Newsies: The Musical has taken a decade to reach the UK, following its sensational Broadway debut in 2012. But director Matt Cole says he is “100 percent confident” that it will be worth the wait.
“I’ve always inherently known how good the show is,” he enthuses. “I saw it back when it was on Broadway, and I’ve listened to it for years. I’m a huge fan of the show, and I’ve always wondered why we haven’t seen it over here.”
Adapted from the 1992 film of the same name, Newsies follows the story of a landmark newsboys strike that took place in 1899 New York. With a book by Harvey Fierstein, music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Jack Feldman, it ran for over 1,000 performances on Broadway.
"The music is brilliant – it’s uplifting, it’s dynamic, it’s exciting"
Cole attributes the show’s success to several key factors. “Firstly I think the music is brilliant – it’s uplifting, it’s dynamic, it’s exciting – they feel like songs we’ve known all our lives. Secondly I think people are excited by the youth in the show, and the high energy choreography. But also it’s a story about the underdog succeeding, and that always has universal appeal.”
We happen to be conducting our interview on a day of UK rail strikes, which Cole says is a reminder of the show’s continuing relevance. “This story takes place in 1899, and although we’ve come a long way since then, people still have to fight the establishment. Those newsboys were remarkable – the big bosses didn’t believe they would do it, but they just kept going.”
" The minute people walk into the theatre, our audience will be in Manhattan"
The production is being staged at the Troubadour Theatre, a state-of-the-art, fully flexible venue in Wembley Park. Cole says the story felt suited to an immersive telling, which puts the audience right in the heart of the action.
“From the minute people walk into the theatre, our audience will be in Manhattan,” he reveals. “Every element is about transporting people into a different world, and making them feel part of the story.” Although he is keen not to reveal any spoilers, he says that the scenes will take place among the audience, and move around the space.
This approach was partly inspired by an experience that proved transformative when he was a child – seeing Trevor Nunn’s renowned staging of Starlight Express. “I saw it on a school trip to London, and it was the first musical I’d ever seen,” Cole says. “That production was just magical to me, seeing the way the actors skated around the audience. I went straight home and said to my parents, ‘I want to work in theatre’.”
His father was a footballer, but he was supportive of his son’s theatrical ambition, and found a local dance school in The Yellow Pages. Cole remembers being the only boy in the class, as well as being quite a lot older than the other pupils – he was 13, and most of the other beginners were seven. But from these humble beginnings he eventually went to drama school and subsequently found work in a range of big productions; one of his first professional credits was Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.
As his performing career progressed he began to work as a dance captain, starting with Michael Grandage and Rob Ashford’s acclaimed production of Guys and Dolls. This developed his interest in directing and choreography, and before long he was doing it full time. In 2019 he earned his first Olivier Award nomination for his work as choreographer on Fiddler on the Roof – which was directed by none other than his childhood hero Trevor Nunn.
It’s been a stellar trajectory, and he is now one of UK theatre’s most in-demand talents. Alongside Nunn, Grandage and Ashford, he credits choreographer Karen Bruce and director Hannah Chissick as influencing his “narrative-driven” approach. “These people have always been about telling the story, and asking how the choreography is serving that. In the early days I didn’t have the answers, but now I can’t work in any other way.”
"It’s about the energy and the passion that someone brings into the room"
When it came to putting the creative team together for Newsies, he aimed high. “I asked a few people thinking ‘they’ll never say yes, they’re far too busy and important’,” Cole says. “But fortunately they were immediately excited by the idea.” They include previous collaborators such as musical director Nigel Lilley, who he worked with on Oklahoma! at Chichester Festival and is helping him write brand new choreographic arrangements, and associate choreographer Jane McMurtrie, who he describes as “the second half of my brain”.
And what of the cast? Although not announced at time of writing, Cole teases that we can expect something special. He and his team auditioned over 1,000 performers, including many new graduates. What were they looking for? “Fundamentally it’s about the energy and the passion that someone brings into the room. It’s something you can’t teach – they either live and breathe the way they dance, sing and act, or they don’t. It’s a big space to fill, so I was looking for big personalities.”
He adds that he is relishing getting started in the rehearsal room, not least because bringing Newsies to London will mark the fulfilment of a long-held dream. “If you’d asked me ten years ago to name the one show I wanted to direct one day, I would have said Newsies. So to get the chance to actually do it is beyond exciting.”
See Newsies the Musical at the Troubadour Theatre, Wembley Park. Secure your tickets today and book with Disney's official box office, Disney Tickets.