In 1899, the streets of New York echoed with the voices of Newsies…and in 2005, so did the halls of Stanford’s FroSoCo, my freshman dorm. For you see, one April afternoon Newsies entered my life, and the world would never be the same.
I first saw the 1992 live-action Disney musical in high school, but for unclear reasons it didn’t make much of an impression until I watched it again with college friends. That first week of that “re-discovery” we watched Newsies four times, and I wrote a drinking game to go along with it (sample item: “Pelvic thrust: two drinks.” Email me for a copy). A year later, the Newsies obsession enjoyed its most sublime moment when we
stalked got to meet one of our favorite secondary Newsies at a special event nearby. Yes, yes I did have my DVD case signed.
Today, I estimate that I’ve spent perhaps 60 hours watching Newsies, either straight through or as select scenes. I can do all the songs, some of the dances and blocking, and can quote vast swathes of dialogue. Although I’ve moved on to other obsessions over the years (most notably the High School Musical franchise), Newsies has never strayed far from my heart. Since it’s basically a requirement for being friends with me to have seen this movie, I’ve enjoyed introducing many newbies to it over the years, and have been delighted to continue enjoy the fandom with similarly devoted college and then Peace Corps friends.
You can imagine my delight when rumors started to trickle out a couple of years ago that Newsies was being prepped for Broadway. The movie was an abysmal failure in its day, costing $15 million to make but grossing only $3 million at the box office and garnering a slew of negative reviews. However, it did help gain notice for its 17-year-old star, Christian Bale, even if he hated the project through and through and likes to deny his involvement today. But more importantly, with its later releases on VHS and DVD it began to gain a cult following, mainly among adolescent girls. The Newsies online “fandom” in the mid 2000s (the time when I was most interested) was small but rich, with wildly passionate fans who usually had, like me, discovered or re-discovered Newsies in high school or college. This fan energy is clearly part of the reason why Disney felt it would be a worthwhile project to consider for the stage.
Newsies had it’s world premiere two weeks ago at Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey, and this big-budget, big-cast run seems to be a set up for an eventual Broadway transfer. Of course for months I have been following the run-up to the production but, being no where near suburban New Jersey I figured it would be a while until I could see a theatrical version. However, the stars began to align. I planned a trip to New York to visit Matthew, and then had the realization that maybe this dream was within reach. Turns out Paper Mill is easily public transport-accessible from NYC, and tickets were available for several performances during my visit. But wait! On Oct. 2 there was going to be a special event: Newsies Fan Day. This would combine an evening performance of the show with special events with actors from the original movie. I know. I know.
We arrived in New Jersey around 4pm for an hour of games and activities led by Radio Disney staff, and as a sidenote to the Newsies topic I volunteered to perform the Hoedown Throwdown (from the Hannah Montana movie) and got a bandana for my efforts. A little before 5, however, all attention being paid to Radio Disney was abandoned as two vans pulled up and a handful of men in their 30s and 40s got out. After a moment there was a collective gasp from the fans (mainly girls in their teens to 30s). The actors. And specifically, Gabriel Damon, who played Spot. The screaming began.
The events included a reception, featuring the entire cast from the stage show plus the special movie guests, and then a little panel discussion. There had been no explicit information in advance about who exactly would be there, and I wonder how this group ended up being assembled, but it was a fabulous, albeit a little motley crew. This included actors who played David (David Moscow), Spot, both Delancey brothers (Shon Grenblatt and David Sheinkopf), and dancers who played more secondary/tertiary (but still beloved) Newsies Boots (Arvie Lowe, Jr.), Swifty (Kevin Stea), and Pie Eater (David Sidoni), there was screenwriter Noni White, lyricist Jack Feldman, stage show director Jeff Calhoun, and Kenny Ortega himself.
Now, as to the audience for this event: obviously I’m a big fan, but there are much more extreme levels of fandom that I’ve never taken it to that many of these people did. Girls in costumes, people overheard talking about how they couldn’t stop shaking they were so excited, etc. Also, though, an odd assortment of things like men in their 30s who seemed to be at the event on their own and of their own volition. Several people also seemed unable to stop yelling lines from the movie.
