Newsies: Nederlander Theater

11 04 2012

In 1992, my living room echoed with the voices of Newsies, peddling the papers of Joseph Pulitzer, William Randolph Hurst, and other giants of the newspaper world.

Okay, so maybe it was 1993; I don’t think Newsies ever had a theatrical release in my hometown of Albemarle, NC. But by the time I was 7 or 8 years old, this Disney flop about the 1899 newsboy strike had invaded my home via television, and it has been a touchstone ever since. While Jack Kelly daydreamed about Santa Fe, I imagined a life in New York City. It would probably involve banding together with friends and fighting against corrupt corporate control by writing and singing and dancing. Newsies taught me the power of the press and the power of performance.

As of yesterday, which was the 20th anniversary of the film’s release, Newsies is playing to packed houses and rave reviews on Broadway, and Sh-K-Boom/Ghostlight has just released the Original Broadway Cast Recording, which soared to #16 on the iTunes charts. My 7-year-old self is beaming, particularly after having seen the production at the Nederlander Theater last week. Disney Theatrical’s translation of the cult film to the Broadway stage is not without its flaws, but it dramatically enhances our favorite story of kids against The World.

Harvey Fierstein’s new book for the stage show maintains the unabashed bromance of the film. The musical opens with a heartwarming duet of “Santa Fe” between leader of the newsies Jack Kelly (rising star Jeremy Jordan) and his crippled companion Crutchie (the endearing Andrew Keenan-Bolger), orphans who dream of moving out West to find a better life and a family. Davey (Ben Fankhauser) and his adorable little brother Les (Matthew Schechter at the performance I saw) are new to the newsies; they are anomalies for having a biological family to return to each night. But – as Jack comes to realize – the newsies are a family unto themselves. Newsies draws its power from ensemble; the boys perform community in exuberant song and dance, bonding as they unionize against Pulitzer’s unfair price hikes.

The pounding heart of Newsies is composer Alan Menken and lyricist Jack Feldman’s infectious anthems, from “The World Will Know” to “Seize the Day.” Although lyrics have sometimes inexplicably been altered from the film, hearing a full company harmonize to these childhood favorites is guaranteed to send chills down a fansie’s spine. A new chorus to “Once and for All” is a particularly powerful and unexpected break from the patter song; Tobin Ost’s towering industrial set carries the newsies forward on the firm refrain, “There’s change coming, once and for all.” What Christopher Galetti’s choreography lacks in innovation, the company makes up in energy and jaw-dropping stunts; each newsie lays claim to the stage, although Specs (Ryan Steele) certainly draws attention with his lithe leaps and effortless pirouettes.

The anthems may feel relentless and repetitive to a non-fansie, but the stage adaptation of Newsies strikes a better balance of anthems, ballads, and comic songs than the film. Joseph Pulitzer (John Dossett) is newly elaborated in song, and the vaudeville performer Medda (Capathia Jenkins) has been significantly clarified since the run at Paper Mill Playhouse in the fall; her solo “That’s Rich” may sound derivative of Chicago, but her brassy vocals are excuse enough for a brief narrative respite.

The most welcome development from the film is the expansion of Jack Kelly’s character. Harvey Fierstein’s book rounds the role with a backstory of the newsboy’s unsung artistic talents; Jack paints sets for Medda’s theater and sketches provocative political cartoons. Jeremy Jordan commands this role in a way that the unmusical Christian Bale never could in the 1992 film. The charismatic Jordan stakes his claim as leader of the newsies – and as one of Broadway’s best new leading men – with his soaring vocals and unreal breath control. All Jack needs is an intellectual nudge from his pal Davey to electrify his fellow newsies and jump start the strike.

Despite his charms, Jack has less immediate success in love. One of Harvey Fierstein’s primary additions to the Newsies book is a fleshed out romance between Jack Kelly and a new female character, Katherine Plummer (Kara Lindsay). This “beautiful, smaht, independent” young woman is a pioneering news reporter who takes up the newsies strike as her first “serious” story. No more silly vaudeville reviews for her!

As excited as I was by the idea of an empowered female lead, a combination of design and directorial choices make Katherine a less than ideal role model. A quasi-Disney princess has been dropped into the middle of Newsies; with bright candy-colored costumes and too much pluck, Katherine reminds me of a Barbie doll dressed up as a doctor or – in this case – a news reporter. Despite her profession, it is hard to take Katherine seriously. In the obnoxious stream-of-conscious verses of her solo “Watch What Happens,” she continually denigrates herself: “Ha! It’s a cinch! It can practic’lly write itself. And let’s pray it does, ‘cause as I may have mentioned, I have no clue what I’m doing. Am I insane?” While every writer has endured such nagging self-doubt, it seems unfortunate that the men always sing reassured anthems while the hysterics go to the woman.

