Ben Fankhauser, “When you are with a character for so long, it kind of grows and develops with you”

How was it like going from a regional production to Broadway? Was it expected at times? 

It was like a snowball effect. It happened so quickly, without us even realizing it. It was just one of those things that was so surreal. You know, we had no intention of going to Broadway. It was just this little production at the Paper Mill Playhouse but before we knew it, there was interest and they were all kinds of rumors. I think we closed in October and started rehearsals for the Broadway production in January. 

Yes, it was totally unexpected. But do you think it’s because the people loved it so much that it became such a popular show? 

Yes, absolutely! I think the run did so well at the Paper Mill Playhouse that Disney saw a real opportunity to open the show on Broadway for a limited engagement. 

And then the show became so popular there as well. 

Exactly. It started as a limited engagement and it became a success! So they made it an open-ended run and then it ran for two and a half years. And here we are, ten years later!

You made your Broadway debut with Newsies as Davey, how was it like? 

A dream come true. I mean, I was a big fan of the movie growing up, so I l was very familiar with the story and the characters. So to get cast as that role [Davey] felt iconic to me. It really was a dream come true to be able to put my stamp on it! 

You had such a long run with Newsies, going from the regional production to the Broadway production, so what would you say were your favorite moments? 

The thing that comes to mind immediately is doing the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade before we even knew we would go on Broadway. And then, when we were on Broadway, the things that stick out to me are doing big television shows like Dancing With The Stars, performing at the Tony Awards and Good Morning America

But there are so many milestones! Just to name a few are those media milestones and of course, our opening night on Broadway and our one year anniversary. Each thing was better than the last. 

It feels like it was always more and more and more! 

It really was, yes! 

But if you could only pick one, what would be your favorite memory from playing Davey in Newsies

I think performing on the Tony Awards. I grew up watching the Tony Awards and it was my dream for so long and to finally be on that stage and be in that moment, felt so surreal. I couldn’t believe it was actually happening. I didn’t really expect it and there it was. 

The show carries a strong message of fighting for your rights and not letting anyone strip you of them. 10 years later, do you think the message of the show still resonates as much, especially in the world we’re living in today?

Absolutely! There was a big political movement happening when we opened on Broadway [the “Occupy Wall Street” movement of 2011-2012] and it felt like the right time. But you know, living in a democratic society, there are always going to be debates, there are always going to be people standing up against big corporations, to make themselves seen and heard. This is why I think it’s a timeless story. In a world with ever-evolving media, that also plays a part. When you think back to the actual time of the newsboys in 1899, even just having new newspapers was an ever-evolving media for them. So now, a generation or two later, we are still evolving with the times and so I think that story will always be an important one to tell. And also, I think it’s a universal feeling as a young person, growing into their adulthood, to think “when do you get to have your place at the table?”, and “when do you get to finally speak up for your needs and not be treated as a kid?”.

And not to mention the theme of labor unions! One thing that comes to mind is big corporations like Amazon. Amazon is notorious for treating their workers unfairly and not giving them enough wages or breaks and that makes me think immediately of the newsboys strike of 1899. These guys were just saying “our wages are being cut, this is impossible for one person to carry all these newspapers at one one time, so we need to change the rules and we have to come together to do it.” That’s why I think Newsies’ legacy is timeless. 

If we can talk about the song, “The World Will Know” for a minute. This song is probably the most iconic song of Newsies and it takes place at such a turning point of the show, especially for the newsboys. How did it feel like to deliver such a message every night to the audience?

I’ll tell you, the cool thing about being an actor is that you get to express feelings that normally you don’t get to express in real life. It may be anger or anxiety, fear and sadness or great joy and happiness. Sometimes in life, depending on where we are, we might not be able to express those kinds of emotions, but on stage, it’s your job! We express ourselves in order for the audience to see themselves through our eyes. And to get to stand downstage center and wail at all the things in my personal life that felt like “oh I feel stuck here” or “I feel like I’m not being seen or heard”, I could really use that and channel that through the story that I was telling. That’s one of my favorite things about being an actor, getting to sort of siphon my human experience into a story for the people to see. That’s why I do what I do. 

[The World Will Know] was a great thrill every night, getting to sing that song in particular. It’s one of triumph but also anger and conviction and determination and also frustration. It was, and still is, an exciting number.

You talked about being someone else on stage but you played Davey for so long! What was your relationship like with your character? 

