From their vast catalog of whimsical mermaids, flying nannies, royal lions, talking cars, sleeping beauties and singing teapots, the folks at Disney have plucked another gang of family-friendly folk heroes and landed them on Broadway, and if the performance I saw of Newsies the Musical is any evidence, the Disney marketing geniuses will make it a solid success. There wasn’t one available seat, not even in the men’s room, and the Nederlander Theatre was packed like a jar of maraschino cherries with school groups, parents, teachers and ticket buyers young and old, desperate for good old-fashioned entertainment. They left with sore throats and callouses on their hands from screaming so loud and applauding so long. They got their money’s worth, and so will you.
This is all the more surprising since the lively new musical with more bounce to the ounce about the 1899 newsboy strike that humbled Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst is based on real tabloid history (never a show business lure—just ask Bonnie and Clyde) as well as a flop 1992 movie with Christian Bale, Ann-Margret and Robert Duvall. Those boys at Disney really know how to recycle. They drafted Harvey Fierstein to polish the book, Alan Menken and Jack Feldman to pen a dozen or so songs (not counting reprises), Christopher Gattelli to map out the choreography that never stops sailing, stomping and strutting, and Jeff Calhoun to direct a cast that looks (and sounds) like the entire population of Hoboken, N.J. They all do a splendid job of bringing to life a period New York as grim as city slums and graky as skin-blackening rub-off newspaper ink. It was an ugly time, near the turn of the century, of gaseous trolleys, polluted air, nonexistent laws protecting child labor, oppression, poverty and rampant crime. The “newsies” were typical of the children who toiled in factories, sweatshops and slaughterhouses of the day—waifs, ragamuffins and street urchins, mostly orphans and homeless immigrants, who lived in everything from cheap lodging houses with one toilet to whiskey barrels. They dodged the cops, the muggers and the bullies from Brooklyn, ever in danger of being sent to a jail for kids out of the pages of Charles Dickens. The plot, such as it is, hinges on the strike that was perceived as a threat to New York’s shaky economic troubles (or, in Joseph Pulitzer’s interpretation, as a menace to his own self-serving economic profits). At the root of the headlines was the greed and apathy of the moguls who charged the newsies six cents for each 10-cent paper and refused to take back unsold copies, then jacked up the costs, forcing them to sell more papers to make a miniscule profit. The narrow conflict involves the ways the disenfranchised newsies turned the tables on management by forming their own union and going on strike (like the garment workers in The Pajama Game). Their leader was a tough, uncrackable nut named Jack Kelly (played by the ferociously exuberant Jeremy Jordan, the multitalented star of the recent, underrated Bonnie and Clyde). Historical documents differ on the success of the newsboy strike, but there’s no doubt that it cut deeply into the circulation and advertising dollars of both the World (which later became the World-Telegram) and the Journal (which morphed into the Journal-American) and brought Pulitzer, Hearst and even New York’s governor, Theodore Roosevelt, to the front lines, making concessions they never dreamed possible. The show takes numerous liberties. Roosevelt was never involved in the disputes, Pulitzer was out of town and the romance between Jack Kelly and Pulitzer’s daughter—a reporter for the New York Sun who exposes her own father’s sins, disgraces him by falling in love with a lowly newsie and ends up, when the strike is over, launching Jack’s respectable new career as a newspaper illustrator and artist—is pure invention. When a scruffy band of kids with holes in their socks and air in their pockets take on the most powerful newspaper moguls in journalism to improve their meager income by a few pennies and gain respect for their rights in life, it doesn’t diminish the solid entertainment value of the show one bit. In fact, you find yourself cheering. Who cares about facts when you’re having so much fun?
Played out against the ladders, stairs and fire escapes of Lower East Side scaffolding, the show never stops moving, not even when it pauses for a corny line like “Don’t ever say I didn’t give you nothin’—and before you think water is nothin’, just ask a fish in the desert.” Mr. Fierstein’s dialogue is not always convincing and the thrust of his book gives you the strike details, but you don’t learn much about the kids who are doing the striking. Newsies named Crutchie, Race, Romeo and Mush were real people who vanished when the strike faded into history, but they register less as members of a union than as members of a chorus. The big nonstop thrills come from the production numbers themselves. The newsies dance with brooms and duel with spoons and tap in unison for an audience that goes mad with joy. (They could all replace the cast of Anything Goes tomorrow.) Much applause is lavished on the choreography by Christopher Gattelli (South Pacific). It’s so dynamic that I guess it doesn’t matter if it is somewhat less than original. One undeniably happy musical moment arrives when the newsies dance on their discarded newspapers, split them in half, then dance on the strips of paper with both feet. Never mind that in 1950, Gene Kelly did the same thing in the MGM musical Summer Stock. To the kids in the audience who never heard of Gene Kelly, it’s still enthralling. The dancers are so young and appealing and exploding with libidinous vitality that I was exhilarated even by things I’ve seen before. They walk on their hands. They do double back flips. The energy is overwhelming.
The singing and dancing chorus is the real focus here, but the actors in lead speaking roles are very good, too. This is my fourth exposure to the dynamic Jeremy Jordan after he starred in West Side Story and Bonnie and Clyde and played Dolly Parton’s son in the rocking movie musical Joyful Noise. He just gets better every time. As the newsie with leadership power who daydreams of escaping his hardscrabble past for the wide-open spaces in a wistful ballad called “Santa Fe,” then urges his followers to “Seize the Day” (“Minute by minute, that’s the way to win it”), he acts with sincerity, sings with exuberance and passion, and does splits in mid-air. Kara Lindsay, as the pretty girl reporter looking for a scoop that will get her out of the society pages and fluffy features on flower shows, is perfect and sings like a dream. Capathia Jenkins is a jolly burlesque queen with a robust musical voice as Medda Larkin, the role Ann-Margret played in the film, and John Dossett as an almost fictitious Joseph Pulitzer could be the twin brother of John Slattery, the silver-haired fox on Mad Men. Cheers to them all. The athletic zest of Newsies the Musical sends you away exhausted, but happy.