Newsies Review: How The Other Half Dances
Wider than the gap between the one percent and the 99 percent, or between labor and management, is the one between those who grew up adoring the film “Newsies” and those who found it unwatchable.
The 1992 Disney musical, based on the true story of a strike in 1899 by New York’s newspaper boys, starred an 18-year-old Christian Bale as strike leader Jack. (Bale apparently now lines up with the unwatchable group; he has never appeared in another musical: “I just don’t like musicals, that’s all.”)
“Newsies” was a clear-cut flop: Made for $15 million, it grossed under $3 million. Movie critics were fairly unanimous in their assessment:
“Joyless, pointless”- Janet Maslin, New York Times
“All left feet, noise and clutter”- Desson Howe, Washington Post
“Warmed-over Horatio Alger”-Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times.
“I’ve loved the movie since I was five years old,” a woman in my row at the Nederlander Theater told me.
That adoration was apparently widespread. “Newsies” not only got a second life on video; schools and amateur theaters across the country were reportedly staging their own live productions based on the film. Its cult-like popularity convinced Disney to mount its own stage version. “Newsies The Musical” was put on last year at Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, N.J.
It is that production that now has arrived on Broadway. So loyal are the fans of the film that Jeremy Jordan, who plays Jack, recently apologized to them in an interview for the changes made in the adaptation.
Yes, there are some changes: Five of the film’s songs by composer Alan Menken (The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Sister Act, Leap of Faith) with lyricist Jack Feldman have been cut, replaced by five new ones from the same songwriting team. Harvey Fierstein (“Torch Song Trilogy,” “La Cage Aux Folles”), who was brought on to write the book, has moved around some scenes, spruced up the dialogue, and turned the seasoned male reporter who covers the strike (played in the movie by Bill Pullman) into a rookie female journalist (Kara Lindsay) – a love interest for Jack.
The good news about “Newsies” is that the musical works far better on a stage. Even Tobin Ost’s set, with its three massive three-tiered skeletal metal towers moving around compulsively, is far more effective than the Hollywood backlot used as pretend-New York in the film. Menken’s dozen songs, spiced with some undeniably catchy tunes, get the treatment they deserve, backed by a live 12-piece band and put forth by a splendid cast (of young-looking adults playing children) that is not only as attractive as those in the movie; these performers can actually sing.
And dance. The choreography by Christopher Gattelli is dazzling. The vigorous tap routines and acrobatic moves – leaps and kicks, back flips and mid-air somersaults – put “Newsies” up there with “Memphis” and “Anything Goes” for the most thrilling dancing currently on Broadway.
Why they’re dancing is not always clear. At several moments in “Newsies,” I found myself asking: What exactly does this chorus line have to do with the plot? But perhaps this is just as well. “Newsies” may be based on a true story, but the story here feels largely synthetic.
Newsies was the nickname for street urchins – mostly homeless children– who made a living in the late nineteenth century by purchasing copies of newspapers from the publishers, and then hawking them on the streets. In the musical, newspaper mogul Joseph Pulitzer (yes, that’s who the Pulitzer Prizes are named after) decides, in order to increase his profits, to start charging the newsboys more for their batch of newspapers each morning.
Jack organizes a strike, which has its ups and downs, its turns and twists.
“Newsies” touches on some of the deplorable conditions of the day. Thugs beat up the strikers, for example, with the collusion of the police. Jack, played persuasively by Jeremy Jordan (who played Clyde in Frank Wildhorn’s short-lived “Bonnie & Clyde” on Broadway) is given speeches like: “For the sake of all the kids in every sweatshop, factory, and slaughter house in this town, I beg you… throw down your papers and join the strike.”
But nobody would mistake “Newsies” for Clifford Odets or even Mike Daisey. This is Disney, after all. And by that, I don’t mean it is a big corporation that itself has been accused of engaging in questionable labor practices – even, as recently as last year, benefiting from child labor.
The Newsies team seems to be attempting a synthesis of “Oliver!” and “The Bowery Boys.” The characters speak with toy New Yawk accents – Orphans have no muddahs, but they still have bruddahs — and say cute things that no children really say. (“Fame is one intoxicatin’ potion,” says the character Les, supposedly nine years old.) The twists in the story (which I won’t give away, and which are not of course what actually happened) are so pat as to be nearly incoherent.
“Newsies The Musical” retains from the movie the burlesque star who is friends with Jack and the other Newsies – in the movie played by Ann-Margret, here by Capathia Jenkins, just as incongruously, if not more so. She sings a new song full of sexual double-entendres. She also greets the newsboys with: “Welcome to my theater and your revolution!”
The newsies feel as revolutionary as the munchkins in “The Wizard of Oz.”
A legitimate response here would be: Oh, lighten up; it’s an entertainment. But it also may be a missed opportunity.
When little Les is astounded that he can see a showgirl’s legs, the burlesque star says to Les’s brother:
“Step out of his way so’s he can get a better look. Theater’s not only entertaining, it’s educational.”
But how educational is “Newsies”?
It is obvious that the team did some research, and that that research included Jacob Riis’ “How The Other Half Lives,” which includes a photograph Riis took – captioned “Getting ready for supper in the Newsboys’ Lodging House” – that surely inspired the morning waking-up scene at the beginning of the musical.
As Riis explains, the Newsboy’s Lodging House was set up by the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children – “the good it has done cannot easily be overestimated.” The lodging houses were an alternative to the boys’ normal abode, which included a boiler room in the sub-basement of the Post Office and, when that was raided by police, “the shore-end of one of the East River banana docks, where they had fitted up a regular club-room that was shared by thirty to forty homeless boys and about a million rats…
“Whence this army of homeless boys?” Riis asked. “Some are orphans, actually or in effect, thrown upon the world when their parents were ‘sent up’…A drunken father explains the matter in other cases, as in that of John and Willie, aged ten and eight, picked up by the police. They ‘didn’t live nowhere,’ never went to school, could neither read nor write….Grinding poverty and hard work beyond the years of the lad; blows and curses for breakfast, dinner and supper; all these are recruiting agents for the homeless army. Sickness in the house; too many mouths to feed.”
Riis’s work helped shock the nation into enacting a raft of reforms, including the outlawing of child labor.
“Newsies The Musical” is under no obligation to do anything but entertain. But one wonders what a musical theater composer like Adam Guettel (“Floyd Collins”) or Stephen Sondheim might have done with this story.
Newsies The Musical
At the Nederlander Theater
Music by Alan Menken; lyrics by Jack Feldman; book by Harvey Fierstein, based on the Disney film written by Bob Tzudiker and Noni White
Directed by Jeff Calhoun; choreography by Christopher Gattelli; music supervisor/incidental arrangements by Michael Kosarin; orchestrations by Danny Troob; sets by Tobin Ost; costumes by Jess Goldstein; lighting by Jeff Croiter; projections by Sven Ortel; sound by Randy Hansen; hair and wig design by Charles LaPointe; fight director, J. Allen Suddeth; production stage manager, Thomas J. Gates; dance music arrangements by Mark Hummel
Cast: Jeremy Jordan (Jack Kelly), John Dossett (Joseph Pulitzer), Kara Lindsay (Katherine), Capathia Jenkins (Nun/Medda Larkin), Ben Fankhauser (Davey), Andrew Keenan-Bolger (Crutchie), Lewis Grosso and Matthew J. Schechter (alternating as Les) and Kevin Carolan (Governor Roosevelt).
Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes.
Ticket prices: $91-$125
“Newsies” is scheduled to run through Aug. 19, but is likely to be extended. (It’s already been extended once.)
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