Newsies, Disney’s crowd-pleasing new musical based on the cult 1992 film, is making headlines at Broadway's Nederlander Theatre, but the masses didn’t always greet the newsboys with such warmth. Read on to get the story behind the show.
Carrying the Banner
While working on the 1872 census, enumerator James B. McCabe Jr., wrote, “There are 10,000 children living on the streets of New York.... The newsboys constitute an important division of this army of homeless children. You see them everywhere.... They surround you on the sidewalk and almost force you to buy their papers. They are ragged and dirty. Some have no coats, no shoes and no hat.”
Young, poor newsboys, often called “newsies,” were the main distributors of newspapers in the mid-19th to early 20th century. Contrary to belief, these children were independent agents who were not direct employees of the papers. The Spanish-American War in 1898 led to a boom of newsies, who made a living keeping Americans up-to-date. During the war, publishers raised the price of a bundle of 100 papers from 50¢ to 60¢ and when the war ended and papers stopped selling, most publishers reduced the price back to 50¢. Titans of industry Joseph Pulitzer (The New York World) and William Randolph Hearst (New York Morning Journal) refused to cut the newsies a post-war break, leading these enterprising boys to take drastic action of their own: a strike.
The Newsboys Strike of 1899 lasted approximately two weeks, from July 20 to August 2. The boys were led by newsboy Kid Blink (so named because he was blind in one eye). The height of the Newsboys Strike occurred when 2,000 newsboys jammed into New Irving Hall at the Bowery to hear Kid Blink speak, while another 3,000 flooded the streets. Joseph Pulitzer’s aide Don Seitz wrote of the strike, “The loss in circulation due to the strike has been colossal. It is really remarkable the success these boys have had.”
Although the price per bundle was never lowered, the strike came to an end after the World and the Journal agreed to buy back all unsold papers from the newsies. Shortly thereafter the union was disbanded and the boys returned to the streets.
The World Will Know
In 1992, Disney released its first live-action musical in 24 years, Newsies, loosely based on the Newsboy Strike on 1899. The film marked the directorial debut of Kenny Ortega (who went on to helm Disney’s High School Musical franchise) and featured music by Oscar winner Alan Menken. Starring 17-year-old Christian Bale as Jack Kelly—a composite of Kid Blink and fellow newsie Maurice Cohen—Newsies cost more than $15 million and earned less than $3 million at the box office, making it one of the lowest grossing films in Disney’s history. The film was crucified by critics and earned seven Razzie Award nominations including Worst Picture.
Composer Alan Menken recalled to The New York Times, “I won three Academy Awards within the course of three years and one Razzie. The Razzie was for Newsies.” Surprisingly however, the flop film found continued life and a fervent fanbase as a result of VHS and DVD sales.
“I knew it was good, ” Menken recently told to Broadway.com of the movie. “I really liked it, but I have a trunk up to here with things I love that just didn’t work, and I chalked up Newsies to be one of those. It became more.”
Seize the Day
Fans of the cult film never stopped hoping that their beloved musical would find new life on stage. Indeed, according to Disney, more theaters requested a theatrical version of Newsies than any other Disney title not yet adapted for the theater. As film director Kenny Ortega noted in an interview with The Daily Beast, “High schools have been putting on the musical for years, without a script, without permission, and Disney realized there’s still interest in the project.”
Disney assembled a top-notch creative team to make Newsies work onstage including Menken and original lyricist Jack Feldman, director Jeff Calhoun and choreographer Christopher Gattelli. One of the most important additions was four-time Tony winner Harvey Fierstein, who reshaped the book. The creative team added a romantic subplot for Jack and a new female lead, feisty reporter Katherine, and six new songs, including “That's Rich,” “Watch What Happens” and “Something to Believe In.”
“I credit [Fierstein] with really pulling this whole thing together,” Menken told Broadway.com. “He came aboard and made very pivotal changes at a time where I think we had lost perspective, and I am infinitely grateful.”
Newsies received its world premiere at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse on September 25, 2011. The new musical was embraced not only by critics but by the film’s adoring fans. Though the Paper Mill mounting was intended as a pilot production prior to the title being licensed, the enthusiastic response made Disney rethink its plans.
King of New York
“The fans are the reason we are here on Broadway,” Kara Lindsay, who plays Katherine, told Broadway.com. “[Disney] wanted put it on the road or license the script so high schools can do it, but because there was such a huge response and because the fans supported it so immensely, that’s the reason. Tom Schumacher [producer and president of Disney Theatricals] continues to say how shocked he is, in the best way possible.”
Asked by Broadway.com why 2012 is the right time for Newsies to open on Broadway, Fierstein responded, “Watching young people change the world is interesting. That’s what Newsies is like: children changing the world. We all have the power to do that, but sometimes we need permission, and Newsies will hopefully give that permission. This is your world and you have the power to change it and make it what you want it to be.”