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The cult of 'Newsies'

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Everett Collection

The throng outside Broadway’s Nederlander Theatre tonight is largely twentysomething, largely female — and largely squealing. Tonight’s performance of Disney’s Newsies has just ended and a crowd’s gathered by the stage door. Meagan Lewis, 26, recalls discovering the 1992 movie musical that inspired the show in drama class when she was 15. Kate Hicks, 28, and her cousin used to mount the film’s production numbers — the anthemic ”Seize the Day,” for one — on a trampoline in her backyard. Tami Salame, 29, a superfan from Daytona Beach, Fla., isn’t here tonight, but that’s okay, because she’s seen the show 20 times already — and plans to attend eight more performances in June. ”I’m kinda at this place where it’s like, ‘Wow, do I really need to keep spending money on Newsies?”’ she says. ”But yeah, I kinda do.”

Wait a minute. Didn’t the movie Newsies flop? Wasn’t it about a bunch of scrappy newsboys in the 19th century? Wasn’t Christian Bale in it when he was, like, 17? They made a Broadway musical out of that? Yes to all of the above. Newsies was an endearingly ambitious but structurally problematic film. When it was released 20 years ago, it grossed a measly $2.8 million — making it one of Disney’s biggest bombs (before John Carter, of course). The stage version, which began on Broadway March 15, outearned its film predecessor in less than four weeks. Thanks in part to the movie’s devoted cult following, Newsies is breaking records at the Nederlander, raking in up to $1 million per week. The show scored eight nominations for next month’s Tony Awards, including ones for Best Musical, director Jeff Calhoun, and lead actor Jeremy Jordan (in Bale’s role as head newsboy Jack Kelly). It’s a surprising reversal of fortune for a project that once earned headlines for all the wrong reasons.

The Early Edition

Newsies began as a classic underdog story ripped from the history books. In mid-1990, writers Bob Tzudiker and Noni White approached producer Michael Finnell with an idea for a nonmusical drama based on the newsboys’ strike of 1899, when paperboys across New York City organized a union to demand fair compensation from publishers Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst. Finnell liked the idea. ”It had the Disney feel,” he recalls. ”You know, the little kids going up against the big bad industrialists.” He brought a pitch to Disney’s then studio head, Jeffrey Katzenberg, who swiftly ordered a script.

After several drafts, Katzenberg, who had just overseen production on The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, decided to take Newsies in a vastly different direction. ”The musicals that we were making in animation were really enjoying incredible success at the time,” says Katzenberg, now CEO of DreamWorks Animation. ”We all felt that this story, the period setting — New York and the street — was a great template for a musical.” When Finnell heard the news, he says, he was stunned: ”There was dead silence on my end of the phone. Probably for a minute.”

Disney hired Dirty Dancing choreographer Kenny Ortega to direct, and brought in Oscar-winning composer Alan Menken and lyricist Jack Feldman to write the score. Bale, who’d starred in Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun, was cast as Kelly — despite a lack of singing chops. The actor, who was years away from playing Batman and earning a rep for prickliness, spent months learning dance routines and working with vocal coaches. Menken recalls hearing Bale on the first run-through of the ballad ”Santa Fe.” ”I pushed the button [to speak to Bale in the recording studio] and said, ‘Well, it’s a start.’ I remember him saying, ‘It’s a start? It’s a start?! I worked for a year — it’s a START?!”’ says Menken. ”I saw little shades of what was to come, I guess.” In a 2007 interview, Bale told EW he was no longer embarrassed by the film. ”At 17 you don’t want to be doing a musical, you know,” he said. ”At 17 you want to be taken very seriously. And I don’t like musicals!”

The $15 million production went smoothly. The filmmakers felt they had created an exuberant, original live-action musical at a time when Hollywood deemed the genre dead. But when Newsies hit theaters in April 1992, critics savaged the film (it earned five Razzie nominations, ”winning” Worst Original Song for Ann-Margret’s awkward tune ”High Times, Hard Times”) and moviegoers all but ignored it. ”Of course you’re disappointed,” says Ortega, who went on to direct hits like High School Musical and Michael Jackson’s This Is It. ”No one wants to put that kind of love and attention and investment into a project and have it not succeed.”

