'Newsies' choreographer draws on his background

Associated Press
In this March 29, 2012 photo provided by Disney On Broadway, choreographer Christopher Gattelli attends the opening night of the musical "Newsies" in New York. Gattelli, who just earned his second Tony Award nomination for the high-energy show, doesn’t actually need to be there and his work is technically long done. But the former dancer in Gattelli wants to make sure the young dancers are being safe. (AP Photo/Disney On Broadway)

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In this March 29, 2012 photo provided by Disney On Broadway, choreographer Christopher Gattelli attends …

NEW YORK (AP) — Seventeen young dancers stop horsing around on the Nederlander Theatre stage as Christopher Gattelli approaches.

They've been practicing his high-energy moves in the empty house after a day off and Gattelli wants to make sure they're all feeling OK.

Is anything starting to hurt? If a jump is painful eight times a week, he reminds them, it can be changed. A transition can be adjusted. Don't forget to stretch, even between shows. Above all, stay safe.

The message is heard loud and clear. "We love you!" the 17 shout in unison.

Gattelli is not required to stop by the hit Broadway show "Newsies" these days, and he certainly isn't obligated to keep in touch with the dancers. But he was one and knows what they may be going through, especially as they add preparations for Tony Awards night.

"This is clearly a big month for them and I just want to say, 'Look, stay healthy,'" says Gattelli after the pep talk. "They're young and they think they're invincible. I've been there. I know that mentality."

Gattelli, 39, is a busy man these days — in addition to "Newsies," he's choreographed "Godspell" on Broadway, directed and choreographed the goofy parody "Silence! The Musical" off-Broadway, and is preparing to choreograph "Dogfight" at Second Stage Theatre next month. Later this year, he is choreographing "The Great American Mousical" for the Goodspeed Opera House.

But it's "Newsies," the stage adaptation of a 1992 Disney film, that seems to make him smile the most. It is, he thinks, the purest expression of the kind of dance he most enjoys — the thrilling combination of ballet spiced with bold athletic moves.

"This show means the most to me out of any project I've done because this is what I do. I trained as a ballet dancer and I trained as a modern dancer," he says. "I was these boys 20 years ago. This is exactly how I danced. So for me to tell a story in this way was the most comfortable and the most exciting for me."

The musical is based on the true story of scrappy child newspaper sellers in turn-of-the-century New York who go on strike when the price of papers goes up unfairly. They must battle scabs, crooked officials, business types like Joseph Pulitzer and fearsome strike breakers carrying metal pipes.

Alan Menken and lyricist Jack Feldman, who were responsible for the film's score, teamed up again to transform "Newsies" into a musical for the stage, reworking the songs and collaborating with a new story writer, Harvey Fierstein, known for his work in "Hairspray" and "La Cage aux Folles." There's a new romance added, but cult characters like Specs and Crutchie remain. The show on Wednesday announced it would have an open-ended run, having found high interest at the box office for its original 12-week planned stand.

Some nifty touches have earned Gattelli a Tony nomination for best choreography, including a sequence of synchronized dancing on real newspapers and his carving out of a few moments for each young dancer to spotlight their talents.

"I had them show off in the audition room," he says. "I was like, 'Show me what you can do. I want to see everything you can do.' They each had to make sense in the story. But I wanted to see what they could do. At the end of the show, when they take their individual bow, you can literally go, boy by boy, that's who did that, that's who did that, that's who did that. I love being able to give that to them."

One of those performers is Ryan Steele, who plays Specs. "Newsies" is his third Broadway show, and he stuns the crowd by doing 20 turns on a newspaper, in addition to some lung-busting runs up and down three flights of stairs.

"I've never worked with a choreographer as wonderful and easy to work with as Chris. Those moments are real gifts," says Steele. "It's exhausting but it's so worth it. It's so much fun."

Next month, Gattelli faces off against fellow choreographers Rob Ashford of "Evita," Steven Hoggett from "Once" and Kathleen Marshall of "Nice Work If You Can Get It." It is Gattelli's second nomination, the previous one coming for his work in 2008 on "South Pacific."

Gattelli grew up outside Philadelphia in Bristol, Pa., and trained to be a dancer. Actually, make that really, really trained: He learned ballet from David Howard, modern dance from Alvin Ailey and also tackled jazz, hip-hop and tap.

At 15, he would take high-school classes until 11 a.m., be driven to Trenton, N.J., to hop on a train for New York, where he'd study Ailey, finishing at 6 p.m. Then he'd get on a bus at the Port Authority and start classes at Dance World Academy in New Jersey at 7:30 p.m. By 10 p.m., his father would pick him up for the drive home.

Though he loved all dance, Gattelli had intended to focus on ballet, but found his 5-foot-7 frame a major challenge. "In my head I thought, 'Well, I can take this technique and I can take this training and maybe I'll try Broadway,'" he recalls.

His first Broadway show was as a replacement in "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" with Matthew Broderick, then parts in "Cats" and "Fosse." But he was already considering his future even before he sustained a back injury. "During 'Cats,' I started dabbling in choreography, thinking ahead: 'My body's not going to be able to do this forever. What will I do with my life?'"

A few one-night benefits got the attention of talk-show host Rosie O'Donnell, and she lured him to choreograph "The Rosie O'Donnell Show" for three seasons. He returned to choreograph "Bat Boy" off-Broadway and was soon hooked. "I would still audition for things every now and again, but I just love creating," he says. "The creation of it all — I fell in love with that."

When "Newsies" director Jeff Calhoun was given a short list of 10 potential candidates to choreograph the show, he was thrilled to see Gattelli's name. "Not only was he a great dancer, but he's a great storyteller," says Calhoun. "I didn't entertain another name on that list."

Gattelli approached the work with characteristic care. The dancers don't really move in unison at the beginning, only doing so when they've formed a union toward the end, with their feet pointed and their arms straight. They seem to leap with their chests, conveying their sense of pride. And when they show off with their back flips or spins, a sense of individuality remains.

"I know that it's rare to be in a show that can let you express yourself in the way that makes you special," he says. "That was a really important thing to me to be able to do for this group, especially with their talents — because they're insane."

That begs the question: Could Gattelli himself jump into the show if he had to? Could this former dancer do what he's choreographed?

"Not this one. Absolutely not," he says, laughing. "I'd be Crutchie."





Follow Mark Kennedy on Twitter at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits

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