Newsies: The Musical Wants to Occupy Broadway

'Newsies: The Musical' revamps Disney flop into politically relevant hit

newsiesphoto Newsies: The Musical Wants to Occupy Broadway

Newsies vs. Newsies

“Pulitzer and Hearst, they think we’re nothing! Are we nothing?”

No!

The opening chords of “The World Will Know,” the anthem of 1992’s live-action Disney film Newsies, are as recognizable to a generation of cult fans as “A Whole New World,” “Under the Sea” or Celine Dion crooning “Beauty and the Beast.”

Led by Christian Bale’s horrendous “New Yoik” accent, first-time director Kenny Ortega’s film about the 1899 newsboy strike was, superficially, a huge flop. It cost $15 million to make and brought in only $2 million at the box office. And the critics hated it: Roger Ebert called it  “warmed-over Horatio Alger” and included his review in his 2000 book, I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie!

David Rooney of The New York Times was even harsher, saying that the film “suffers from sluggish storytelling, a vocally challenged cast (led by an uncomfortable-looking Christian Bale) and poorly shot dance numbers bursting with anachronisms.

“It’s Oliver! meets Annie with quasi-breakdance moves,” he added derisively.

Yet somehow the cult of Newsies survived the film and now, two decades later, it’s back and headed for Broadway; the show begins previews next week at the Nederlander Theater. And this time, it has the whole world on its side.

When the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey premiered a revamped Newsies: The Musical last September, the most obvious question from theatergoers was “Why?” The answer to that lay in the second biggest question of the day, from a completely different audience: “What took you so long?”

Even hardcore critics of the film changed their tune after experiencing the Paper Mill production. “[It] has a stirring, old-school sincerity that’s hard to resist,” wrote old meanie David Rooney in The Times. “In its call to arms, its refusal to back down to big business, its fight for basic human dignity and its skepticism toward politics, the show also has themes that resonate in our new depression.”

This change of critical heart is due in large part to a reworking of the story’s book by Broadway veteran Harvey Fierstein. Most noticeably, protagonist “Cowboy” Jack Kelly has a new love interest: a young, scrappy female reporter who has replaced the role of the newsies’ journalist champion, Bryan Denton, played by Pill Pullman in the film.

There have been some other major changes in the transition from screen to stage. While 1992 audiences may have found the topic of choice strange, today a story about young, penniless kids trying to form a union hits closer to home.
“There’s a lot more political relevance in Harvey’s adaptation because of events in the world right now.” Alan Menken told The Observer in a telephone interview. He wrote the score for the original film as well as for the stage production. “We honed in on some of the historical perspective in the play. We kept Pulitzer and Teddy Roosevelt (as characters), but we really tried to inject some reality about what the political forces were that led to these newsboys being victimized.”

Newsies, we are now to believe, was the original Occupy Wall Street, though with fewer drum circles and more choreographed dancing.

Newsies: The Musical has gone through a number of changes on its way to Broadway. Six new songs have been added to the show, three of which were created after the Paper Mill production, Mr. Menken said. According to a spokesperson for Disney, the show, which runs through June, has cost $5 million to transfer to Broadway. That’s small potatoes for the juggernaut’s theater arm, and an astonishingly low figure in the era of big-budget musicals like Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. By the time the Julie Taymor left Spider-Man, that production had ballooned to a record-breaking $85 million. The Disney live-action flops of The Little Mermaid and Tarzan cost $15 million and $14 million respectively.

With the show’s short run, it would appear that Disney is being cautious with its latest adaptation, despite the fact that Newsies: The Musical’s small budget and (relatively) bare-bones vehicle has one thing going for it that no other Disney stage production has been able to procure: a genuinely swoon-worthy star.

Jeremy Jordan is one of the hottest commodities in the theater world right now: he made his name playing Jack Kelly at Paper Mill Playhouse, but left to star in the ill-fated Bonnie & Clyde on Broadway. When that show closed after just one month, the 27-year-old Mr. Jordan announced he’d be returning to Newsies for its Broadway debut. Surprisingly, he was greeted not by jeers from scorned fans, but whoops of glee.

