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Pioneering female reporter provides the inspiration for Kara Lindsay's character in Disney "Newsies the Musical"

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Pioneering female reporter provides the inspiration for Kara Lindsay's character in Disney "Newsies the Musical"

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Elizabeth Jane Cochran didn't exactly make headlines when she was born in Western Pennsylvania  148 years ago this Saturday.  But all of that would change when -- at just 16 years of age -- Ms. Cochran took up the pen name Nellie Bly and thus became America's first female investigative reporter.

Nellie tackled the sort of stories that few men would dare to do. Like spending 10 days undercover in a New York City lunatic asylum so that she could then reveal how poorly the patients there were being treated.

Or -- better yet -- how about the time when Ms. Bly wanted to pull a Jules Verne. See if it was indeed possible to go Around the World in 80 Days.  So armed with just a single dress, a sturdy overcoat, several changes of underwear and a satchel of money which she kept tied around her neck, Nellie set out from Hoboken, NJ at 9:40 a.m. and then managed to make it all the way 'round our planet -- traveling 24,899 miles mostly by rail & boat -- in just 72 days, 6 hours, 11 minutes and 14 seconds around our planet. Besting Phineas Fogg's fictitious record for circumnavigating the entire globe by more than a week.

"So why bring up Nellie Bly now?," you ask. Well, back when Harvey Fierstein was initially tasked with writing the book for Disney "Newsies the Musical," this four-time Tony Award-winner reportedly popped the 1992 movie version into his DVD player and then found that this film lacked a good strong female role.

And that just wasn't going to work for Harvey. For Disney "Newsies the Musical" to really succeed on the stage, there had to at least be a hint of romance to the story. Ideally involving a female character who was just as strong, just as determined as Jack Kelly (i.e. the newspaper delivery boy who -- when Joseph Pulitzer, publisher of the New York World -- raised the price which the 'newsies' have to pay for the papers that they were selling -- organized a protest that eventually went citywide) was.

Harvey Fierstein at the Opening Night of Disney "Newsies the Musical."
Photo by Nancy Stadler

So Fierstein began doing some research, digging down into the life of newspaper tycoon Pulitzer. And who turns out to be one of Joseph's all-time favorite reporters? Miss Nellie Bly. Given the numerous headlines that this woman generated during the 7+ years she worked as a journalist, Pulitzer was always happy to underwrite yet another one of Ms. Bly's exposes or adventures.

So then Harvey thought: If  Disney "Newsies the Musical" is built around Jack Kelly's David-and-Goliath clash with that mighty newspaper magnate  ... Well, why not give this show's narrative a fun new twist by bringing in another piece of Pulitzer's past? To be specific, one Katherine Plumber -- a female reporter who's clearly inspired by the feisty Miss Bly --who, while she's investigating the plight of NYC's 'newsies,' unexpectedly finds herself falling for the good hearted, street smart Mr. Kelly.

And once Fierstein had fixed this show's narrative by folding in the Katherine Plumber character, it was then up to Disney "Newsies the Musical" director Jeff Calhoun to come up with a female performer who could who could really channel the spirit of Nellie Bly. And that woman turned out to be 27 year-old Kara Lindsay of Rochester, NY.

Susan Egan and Terrance Mann from the original Broadway cast of Disney's "Beauty and
the Beast." Photo by Joan Marcus. Copyright Disney Enterprises, inc. All rights reserved

Mind you, it's kind of fitting that Lindsay wound up making her Broadway debut in a Disney Theatrical production. Given that -- 15 years ago, when Kara was just an 8 year-old girl -- she once wrote in her diary that " ... One day, I want to be Belle on Broadway."

But Lindsay's road to Broadway stardom was far from a smooth one. First there was the very public February 2007 flame-out of "Lone Star Love," the show that Kara was supposed to make her Broadway debut in. Only to then have this "Star" implode during its out-of-town try-out in Seattle. Which is when Randy Quaid -- who was playing the Falstaff role in this American / musicalized version of Shakespeare's "Merry Wives of Windsor" -- became physically & verbally abusive to his fellow castmates.

Then there was "Little House on the Prairie, the Musical," which was directed by Francesca Zambello (best known to Disney fans as the opera veteran who helmed the Broadway musical version of Disney's "The Little Mermaid"" as well as DCA's long-running "Disney's Aladdin - A Musical Spectacular"). On that show, Lindsay played Laura Ingalls to Melissa Gilbert (Yes. THAT Melissa Gilbert. The current ABC's "Dancing with the Stars" performer who -- back in the 1970s -- portrayed Laura Ingalls on NBC's long-running "Little House on the Prairie" TV series)'s Ma.

(L to R) Melissa Gilbert as Ma and Kara Lindsay as Laura Ingalls in "Little House on the
Prairie, The Musical."
Photo by Carol Rosegg. Copyright 2009 Little House
Productions LP. All rights reserved

"Little House on the Prairie, the Musical" started its national tour at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Milburn, NJ in September of 2009. And the rumor was that Ma & Pa Ingalls would eventually bring their brood to Broadway. But that dream faded due to lackluster ticket sales and "Prairie" closed -- ironically enough -- out on the prairie. At Kansas City's Starlight Theatre back in June of 2010, to be precise.