Yet Newsies never slipped into complete obscurity. Throughout the 1990s, it found an incredibly supportive audience on video. (Disney declined to provide sales data but confirms that Newsies is one of the titles most often requested for release on Blu-ray; it’s due June 19.) Moreover, the increasingly pervasive Internet allowed fans, many of them young women, to share their passion. Online they could debate which Newsie was hotter (Racetrack Higgins or Spot Conlon? Discuss), revel in the film’s up-by-the-bootstraps message, and gush about Menken’s catchy songs — which years later were inspiring homemade tributes on YouTube.

Back in the Spotlight

Despite the fan support, Disney never intended to bring Newsies to the Great White Way. Though requests for a stage adaptation outnumbered those for better-known studio hits like Mulan and Hercules, the company originally planned to prep a simple script it could license to schools and amateur theater groups. (Since 2006, more than 4,500 schools and other venues have performed Disney’s licensed stage version of High School Musical.) But making a stage-ready Newsies proved to be an unexpectedly big challenge. ”We’d been developing it for a long time just for that licensing market,” says Thomas Schumacher, president of the Disney Theatrical Group, ”and we just couldn’t crack the nut to make it purely theatrical.” Menken took several stabs at an adaptation, but he threw in the towel after multiple workshops went nowhere.

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Then Menken’s friend Harvey Fierstein, the actor-playwright who wrote the book for the musical La Cage aux Folles, tried hammering out a script three years ago. ”You know, it is a very tricky thing doing an adaptation of something that’s bad,” says Fierstein, who calls the original film ”awful,” though he fondly remembers using it as a ”babysitting tool” for his nephews. Seeing potential in Newsies‘ youthful energy and irresistible score, Fierstein changed Bill Pullman’s reporter/mentor character into a spunky female love interest named Katherine (Kara Lindsay), removed strike scenes he considered superfluous, and worked with Menken and Feldman to craft several new tunes.

Last September, Disney premiered Fierstein’s version of Newsies — complete with athletic choreography by Christopher Gattelli — at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse for a three-week-only run. The response was more positive than anyone imagined, and the show’s theme of poor kids challenging greedy corporate titans played into populist sentiments pitting the 99 percent against the 1 percent. ”It had real audience heat,” says Schumacher. ”Probably half the tickets that we sold before our opening we sold before any [traditional] advertising. It was all on the Internet.” But after the costly failure of Disney’s last two Broadway musicals, 2006’s Tarzan and 2008’s The Little Mermaid, Schumacher proceeded cautiously with Newsies. He signed off on a limited three-month engagement in New York City in hopes that the cachet of a ”Broadway musical” would boost licensing fees. The company is expected to announce an open-ended run.

At least one Newsies fan couldn’t be happier with the show’s unlikely success: Jeremy Jordan, a Tony nominee in the role that Bale made…not very famous. ”I vividly remember seeing Newsies in the movie theater,” says the 27-year-old Texan, munching on biscotti in his cramped backstage dressing room before a recent performance. ”And then I remember seeing it a million times on VHS.”

In recent weeks, Jordan has been gratified to watch the show’s audience expand. ”First it was all the hardcore Fansies,” he says. ”But there are more families coming now.” Beneath a collage of fan mail hanging over his desk sits a folded-up copy of The Jeremy Jordan Times, a painstakingly made newspaper he received two days earlier from two swooning Florida teens who had never even seen the movie. ”Hopefully the next phase will be the tourists, because they’re the ones that make the show run forever.” Regardless of how long it runs, though, Newsies‘ Broadway edition has already made its failure on the big screen seem like yesterday’s news.

{C} Movies Soon to Turn Musical

Diner

Sheryl Crow is writing the score for an adaptation of Barry Levinson’s 1982 dramedy, due in San Francisco this October before a spring bow on Broadway.

Flashdance

After a four-month London run in 2010–11, the stage version of the ’83 film about a high-kicking steelworker hits Toronto in July. A national tour begins on Jan. 1, 2013, in Pittsburgh.

Hands on a Hardbody

Phish’s Trey Anastasio wrote tunes for a show based on a 1998 doc about an endurance contest — whoever keeps one hand on a new truck the longest wins it. It plays in La Jolla, Calif., through June 17.

Honeymoon in Vegas

Tony Danza stars as a crooked gambler in an update of the 1992 Nicolas Cage comedy. The flying Elvises are due in NYC next spring after a prenup engagement in Toronto.

Kinky Boots

Harvey Fierstein has teamed with Cyndi Lauper to adapt a 2006 British indie about a drag queen and a guy with a failing shoe biz. It opens in Chicago this October. —Marc Snetiker

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