With the exception of Once, the best musical of the year, this has not been a vintage year for the Broadway musical. Yet Disney’s Newsies, a stage version of its l992 unsuccessful movie, which over the years has reached cult status with the electronic media set, has become the popular hit of the season with audiences hungry for a taste of old fashioned hokum entertainment. Newsies is really a musical wannabee, a pale imitation of the popular urchin musicals of the past, feverishly trying to mimic such shows like Oliver and Annie with director Jeff Calhoun having singing and dancing newsboys fill in for Dickins’ pickpockets and Annie’s orphans.
Inspired by the real events of the New York newsboys strike of 1899 when independent newsies took on the newspaper titans of the day: Joseph Pulitzer (played here with avuncular panache by John Dossett), the publisher of the New York World, and William Randolph Hearst of the Journal. The newsboy system had been masterminded by Pulitzer whereby the newsies, mostly orphaned and homeless young boys, bought stacks of papers each morning, hawked them on the street corners and at the end of the day were not refunded for any unsold newspapers.
When Pulitzer increased the distribution cost the newsies must pay two upstarts, Jack Kelly (Jeremy Jordan) and his sidekick Davey (Ben Fankhauser) rebelled. Inspired by the Brooklyn Trolley strike of 1895, they orgainized all the city’s newspaper peddlers. In the end the strike succeeded and their win carried much larger implications, ultimately leading to a movement to support the rights of all child laborers.
Newsies opened last fall at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse to an uproar of acclamation by audiences and local reviewers that surprised everyone, even the folks at Disney, who at that point were planning on sending the show on a national road tour. Quickly they changed their logistics and instead shipped Newsies across the Hudson River to the Nederlander Theater on West 41st Street for a limited run that has been extended indefinitely.
Transferring Newsies to the stage, Disney hired experienced musical theater bookwriter Harvey Fierstein to punch up Bob Izudiker and Noni White’s original screenplay with what seems like a lot of one-liners, and composer Alan Menken and lyricist Jack Feldman to write some new songs, even though the best songs are still the half dozen they wrote for the movie.
Menkin, who has won a shelf full of Oscars for such Disney film scores as Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid and Aladdin, for Newsies has written for the most part a pretty ordinary selection of tunes and anthems, most of which are coated with pop-flavored orchestrations by Daniel Troob. There are a couple of songs that do stand out: a nice ballad “Watch What Happens,” sung by Katherine (Kara Lindsay), a reporter from the New York World who not only helps the newsies cause, but also becomes Jack’s love interest.
Act two begins with the galvanizing “King of New York” number, which evolves into a fierce tap dance for the Newsies all-male chorus and lifts the show to that height of excitement that we expect of a musical like this. Most of the other choreography in the show by Christopher Gattelli is energetic yet suffers from having any real originality, sporting more perspiration than inspiration. The constant flips, turns, jumps and cartwheels are reminiscent of Michael Kidd’s athletic film choreography and get repetitious after awhile.
The large cast is full of talented triple-threat Broadway actor-singer-dancer pros. Jordan at the center, as strike leader Jack Kelly, seems to be a star in the making. Earlier this season he was a standout as Clyde Barrow in the short-lived musical version of Bonnie and Clyde. In Newsies he makes more of an impression. His acting is first-rate, his singing voice strong, and he knows how to get and hold an audience's attention even when he has to speak some of the Fierstein’s corniest lines.
Although there are some momentarily effective scenes and a rousing musical number or two, in the end Newsies is a disappointment – an uneasy and exasperating mixture of song, dance, drama, sentimental romance and social significance that never quite earns our unqualified vote of support.