When the Disney musical “Newsies” returns to Charlotte Tuesday, its arrival will represent a homecoming of sorts for Jordan Samuels, a member of the cast.
Samuels, 21, knows Charlotte well – he spent his junior year of high school here as a student at Northwest School of the Arts, and he studied dance at the former North Carolina Dance Theatre, now Charlotte Ballet.
Samuels, who plays the role of Specs in the production’s ensemble, said he holds fond memories of growing up in Charlotte, a place he called an “awesome” arts town.
“It’s smaller (than some cities), but nonetheless, it still has all the things you need to be an artist,” he said during a recent telephone interview. “You have your dance areas, your singing, your music. Everything you need is in Charlotte. You’ve just got to find it, but it’s there.”
‘The power of friendship’
In this age of smart phones and the Internet, it might seem odd that theatergoers nationwide would still flock to see a musical production that features homeless boys in 1890s New York hawking newspapers for pennies to support themselves and, in some cases, their impoverished families. But “Newsies,” based on Disney’s 1992 musical film, is about far more than economic survival.
“It pretty much tells the story of the power of friendship, the power of unity,” Samuels said.” When you speak in groups, your voice gets heard in the community. It’s also about standing up for what you believe in.”
In the role of Specs, a close friend to lead character Jack “Cowboy” Kelly, Samuels said he gets to exhibit his acrobatic skills.
“Specs is one of the fireworks of the show, because I do a lot of flips, and they just happen to appear from nowhere,” he said. “I love playing him. It’s been one of my favorite roles so far.”
A nomadic life
A native of Columbia, Samuels said he cherishes the nomadic lifestyle of a performing artist, even the arduous travel schedule that takes him away from friends and family and the mother he calls his “rock.”
“Going to all these cool places and doing what I love is an opportunity a lot of people don’t have,” he said. “…I’ve seen the world for the first time with fresh eyes. I’m going out to all these new places and meeting new people.”
Samuels said performing is what he was meant to do – and he has been doing it since about age 3. At age 11, after his family had moved temporarily to New York, he landed a part in the Broadway production of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.”
“That’s when I knew I wanted to make (singing and dancing) my career, and I think I made the right choice,” he said. “I don’t have any regrets and I love my job.”
But when it comes to landing roles, love and success aren’t always synonymous. Samuels said he has heard the word “no” more times than he cares to remember – “over a hundred times, over two-hundred times. I’ve been auditioning since I was 10, so I’ve heard it a lot. I’ve heard it for the last 11 years. It does suck, but this is part of our job. You’re going to hear that and you’re going to have to move on.”
Samuels said he auditioned six times in three years trying to land a role in “Newsies” before he finally heard the word “yes.” At one point, he said, his mother asked him whether he truly intended to keep going back.
He told her he did.
“I’m human. Things get to me,” he said. “So I finally went back that last time, and I ended up here on tour and I’m glad I did that.”
Samuels has been with the traveling production since 2014 and was part of the show when “Newsies” came to Charlotte the following year.
An uncertain future
Even as Samuels savors his current success, a part of him is anxious, already looking down the road, wondering what comes next.
After leaving Charlotte, “Newsies” travels to Durham, Salt Lake City, Los Angeles, Tulsa, Oklahoma City and finally to Austin – the final stop for this production, where it wraps up on Oct. 2. And that’s where things grow somewhat murky for Samuels, the nomadic performer.
“I’ve been doing this for such a long time. I feel like once you’ve put in a certain amount of work and dedication to something you love, you should make a career out of it,” he said. “…Since I don’t have (another) job lined up, I’m just going to go back to New York and start all over again, start auditioning again, get my vocal lessons in and dance lessons, keep my body in shape, stay healthy and wait for the next opportunity to come around.”
Dates: August 9-14
Place: BELK THEATER at Blumenthal Performing Arts Center
Cost: $25 and up
This story was produced as part of the Charlotte Arts Journalism Alliance
Correction: The current traveling production of “Newsies” wraps up on Oct. 2 in Austin, Texas. An early version of this story named a different city.