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Christopher Gattelli sets ‘Newsies’ musical tapping in Chicago

The cocky, streetwise little newspaper boy is an extinct species these days. But during the century and a half when news truly did arrive hot off the presses — and when, in some big cities, as many as a half-dozen newspapers vied furiously for all-important street sales — those kids, often as young as 10, were the crucial link between the production line and the reader.

‘NEWSIES’

When: Through Jan. 4, 2015

Where: Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph

Tickets: $35-$110

Info: (800) 775-2000; BroadwayInChicago.com

Run Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission

“Newsies,” the Disney Theatrical Productions stage musical based on the 1992 film of the same name, takes audiences back to a pivotal moment in newspaper boy history as it recounts the famous real-life Newsboys Strike of 1899 in New York City. Its fictional hero, Jack Kelly, becomes the charismatic leader of a band of newsies — mostly teenage orphans and runaways — who launch a two-week strike action against publishing titans Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst after they raise distribution prices at the newsboys’ expense.

The show, which made its Broadway debut in 2012 and arrives in its national touring incarnation at Chicago’s Oriental Theatre (running Dec. 10-Jan. 4), features a book by Harvey Fierstein, direction by Jeff Calhoun and a score by Alan Menken and Jack Feldman that includes their beloved songs from the film (“Carrying the Banner,” “Seize the Day,” “King of New York” and “Santa Fe”), as well as seven new songs by the same pair. But the real stars of this production are choreographer Chris Gattelli (who won the 2012 Tony Award for his work) and his phenomenal ensemble of dancing boys.

Here is what Gattelli had to say about “Newsies” and more:

Q. “Newsies” is a fiendishly difficult show for its young actors who must dance up a storm as well as act and sing. Did you have trouble finding these triple-threat talents?

A. This is what excited me most about the whole process. When we held auditions for the original production, about 1,100 guys showed up, and it was really an embarrassment of riches. It was so inspiring to see this whole new generation excited about dance and so full of talent. The dancers in our current cast range in age from about 12 to 21, so a few are still in high school. And it’s amazing what this new generation of dancers can do.

Q. Did you do a lot of archival research about the dances to capture the show’s turn-of-the century setting?

A. The score was a major help in that because its draws on ragtime and other styles, but these are contemporary kids telling the story, so I tried to match that feeling, too, to express the anger and passion coming from inside the newsboys. More than anything, I looked at old photographs, finding the faces of those kids, seeing how they smoked, and played craps and shell games in the street. I tried to get inside their world, to sense how they spent their time at the end of the day, after hawking their papers. The Disney movie was very “dancey,” too, but in a different way, because it came out in the early 1990s when music videos were the big thing, so that was the contemporary style that permeated things.

Q. What was the greatest challenge in choreographing this show?

A. There are so many anthems in the score, and I had to find a way to make them all different while still maintaining that sense of the underdog rising up against injustice. So first it was a matter of suggesting the initial fire needed to fight the bosses — that seize-the-day quality as the boys realize they can become a brotherhood and that in unity they can become an army, function as a group, take action. But they’re still cocky kids, and so in one big number they literally kick up the papers that are their livelihood, ripping them and grinding them into the ground with their feet.

Q. Do you use real newspapers in that number?

A. That’s a funny story. When we first created the show we’d run downstairs to a kiosk and buy piles of the New York Times and The Post, and by the end of the day the rehearsal room was a mess. We tried burlap and felt substitutes, but went back to paper, and the Times actually printed period pages for us — with actual 1899 dates and headlines — and we kept reams of it backstage. On tour we travel with boxes of newspaper sheets.

Q. How did you get started as a dancer?

A. It’s a story straight out of “A Chorus Line.” I grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania. My sister took tap classes, I went to watch, and it just looked like so much fun. I began at 8, and loved it from the moment I started.

Q. You have a long list of choreographic credits, including the Lincoln Center revival of “South Pacific” and the Goodman’s production of “Jungle Book.” Do you ever think about directing?

A. Yes. I’m already working on a new version of “Top Hat,” the musical based on the classic Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers film that is full of beautiful Irving Berlin tunes. [It had a London production with a different creative team in 2013.] I’m also working on “In Your Arms,” a new “dance play,” that will feature 10 short scenarios [no dialogue] devised by such playwrights as Alfred Uhry, Carrie Fisher and Terrence McNally, with music by Stephen Flaherty [“Ragtime”]. Each piece will feature a different style — ballroom, tango, flamenco, African and others — and be danced by masters of that style. It’s set for a production at The Old Globe in San Diego in the fall of 2015.