For Zachary Sayle, being crowned the king of New York night after night never gets old.
A key cast member in Disney’s “Newsies,” Sayle’s character experiences an exuberant burst of political clout in every performance of the touring musical, now at Aronoff Center through March 13.
It’s a theme celebrated in the song, “King of New York,” a stand-out tune in the popular, Tony award-winning musical based on the true story of the newsboy strike of 1899.
Set in New York City, the musical follows charming newsboy Jack Kelly and his squad of newsies, or paper boys, as they go on strike to protest price increases set by publishing giants Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst. In the midst of the strike, the newsies experience their fair share of adventure and learn to stand up for what’s right.
Sayle, known by some for his roles in “A Christmas Story, The Musical!,” “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang!” and “The Sound of Music,” plays Crutchie, the disabled, yet optimistic best friend of Kelly. Sayle said that while the musical is based on a historical event, the lack of documentation about the strike has left much of the incident up to the imagination.
“The weird thing about the Newsboys Strike is it was very poorly documented,” Sayle said. “The main form of documentation in 1899 was the newspapers, and the fact that they were being struck against, they didn’t want to publish stuff about that. So there are very few articles that relate to (the strike). It’s a mysterious event in history.”
Even though the event is shrouded in uncertainty, Sayle said that real people inspired the characters.
“My character is based on someone who was mentioned in just two or three articles (about the strike) and his name was Crutch Morris,” Sayle said. “There are little pieces here and there but it’s weird because, normally, if you are doing a show about a historical event, there would be a lot more information.”
Before coming to the Broadway stage in 2012, the musical had its start in the 1992 movie “Newsies,” starring Christian Bale.
Sayle admitted he hasn’t seen the movie in its entirety, but said the movie and the play differ in plot, character arcs and mediums.
“The general skeleton of the story is the same, but there’s a lot of different plot points, especially with Crutchie,” Sayle said. “I say I differentiate from the movie because of the differences of the medium. The film and stage are very, very different mediums and I have to play for an audience that’s hundreds of feet away.”
He’s also interpreted the script and character relationships in his own way.
“I think my Crutchie is unique in that he is a little more confident than some of the other Crutchies have been,” Sayle said. “I think some people could take the script and the cripple thing and make him very meek and mild, but I decided to take it and make (him) more upstanding, especially because of (his) friendship with Jack. Jack is so confident that he would try and emulate that because he looks up to him.”
Jack’s lovable, tough persona has a lot to do with the popularity of the musical. When “Newsies” came to Broadway in 2012, it was nominated for eight Tony Awards, winning for choreography and best original score. It has since amassed a cult following, affectionately called the ‘fansies’.
Sayle said his favorite part about performing on the road is seeing the fans and giving them the “Newsies” experience beyond Broadway.
“Not many shows have the fan following that ‘Newsies’ has and it’s extraordinary, so the fact that we can take this show that is so beloved by all these people across the country and bring it to their cities is really cool,” Sayle said.
The underdog theme throughout the musical is what speaks to people and has helped Newsies create its incredible fan base, Sayle said.
Anyone can be a king of New York.
“We get some really moving letters sent to us about how the show has really changed (a fan’s) life for the better,” Sayle said. “To be part of anything that changes people’s lives for the better is a really amazing and humbling experience.”