Newsies was a bad film. It was always a bad film, misguided in its conception and extravagantly silly of execution. But it had something that couldn’t quite have been predicted, upon its release in 1992, something that transcended its clunky construction and delivery. It had an advance tendril into the style-points of the new millennium dance craze, as embraced by young audiences, with a choreographic music-video energy that, in its highlighting of acrobatic group precision, was as prescient as infectious; as well as a storyline in which a cadre of oppressed young boys (mostly boys) ban together to fight the system and overcome odds through ingenuity, pluck and, best of all, having rightness on their side. So despite tanking at the box office, the movie Newsies found its footing among kids via home video. I had my first inkling of just how pervasive its impact was when someone I won’t identify on the production end of the new theatrical adaptation (not one of the authors) broke confidence to tell me it would be debuting at the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey—and added that it was one of his (or her) favorite film growing up.
And the folks at Disney are not stupid about their merchandising. What with High School Musical going through the roof in various media, and Shake It Up, Break It Down’s deluxe CD/DVD set topping the kiddie charts (got it for my 9 year old niece; her far-and-away favorite birthday gift this year), Newsies had the burning potential for reincarnation.
What’s that you say? Why would Disney put all that money and effort into adapting a spectacularly flawed movie? (And haven’t they previously had their successes adapting their mega-successful animated features?) Well, wasn’t it Oscar Hammerstein II who said that the best pieces to adapt for musicalization are those that almost work? (It was.) Those are the pieces, he asserted, that needed elevation and transformation—and improvement (which, by the way, the cartoons never needed, despite their stage versions’ success). And the only meaningful difference between our time and Oscar’s (where his sage advice is concerned), is that the explosion of media and entertainment formats have vastly widened the scope of where source material might be found. And with home video sales indicating an audience for the property is alive and well…what could be more new millennium “almost works” than that?
So here’s what they retained. The basic outline of the story. Most of the main characters. Most of the mostly-catchy score by Alan Menken (music) and Jack Feldman (lyrics). The stylistically iconic choreographic signature of the film as conceived by its director-choreographer Kenny Ortega (who was not retained).
And here’s what they added: more songs by the same team (those being a few more character numbers to offset the weight of too many anthematic moments); a new book by Harvey Fierstein, properly balancing the story elements and structure; choreographer Christopher Gatelli and director Jeff Calhoun. Plus a first rate design, sound design and musical staff—and a helluva cast. And the result?
It pretty much kicks ass.
The story is simple enough, and told in broad strokes, as befits a show heavy on dance: We’re in NYC, 1899, and Joseph Pulitzer (John Dossett) sees his newspaper profits declining. His quick, mercenary solution: pass on the cost to the newspaper boys, charge them an extra 10¢ per hundred papers they take to sell. But the newsies are, of course, poor kids, and every penny is crucial to survival money. So the newsie looked upon by the others as a leader, Jack Kelly (Jeremy Jordan) urges his comrades to ban together, strike, form a union. And that’s when Pulitzer starts to play dirty…There’s a romance for Jack with a girl reporter who’s more than what she seems (Kara Lindsay), a bunch of newsie friends hewing to various archetypes, like the smart, conservative one (Ben Fankhauser), the physically challenged one (Andrew Keenan-Bolger) and the young kid/mascot (Vincent Agnello). They’re a cute bunch of underdogs.
Newsies is by no means a great musical, but it’s a terrific evening of theatre, especially if what you’re in the mood for is a feelgood rush. If there’s any overriding philosophy here, it’s choreography as catharsis, and unlike the film, where it comes at you in a repetitive wash, the stage version positions the dance explosions cannily (and also, frankly, capitalizes on being a stage version; in the poetic medium of theatre Newsies can get away with things that the reportorial medium of film can’t, without violating verisimilitude.)
Flaws? Yeah, a few. The ballad for the young romantics is a weak link in a strong score; and occasionally you can feel the effort of the creative teram trying to save one of the film’s signature songs: “Santa Fe” doesn’t quite belong anymore—it bifurcates the hero’s dramatic arc and isn’t necessary. And “I’m the King of New York” is shoehorned into an interlude spot. Do these dramatic contortions seem glaring? No. Does the audience care? Not that I can tell. But then again, Newsies is not a show that invites that kind of scrutiny.
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