has new plot lines. It has new twists and turns . . . You’re seeing the movie you love, but it has new aspects to it that only make the story and show better.
Q. Anything special we should look for in the touring production?
A. One thing that’s cool is that in our version of the show, they’ve added a new song. It was not in the Broadway production, and wasn’t in the movie. It’s called “Letter from The Refuge” – it’s Crutchie’s song. In the Broadway version, Crutchie was pretty much not [seen in] the entire second act of the show. They wanted to show where he was after he got taken to the refuge – the juvenile jail. So they added this song, and Alan Menken came to rehearsals to work on the song and see how it worked. It was just so cool to see him there.
Q. It must have been impressive to work with him on your first big show.
A. This is the guy who wrote all the childhood music that I grew up with. From “Beauty and The Beast” to “Aladdin” to “Newsies.” I’m a huge Alan Menken fan.
Q. Is there a moment in the show that’s special to you personally?
A. Absolutely. There’s a moment in the movie when they’re coming to the end of the strike and the newsies have invited all the kids in New York to come and strike with them. They’re waiting and no one’s coming. All of a sudden thousands of kids come running down the street and they’re singing the song, “The World Will Know.” So when I saw the [Broadway] show I was like, “What are they going to do on stage that’s going to be comparable to that?”
Q. And … ?
A. Sure enough, close to the end of the show there’s a moment where all the dancing stops, all the newsies freeze and hold a poise and they’re just singing this power song, “Once And For All.” The towers the newsies are standing on start moving toward the audience and, oh my God, it’s amazing! . . . The first time I saw it I was like, “This is something I’m never going to forget.”
Q. Your director Jeff Calhoun has some incredible stage credits as well. Did he share anything special with the cast?
A. One thing Jeff Calhoun said that I definitely have taken in is that he wants to keep the show honest . . . He reminded us that these were real kids and this was a real strike . . . That kinds of brings you down to earth and reminds you that, yeah, we’re doing a musical where towers move around the stage and where the dancing is mind-blowing. But at the end of the day, the story is very real . . . He didn’t want any of us to copy exactly what the cast before us had done. He really wanted us to find our own way of playing these roles and telling the story. That’s so refreshing . . . You want something that’s new and fresh and honest, and I think that’s what we have because of his support and direction.
R. J. Donovan is Editor and Publisher of onstageboston.com.
Disney’s “Newsies,” June 23 - July 5, at the Boston Opera House, 539 Washington Street. Info: 866-870-2717 or BroadwayInBoston.com.