By Robyn Smith
To most of the “Newsies” cast, this two-week pit stop at the National Theater in Washington, D.C., is just that: a pit stop. But to Ben Cook, who plays Race, and Mark Aldrich, who plays Seitz, it’s a chance to see family and friends for the first time in months. They’re coming home.
Cook, an extremely talented 17-year-old triple threat first performed on Broadway when he was 11, after a production of “Ragtime” at the Kennedy Center was picked up.
The Lorton native began training at a dance studio when he was just 9 years old, wanting to try it after watching his sisters perform. A few years later, his dance teacher encouraged him to audition for an agent. “It just kind of kicked off from there,” he says.
“Newsies” is Cook’s second national tour. His first was as both a lead male role and then, after his performance at The Kennedy Center earned him a Helen Hayes nomination, the title role in the 2011-12 tour of “Billy Elliot the Musical.” With such an accomplished career, it’s a little too easy to forget that he’s also a student.
Cook wakes up around 10 a.m. and does schoolwork for about five hours through an accredited private online school called Laurel Springs. The only outside help he gets is from a French tutor and a teacher on tour who works mostly with the elementary-aged performers. She and Cook do his math together.
Right before he joined the “Newsies” cast, when he was in between jobs, Cook went to Lake Braddock Secondary School in Burke for his sophomore year, attending public school for the first time. “I actually really wouldn’t trade the experience for anything because I’m most likely at this point not going to get to go back now, but I’m happy I got to experience actually what normal public high school is like,” Cook says.
Aldrich, on the other hand, took a very different path to get to this tour.
After graduating from Langley High School, he went on to major in pre-law at The College of William and Mary in Williamsburg. He spontaneously auditioned for a tour of “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” during his senior year and landed the role. “I just kept working, and one job led to another,” Aldrich says. “I’ve been very fortunate in that regard. I’ve been able to just keep it going.”
Aldrich is the last original cast member of “Newsies” still doing the show. He estimates that, at this point, he’s performed it almost 1,300 times.
“It’s still exciting,” Aldrich says. “A lot of people ask me if you get tired of it or if you get bored or you just want to do something else. I guess I’m just not wired that way.”
Aldrich avoids clicking “the autopilot switch” by making sure that every performance is one he’s proud of. This includes listening to the audience and focusing on what to practice in order to keep things real and fresh.
“For me, something that’s been really cool is to see this show and how different performers can say the same words and sing the same notes, and yet it changes the way the show plays and how audiences react to it,” Aldrich says.
Aldrich and Cook first worked together back in the 2009 production of “Ragtime,” the same one that brought Cook to Broadway. Although they’re at different stages in both their lives and careers, they share one thing in common: Despite performing at most of the big D.C. stages, neither has performed at the National Theatre until now.
The show opened on Tuesday, June 9, and both think it was a success. Cook’s father and sister were in the audience, as was an old friend of Aldrich’s.
“It was a great opening night—very exciting; the crowd was amazing,” Aldrich says.
Known among the cast as the “guy who’s going out and finding interesting things to do in each city,” Aldrich is planning all his day trips around the old friends and family he’s going to make them with.
“What I kind of want to do is see the D.C. area as if I didn’t grow up here,” Aldrich says. “So, to go back and re-experience a lot of things you sort of take for granted when you spend your teen years in a place.”
While most of the other cast members are in a hotel within walking distance of the theater, Cook gets to stay at home with his family. Since he’s often busy working, he enjoys these comforting moments. “It’s just great to be with my family again and have them here to support me,” says Cook.
Despite its many challenges, Cook’s love for dance and passion for his career keeps him going. Inspiringly, a large part of what draws him into the business is the people he works with.
“It’s such an incredible business to be in, and I honestly couldn’t imagine myself doing anything else,” Cook says. “If it’s really what you want to do at the end of the day, then just follow your dreams.”
June 9-21, various times
1321 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Washington, D.C., 20004
$48-$108, tickets available at the box office or online