About the author:
A protégé of Tommy Tune, Jeff Calhoun began his illustrious career as a dancer. He made his Broadway debut in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers before switching gears and finding great success as a choreographer, nabbing a Tony Award nomination for his choreography in the 1994 revival of Grease. Calhoun made his directorial debut in 1992 and received national acclaim for his work on the Deaf West production of Big River. This season, he directed two new musicals: the short-lived Bonnie & Clyde and the blockbuster Newsies, earning his first Tony nomination for directing. Broadway.com asked Calhoun to reflect on his rollercoaster of a year.
Tom Schumacher [president of Disney Theatrical Productions] asked me if I wanted to direct Newsies years ago. This was even before I saw an early reading of the script. That reading was my introduction to a young actor named Jeremy Jordan, clearly a star in the making. The music was infectious and, even at this early stage, sitting in folding chairs in a rehearsal room, the show had heart. I immediately said yes, but then I didn’t hear anything for quite a long time. I thought maybe they had scrapped the production. Then, out of the blue, Tom called and said they were going to do the show at the La Jolla Playhouse. I was very excited because I had just done Bonnie & Clyde there. The La Jolla plans ended up falling through, and it was decided that the Paper Mill Playhouse would be our home. I was thrilled, and I knew I wanted Jeremy Jordan to be our Jack Kelly.
The Paper Mill production was exciting, but we really only anticipated it being a limited engagement. That was the intention all along: to create something Disney could license to schools all over the world. They told us that up front; no one was being coy. We were all thrilled to be part of it for just that time. I think the lesson here is: You never know. There are shows you do because you think they will bring you money or glory (which is rarely the case), and then there are shows that just creep up on you, you have no expectations, and they end up changing your life. (This was also the case when I directed the Deaf West revival of Big River.)
Everyone was aware that after Paper Mill, Jeremy was committed to be our Clyde Barrow on Broadway in Bonnie & Clyde. Given that Paper Mill was only a "one off," none of us foresaw any possible conflict. That meant if there was a future beyond Paper Mill, we would have to recast the Jack Kelly role.
By the time Jeremy and I started Bonnie & Clyde, we heard that Newsies was indeed going to Broadway. Jeremy and I rarely spoke of the situation but clearly had conflicting emotions. We were in love with both shows. I feel like Newsies and Bonnie & Clyde are both children of mine. How do you pick a favorite? It’s impossible! And it was heartbreaking when we woke up to those disappointing reviews for Bonnie and Clyde.
It was a difficult period. I kept to myself and started to develop a thick skin for survival. After a month, I had an epiphany: With each new layer of my skin thickening, my heart was getting that much farther removed from the world. That’s what happens when we become jaded and cynical. This would be death for an artist who relies on love and joy for their creative process. I had to get over this self-indulgence and get back to work. Thank God I had Newsies! I guess things happen for a reason because I am not sure we’d be having the success that we’re having without all the stars having aligned. And one of those stars was Jeremy being available to be our lead actor in Newsies.
It was a godsend to be back in the rehearsal room with a new show. It’s a joy to watch our young newsies’ enthusiasm and passion for the theater as this new generation takes over a Broadway stage. I have never seen a male ensemble dance the way these boys dance. It’s a combination of their youth and choreographer Christopher Gattelli having the chance to soar.
It was emotional for me to see audiences respond to Newsies the way they did when we began previews. I kept waiting for that crash when the Newsies audiences would stop being that effusive. The good news is that we are still waiting.
It was an amazing week when the Tony nominations came out. I woke up early to hear the nominations read: Newsies got eight and, oh my God, Bonnie & Clyde got two! I just can’t tell you how excited and grateful I am that both shows were recognized by the highest honor our industry has.
Then, on that following weekend, I celebrated my wedding vows. It was about as good a week as I’ve ever had. I’m a tap dancer from Pittsburgh, and my dream was always to be a Broadway director and choreographer. With my first directing nomination comes a certain acknowledgement—I feel like I am achieving exactly what I set out to be as the little boy. It’s a wonderful thing to be living out your dream.