[BOOK] Harvey Fierstein.
[LYRICS] Jack Feldman.
[MUSIC] Alan Menken
[SOURCE] Newsies (1992) by Bob Tzudiker and Noni White.
[DATES] Premiere: 2011. Broadway: 2012.
[RIGHTS] Music Theatre International.
[PLACE IN HISTORY]
Newsies, a musical set against the backdrop of the 1899 Newsboys Strike in New York City, began its journey to the musical theatre stage as a Disney film. The film upon which the show is based carries the reputation of having been universally panned upon its original release, but it actually received mixed reviews and developed a cult following among the musical theatre teens of that decade. The property was developed into a stage musical by Disney Theatricals, who reunited the film’s songwriters, Alan Menken and Jack Feldman, and hired Broadway legend Harvey Fierstein to retool Bob Tzudiker and Noni White’s screenplay into a book that, everyone hoped, would eliminate the film’s weaknesses. The show debuted at the Paper Mill Playhouse in 2011 and then underwent further revisions before making its Broadway transfer the following year. The stage show drew positive critical acclaim and was a hit with audiences, running for 1004 performances at the Nederlander Theatre. In 2016, a live performance was filmed at the Pantages Theatre in Los Angeles for a limited theatrical release. That filmed version is now available for streaming on Disney+.
The best thing about Newsies is the set of songs that struck a chord with teens in the original film, particularly “Carrying the Banner,” “Santa Fe,” “Seize the Day” and “King of New York.” You can bet that those are the songs that fans of the film wanted to hear when they watched or listened to the stage show for the first time. They are all classic Menken tunes, memorable from the first listen.
It would be difficult to contest Alan Menken’s position as man of the match when it comes to Newsies. Without his score, this property might never have found an audience and would almost certainly never have had the staying power to complete it journey to the stage almost two decades after the premiere of the original film.
“Once we’ve begun
If we stand as one
Someday becomes somehow
And a prayer becomes a vow”
Jack Kelly. Age 16-20. Range: B♭2 to A4. The charismatic leader of the newsies, an orphaned dreamer and artist who yearns to get out of the crowded streets of New York and make a better life for himself out West. Must have a great pop tenor voice and sense of physicality.
Crutchie. Age 13-17. Range: C3 to A4. A dedicated newsie who walks with the assistance of a crutch. Goofy, sweet, funny. optimistic and resilient. Included in the dance numbers, his movement reflecting his physical disability.
Davey. Age 15-20. Range: D3 to A4. Brainy and straight-laced, Davey joins the newsies to earn money for his family, but gets swept up in their resistance.
Les. Age 10-15. Range: D♭3 to B♭3. Davey’s cheeky younger brother, a precocious and natural charmer. A born salesman.
Katherine Plumber. Age 17-20. Range: A3 to F5. Ambitious young reporter who is working hard to make a name for herself in a time when women are relegated to the sidelines. Quick, funny, and resourceful. Needs a great contemporary pop voice with a high belt and excellent diction.
Joseph Pulitzer. Range: C3 to F4. Pompous businessman who owns the World and is only worried about the bottom line. Does not sympathise with the newsies. Katherine’s father.
Snyder. Age 45-65. Corrupt warden of The Refuge, an orphanage that allows him to keep the government checks coming – if he houses enough children.
Medda Larkin. Age 25-45. Range: F3 to E5. Big-voiced vaudeville singer inspired by Aida Overton Walker. Offers the Bowery Theatre as a safe haven to the newsies. Requires great comic delivery.
[FEATURED AND ENSEMBLE ROLES]
Spot Conlon. Age 17-20. The intimidating leader of the newsies from Brooklyn newsies.
Darcy. Age 15-20. Upper-class child of a publisher who take the newsies’ side.
Bill. Age 15-25. William Randolph Hearst’s son, who takes the side of the newsies.
Wiesel. Age 25-50. Also known as “Weasel,” Wiesel runs the distribution window at the World and knows most of the newsies by name.
Oscar and Morris Delancey. Ages 15-20. Tough brothers who assist Wiesel when he needs any dirty work done, using their fists rather than their brains to make a point.
Seitz. Age 35-50. Editor at the World and advisor to Pulitzer.
Bunsen. Age 35-50. Pulitzer’s bookkeeper and the brains behind the scheme to raise the price per paper for the newsies.
Hannah. Age 20-40. Pulitzer’s secretary, a practical and insightful woman.
Nunzio. Age 30-40. Pulitzer’s barber.
Guard. Age 20-60. Removes newsies from Pulitzer’s building.
Stage Manager. Age 25-55. Introduces Medda’s act.
Photographer. Age 15-25. Takes the triumphant “Seize the Day” photo of the newsies.
Woman. Age: 15-45. A newspaper customer.
