Lucky breaks are usually the result of preparation and opportunity. Just ask St. Louisan Alex Prakken, now on tour in the hit musical “Newsies.”
He moved to New York City after graduating from the University of Michigan last summer. Five days later, he landed a part in the Tony-winning show’s first North American tour.
No stranger to hard work, Prakken began performing musical theater when he was 9 years old, moving from Muny Kids to Teens to character roles. He portrayed Maurius in the 2013 production of “Les Miserables,” one of five college students selected from 1,500 who auditioned.
“That was a dream come true. It’s a fantastic role, one of my favorites. I will never forget that opening night. It was an honor to work with Norm Lewis (Javert) and Hugh Panaro (Jean Valjean),” he said. “We had college kids in the cast, and it worked out so well because we were the actual age of the characters. We had that gritty passion needed. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
The local work has been invaluable to building his career, he said during a phone interview from Milwaukee.
St. Louis provides really strong theater training because of the Muny, Stages St. Louis and all the youth programs. Kids come out of St. Louis knowing how to tap. We’re very prepared for college auditions in general.
Alex Prakken on his early training
“St. Louis provides really strong theater training because of the Muny, Stages St. Louis and all the youth programs,” he said. “Kids come out of St. Louis knowing how to tap. We’re very prepared for college auditions in general, I discovered.”
Prakken, a graduate of John Burroughs School, was also in productions at Visitation Academy and Nerinx Hall during high school.
On the road for the past six months, he plans to enjoy a special homecoming when he performs at the Fox Theatre. “Newsies” opened Tuesday and will run through Jan. 31.
“This is such a great opportunity. I’m very excited. The Fox is so beautiful. Very few theaters on the road are as big as the Fox, plus it’s so majestic and detailed —- such a gorgeous theater,” he said.
Prakken plays Oscar Delancey, who is not one of the orphans and runaways trying to support themselves on the streets by selling newspapers. Rather, he is on the other side – a crony of publisher Joseph Pulitzer.
“I’m one of the bad guys, I’m an enforcer,” he said. “But I double as a newsboy in dances, and I understudy Jack (Kelly, the lead).”
At 23, he is one of the oldest cast members in the youthful ensemble, as most are 18 to 20. “It’s interesting, because this is like their college experience. They have such a raw energy. They make the show very exciting,” he said.
“Newsies” is adapted from the 1992 Disney film that grew into a cult phenomenon after its DVD release. Loosely based on the two-week Newsboys Strike of 1899, it starred an 18-year-old Christian Bale, now an Oscar winner and three-time nominee, as the charismatic newsboys’ leader Jack Kelly, and legendary actor Robert Duvall as Pulitzer.
The wealthy publishing magnate and his fellow titan William Randolph Hearst raised distribution prices at the expense of the newsboys’ livelihood. So Jack organizes a ragtag band of teenaged “newsies” to fight them.
This David vs. Goliath story featured 12 songs by eight-time Oscar winner Alan Menken and J.A.C. Redford, and many of those are included in the stage show, including “Carrying the Banner,” “Seize the Day,” “King of New York” and “Santa Fe.” Menken wrote seven new songs and won his first-ever Tony Award in 2012 for the score, which included lyrics by Jack Feldman. The book is by Broadway icon Harvey Fierstein.
For the tour specifically, he wrote “Letter from the Refuge,” which Prakken described as ‘beautiful.”
The choreography by Christopher Gattelli was also honored with a Tony Award. The entire creative team reunited to craft the tour.
“It’s basically the same. It’s a very strong production,” Prakken said. “We’re united. We play brothers, fighting against the higher-ups.”
He said prepare to be dazzled by the “11th Hour” number that closes Act I – “Seize the Day.”
“It’s the biggest number, the biggest display of athletic dancing. Overall, the dancing is incredible,” he said.
When it opened on Broadway on March 29, 2012, it was supposed to be only a limited engagement of 101 performances, but devoted fans propelled the show to a run of 1,005 performances with more than a million people in attendance.
The movies’ fan base and its heavy presence on social media took some getting used to for Prakken. “It’s quite big. It was almost a shock to my system. I wasn’t expecting it!”
Living out of a suitcase has been interesting, he said. “You get to see really cool cities that you didn’t think were all that cool.”
Take the college town of Madison, Wis. “It has a lot of culture and character,” he said. He was in Toronto for eight weeks.
While in St. Louis, he is staying at his parents’ home, although his 11-year-old twin brothers have taken over his old room. He looks forward to seeing relatives and friends who are coming to the show.
His parents, Joel and Robin, have been very supportive of his career plans.
“I have such deep gratitude for my parents. They have supported me through thick and thin. As soon as they realized I was in it for the long haul, they said ‘go for it!’” he said.
He began singing at age 3 and dance lessons soon followed. He realized at an early age that performing was second nature.
I felt like ‘I have to perform.’ It was really always part of the plan, something I was meant to do, and I’m so passionate about it.
Alex Prakken on being an actor
“I felt like ‘I have to perform.’ It was really always part of the plan, something I was meant to do, and I’m so passionate about it,” he said.
While earning his bachelor of fine arts at Michigan, one of the top musical theater programs in the country, he discovered many people have natural talent, but the smart ones realize you have to put so much more into it.
“There are incredibly talented kids, but talent can only go so far. Once you get to a certain level, there’s a lot of talent. You have to stand out, and preparation is the key,” he said. “At an audition, you only get 16 to 32 bars to sing. That’s it. You have to create a character. You have to put some thought into it. That can make the difference.”
Prakken will take part in The Newsboys’ Variety Show, a cabaret to benefit Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, at 7:30 p.m. on Monday at John Burroughs School, Haertter Hall, 755 S. Price Road, St. Louis. Doors open at 7 p.m., show begins at 7:30 p.m., with a VIP reception immediately following.
At a glance
- What: “Newsies”
- Where: Fox Theatre, 527 N. Grand, St. Louis
- When: Now through Jan. 31
- Tickets: Metrotix 314-534-1111; www.fabulousfox.com