Newsies’ Andrew Keenan-Bolger carries the banner for Disney a fourth time
If you give Andrew Keenan-Bolger a bag of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, he will give you a Crutchie trading card. Disney has given each cast member of its new Broadway musical Newsies, based on the 1992 cult favorite film, 100 trading cards of their respective characters to distribute at will. I found this out when I sat down with Keenan-Bolger in his dressing room at the Nederlander Theatre when I presented my interviewee with what I had heard was his favorite snack. (I have card no. 62.) Keenan-Bolger, who plays lead newsie Jack Kelly’s disabled best friend, is making the screaming girls who crowd the stage door after every performance work for these collectors’ items. If they’re lucky, they’ll get a piece of what has been a golden year for Keenan-Bolger.
“I decided I was only going to give [the trading cards] out to people who give me Flamin’ Hot Cheetos or people who check my Twitter every day and give the password that I post,” Keenan-Bolger explained. He selected a catchphrase that is an inside joke between himself and his friends—“You must be joking.” “I thought that maybe someone would check it.” Much to the 26-year old’s surprise, awaiting him outside the stage door behind metal barricades was a cavalcade of girls screaming, “You must be joking!” “It’s crazy that the fans are that tapped in.” Keenan-Bolger, who is also a filmmaker and co-creator of the popular web series Submissions Only, has just under 10,000 Twitter followers, so he might want start thinking up cagier ways of making fans earn Crutchie cards.
Despite the daily hordes of Newsies enthusiasts, Keenan-Bolger never saw it coming. Newsies was never supposed to happen. Keenan-Bolger was asked to participate in the first reading of the musical and was told that it was simply so that Disney could license the musical to high schools and regional theater companies. However, a production cropped up at Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, New Jersey last fall, which garnered glowing reviews (and the beginning of that rabid fan base). Even then, the cast’s hope for a Broadway bow was discouraged. “The way Disney played it, they had completely undercut our chances for doing anything other than closing this production and having them sell it,” Keenan-Bolger said. When the production ended its run at Paper Mill, Keenan-Bolger hoped to return to Mary Poppins, where he had previously been playing Robertson Ay. “It wasn’t until we opened up the New York Times the day that everyone else found out we were going to Broadway; that was the day the newsies found out.”
Newsies marks Keenan-Bolger’s fourth production with Disney Theatrical Group. He made his Broadway debut in 1995 as Chip in Beauty and the Beast, later went on to tour with Mary Poppins before joining the Broadway company, originated a role in the stage version of Aladdin last summer at Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre, and is now a part of his first leading role in an original Broadway cast as the disabled, lovable Crutchie.
In the show, the newsies face serious opposition in their strike against Joseph Pulitzer when the newspaper magnate raises rates. Act I concludes with a brawl with Pulitzer’s thugs, which leaves the newsies badly beaten, particularly Crutchie. A substantial amount of the show’s emotional core rides with Crutchie, and if the audience isn’t hurt along with him, the show’s in trouble. “It’s tricky because going into the show, I have a lot of built-in sympathy because I have a crutch,” Keenan-Bolger said. “It’s really easy to get sick of that character quickly. I steer as far away as I can from him being this sweet, fragile Tiny Tim character. I want him to be a real tough guy. He thinks he’s just as strong as the other guys and he’s not looking for the sympathy.”
Crutchie might not want anyone’s pity, but Keenan-Bolger is certainly carrying the banner for young audience members afflicted with physical ailments. “I think it’s incredible portraying a member of the handicapped community,” Keenan-Bolger said. “I’ve signed a number of crutches at the stage door. I’ve met a lot of other disabled people that say they really feel like their story is being represented here.”
Disney specializes in characters that face personal obstacles, and the House of Mouse greatly influenced Keenan-Bolger growing up. Not only did he start his career in a Disney production, but also he was one of many boys in America that was taken by the tough kids in the film version of Newsies. “I think getting to see all those boys in the movie be really athletic and presenting musical theater as a cool thing was huge to us back in the 90s,” Keenan-Bolger said. “We didn’t have things like High School Musical and Glee to really put musical theater in the spotlight.”
Keenan-Bolger followed the acting track throughout his teenage years and is now a successful stage actor, along with his older sister Celia, who is also staring this Broadway season in Peter and the Starcatcher. “It’s definitely been a crazy year for the Keenan-Bolgers!” he said. On the day the Broadway cast was announced for Newsies, Peter and the Starcatcher, a critically acclaimed off-Broadway hit last spring, also announced its transfer. “On all the theater websites, the two main headlines were about my sister’s show and my show. That has got to be the proudest moment of my career so far.”
VIDEO: Watch Andrew Keenan-Bolger discuss the effect that his web series, Submissions Only, has had on his career and why he wants to be like Tina Fey.
With two Keenan-Bolgers on Broadway and another sibling, Maggie, who is a playwright and actress who has appeared on TV, the family is in great favor with the entertainment gods. Yet with their hectic show business schedules, it takes dedication to stay in touch. “We’ll have a K-B meeting at whatever restaurant in midtown that’s the in-between point between Celia’s and my theater,” Keenan-Bolger said. “Celia’s been so supportive and I feel so lucky to have another sibling in the business to follow and admire what she’s done with her career.”
Luckily, brother and sister will not be facing off at the Tony Awards this June, as their shows are split between the musical and play categories. Yet the potential of Broadway’s biggest night is something Keenan-Bolger can’t help but hypothesize about. “Of course, every show gets their hopes up. I think the audience response has been good enough that I hope we get nominated for Best Musical,” Keenan-Bolger said. “Just so long as we get to perform, I’ll be happy. I’ve never performed on the Tonys. Growing up, that was my one connection to New York theater. Once a year, you could see a little bit of Broadway on your TV set. Getting to perform on that would be just a dream come true.”
If Keenan-Bolger thinks for one minute that he and his crutch won’t be hobbling onto the Tony Awards stage with his fellow newsies, he must be joking.
What do you think of Andrew Keenan-Bolger’s performance in Newsies, Rushers? Did you fall in love with Crutchie? What do you think of his portrayal of a disabled character? What kind of role would you like to see him play next? What do you think are Newsies‘ chances at the Tony Awards in June? Leave your thoughts in the comments below, and tune into the next episode of Stage Rush TV for more footage with Keenan-Bolger.