Mr Jacobi. Age 35-55. Allows the newsies to use his restaurant to plan their strike.
Mayor. Age 45-60. The Mayor of New York City who prevents Pulitzer from shutting down the newsies’ strike.
Governor Teddy Roosevelt. Age 50-65. A public servant who inspires Jack to rise up against Pulitzer.
Newsies. Ages 13-20. Hard-working New York City kids, including Albert, Buttons, Elmer, Finch, Henry, Ike, Jo Jo, Mike, Mush, Race, Romeo, Specs, Splasher and Tommy Boy.
Scabs. Ages 10 -20. Newsies hesitant to join the strike.
Goons. Ages 15-20. Assist the Delanceys in roughing up the newsies.
The Bowery Beauties. Ages 18-30. Performers at the Bowery Theatre.
Policemen. Ages 20-60. Assist Snyder and help keep the newsies in check.
Nuns. Ages 20-60. Provide breakfast for the newsies.
In the original Broadway production, the ensemble comprised eight actors who doubled and understudied roles as indicated below. All other featured roles and understudies were cast from the ensemble of newsies.
- Nun / Hannah / Bowery Beauty / Katherine understudy
- Nun / Woman / Bowery Beauty / Medda understudy
- Nun / Medda Larkin
- Wiesel / Stage Manager / Mr. Jacobi / Mayor / Pulitzer understudy
- Seitz / Roosevelt understudy
- Bunsen / Male Ensemble 1 understudy
- Nunzio / Guard / Policeman / Roosevelt
- Snyder / Pulitzer understudy
In July 1899, a group of orphaned and homeless newsboys live in a Lower Manhattan lodging house with their informal leader, seventeen-year-old Jack Kelly. In the early hours of the morning, Jack tells his best friend, Crutchie, of his dream to one day leave New York for a better life out West (“Santa Fe (Prologue)”). As the sun rises, the rest of the newsies awaken and prepare for a day on the job, finding as much joy as they can in their life of poverty (“Carrying the Banner”). At the circulation gate, Jack meets a new newsboy named Davey and his nine-year-old brother Les. Unlike the other newsies, the brothers have a home and a loving family, and have been pulled out of school only temporarily to support their parents while their father is out of work with an injury. Seeing young Les as an opportunity to sell more papers, Jack offers to be their partner. Meanwhile, the publisher of the New York World, Joseph Pulitzer, expresses his displeasure at his newspaper’s declining circulation. To increase his profits, he decides to increase the cost of the papers for the newsies, ignoring an employee’s concerns that “it’s going to be awfully rough on those children” (“The Bottom Line”).
Later, Jack, Davey, and Les are selling their final newspapers of the day when the corrupt Warden Snyder of the Refuge, a juvenile detention center, recognizes Jack as an escapee from his institution. He attempts to chase the boys down, but they find cover in a vaudeville-style theatre owned by Jack’s friend Medda Larkin, whom he regularly paints backdrops for. As Medda performs (“That’s Rich”), Jack spots a young female reporter named Katherine Plumber. She rebuffs Jack’s attempts to flirt with her, but is charmed when he leaves her with a sketch of her portrait (“Don’t Come A-Knocking/I Never Planned on You”).
The next morning, the newsies discover that the cost of newspapers has been raised to sixty cents per hundred. Outraged, Jack declares the newsies to be a union and organizes a protest (“The World Will Know”). Katherine decides to cover the strike, seeing it as an opportunity to be taken more seriously as a journalist (“Watch What Happens”). The next day, the boys have informed the rest of the city’s newsies about the strike, but each neighborhood claims that they will only join once Spot Conlon, leader of the Brooklyn newsies, gives the okay. The newsies are discouraged by the lack of support, but Davey convinces them to protest regardless of who shows (“Seize the Day”). Scabs arrive to take the newsies’ jobs, but are persuaded to join the strike by Jack, who delivers an impassioned speech condemning child labor and the city’s treatment of the poor. The protest appears to be headed for success, but is soon cut short when Pulitzer’s goon squad and the police arrive to break it up by force. During the ensuing fight, Crutchie is apprehended, badly beaten, and taken to the Refuge. A devastated Jack escapes to the lodging house rooftop and, blaming himself for the protest’s failure, fantasizes about running away forever (“Santa Fe”).
The next morning, Katherine finds the battered and bruised newsies in Jacobi’s Deli, only to learn that no one knows where Jack is as rumors circulate about his whereabouts. She cheers the other newsies up by showing them that her article about the strike made the front page of the New York Sun. Thrilled, the boys rejoice at making the headline and imagine what it would be like to be famous (“King of New York”). However, Pulitzer has declared a blackout on strike news, meaning Katherine’s story will be the only one to run. Meanwhile, Crutchie writes a letter to Jack, describing the filthy and abusive conditions at the Refuge. He asks Jack to make sure the newsies continue to look out for one another, signing the letter, “your brother, Crutchie” (“Letter from the Refuge”). Later, Davey finds Jack hiding out in the basement of Medda’s theatre and informs him of his plan to hold a citywide rally in the theatre. Jack, distraught over Crutchie’s arrest, refuses to put the other boys back in danger, but Davey, along with Katherine and Les, convinces him that their fight is too important to quit (“Watch What Happens (Reprise)”).
