“Group one — you guys ready? One group at a time. OK, five, six, seven, eight, one, two, three, four.”
The familiar piano melody starts back up, and the actors on stage stand in position. They’ve been at this for an hour but have been practicing for at least several weeks before. Since auditions in November, the cast has endured continuous dress rehearsals leading up to opening night Feb. 17.
“This is the story we needed to write as we kept out of sight, but no more.”
They begin their song and dance routine on the stage and on the rafter, holding fake newspapers adorned with “The Newsies Banner.” To an outsider, it may look coordinated, professional and perfect. But it’s not quite.
“Five, six — five, six, group two. One, two, three, four, five, six, and seven, eight.”
Brittany Covert and Christian Pullings, director and assistant director of “Newsies,” respectively, sit in the center of the auditorium speaking directions into a microphone. Everything from the spacing between two lines to the way an actor tosses their newspaper across the stage is fair game for scrutiny. If the final product’s never going to quite be “perfect,” it’s going to be as close as possible.
Covert, also the managing director of Muncie Civic Theatre, said she’s been interested in “Newsies'' since the original Disney film was released in 1992. What started as a crush on 17-year-old Christian Bale grew to her using the film to teach students about yellow journalism at Hamilton Heights High School in Arcadia, Indiana, where she taught and directed plays. In 2020, the Civic Theatre chose Covert to direct the musical for herself.
“The way it works here, is there is our artistic director — we have a pool of directors, and she kind of tries to pair the right director and the right play,” Covert said. “I love working with teenagers, and so that’s kind of how I got chosen to do ‘Newsies.’”
Covert’s love for theater stemmed from a love of storytelling as both a form of escape and a form of participation. She began acting in high school, where she also developed a passion for directing. After high school, she attended Ball State and majored in both directing and stage management and English.
Covert graduated from Ball State in 2006 and moved to Chicago before becoming an English teacher at Hamilton Heights. In 2016, she started working at Civic Theatre, where she has directed “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “Of Mice and Men,” “9 to 5” and “Matilda,” which was the last show the Civic Theatre hosted before the COVID-19 pandemic.
Auditions for “Newsies” began last November. Wanting to rediscover her love of musicals, Natalie Meyer, Ball State junior theatre creation major, decided to audition. Meyer was previously a musical theatre major at Ball State but changed her path in spring 2020 to have more opportunities after graduation. She had appeared in “The Gift,” a virtual show hosted by the Department of Theatre and Dance, in November 2020. She said she hadn’t been in a “real” show that hasn’t been hosted by a school since high school, which was part of the reason she auditioned for “Newsies.”
“I was just missing it, and I wanted something that would be a fun, not super time-consuming … or super stressful experience,” Meyer said. “I just wanted to find a love for it again.”
Meyer has been dancing since she was 2-years-old, when her soccer coach jokingly told her parents she’d be better in cheerleading or dance. Dancing has since become a talent of hers, and when she auditioned for “Newsies,” she was able to skip the dancing workshop portion. After arriving at the theater, she filled out the paperwork to sign up for an audition. When it was her turn, she went on stage.
“I sang my song … and then we got put in a holding room to kind of warm up while they were switching groups,” Meyer said. “I went to the dance call [where] we learned … one of the numbers in the show.”
Meyer stayed for callback and received the cast list a few days later, although the crew said it would take at least a week. After getting a part on the dance team, a group of cast members with nameless roles who dance on stage with the main cast, Meyer and the rest of the team met every Sunday until after Ball State’s winter break. Throughout January, the team met twice a week and, eventually, several times a week with the rest of the cast.
Another cast member, Shyanne Mitchell, is a junior theatre creation major like Meyer. Her love for theater began with improv comedy in middle school, a passion she’s maintained through her involvement with the ABSO Improv Comedy troupe at Ball State.
Mitchell performed in “Newsies” for the first time in 2019 at The Main Stage, Inc., in Mishawaka, Indiana, playing Medda Larkin. Last September, she performed in her first production at the Civic Theatre, “I Can(‘t) Handle This,” directed by Tyler Robertson. Two months later, she auditioned for “Newsies” and got the role of Josephino Jorgelino de la Guerra — or JoJo, for short.
“I actually did not want to be a newsie,” Mitchell said. “I wanted to be a dance-team newsie or Medda Larkin, since I played that part before. I was just kind of assigned this role. Brittany asked me after my audition, ‘Would you take a named newsie?’ and I was like ‘Yeah, sure.’”
Despite Covert, Meyer and Mitchell all working on the same musical, the thing that drew each of them to “Newsies” in the first place is unique.
For Mitchell, it was the dancing, as she participated in the workshop and saw the production as a way to develop her skills. Although her role as a newsie means she doesn’t dance as much as Meyer and the rest of the dance team, she said it remains an important part of her performance.
Meyer, however, was drawn to the musical for its subject matter, specifically in relation to what she said is an increasingly divisive social climate.
“Especially in the climate that we’re currently living in, being able to bring people together when they see a problem and knowing that there’s a problem and just stopping what you are doing to come together to fight that problem, I think it’s a really beautiful and important story to get across,” Meyer said.
Covert has always been more fascinated with the story of Joseph Pulitzer, the New York World publisher whom she said is vastly misrepresented in the musical.
The story of “Newsies,” loosely based on the Newsboys’ strike of 1899, begins with a choice Pulitzer made at the height of the Spanish-American War to raise the price of a newsboy’s bundle of papers by 10 cents, which cut into their profits. Although this decision was made by many newspaper publishers at the time, Pulitzer's New York World was notable because it didn’t reverse course after the war.
“He’s actually the opposite of how he’s portrayed in this — he absolutely hated that he had to make this decision,” Covert said. “He not only changed his mind, apologized for it, but then became one of the biggest proponents of child labor laws of his time. And there’s a beautiful story in that that I wish we could put into our society of room to change your mind and room to be wrong about things.”
As Covert speaks, she oftens turns in her chair to direct the rehearsal happening behind her. Pullings continues directing the rehearsal from the center of the auditorium, but Covert, even as she talks about the importance of the villain with her back turned to the stage, seems completely aware of her surroundings.
The organized chaos of the rehearsal takes on a different image when coupled with the plot of the show. “Newsies” is ultimately a story of a group of people coming together, determined to reach a common goal. To Covert, the immense cast of the musical represents a similar image.
“It’s more than 100 people that are making this show possible, who are joining together daily to tell this story [of] the lucky group of street urchins joining together to take on something so huge, ” Covert said. “This is just a giant show … and I think it really represents who we are.”
Contact Joey Sills with comments at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @sillsjoey.