Michael Harp, of Swansea, has seized his eight summers at the Muny to learn and grow as a performer.
As one of the rag-tag newsboys in “Newsies,” he is as excited about his 18th production. He landed his first role in 2010.
The Muny premiere is the final show of the 99th season and runs through Aug. 13. Michael is featured in several song-and-dance scenes, including “Carrying the Banner,” “Seize the Day” and “King of New York.”
“I’m excited to be in it. It’s such a huge show,” he said. “Chris Bailey (director-choreographer) is phenomenal.”
His enthusiasm for performing at the nation’s largest and oldest outdoor theater never wanes, whether he is in a featured role or part of the ensemble.
“You have to put in the work. You know when you step on the Muny stage, it’s going to be magical, that the performance is going to be spectacular,” he said.
“Newsies,” the 2012 Broadway surprise sensation based on the 1992 Disney cult hit movie, was inspired by the Newsboys Strike of 1899. It features a Tony Award-winning score by Alan Menken and Jack Feldman, and a book by Tony winner Harvey Fierstein. Choreographer Christopher Galletti won a Tony for his robust athletic dance numbers.
Being able to work with actors that he has performed with before is fun, too. Jay Armstrong Johnson, who is playing the lead Jack Kelly, was in “Hello, Dolly!” in 2014, and the next summer, greeted Michael and his mother Mary warmly after seeing him in a Broadway revival production of “On the Town.”
“Michael was in the kids’ ensemble for ‘Dolly.’ After we saw him in ‘On the Town’ on Broadway, he grabbed Michael and pulled him over the line, took him backstage and gave him a tour. That young man is so talented, but he is so kind,” Mary Harp said. “And I’m told the rest of the Newsies have been super nice to the kids. It’s making this show all the more special.”
Michael has also worked before with Spencer Davis Milford, who plays Davey, and Jack Sippel, who is in the ensemble.
“Spencer and Jack are like older brothers or mentors to Michael. They were so supportive of Michael when he was a little Muny Kid. He’s always looked up to them. So it’s great to see local kids come back and absolutely shine for the hometown,” Mary said.
Michael summed it up: “The Muny is a family,” he said.
The experience of working alongside highly regarded professionals is one he cherishes.
“I love it so much. I am so grateful that I can be taught by these people. They’re such cool people. They have helped me a lot,” Harp said.
‘You have to practice’
Michael, 15, who will be a sophomore at Althoff Catholic High School this fall, takes classes to improve singing, dancing and acting, including voice from Sheila Dugan and a full slate of dance classes. He refers to mentor Lara Teeter, a Tony nominee, Muny regular and department head at the Webster University Conservatory, as “my tap Daddy.”
This summer, Michael was selected to attend master classes at a national event, Rhythm World, a tap and percussive dance weeklong event also known as Tapfest, in Chicago, hitting it hard from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. each day. He had to submit a video audition showing technique and different rhythms and styles.
“It warms your heart to see these amazing people, like Jumanne Taylor, Tre Dumas, Dani Boraki, Nico Barbio and Savion Glover. It’s been an unbelievable experience,” he said. “If you want to be better than the day before, you have to practice.”
But he doesn’t only concentrate on tap dance — modern, jazz, ballet and hip-hop are part of his repertoire.
Two summers ago, he participated in a Bolshoi Ballet Intensive for three weeks in New York City. He performs “The Nutcracker” annually with the St. Louis Ballet company.
Michael began as one of the Muny Kids and now performs as a Muny Teen. Muny Teens are in high school while Muny Kids are in grade school. During The Muny’s seven-show season, the touring troupe performs a 30-minute act during pre-show festivities outdoors. They rehearse the month of May under the direction of Nancy Sherwin and choreographer Michael Baxter.
“It’s such a blast to be a part of. We all work together so well. We’re so kind to each other and we respect each other,” he said.
It all started as a salt-and-pepper shaker
Every spring, he auditions for roles in the season’s line-up, along with hundreds of other youngsters, but his inclusion is never a sure thing.
His mom Mary is realistic about the chances.
“There are so many very talented kids in St. Louis and we don’t know if he fits in to the casting picture. It all depends what the director is looking for,” she said.
This year, he was cast in the youth ensembles of “The Little Mermaid” and “Newsies.”
His first role was as a salt-and-pepper shaker in “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.” He was 8 years old. The next summer, he played Randolph MacAfee in “Bye, Bye Birdie.”
In 2014, he was cast in two featured roles — Michael in “Billy Elliot” and Pugsley in “The Addams Family,” and in the chorus of “Hello, Dolly.” In 2013, he performed in the ensembles of four shows: “Shrek,” “Mary Poppins,” “Les Miserables” and “Spamalot.”
Last year, he was in “The Wizard of Oz” and “Young Frankenstein,” taking part in a gigantic tap-dance number, “Putting on the Ritz,” in top hat and tails.
For Michael, the Muny has been a launching pad for other opportunities. In 2014, he portrayed Kurt, one of the Von Trapp children, in “The Sound of Music” at the Lyric Opera of Chicago for about a month. Actor Billy Zane, of “Titanic” fame, played Captain Von Trapp. Christine Brewer, of Lebanon, was the Mother Abbess.
During the 2015 holiday season, he spent about a month playing Ralphie in “A Christmas Story” at the Paramount Theatre in Chicago.
In March 2015, he appeared in his first television series, “Chicago Fire,” as a boy who has a horrible accident with his father at a skating rink.
The emotionally and physically harrowing scene took one day to film on location in Chicago. It aired on NBC while he was rehearsing the lead role in COCA’s “The Little Prince,” so he had to catch his prime-time debut later.
“It was such a great experience. I learned so much,” he said.
‘He soaks everything up’
Mary, who calls herself “the driver,’ said she and her husband, Terry, had Michael later in life. He is their third child. Daughter Carlin is 25 and son Jordan is 29.
Carlin works at St. Louis College of Pharmacy after earning a master’s degree in public health, and is also the coach of the Althoff Pom Dance Team.
Jordan, now in Fresno, California, is in his third year of his residency as a doctor of emergency medicine. In fact, his career path was forged early on when his little brother was a sick baby.
After he was born, Michael underwent several heart surgeries, and wasn’t expected to survive, let alone thrive.
“He is such a gift. He is so kind. That he gets so much enjoyment out of performing has been thrilling,” Mary said.
The showbiz bug bit early, at age 4, when he accompanied his big sister Carlin to tap dance lessons at COCA (Center of Creative Arts) in St. Louis. He loved it, and started taking dance on his own.
“When he started performing, we were OK with it as long as he enjoyed it and learned something. He’s like a sponge. He soaks everything up. He has an appreciation for the incredible talent he gets to learn from every time he’s selected for a show. It’s exciting to see him go after his dream,” she said.
There has been an unexpected bonus, she joked.
“It keeps us young.”
The influence of Muny summers can’t be underestimated, she said.
“The kind of people that the Muny brings in is special too. They’re so passionate about what they do, and the work they get to do. They work like crazy, but they are nice people, too. It fills your heart. To get to watch a show at that production level come together has been so valuable. This place is a gem,” Mary said.
“He’s with all these other people who just get it.”
At a glance
- What: “Newsies”
- When: 8:15 p.m. through Aug. 13
- Where: The Muny
- Details: www.muny.org
- Box Office: 314-361-1900