Now having two Broadway-bound show that you were appearing in die out-of-town might have discouraged a lesser performer. But not Kara Lindsay. Who -- just like Nellie Bly -- was feisty. More importantly, the hard work & dedication that she had demonstrated while rehearsing the role of Laura Ingalls had really impressed Mark Hoebee and Patrick Parker, the artistic directors of the Paper Mill Playhouse. Which is why Mark & Patrick told Kara that they'd love to have her come back someday and do another show at Paper Mill.

Lindsay was grateful for the compliment. But she never once thought that Hoebee & Parker were serious. But they were. Which is why -- when Disney Theatrical came to the Paper Mill Playhouse in the Spring of 2011 and said "We'd like to use your theater to mount a regional production of Disney 'Newsies the Musical.' A show that we don't really intend to take to Broadway. We're just doing this so that we'll then have a stage version of 'Newsies' to license." And after Mark & Patrick read Harvey's script, they reportedly told the powers-that-be at Disney Theatrical that " ... we know just the right girl to play Katherine Plumber."

Kara Lindsay as Katherine Plumber and Jeremy Jordan as Jack Kelly in  Disney
"Newsies the Musical." Photo by Deen van Meer. Copyright Disney Enterprises,
Inc. All rights reserved

So Kara came in and auditioned. And the next thing she knew, Ms. Lindsay had the female lead in "Newsies." And then came the audience adulation & the overwhelming positive reviews for the Paper Mill Playhouse production of this show. Which was then followed by Disney "Newsies the Musical" 's transfer to Broadway.

So now here's Kara living the  dream that she dreamed back when she was eight. She's starring in a Disney musical on Broadway. Though reality often intrudes on Lindsay's Broadway dream in some pretty funny ways.

"Nellie Bly had to make her way in the then all-male world of newspapers. Me? I'm appearing in a show where I'm literally one of the only women in this cast. So I'm working in an all-male world too," Kara remarked during an Opening Night interview with JHM. "But the downside of being in an all-male show like "Newsies the Musical' is that there's only one bathroom backstage here at the Nederlander Theatre for all us performers to use. Which means -- whenever I go in there -- the seat is always up."

Kara Lindsay (center) and her mostly male co-horts in the cast of Disney "Newsies the
Musical." Photo by Deen van Meer. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc.
All rights reserved

Which (I'll admit) sounds slightly gross. As was the case of the flu that Lindsay got just days before Disney "Newsies the Musical" opened on Broadway.

"That was awful. For a day or so there, I really didn't know if I was going to make it. Two shows ago, I had no voice. No voice at all. I was seriously wondering whether someone else was going to have go on and play Katherine for 'Newsies' Opening Night. Which would have broken my heart," Kara recalled. "But then Disney Theatrical sent me to some very good doctors and I'm now taking some very serious medicine like steroids. So I'm here. I made it. I have finally officially made my Broadway debut."

But given how poorly she had been feeling that week, all of the stress that she'd been under lately, Lindsay had almost decided to blow off all of the backstage, behind-the-scenes pageantry that's typically associated with the Opening Night of a new Broadway musical. Just treat that evening like it was another normal performance.

Kara and the rest of the cast of Disney "Newsies the Musical" backstage at the
Nederlander Theatre during the Gypsy Robe Ceremony

"But Capathia Jenkins -- she plays Medda Larkin on this show -- she reminded me that an Opening Night is NOT a normal performance. Which is why she insisted that, no matter how bad I was feeling, I still had to come to the theater two or three hours before the curtain went up. Because there's so much to do and see," Kara continued. "And Capathia was right. I'm so glad that I made myself come in early. Because I got to see the Gyspy Robe ceremony. And my dressing room was filled with all these flowers and presents. And the theater itself felt different. There's this weird kind of energy  that comes with a Broadway Opening Night. It comes from the cast and the audience. I really don't know how to describe it."

Speaking of presents, what was Lindsay's favorite Opening Night gift? That one came from Jack Feldman, the man who -- along with Disney Legend  Alan Menken -- wrote all of the songs for Disney "Newsies the Musical."

"Can you believe it? Jack found a poster of Nellie Bly," Kara smiled. "It's now hanging up in my dressing room. So that the real-life woman who inspired the creation of my character in 'Newsies'  can now inspire me before I go out onstage every night and play Katherine Plumber."

Nellie Bly and the outfit that she wore when she
traveled Around the World in 72 Days in late
1899 - early 1890.

Which (obviously) isn't a headline-grabbing  sort of story like "Woman reporter spends 10 Days in insane asylum to expose abuse" and/or "Female journalist beats Phineas Fogg's Around-the-World-in-80-Days record by more than a week." But -- even so -- I can't help but think that Nellie Bly would have enjoyed Kara Lindsay's come-from-behind tale about how she finally made her Broadway debut.

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