Once upon a time, 11-year-old kids delivered newspapers as a first job. Not Jacob Kemp: He went onstage in Boston at that age with the respected Wheelock Family Theatre. Now, after graduating from Yale University with a degree in theater in 2010, he’s delivering newspapers.
Or not delivering them, as the case may be. He’s crossing America as Davey, one of the young heroes who battle New York publishers in “Newsies.” The national tour of the Disney-produced musical comes to Belk Theater Tuesday.
Kemp has done his homework on the actual 1899 strike, where young hawkers – often kids living in orphanages or on the streets – refused to deliver the New York World and New York Journal after publishers cut their slim pay. Newsies barricaded the Brooklyn Bridge, got the city on their side and won their case.
He’s also familiar with the 1992 Disney movie, which opened to lukewarm reviews and limp box office. He knows a cult audience built up over two decades, prompting Disney to rehire Alan Menken and Jack Feldman to write seven new songs for a 2012 Broadway musical. That show earned eight Tony nominations, winning for its score and Christopher Gattelli’s choreography, and played 1,005 performances before closing in August. The tour began almost immediately, with a ballad (“Letter From the Refuge” in Act 2) written especially for the road.
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Kemp was one of the few to jump aboard the “Newsies” train immediately as a boy.
“I’d been exposed to Disney stories growing up (in animated movies) where loose ends were all tied up,” he says. “They didn’t try to capture a literal truth. In the world I saw around me, that wasn’t the way things were.
“ ‘Newsies’ didn’t try desperately to sugarcoat things. It takes place during the Industrial Revolution; kids are dirty and live in orphanages, and some characters don’t have their lives changed. But it said, ‘If you raise your voice for what you believe in, great consequences can happen.’ ”
Kemp thinks kids who grew up with the Internet and social media are “shocked by the power of young men and women who pulled together when they didn’t have those things. They stood up against the greatest publishing empires of the time and won. So I hope this story empowers people to stand up for what’s right.”
The actor grew up himself just as modern media were changing the world, but he’d already seen his future: He decided to be an actor at 3 and never wavered.
“I did briefly want to work for the government as a spy. But I realized I wanted to use my talents that way because I was best at sinking into other people’s skins and playing characters. I felt lucky I knew exactly what I wanted to do. I’ve been working toward this goal since I was 8 or 9, begging my family to take me to auditions.”
He spent six seasons with Wheelock and went on to Yale to perform in classics such as “The Cherry Orchard” and “The Winter’s Tale.” How does classical training translate to playing a singing, dancing newsie in a famously acrobatic show?
“Well, ‘Newsies’ has drama: It’s a story with very high stakes,” he says. “A musical has a sense of heightened reality. There are no seams between songs, dances and scenes. We don’t speak in iambic pentameter in real life, and that’s how Shakespeare writes. So the skill set isn’t any different; I’m speaking on pitch and setting the emotions to melodies.
“Part of my job as an actor is to find a reality in the world of any play. Whether it’s Chekhov or a Disney musical or an opera, you bring an ensemble together to breathe the same air. In this case, we had three short weeks to do that with a cast that ranges from 8 years old to 60. To create that world is the greatest challenge you can have – and a great pleasure when you do it.”