By Melissa Arnold
Zachary Podair of Smithtown will have some great “What I Did This Summer” stories to share when he heads to middle school next month. The 11-year-old is spending almost every day onstage at the John W. Engeman Theater in Northport, where he is the youngest member in the cast of “Newsies.”
The show is loosely based on the Newsboys Strike of 1899, where New York City paperboys organized a union and went on strike to be treated fairly on the job. Zachary plays the part of Les, who wants to help his older brother support their struggling family. His character is lovable and funny, providing some bright comic relief for the show. I recently spoke with Zachary about his professional theater debut, what it’s like being the youngest on the set and more.
What got you interested in acting?
When I was 6 years old, my sister was taking dance lessons and we would always go to pick her up. I really liked watching and decided I wanted to dance, too, so my mom put me in hip-hop classes. I love anything that involves dancing, so I started looking for shows that had a lot of dance numbers.
Have you been in any other shows?
My first show was four years ago, at the Encore Theater. I got to play [the title role in] “Aladdin.” And ever since then I try to do as many shows as I can. I was Rooster in “Annie,” Donkey in “Shrek,” and Charlie in “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.”
What made you want to audition for ‘Newsies?’ Were you nervous?
My favorite kind of shows are dance-heavy, and I knew that “Newsies” was one. I had seen the movie before and thought that I would try out. It also has a really great musical score.
I wasn’t really nervous about it. I didn’t necessarily think I would get the part, but I figured it wouldn’t hurt to try. I was really surprised when I heard I was cast. They originally said they were going to double cast the part of Les, [meaning two actors would take turns playing the role], but they ended up just casting me by myself. That was really exciting.
What is it like being the youngest person in the cast?
Sometimes it’s different being the only person around my age, but everyone in the cast and the crew has been so sweet to me. I’ve learned so much from being in professional theater. Every person I’ve worked with has taught me something, from the casting agency to the other actors, the director and other crew. I’ve also improved my dancing so much from working with our amazing choreographer [Sandalio Alvarez].
What do you like about your character?
Les and I are so much alike. He’s just a funny guy. I love playing him because he’s got a lot of great dance scenes and he’s also the comic relief in a lot of ways. I love the one-liners.
What has acting taught you about life?
So, so much. I’ve learned how important it is to be flexible — emotionally and physically. You have to be spontaneous, to be willing to go with anything. And, of course, you have to learn how to deal with rejection. You’re not going to get every part and not everyone is going to love you.
What would you say to other kids (or adults!) who want to try acting but are nervous?
Definitely don’t be afraid to try it! If you don’t get a part, then you have the experience of auditioning and you can learn from that. If you want, you can try again. And if you do get the part, then you get to have an amazing experience. Either way it’s a positive thing and so much fun to be a part of.
Why should people go see “Newsies?”
It’s one of those shows that has something for everyone, no matter who you are or how old you are. There are things the kids like and things the adults will laugh at. And I think it’s interesting because it’s based on true events — we worked really hard to make our version of the show as realistic as possible. It’s a positive show that will make you feel good.
Do you have a favorite memory from your time at the Engeman so far?
So far, the best moment was the first day that we got to see the set all finished. It was so amazing. I think that was the moment it all really hit me. I thought, “This is real. It’s really happening.” It’s the best feeling.
The John W. Engeman Theater, 250 Main St., Northport will present “Newsies” through Sept. 2. Tickets range from $73 to $78. For more information or to purchase tickets, call 631-261-2900 or visit www.engemantheater.com.
All photos by Michael DeCristofaro