“I wanted to be a writer,” Weehawken resident and Broadway actor Nick Sullivan said as he sat in front of the life-size cutout of himself dressed as Chuckles the Chipmunk that he has displayed in his window for the amusement of his friend’s son who lives across the street. It was a prop left over from his January performance as the lead character in Herb Gardner’s “Thousand Clowns,” on whom the Krusty character from “The Simpsons” was based.
“I ended up doing a play here and a play there, and I really liked it,” Sullivan said. Not only did he really like it, but he earned himself one of the – if not the most – coveted achievements in theatre: he made it to Broadway.
Sullivan plays Bunsen, accountant to the primary antagonist Joseph Pulitzer of Disney’s new musical, “Newsies.” It premiered at the Nederlander Theatre on March 29 after a test-run at New Jersey’s renowned Paper Mill Playhouse last fall.
“You can’t help having a part of your brain occasionally remind you, ‘You do realize you’re on Broadway, don’t you?’” – Nick Sullivan
“Whole generations of people have grown up with it,” Sullivan said. “I’m amazed at the number of people I’ve spoken to who’ve expressed their love and devotion to the show.”
Its theatre version appears to be faring far better than the movie. The mid-March, seven-day preview of the show raked in over $800,000, Sullivan said, “which, I believe, breaks a number of records at this theatre.”
And “Newsies” is all over the press; not just in theme, but with rave reviews in all the right papers, which generally bodes well for a show’s Broadway staying power.
“There are shows going on all over the country in regional theatre that are stupendous,” Sullivan said. “I’d like to say it shouldn’t matter that you’re there, but you can’t help having a part of your brain occasionally remind you, ‘You do realize you’re on Broadway, don’t you?’”
Strikes, Bunsen, and back flips
“‘It’s just a show at the Paper Mill,’ people told me, but when I walked in it was clear this was a Disney show of major proportions,” Sullivan said. “It’s had some rewrites since the movie and now it’s truly excellent.”
“Newsies” is based on the historical news boy strike of 1899, which marked one of the first major labor movements in the United States. Very poor and often homeless and orphaned young boys would buy papers from the news companies and sell them for a small profit, and were disallowed to return those they did not sell. They ended up making around 30 cents a day.
In the Broadway version, 17-year old Manhattan newsboy Jack “Cowboy” Kelly (played by rising star Jeremy Jordan) sells Joseph Pulitzer’s papers, mogul owner of the New York World. After Pulitzer raises the price of the papers, Jack organizes a strike, and Pulitzer’s accountant finds himself caught in the middle.
“What’s sort of nice about Bunsen is that he’s very smart, but he’s sort of the epitome of the ‘yes-man’ servant to a higher master,” Sullivan said. “So when Pulitzer says jump, I ask how high and execute a series of back flips – well, no, I don’t actually do that.”
But many of the characters on stage do. While Sullivan doesn’t perform acrobatic feats himself, he is boosted by the energetic presence of the scores of “Newsies” dancers who do. Some of these dancers, he said, are former competitors on the popular cable dance competition show, “So You Think You Can Dance?”
“The choreography is astonishing, and being on stage you just ride on that wave of energy,” Sullivan said. “It’s like being in a rock concert.”
The dancers are also accomplished gymnasts, and in the Broadway debut of the show, choreographer Christopher Gattelli decided to add spoons to the mix for some percussive flair.
“It’s insane,” Sullivan explained.
You know you’ve arrived when…
Sullivan received a master’s degree in acting from Rutgers University and moved to Weehawken in 1993 with some of his classmates. “Weehawken is extremely convenient for actors,” Sullivan said, “because the theatres, casting agencies, and studios are in midtown. There are a lot of actors living here; it’s just this swirling group of us.”
The town served as a launching pad for Sullivan’s lucrative acting career.
He also does film and television, and has played in “Our Idiot Brother” with Paul Rudd, “Good Wives,” and “all three flavors of ‘Law & Order,’” he said. He loved acting in “Thirty Rock” three years ago, and even had a two-and-a-half-year stint as Axel Green on “All My Children,” during which he played an Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor to Kelly Rippa’s character, Haley.
Though “Newsies” is making its Broadway debut, Sullivan is not. He played a Texas cop and country fiddler in “Footloose” in 1998.
“I’d like to think that those who make it are generally very, very good,” Sullivan said of his success. “But your character’s not thinking that. You’re in the moment and you’re responding to the other people on stage. You’re doing what you love to do.”
For more information on Sullivan’s theatrical goings-on, visit www.NickSullivan.net.
Gennarose Pope may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org