Dancing His Way to Broadway

Julian DeGuzman as Finch in Disney musical "Newsies." (Source: Disney Theatrical Productions)

Julian DeGuzman as Finch in Disney musical "Newsies." (Source: Disney Theatrical Productions)

They told him he was dancing too much and playing soccer a lot. Give yourself and your legs some rest, they said. But, after a trip to the Philippines, the pain persisted.

"I took matters into my own hands," his mother, an anesthesiologist, said. "I took him to a hospital and asked that some x-rays be done."

Their worst fears were confirmed: He had a tumor on his hips.

At 21, Julian DeGuzman, the guy with a passion for dancing, may never dance again. But first, he has to save his life.

That was seven years ago. Now, DeGuzman is dancing again, with more passion and joy, and his dance floor is the biggest of them all: Broadway.

DeGuzman is on the cast of the Disney musical “Newsies,” playing the role of Finch, one of the 20 boys on the show. It is a rousing adaptation of a 1992 film, which in turn was based on the 1899 newsboys' strike in New York.

"This is great joy for me. This is what I sought out to do and trained for," says DeGuzman, who has been with “Newsies” since its Broadway run in 2012.

Now on a national tour, “Newsies” is based on the music of Alan Menken, whose work included “Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast,” and “Aladdin,” and the lyrics of Jack Feldman.

The production has surpassed expectations. It was one of the biggest-grossing Disney musicals ever.

After winning the 2012 Tony Award for Best Score and Best Choreography, Disney has taken it on the road for its North American tour, where it will perform in 25 cities over 43 weeks.

DeGuzman, who replaced his friend Aaron J. Albano from the original Broadway cast three years ago, says the choreography drives the story.

One doctor told him to forget dancing. “Get an economics degree and work in Wall Street,” he advised.

Choreographer Christopher Gattelli has herded the 20 boys on the show to dance a thrilling combination of ballet and bold athletic moves.

"This show means the most to me out of any project I ever done, because this is what I do. I trained as a ballet dancer and modern dancer," says Gattelli. "I was these boys 20 years ago. This is how I danced."

In addition to playing Finch, DeGuzman is a member of the show's dance ensemble, performing practically in every dance number, "requiring every muscle of my body."

It's a tribute to how far he has come back from those desperate days when dancing again was almost an impossibility.

His mother, Maria DeGuzman, took him to a hospital in Oakland for the x-rays when the pain on his hips would not go away after a trip back to her hometown in Borongan City, Eastern Samar.

Several doctors said an operation was not a good option as they came up with similar diagnoses: muscle overuse.

Eventually, a Vietnamese American orthopedic surgeon with an oncology background, agreed to operate on Julian.

The operation involved taking out a golf-sized tumor from his hip and filling the "hole" with graft from a cadaver, requiring six to eight weeks of rehab.

Unwilling to lose any time, he completed his studies at University of California-Irvine, graduating with a double major in Sociology and Fine Arts - Dance.

Julian DeGuzman (Source: facebook.com)

Julian DeGuzman (Source: facebook.com)

In addition, he had a chance to visit Spain, performing with UC-Irvine dancers in cities and towns around Costa del Sol.

Unfortunately, Julian was not out of the woods just yet. The tumor returned after six months when the bone graft from the cadaver "liquified" and a cyst formed in the old tumor site.

The process to find the right surgeon willing to operate began again. One doctor told him to forget dancing. "Get an economics degree and work in Wall Street," he advised.

Richard O'Donnell, chief of orthopedic oncology and specialist in bone marrow cancer and soft tissue tumors at the University of California – San Francisco Medical Center, did the second operation, using cement to fill the hole created by the tumor.

Then it was strenuous rehab again. Julian was on crutches for six weeks; but after a few physical therapy sessions, he ditched the crutches and relied on his self-designed rehab plan.

"He would drive to San Francisco, park close to the ocean, hike the dunes at Ocean Beach, carrying a backpack with weights in them," says Maria DeGuzman. Even she and her husband, Joe, were impressed with Julian's resolve, she says.

The thought that he would never dance again fired his resolve, says Julian. His parents say he became a quieter young man.

"He tried to put on a cheerful face, but our conversations as a family became more subdued," his mother said.

As soon as he was able to regain his strength, increase his range of motion and dance again, he went to New York and roomed with a cousin in Brooklyn, and started auditioning for Broadway roles.

He got a part in “The King and I” and “Tarzan,” a production of the Arizona Broadway Theater in Phoenix.

His sister, Robyn, herself an actress and a dancer who was in Beauty and the Beast,” encouraged Julian to try out forNewsies,” saying he was better than most of the boys in the cast.

About 800 dancers and actors auditioned for the parts, and a Disney bigwig had to be involved in the selection when the choice went down to only two dancers.

Julian was accepted, but got the role of a "swing," an actor who stands in for an absent coworker and therefore has to learn all 14 roles and performs at a moment's notice.

On his first night on the show, Julian said he could not remember anything, as if everything happened on a blur.

Julian De Guzman (right) and the cast of "Newsies" (Source: Disney Theatrical Productions)

Julian De Guzman (right) and the cast of "Newsies" (Source: Disney Theatrical Productions)

"It took time to sink in," he says. "I was gratified and relieved."

The musical is now on a tour in Texas, followed by play dates in Tennessee and North Carolina, with eight performances a week.

They had shows at the Smith's Center in Las Vegas and the Orpheum Theater in San Francisco in a sort of homecoming for the Alameda native DeGuzman.

"I enjoy going from city to city and the opportunity to perform in front of different audiences," says DeGuzman. "It's nice to see different places."

Time away from family, especially during holidays, weddings, birthdays and family gatherings are the hardest to deal with, says DeGuzman, who is in a long-term relationship with his girlfriend.

Plans for the future are still on hold, including going back to school as the typical tug-of-war between careers in entertainment and academics continues, as is typically the case in most Asian American families.

"I guess you have to give up something for your dreams," DeGuzman says.

Bert B. Eljera

Bert B. Eljera

A journalist for more than 25 years, Bert B. Eljera has extensively covered the Asian Pacific American community in California, Florida and Nevada. His expertise in ethnic culture, political empowerment and issues that impact minority communities provides depth and nuance to his writings. He has written for top newspapers in the Philippines and the United States, including the Los Angeles Times, Florida Times-Union, Vero Beach Press-Journal, Stockton Record, Asian Week, and The Manila Bulletin. He resides in Las Vegas, Nevada.

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