Three summers ago, Damon Gillespie was dancing on the Jukebox Junction stage at Lake Winnepesaukah. This week he made his Broadway debut.
Gillespie, a 2012 graduate of Chattanooga Center for Creative Arts, has been cast as Buttons, part of the newsboys ensemble in Disney Theatrical Productions' musical, "Newsies," at the Nederlander Theatre in New York City.
"I'm living the dream," says the 20-year-old dancer in a phone interview.
Gillespie had just been cast in the national touring company of "Newsies" when he was called up to New York on June 2. He had 20 days to learn the Broadway show's choreography before making his debut on Monday night, June 23. Ironically, the day before his debut, Disney Theatrical announced "Newsies" would close on Aug. 24 after a run of two years and more than $100 million in box-office receipts, but dwindling ticket sales in recent months.
Attempts to reach Gillespie after word of the closing were unsuccessful this week, but even two months on a Broadway stage adds a strong credit to Gillespie's resume.
"Damon is extremely talented and a quick study," says local choreographer Lindsay Fussell, who taught Gillespie dance at CCA and the Chattanooga Theatre Centre for six years. "He taught himself to tap dance by studying YouTube videos. Any new things I would throw him, he would pick up quickly."
"Newsies" is a musical loosely based on the New York City newsboys strike of 1899 and also on the 1992 movie musical by the same name (also a Walt Disney production). The stage show is led by charismatic ringleader Jack Kelly (played by Corey Cott), and the newsboys ensemble is the equivalent of an all-male chorus. Each newsboy has a distinct personality, often reflected by his nickname, and it is up to the actors to develop their characters.
Gillespie describes Buttons "as kind of the weird kid because he's very OCD about buttons. Buttons on clothing are his obsession. He has to make sure he has just the right amount on himself, and sometimes he may even steal buttons for his collection. He is a physically strong character who sometimes has a quick mouth."
"Newsies" opened in the Nederlander Theater in 2012, and its creative team reads like a Who's Who of Broadway: Music by Alan Menken ("Little Shop of Horrors," "Beauty and the Beast"); book by four-time Tony winner Harvey Fierstein; and lyrics by Jack Feldman ("Idiots Karamazov" and "Home Alone 2"). Former Chattanoogan Steven Malone is musical conductor for the show.
But it's the choreography that has separated "Newsies" from other musicals on Broadway. The dances by Christopher Gattelli won Tony and Drama Desk awards in 2012 for Best Choreography.
Entertainment Weekly praised: "The standouts remain ensemble numbers and they pop thanks to Christopher Gattelli's aggressively acrobatic choreography and a high-flying male chorus who will likely drive future 'So You Think You Can Dance' contestants to belly up to the barre."
The dances combine ballet, tap dancing on tables and chairs, pirouettes, backflips, cartwheels, slides and even shuffle steps upon sheets of newsprint. It is a two-hour endurance test that Fussell claims is the "hardest and best dancing" she's ever seen on Broadway.
Gillespie puts the show's dance workout into layman's terms.
"It's like getting on a treadmill set on 10, running for a good two hours, taking a five-minute break before running up stairs for three hours -- and while running the stairs you jump and do backflips off them."
THIRD TIME'S THE CHARM
The stamina needed for a newsboy is why Gillespie was rejected three times at auditions before being cast. The third time was the charm because the young dancer had the determination and perseverance to succeed.
After leaving CCA, Gillespie went to Chicago to study musical theater at Roosevelt University. While there, he auditioned before "Newsies" went to Broadway and the feedback he got was that he wasn't ready. He was told to work on his technique and that he needed to "get into more dancing" before coming back.
He worked on his technique for a year and a half, then returned.
"I had been taking ballet classes, and the feedback I got then was I had improved my voice and the team loved my dancing, but I still needed more tweaking," he says. "They were worried whether I could do eight shows a week and not hurt myself. They wanted me to work on transitions (doing one dance move and coming out of it into another move.)"
So he went back to school and began what he nicknamed his Boot Camp Year because of its physical and mental work.
"I woke up for an 8 a.m dance class, went to school from 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Then, from 6:30 to 10:30 at night, I was in rehearsals. It was very strenuous."
During his third visit to New York in April, he was cast in the national touring company of "Newsies," which launches in October. Before rehearsals even began, he got a call from his agent that he was wanted for the Broadway company because they needed an immediate replacement. Twenty days later he was tapping in a Broadway musical.
Allan Ledford says his former student's determination to succeed shows his maturity because he listened to his feedback and followed through. Gillespie was a musical theater student of Ledford's and Jason Whitehead's at CCA, and Ledford also was his summer instructor in the Choo Choo Kids' musicals at Lake Winnie.
"They would have never told Damon 'We need you to work on technique' if they hadn't seen potential," says Ledford. "They wanted him, but they knew he wasn't in shape to do eight shows a week. To Damon's credit, he listened to what they told him they wished to see, and he went and did it.
"There are people who come to auditions who don't take 'no' for an answer, but they don't want to do the work to be better the next time they audition. I know that's what made the difference in this case."
Contact Susan Pierce at email@example.com or 423-757-6284.
Susan Palmer Pierce is a reporter and columnist in the Life department. She began her journalism career as a summer employee 1972 for the News Free Press, typing bridal announcements and photo captions. She became a full-time employee in 1980, working her way up to feature writer, then special sections editor, then Lifestyle editor in 1995 until the merge of the NFP and Times in 1999. She was honored with the 2007 Chattanooga Woman of ...