Back at the World, an angry Pulitzer plots with Warden Snyder about how to stop Jack. Snyder reveals that Jack was originally sentenced to the Refuge for vagrancy, but has since become a “frequent visitor,” with his most recent arrest being for trafficking stolen food and clothing. Jack soon arrives with an invitation for Pulitzer to attend the rally Davey has planned. Pulitzer declines, assuring Jack that no newspaper will violate the blackout order by covering the rally– and if it’s not in the papers, it never happened. Jack attempts to counter by claiming the newsies already have a reporter on their side, but Pulitzer reveals that Katherine is his daughter and that “Plumber” is only her pen name. He offers Jack a choice: if the strike is called off, Jack will be cleared of all charges and given enough money to leave for Santa Fe, but if not, he and the other newsies will all be arrested and sent to the Refuge (“The Bottom Line (Reprise)”). Katherine, who has been listening in secret, attempts to apologize to Jack, but he brushes her off as he is detained by Pulitzer’s goons and led into the cellar.
The next morning, Spot Conlon and the Brooklyn newsies declare their support of the strike and head to the rally (“Brooklyn’s Here”). Jack, believing there is no way the newsies can win against Pulitzer’s money, power, and connections, shows up to the rally to reluctantly suggest the strike be called off. He accepts the Santa Fe money from one of Pulitzer’s men as Davey, Spot, and the other newsies watch in disbelief, calling him a traitor and a scab. Jack flees to his rooftop, only to find that Katherine has beaten him there. She has discovered Jack’s drawings of the abuse he suffered at the Refuge among his belongings and realizes that he stole to feed and clothe the other boys. They argue about their respective betrayals and the fate of the strike, but the argument is cut short when she impulsively kisses him. Katherine has a new idea: use Jack’s drawings and one of her articles to print their own newspaper, calling for every worker under 21 to strike alongside the newsies. Jack agrees, recalling an abandoned printing press in Pulitzer’s cellar, but before getting to work, they share a romantic moment, each stating that the other has given them “something to believe in” (“Something to Believe In”).
The other newsies join Jack and Katherine in printing their own paper, the Newsies Banner, and distribute copies throughout the city (“Once and for All”). A copy reaches Governor Theodore Roosevelt, who arrives in full support of the newsies’ cause. Roosevelt gives Pulitzer an ultimatum, forcing the latter to concede to Jack’s demands. Jack proposes that Pulitzer buy back every paper the newsies fail to sell each day. Initially reluctant, Pulitzer agrees when Jack points out he will still ultimately benefit from the increased sales. Jack and Roosevelt inform the newsies that the strike is over and they have won. As the newsies celebrate, Roosevelt informs them that he has shut down the Refuge, citing Jack’s drawings as his motivation to do so. Crutchie returns to his friends, and Snyder is arrested. Impressed at the influence Jack’s drawings had on the governor, Pulitzer offers him a job as a daily political cartoonist. Jack declines, claiming it is time he leaves for Santa Fe, but Davey, Katherine, and Crutchie remind him that “New York’s got us, and we’re your family.” Ultimately, Jack decides to stay, both remaining a newsboy and accepting the cartoonist job (“Finale”).
Newsies has only one official recording of the show as it is represented onstage. Also available, of course, is the soundtrack of the original film.
Let me begin this review by saying that I am one of many teenagers that loved Newsies when it was released in 1992. Today I recognise that the film is flawed, but a recent viewing made it clear to me that the film has more to offer than many reviews of the time suggested. That is surely the reason why Disney Theatricals was able to resurrect the film as a stage property, albeit with numerous revisions, some of which make sense and others of which – to be frank – do not. This is not, however, a discussion of the show as a whole: this review deals only with the score as represented on the cast album of the Broadway show, which many once-teenage fans of the show like me are sure to pick up, if only to hear how the Alan Menken and Jack Feldman score has been expanded and altered for the stage.
Of the 8 songs and 4 reprises that appeared in the film, most have survived the transfer. None is unchanged. While that may appear to be a good thing in theory, in practice the changes more often than not do not improve things. Perhaps it is useful to look at the strongest element of the film, the music written by Alan Menken. Musically, songs like “Carrying the Banner,” “Santa Fe,” “Seize the Day” and “King of New York” not only contribute solidly to both storytelling and characterisation but also represent some of Menken’s best work.
