Orange 2007 Grad Thrives in the Spotlight
If you ask Ben Fankhauser when he knew he wanted to perform for a living, he will tell you it was during his days at Orange High School. If you ask anyone who has ever seen Ben perform, you will hear that Ben was destined for stardom since birth.
“I met Ben when he first moved here from Switzerland,” said Stagecrafters Director Wendy Koeth. “The first moment we got him onstage....I knew he was Broadway Bound! Certain kids you just know. Ben was one of them.”
Courtesy of the nationally-televised 2012 Tony Awards, Ben’s talents have now been seen by millions. Ben made his Broadway debut in the new musical Newsies earlier this spring. The show was nominated for Best Musical and won the honors of Best Original Score and Best Choreography. Casts from each of the “Best Musical” nominations performed one selection from their respective shows. Ben opened the Newsies segment with his solo from the number “Seize the Day!”
“Singing on the Tonys was an honor and a thrill. I'm so happy I got to share what we do eight times a week at the Nederlander (Theater) with millions of people,” Ben sad. “Definitely a dream come true.”
“Dreams really do come true,” effused retired theater arts teacher Elaine Sonnie who directed Ben in productions including How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying and Footloose at Orange High School. She noted that she cried throughout his entire televised performance.
“Ben was one of the most talented and focused performers we have ever had at OHS. One of the things I most remember Ben for was how he would work with some of the athletes who were in the shows and help them vocally so that they could feel comfortable with songs.”
An Orange “lifer”, Ben, who grew up in Orange Village, first caught the “theatrical bug” at age five when he entered the Stagecrafters program.
“Stagecrafters was my main extracurricular activity,” he said. “All my experiences there left me wanting more, and I got myself involved in every facet of the performing experience – from acting, to dancing and singing, to music directing and even teaching.”
It was through Stagecrafters and such shows as Annie, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (pictured below as "Joseph", center), Peter Pan (above left as "John"), and ultimately the Ohio premier of Rent, Student Edition in which Ben played the lead “Roger” that Ben learned the kind of camaraderie that is so crucially important to the success of Broadway’s Newsies, based on the 1992 movie musical.
“I specifically remember falling in love with that feeling of teamwork,” Ben said. “Putting on a musical every year always took a lot of hard work from a lot of different people, and I liked to experience that bond between everyone working for a common goal.”
Ben noted that he received the bulk of his training through private instruction and Stagecrafters and says his lasting memory of Orange is definitely the teachers and performing in the musical every year. Ben is grateful to OHS teachers like Sonnie, Jamie Snell and Dr. Craig Kepner, along with Jamie and Wendy Koeth and the other Stagecrafters staff members who worked with Ben throughout his musical endeavors.
“I was never a great student,” he added. “My passion for performing and music often distracted me from my school work, and I always longed for the day that I would be able to go to college and study theater.”
That dream became a reality when he attended Ithaca College as a musical theater major. His facebook page lit up with comments from Ithaca classmates after his performance at the Tony Awards.
“It was a huge part in my career path. Their training is outstanding, and I really learned a lot about acting and definitely came into my own as a performer,” Ben said.
Ben’s “big break” came during college when he was cast in the first national tour of the Tony-winning musical Spring Awakening. The offer came as he was performing in a show called Signed, Sealed, Delivered! at Cedar Point Amusement Park.
A video audition got him a part on the tour, and he took a year off from college to tour around the country with Spring Awakening.
“I feel extremely luck and grateful that I was able to be a part of that production. I love that show, and it will always be very near and dear to my heart,” Ben said, adding, “I even got to speak a little Latin in the show – and I had taken Latin as my foreign language at OHS!”
But you won’t hear Ben say the Broadway path is an easy one. His Newsies break came after his third or fourth audition in New York City after he moved there about a year ago. When it happened, though, it happened fast!
“I auditioned on a Monday, got called back to dance that night, then came in the next Tuesday morning for a final callback. Then I received a phone call about an hour later that I had an offer to play Davey. It was originally planned to be produced as a regional production at the Paper Mill Playhouse for Licensing Purposes. When the show opened and received rave reviews, the buzz spread like wildfire. Eventually all the pieces fell into place and just like that, we were on Broadway.”
Newsies is loosely based on the true story of the Newsboys Strike of 1899 in New York City. The show features music by the Academy Award winner Alan Menken, lyrics by Jack Feldman, and a book by the Tony Award winner Harvey Fierstein. Ben says the best part about being a part of this Broadway show is being able to live his dream every night – and get paid for it!
“The audiences are really excited about Newsies and it is an absolute joy to tell this story,” Ben said. “It’s a wonderful feeling to be part of an American entertainment tradition that brings so much joy to people…when I see people smiling and leaving the theater in a great mood, I know I have done my job and that is completely fulfilling.”
Noting that he always had a passion for performing, Ben said that he would try to see as many shows as he could at Playhouse Square and the other venues around town. He advises aspiring actors at Orange to “Do everything! Audition for everything! Take every part you get. Always practice your craft…Experience is the best practice and you never know—you might discover something you’re really good at.”
Ben added though that musical theater is a tough business and one that is not to be taken lightly.
“If you were born to do this, and those of you who were know who you are, then never give up, persistence is key.”
With Newsies currently advertised as a limited run ending August 19th, Ben says he hopes the run will be extended so he can continue performing in this show he loves so much. Unsure what the “next step” will be, he says he considers himself very lucky to have achieved one of his dreams already.
“I feel very fortunate to have had such wonderful experiences this early on in my career,” said Ben, who was reluctant to think of himself as "a star". “I consider myself a passionate artist who is lucky enough to make a living doing what I love….I feel like I have definitely achieved one of my dreams; however, my dreams have only grown bigger since high school. Getting to be on Broadway has made me dream even bigger yet, and I’m excited to see what is next for me in my journey.”
Wherever that journey takes him, there's no doubt that his star will always shine brightly back at his Alma Mater...and his Alma Mater will never be too far from his heart.
“There is something about Midwest hospitality that has stayed with me through college and into my professional career,” he said. “Orange is a wonderful community, and it should be cherished by all who are fortunate enough to enjoy it. Never forget your roots! Wherever life ends up taking you, there will always be a little part of that community with you.”