Read all about it! The story behind Washington High School’s pilot production of ‘Newsies’

Washington High School was one of five schools in the nation chosen to produce Disney’s ‘Newsies’ ahead of opening it for general licensing. — photo by Struttmann Photo

A casual conversation between friends turned into a big opportunity for students and directors at Washington High School in Cedar Rapids.

“The Disney representative, Matt Hagmeier Curtis, who worked with Washington is a close friend of mine from high school,” said Jennifer Byers, a counselor at Washington. “We graduated from Jefferson in 2000. We were chatting one day about his job, and he mentioned Disney was looking for a few high schools with fall productions and really strong student performers to pilot Newsies. I suggested Washington and put him in contact with Kyle and Bill.”

Drama director Kyle Woollums and technical director Bill Lammers — along with Joel Nagel and Amy Farley, who handled instrumental and vocal music, respectively — were excited for the opportunity to be one of just five schools to work on the pilot project for the show. The WHS production played to full houses Nov. 9-11.

According to Lammers, Washington was appealing to Disney not just because of the personal connections, but because it is located far from the East Coast where schools may have access to a wider variety of resources, including theater professionals.

“They wanted to see what regular high schools do,” Lammers said.

Washington may be a “regular” high school by some definitions, but like many area schools, it has a long tradition of exceptional arts programs (full disclosure: both I and my son are WHS alums and were members of the school’s Thespian troupe). Even so, this opportunity offered something special.

“The honor and challenge of tackling new material was a major boost for our students and their learning,” Woollums said. “Any show offers learning experiences for those that work with them, but Newsies is special. The high-energy show that Alan Menken, Jack Feldman and Harvey Fierstein have created lands right at the center of current societal and political issues. It’s about the power of our young people and standing up for what’s right. Our students feel so often that their ideas and opinions don’t matter. This show allows them to see just how much change they can create — and hopefully it empowers them to take a stand in the future.”

Aside from a few initial workshops, Disney was hands-off during the production. — photo by Struttmann Photo

Lammers agreed that students were fired up for the project.

“I think the intangible is that this is something brand new and this is something that nobody else is doing,” he said. “That’s a huge motivator, I think. When you can tell kids that — not just in the state of Iowa, but in the country — there’s only five schools doing this and you can always say that you were one of that first, that pumps people up pretty quick.”

Curtis spent a few days with the cast workshopping various aspects of the performance, but other than that, Disney was fairly hands-off during the process.

“They were very interested in seeing what inspiration came from show itself,” Woollums said.

Other than that — and the fact that the drama department didn’t have to pay a licensing fee — the process was in keeping with the department’s standard practice.

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“There were no restrictions on Newsies that were out of the ordinary — just like any other show we would license normally, no changes can be made to the script without approval and show logos had to be used in specific ways,” Woollums explained. “In addition, Disney was interested in seeing an original version of Newsies, so they required that we produce a fully original production using no aspect of the Broadway or touring versions — designs, direction and choreography included. Creating unique productions of shows is a priority for our department — we’re not interested in recreating or restaging past versions of shows anyway, so it was a good match for our process as well.”

‘Newsies’ played to full houses at three performances earlier this month. — photo by Struttmann Photo

And what are the benefits of the process for Disney Theatrical Productions?

“Disney asked us to document our rehearsal and production process,” Woollums said. “We will submit feedback about triumphs and challenges in producing the show as well as a complete set of production photos and a recording of the show. All these documents together with feedback from other pilot schools will be used to create a production handbook distributed to other schools that produce the show once it’s available for general licensing.”

Woollums praises everyone involved in Washington’s production.

“The teamwork our cast, crew and directing team established was remarkable,” he said. “This show was challenging to produce — it is quite demanding musically and technically and requires a monumental amount of energy from the performers. I feel lucky to work with remarkably talented educators and students who are willing to give their all and collaborate to create something special.”

Lammers, who has been part of Washington’s drama team for 25 years, believes the project was good for the directing team, as well.

“It really motivated the directors,” he said. “It’s always exciting when you’ve got something that’s so new and people are thrilled about it. I don’t think I remember a cast being this well-prepared so early on. The kids just owned it. They just dug in, and they owned it. I think that’s why this is one of the best shows we’ve ever done since I’ve been here.”