What is missing from the mix is Howard Ashman. Ashman was a meticulous storyteller, even when there were lapses in his craftsmanship. Menken was not his equal in that respect, as evidenced in some of his more recent ventures in film and musical theatre, such as Tangled and Sister Act, and Feldman is possibly the weakest of Menken’s collaborators since Ashman’s death. The film’s lyrics serve the story for the most part, but there are moments when rhyme overcomes sense or when the lyrics are clearly filling up musical phrases in a trite or otherwise uncompelling manner.
While it would seem that this stage adaptation would be a perfect opportunity to revisit and polish the lyrics, it seems that this has been done in rather haphazardly and that many of the new lyrics crafted for the existing melodies are not any better than those that were in the songs before. Take, for example, some of the changes to “Carrying the Banner”. Some of the meaningless banter has been dropped (‘I smell money / You smell foul / Met this girl last night / Move your elbow / Pass the towel / For a buck I might’), but are replacements like ‘It’s a crooked game we’re playing / One we’ll never lose / Long as suckers don’t mind paying / Just to get their news’ really any better? Yes, the line makes more sense and now actually says something, but something that is rather destructive to the cause of character and situation. Why should the audience feel empathy for the Newsies and care about whether they are being cheated by Pulitzer when they identify themselves as cheats themselves? Later in the same song, a solo counterpoint sung in the film by a mother seeking for her lost son is altered in favour of the Newsies’ laments about the quality of the food they are served by a group of nuns: in this case, a verse of storytelling that was irrelevant to the bigger picture has been substituted with something that is relevant to the moment, but the new lyrics are uninspiring and the loss of the female vocal undermines the power that the contrapuntal passage had musically. So much for Feldman’s rewrites.
The second kind of song that appears in the score is that which replaces material wholesale from the film. There’s only one: “That’s Rich”, a vaudeville-style song for Medda, a performer who is a consort of the show’s leading man, Jack Kelly, which replaces the two songs, “High Times, Hard Times” (which earned a nomination for Worst Song at the Golden Raspberry Awards) and “My Lovey-Dovey Baby” (the song from the score that probably deserved the nomination). This new song is savvier than both of them, a marriage of Stephen Sondheim’s “More” and John Kander and Fred Ebb’s “When You’re Good to Mama,” but it is plagued with lyrics that ultimately ground a song which should be the foundation of a soaring cameo role.
Finally, there are the original songs, a handful of pieces of varying accomplishments. “Watch What Happens” is possibly the best of the bunch, a soliloquy written for Katherine Plumber, the reporter who is an advocate for the Newsies’ cause. “The Bottom Line” is a song created for Joseph Pulitzer and his cronies, and is heavily reminiscent of “Blood in the Water” from Legally Blonde in how it characterises the villain of the show. “Brooklyn’s Here” feels derivative and uninspired, but not as uninspired as the new love duet crafted for Jack and Katherine, where Menken makes absolutely no attempt to marry his music to either the milieu or overall style of the show. Thus, the original material remains the strongest part of the score, flawed though it may be.
The performances on the album tend to be either very distinctive (Jeremy Jordan’s Jack, Kara Lindsay’s Katherine and Andrew Keenan-Bolger’s Crutchie) or rather generic (Capathia Jenkins’s Medda and Ben Fankhauser’s Davey), but they all serve the material well and that’s what counts. One only wishes that the material served them better. Newsies may have been one of the most high-profile new musicals of its season, but that was one that turned out to be weak for new musicals, with two of the nomination spots for Best Score awarded to plays debuting in the season over some of the other musicals. It was no surprise, then, that Menken and Feldman picked up the Best Score award at Tony Award time. This was Menken’s first Tony and it is a pity that it was not for his best body of work for the stage.
Newsies: The Broadway Muscial is available to stream on Disney+ and Amazon. The film musical on which it is based is also available to stream and can also be purchased on DVD and Blu-ray.
Sadly, the complete libretto of Newsies has not been published commercially. Songs from the score are available in the form of standard piano-vocal selections as well as in an easy piano edition. Vocal selections from the original film are also available.
Newsies: Stories of the Unlikely Broadway Hit offers an inside look at the making of the film and Broadway musical. Ken Cerniglia curates the first person accounts of more than one hundred first-person dealing with all aspects of the process.
The Newsies vs. the World: How a War, a Newspaper Rivalry, and a Trolley Strike Sparked the Child Labor Riot That Ended Up on Broadway, written by Ashley Varela, details the history of the newsies’ strike of 1899 as well as the creation of the 1992 film and its subsequent stage musical adaptation.
Amy S. Osatinski’s Disney Theatrical Productions: Producing Broadway Musicals the Disney Way takes a broader look at the company’s approach to musical theatre and includes a case study on Newsies.