That was an interesting journey. When you are with a character for so long, it kind of grows and develops with you, the actor. One of the great challenges was to keep reinvesting in Davey’s story and finding the separation between myself, the actor, and Davey, the character. And there were some days, a few years into the run where I felt a certain kind of maturity as an actor but I couldn’t necessarily get over that maturity for the character because he hadn’t reached that stage yet. So that was a great challenge: how do I grow as an artist and how do I keep my character fresh without changing the given circumstances? I found that to be a great challenge but it was also very rewarding and fun. Like with anything, time gives art depth. And as I was evolving as an actor, I was able to dive deeper into some of the scenes and find more nuanced moments. 

You originated the character of Davey in the show. Were you able to incorporate some of your personality into the character as you were bringing him to life? 

I would say less? I approached the character like I would with any other role which is looking at the script, looking at what the character wants, what is in the character’s way, how they are gonna go about what they want, what is their relationship with everyone around them… I did this kind of analysis work and it was less of like, “who am I and how can I bring myself into the role?” and more of the ease of knowing that no matter what I do, it’s right. There is no precedent set that I have to hit a certain mark. I just know that, at this moment, he is determined to get the message across to his friend. And well I know that in my personal life, when I am determined to get my message across I sometimes try to speak at a slow pace to get them to understand, and other times I’ll try to yell at a fast pace to get them to understand. That’s the way I was able to use myself for the role, but it was mostly that ease of knowing that I can’t do any wrongs. That’s the gift of originating a role. However you see that moment is the way that moment is going to play out. 

You played Crutchie in an unofficial adaptation of the movie at day camp when you were younger and then went on to portray Davey on Broadway, was it a full circle moment for you? 

It’s another one of those moments that feels so surreal. It’s also one of those moments when you feel spiritually like “I am exactly where I am supposed to be”. It felt like a full circle moment and it almost gives me goosebumps because it’s like “Is this a coincidence? Has this been meant to be the whole time?”. Those kinds of moments give me chills. And as I said, I was a huge fan of the movie, the original 1992 movie and because I’ve done this unofficial production at day camp and because I knew the story in and out, the songs backwards and forwards, when the audition came to me I thought “oh, how fun!” because I love this material! Also the audition process was very quick and I was the last person to be cast. They were looking for months for a Davey and I don’t know if they had one or if the other guy dropped out, I don’t really know what happened but I do know that I was cast in two days and that I feel like it was meant to be. I think back at the time and I remember telling myself “just take this in, remember it. Try to take a mental picture of the things around you to remember this time.”  

Newsies forever! but what’s next for you now? 

Well, 10 years later, I am still acting and I am in a musical right now [A.D 16 at the Olney Theatre Center]. I’m still working and I’m still interested in getting out there and making original theatre for people and entertaining the masses. But I’m also interested in conveying the human experience so that people might feel less alone. I have also been doing some writing: this fall I co-wrote “A Commercial For Regina Comet”, an original musical, with a friend of mine – Alex Wise – and we both starred in it. So I have been getting into writing and I have been doing some teaching, which has been great because I always felt like I was sort of a natural born teacher. 

That’s one of the other things I love about theatre: it really is a craft that is passed down. You can’t open a textbook and learn how to be an actor, it’s about communication from person to person and how you pass it down from generation to generation. I have had great mentors and teachers throughout my life that have passed their wisdom down to me and you know, we are 10 years later, I am in my thirties, it feels like it’s time for me to start passing that torch onto the next younger generation. 

Also, still keeping an optimistic eye on the future. Even though I have established myself as an actor in this industry, there are still moments where I am not sure what’s next and that’s just part of the business. I’m just enjoying the ride! 

That’s one of the other things I love about theatre: it really is a craft that is passed down.

We do have one last question! We know it’s been 10 years since you first opened Newsies on Broadway, but if the opportunity was there, would you ever come back to playing Davey? 

It’s a tough question! You know, probably, if the opportunity was there. Well I am getting older at this point, but I can’t quite even express the special place that Newsies has in my heart because not only do I love the story, not only do I love the character, especially a character that I created and that feels like an extension of me, there is also the business aspect. It gave me a big break and opened so many doors for me! It holds the most special place in my heart for those reasons. 

Well, I’m sure the upcoming London production would be delighted to have you back as Davey one last time! 

Well, if they call me, I would be happy to come to London! (laughs)

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