“He’s the It Boy this season,” said Laura Motta, cofounder of the Broadway blog TheCraptacular.com. “His career blew up really quickly because he did these two projects back to back. These are two of the most prominent roles of this Broadway season.”

“It doesn’t hurt that he’s easy on the eyes,” Ms. Motta added. The 31-year-old New Yorker has been a Newsies fan since the film’s release, and found herself surprised when she saw the production at Paper Mill. She had been expecting the audience to be filled with people around her own age, the way people will go see a live version of the Rocky Horror Picture Show, joined together in their unabashed love of a film that’s notoriously kitschy.

Instead, Ms. Motta found herself in an audience filled with tweens. “How did these little girls know what this is?” She remembered asking herself, incredulous.
“Someone explained it to me: every Sunday afternoon when they’d play High School Musical on the Disney channel, they would play Newsies right after.” The newsboy flop could even be considered the forefather of the million-dollar HSM franchise, as the screen of cute boys doing back-flips and break-dancing in page boy hats had the same effect on an audience of young women in 1992 as Zac Efron would with more contemporary garb over a decade later. (It must be noted that both films had the same director as well, and Mr. Ortega has a way with making the women shake their hips … he did choreograph Dirty Dancing, after all.)

Not everyone is excited about the changes from screen to stage. Jen Yamato, a West Coast editor of MovieLine.com, is roughly the same age as Ms. Motta, and is equally obsessed with the film. Unlike the Broadway blogger, however, Ms. Yamato isn’t interested in tweaking Newsies: The Musical for a new generation.

“I’m looking forward to seeing it eventually,” she told The Observer in an email. “But I’m a bit worried about the story and character changes they’ve made, from what I’ve read. Newsies the film, to Newsies fans, is pretty much perfect as-is.”

“For my generation it’s the ultimate ‘at that age’ movie, the kind of thing that you love forever because you saw it at just the right time in your life,” she wrote. “I think the changes made between the film and the stage musical reflect a more critical look at Newsies than O.G. fans give it, deliberately or not. Because we grew up with it we love it, warts and all. Younger Newsies fans may also get this, but it’s hard to be sure when the fog of childhood nostalgia is so intrinsically linked to your love of something.”

The desire expressed by Ms. Yamato to claim a piece of so-bad-it’s-good cultural ephemera for her generation is not unusual, especially given the hype(r) fan-kids, who use Tumblr’s Newsies tag to post obsessively about the show and Mr. London.  Original Newsies fans loved the film because of its flaws as much as anything else. The range of celebrity cameos roped into it was as baffling as it was hilarious. Why does Robert Duvall portray Joseph Pulitzer as an Industrial Revolution-era Shylock? Why does Ann-Margret spend her days in a burlesque saloon? Why does Bill Pullman’s war correspondent find hanging out with a bunch of prepubescent boys a meaningful way to spend his time? These are questions original Newsies fans love to pose, but never care to have answered … or changed to make a more coherent, cohesive, and ultimately better story.

Mr. Menken understands those reservations perfectly. “I have two daughters, one is 26 and one is 23. And they were … well, threatening me. ‘We’re going to blank you up, Dad, if you lose this character or change this song!’”

But he defends his stage production. “It really retains the best elements of the movie, and loses the elements that were not so hot,” he said. “Like those turn of the century songs by Madda (Ann-Margret). She’s still there, but she’s got a better song. We’ve improved Newsies, but kept the essence of what the movie really was.”

The Observer, secretly a huge Newsies fan ourself, had to ask about our favorite lines of dialogue: a courtroom scene where the leader of the Brooklyn newsies gangs screams, “I object!”

“On what grounds?” asks the mutton-chopped judge.

“On the grounds of Brooklyn, your honor!”

So will we be hearing Brooklyn pride on Broadway?

“No, unfortunately,” Mr. Menken regretfully informed us. “We cut that part out.”