How Alex Newell Is Lifting His Voice To Fight Bullying

"At 24, I still struggle to find who I am," says the breakout "Glee" star.

Polkadots: The Cool Kids Musical is a new anti-bullying stage show inspired by the Little Rock Nine, the African-American schoolchildren who integrated an all-white Arkansas high school in 1957, after Brown v. Board of Education.

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National Archives

They were initially blocked from going to classes by a mob of locals and the Little Rock police. Eventually President Eisenhower had to send in the National Guard to ensure they could go to school.

In the musical, 8-year-old Lily Polkadot has just moved to the “Squares Only” town of Rockaway, where she faces daily bullying at school and segregated water fountains.

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Her quest for acceptance seems hopeless until she meets Sky, a shy Square boy whose curiosity about her unique polkadots turns into true friendship.

“Polkadots serves as a colorful history lesson for children, reminding them that our differences make us awesome, not outcasts,” says the musical’s co-creator, Douglas Lyons.

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Lyons was never bullied as a child—”Our community was tight-knit… bullying just was not acceptable,” he says—but that doesn’t mean the issue didn’t affect him.

“When I saw tensions grow to fights, I’d step in and speak up,” he recalls. “The most important step in facing bullies is standing up for what’s right and not allowing people to do wrong. Even if it isn’t the popular choice.”

​Being a “polkadot,” he explains, isn’t just about race.

“It’s being an outcast in general. A lot of times LGBTQ kids may be softer, or awkward and introverted, as they’re figuring out who they are. This show is here to inspire every child to look in the mirror and celebrate what makes them unique without apology. There’s power in that.”

Following a reading in 2015, Polkadots has had several runs around the country, and a cast album was just released last month, with contributions from top talent like Shanice Williams (The Wiz), Alysha Deslorieux (Hamilton) and Alex Newell (Glee).

Newell sings on the song “Stick and Stones,” which elaborates on the age-old saying about the power of words.

“Lily Polkadot is going to a new school, but words won’t hurt her because she knows her self-worth,” he tells NewNowNext.

As someone who experienced bullying firsthand, he was drawn to the show’s message.

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“I was always a chunkier kid, and always had that insecurity about it in middle school and high school,” he says. “Bullies love to find a weakness and pick at it. Especially when you’re the only gay kid at a Catholic school.”

Eventually, he found a community where he belonged, but says it can still be tough to not let negativity drag you down.

“At 24, I still struggle to find who I am,” he tells us. “The other day, for the first time, I said “I’m beautiful” and meant it. It was hard to say—and I’m a confident person!”

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It’s Spirit Day today—when millions will wear purple in celebration of LGBT youth and their struggle against bullying.

And Newell will be among them.

“Purple is my favorite color,” he shares. “It’s my mother’s favorite color, too. So when I wear it I think of her.”

A concert performance of “Polkadots: The Cool Kids Musical” will take place October 24 at The Lindeman, West 508 42nd St, in New York City.

Dan Avery is a writer-editor who focuses on culture, breaking news and LGBT rights. His work has appeared in Newsweek, The New York Times, Time Out New York, The Advocate and elsewhere.
@ItsDanAvery