Katherine’s character develops in a better direction in Act II; she is even named “King of New York” in a showstopping tap number at the top of the act. Channeling Mary Poppins in “Step in Time,” Katherine becomes part of the newsies, joining their rhythms in one of the most dynamic and exciting numbers of the entire show. This Katherine is the young woman I want to see throughout Newsies: confident and in unison with the men.

With the addition of this love story, Fierstein has pushed an uncharacteristic Disney film into a more generic realm. Jack and Katherine’s Act II love duet, “Something to Believe In,” is accordingly cliche. Feldman’s lyrics are far from character specific, but Alan Menken’s music is some of his most memorable in years; the melody evokes the golden years of the Disney Renaissance, brimming with beautiful nostalgia for “A Whole New World.” What’s more, Kara Lindsay’s pristine soprano and Jeremy Jordan’s stunning tenor supersede the lyrical faults of the song. (Please note how Jeremy Jordan sweeps seamlessly from the verse into the chorus. I’m obsessed.) Although one of my favorite aspects of Newsies was its difference from the Disney formula, the romantic storyline does not detract from the narrative core: the newsies’ triumphant strike against the system.

On that note, Newsies’ current success feels like the triumph of a cult fan culture of which I am proud to be a part. When the movie was dismissed as a financial failure in the early 90s, fansies scoured stores for the VHS and the soundtrack (pre-Amazon.com). We made fan sites and tapped to “Seize the Day” and “King of New York” in dance recitals. We  yelled off the Brooklyn Bridge when we visited NYC for the first time. We chronicled our life in and through Newsies.

The production at Paper Mill Playhouse in fall 2011 was an important pilgrimage for devoted fans. Although I was a little disappointed with the first preview, the greatest gift was meeting fellow pilgrims along the journey like superfan Saint Tami. The energy and excitement in the audience was palpable. All of us had a Newsies story, at once unique and yet interrelated to all the other fansies’ stories. That pilgrimage continues to the Nederlander Theater today.

And then there was the merch. After years of searching for the perfect newsboy cap for my Spot Conlon haircut, Disney now sold one with the Newsies logo subtly stitched into the back. After my dance teacher sewed me a simple newsie bag in high school, I could finally buy a legit tote emblazoned with dancing newsboys. I bought all the things, but I also felt strange as I handed over my credit card. Newsies fan culture had thrived for so long on fan-made t-shirts and messenger bags, improvised Halloween costumes (that no one in Albemarle understood), and high school and college performances that circumvented Disney Theatricals. I began to understand what Rocky Horror Picture Show fans felt when their cult classic transformed into a worldwide, commercialized phenomenon: intensely conflicted.

I was all the more torn because the message of Newsies feels in contradistinction to the corporation presenting it, especially now that the show has transferred to Broadway. What does it mean for the Goliath of Disney Theatricals to tell the story of David and Goliath? What does it mean for audience members to pay $100+ to see a musical about a strike against unfair prices?

When I visited NYC last week, I was on my own personal strike against high ticket prices for both practical reasons (i.e. grad student budget) and principles. Disney is not the only one guilty of jacking up the prices lately. Remember Occupy Broadway? Within the system of unaffordable ticket prices for Newsies, I was grateful that a friend and I won the ticket lottery for $30 (second row!) seats. This lottery policy started with Rent, a previous tenant at the Nederlander that challenged the system with rebellious, youthful energy bursting from a highly commercial property.

The musical has always thrived on these uncomfortable borders of art and commerce. David and Goliath depend on one another to make a good story – and, lest we forget, Goliath has a face too. In fact, the few faces that I know behind Disney Theatricals are some of the most brilliant and generous people I have ever met. That throws another lovely contradiction into the mix. So as I blare my cast recording at 2am, I have no answers to my ongoing passion for Newsies and conflict over its newfound commercial success. All I know is that I needed to write about it. And in some small way, I think you can blame Newsies for that.

Carrying the banner.

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One response

28 09 2012
fansiesalliance

Reblogged this on Fansies Alliance and commented:
Read another fan’s blog about her Newsies experience here. It’s very open and honest, and definitely gets you thinking.

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