GYPSY OF THE MONTH: Jess LeProtto of 'Newsies'
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by Adrienne Onofri
In 1899 they were tough-luck kids scraping to get by. In 2012 they're the toast of Broadway. They are the poor newsboys of turn-of-the-century NYC who staged a strike against newspaper barons Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst to protest an increase in what the boys had to pay for the “papes” they then sold to the public.
Thanks to their high-leaping, repeat-pirouetting, backflipping dance numbers, the Newsies are among the most honored performers—and biggest crowd-pleasers—of the theater awards season. Jess LeProtto and his castmates in the title roles of Newsies are signed to ensemble contracts like chorus members of other Broadway shows, but they're really the stars of the new Disney musical. They even get to take individual curtain calls. And they're attracting hordes at the stage door just like some of the Hollywood stars currently performing on the Great White Way.
LeProtto portrays the Newsie named Buttons, who plays the spoons, is often scratching himself because of fleas and—according to the backstory LeProtto conceived for the character—is named Benjamin Davenport but got his nickname because buttons keep falling off his clothes. At just 19 years of age, LeProtto is appearing in his fourth Broadway show. As a child, he covered the role of young Peter Allen in the Hugh Jackman-headlined Boy From Oz; as a teenager, he was a Little Who in How the Grinch Stole Christmas! for two holiday seasons and later one of the Sweet Apple students in Roundabout Theatre's Bye Bye Birdie revival starring John Stamos.
But he's had his biggest audiences on TV, competing on So You Think You Can Dance last year. LeProtto made it to the top eight on SYTYCD, earning a spot on the show's North American tour that followed the Season 8 airing. Due to the So You Think You Can Dance tour, LeProtto was not in the cast of Newsies for its world premiere at New Jersey's Paper Mill Playhouse last fall.
He's done plenty of performing in New Jersey, though, as it's where LeProtto was raised and still lives (with his parents). He participated in school plays even after he'd been on Broadway, playing such roles as the Emcee in Cabaret, Max Bialystock in The Producers, Applegate in Damn Yankees and Pseudolus in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. “I wanted to do as much performing as I could, in front of an audience, doing what I love,” LeProtto says.
He attended his local public high school, Passaic Valley Regional, and trained at For Dancers Only in his Jersey hometown of Little Falls from the age of 3. LeProtto first went to the dance studio when his older sister started taking classes—which he would watch through the crack of the door, until his mother went ahead and enrolled him as well. His father, Gary, had been a professional actor (he danced in the movie Grease) and now works at the same New Jersey middle school as Jess' mother and sister. His sister also gives tap dancing lessons, and his brother's a performer too, playing drums in a reggae band on the Jersey Shore.
By age 5 Jess was taking singing lessons, and soon after he began to audition for shows. His pre-Broadway credits include the off-Broadway musical The People Garden at the York Theatre and a touring production of the Radio City Christmas Spectacular in Nashville. In 2004, at the age of 11, he was a standby for young Peter in The Boy From Oz and went on in the role once. He didn't receive his Equity card until he returned to Broadway in Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas! in 2006, and he was in the yuletide show's cast the following season too. LeProtto also appeared in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn at City Center Encores! In 2005.
So he went into the So You Think You Can Dance auditions with Broadway his specialty genre—a rarity among contestants on the reality hit. He was selected from regional auditions to move on to the next round in Las Vegas and used the six months before it started to brush up on the dance styles he wasn't as strong in, such as hip-hop and ballroom. In Vegas, LeProtto advanced to SYTYCD's top 30, which got him invited to Los Angeles—where the field would be whittled down to the 20 dancers that the televised episodes focused on. His special training for the show paid off, as So You Think You Can Dance host Cat Deeley announced, “My Broadway boy has become a B-boy” after his hip-hop performance. LeProtto's performances on SYTYCD also included tapping to Michael Bublé's cover of the Beatles' “Can't Buy Me Love” and showing off his musical theater panache with Chicago's “Me and My Baby.”
In Newsies, LeProtto's fellow newsboys include three SYTYCD contestants from earlier seasons: Alex Wong, Thayne Jasperson and Evan Kasprzak. But much of the fan fervor surrounding Newsies stems from the cult following of the 1992 film version. The movie was a box office flop but over the years via TV and video developed a Gen-Y fanbase large and devoted enough to earn a nickname, Fansies. “They’re the ones that made it happen in the first place,” LeProtto says, giving the fans credit for Disney's decision to adapt the movie musical for the stage. “When we do ‘Seize the Day’ and they just roar, it’s the most amazing feeling. I’ve never felt that feeling from an audience after a dance number. Then we get to the stage door and they’re going crazy!”
LeProtto himself didn't grow up on repeat viewings of the Newsies movie (he was more of a Gene Kelly fan), but he knew the song “King of New York” from dance competitions and the show choir to which he once belonged. Now he's performing it nightly to rapturous ovations. LeProtto says he learned the whole show in just 12 days, as post–Paper Mill, Newsies had only three weeks of rehearsals—a shorter period than typical for Broadway. “It’s like an express bus, in some ways, from when we first started to where we are now,” he says. “There’s, like, no stopping.”
Newsies opened at Paper Mill just as Occupy Wall Street was launching, unintentionally musicalizing the 99% vs. 1% message of the protest movement. “It’s nice that we’re celebrating this type of thing that’s going on in our world,” says LeProtto, adding, “The newsboys strike of 1899 was the first [time] kids wanted to stand up for what they believe,” just as some young Occupy supporters have been motivated for the first time to challenge the power structure. LeProtto and his castmates were provided with photos of the real newsboys and a timeline of their strike in rehearsal. “It’s really cool to relive that, and then give it new life on stage,” he says.
There may be one downside to the show's success for LeProtto. He's planning to enroll at Pace University as a musical theater major in the fall—or at least he was before Newsies was extended from a summer engagement to an open-ended run. Further in the future, “I hope I get to pursue a career in choreography,” states LeProtto. He also may try his luck in the business in L.A. As “an East Coast person,” he was surprised to discover while doing So You Think You Can Dance that “I never felt more chill and relaxed in my life, even though I was on a TV show. I’d like to go back and see what’s out there, because the dance world is very different from here.”
LeProtto did have a part on a television show this season. In a recent episode of Smash, he danced in the Bollywood number, “A Thousand and One Nights,” right up front, next to star Raza Jaffrey (as Dev). He was interviewed by ABC News for a Nightline segment on Newsies earlier this month. And he'll be performing June 10 on the Tonys, where Newsies is up for eight awards, including Best Musical and Best Choreography.
Photos of Jess, from top: as Buttons in Newsies; performing in 2011 on So You Think You Can Dance; in a headshot; bottom left, with Kara Lindsay (right) and other Newsies in the hit musical. [Newsies photos by Deen van Meer]