By Max Berlinger
Photography by Jimmy Fontaine
Eight floors above the intersection of Broadway and West 42nd Street, Jeremy Jordan sits in a Times Square office, tearing off chunks of a pre-packaged sandwich and happily shoving them into his mouth. It’s a little more than a month before Newsies the Musical opens, starring Jordan as Jack Kelly, a role originated by Christian Bale in the 1992 movie about the real-life Newsboys Strike of 1899.
“This is a huge responsibility,” Jordan says cautiously between bites, his blue eyes shielded by a ratty Dallas Cowboys cap. “I remember being eight years old and seeing it in the theater. This movie means a lot to people in my generation.”
And while Bale made his mark in the role back when he was still a fresh-faced teenager, Jordan’s certainly not living in the actor's shadow.
Indeed, the 27-year-old Texas native first tackled the role during a four-week run at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse last fall -- “So this doesn’t feel too daunting,” he says of headlining the show, before taking a moment to pause and let the reality sink in. He lets out a nervous laugh and adds, “But I’ll be freaking out in a month.”
He doesn’t seem like the type who needs to worry. His handsome features and an effortless, soaring tenor have garnered Jordan a reputation as a heartthrob—particularly following his turn as a silver-screen romantic lead in January's Joyful Noise and the critical praise he received for his Clyde Barrow in the Broadway musical, Bonnie & Clyde.
Mention his heartthrob status, though, and you’ll deflate Jordan’s casual-confident posture and prompt him to cover his face. “I want people to think of me as a good singer and actor,” he says. “I want to be respected for my talent, for my craft.”
In fact, those are just the things his coworkers have to praise. “He’s a bona fide triple threat,” says Harvey Fierstein, who is responsible for the musical’s new book. “He’s not afraid to fully commit, he’s not self-conscious in that way. He has that thing -- which you can never really put your finger on -- that separates an incredibly talented individual from someone who can become a star.”
Fierstein has distinct memories of the film that inspired his latest show. “I used to play it for my nephews when I would babysit, and they liked it. It had energetic music, but it’s a pretty awful movie,” he says in his signature croak.
This version of Newsies was born when Fierstein casually pitched the idea to his friend -- incidentally, the film’s composer -- Alan Menken: “Alan said, ‘We’ve tried to do the show over the years, but it doesn’t work.’ And I said, ‘Oooh, I love a challenge!’ ”
Fierstein has tinkered with the plot, adding a love interest and using the central Newsboys Strike as a springboard to explore youth-driven protests. When a comparison to the recent Occupy movement is mentioned, he says, “Oh, believe me, it’s not lost on us.”
Still, Newsies purists will be happy to hear that, while the original script received a major overhaul, almost the entire score has been kept intact.
Finishing his lunch and preparing to return to rehearsal, Jordan says, “I know that people are attached to this movie, but there will always be Newsies-the-movie in the exact same form. Why put the exact same thing onstage? Why not experience it in a whole new way?”
Newsies the Musical opens March 29 at the Nederlander Theater in Manhattan.