While fans spent the reception mobbing the actors (mainly David and Spot) and getting pictures and autographs, but I was too shy so mainly watched (I know, I know). Next they corralled everyone into the mezzanine of the theater for the discussion. I took copious notes on this, and I think it worth relating some highlights, annotated by character name:
David: I was not a singer or a dancer [when I did Newsies]. [Yes, that’s fairly obvious. But that’s part of the reason why you’re so lovable!]
Spot: The reason Spot has become so popular is that a big part of the fan-base is young women, who like a bad boy with a heart of gold. It was a fantasy to play Spot Conlon…that people would listen when I spoke and I’d command respect like that.
Morris: My first memories of the shooting…After the first dailies were coming in the producers told me I had to water it down, I was playing it too perverted, licking my lips and stuff, so they told me to bring it down a notch. [And then at this point, a 30-something man who appeared to be at the event by himself yelled, “Let’s soak ’em for Crutchy!”]
Then the writers talked about how amazing the experience was, how thrilled they are that it lives on, etc. Then, to get some of the lesser-known people to have a chance to speak, the moderator asked for stories from the filming, backstage secrets, etc. At this point there was much yelling of suggestions the audience, especially about “Blood Drips Heavily on Newsies Square,” the silly project horror movie spoof project that several of the boys made backstage during the original filming. (If anyone wants more info about this, I purchased it on DVD and have it somewhere…) Boots talked about how fun it had been doing things like that on the set.
Pie Eater: I had one line, and two flips. That was me. [We did fun things like, one late night on the set] we started playing stickball, and the choreographers had this version where you had to do a different dance move between each base. So like chasse to first, chaines turns to second, etc. It was like summer camp for a bunch of dudes on Universal. It was great.
Boots [on asked about how he’s been taking as many pictures of the events/audience as they’ve been taking of him]: My people at home won’t believe me when I tell them about this, it’s insane [referring to the fan enthusiasm]. I have one story of a little wardrobe flub that unfortunately made the final cut. I had this watch that I always wore and I would take it off when I filmed, they made me take it off. Well one day I wrestled it back from teh wardrobe guy and we’re doing this scene where we’re all chanting ‘Strike, strike, strike!’ [demonstrating a fist pump] and the sleeve goes down, and there’s the watch. I don’t think they had a lot of digital Timexes at that time.
Les: I was the youngest. They were all older, hanging out and drinking having a good time, and I was 12. [Lots of cheering about the drinking, and mild good-natured embarrassment from the cast and ‘shut up’ gestures] It was a coming of age for me.
Finally, the current cast of Newsies discussed how many of them had been inspired by the original film when they were kids.
Guy who plays Crutchy onstage (I think, I kept less copious notes on this): Especially for boys in the 90s, there weren’t as many resources [as examples of dancers/theater people who were boys] compared with now, where you’ve got High School Musical, Glee, etc. So seeing all these boys being so cool and masculine [uh really?] and dancing…thank you.
So that was, obviously, wonderful. There were other things I would have liked to have heard about, like more backstage stories, and more talk about what these guys are doing now. But fabulous in any case.
Now, on to the show! Some spoilers below if you don’t want to know about the changes made in plotting, characters, and scenes, so be forewarned.
Overall, the show was really, really good. Strong production values, fancy big budget sets, really strong talent. But basically, the dancing made the show. The choreography was excellent, and probably fit the show/appropriate tone better than it did in the movie. A lot of leaping. But also, it just seemed like the dancers were all having a good time with it. Really lovely.
Some of the characters were better/further developed, while others were cut, changed or streamlined to make more sense. For Jack, the biggest difference is that he has a real talent (besides his raw charisma, of course): he’s supposed to be a gifted artist, and this is implied to eventually provide his ticket to future post-Newsie success. I’m fine with this change, it actually makes him more compelling, being always odd that Jack is 17 and seems to have no goals beyond charismaticly selling papers in the movie.
David is less developed, and there’s less endless prattle about how smart he is, less family background, and less focus on the David-Jack relationship dynamic. Les is not as annoying as in the movie, so that’s positive.
Crutchy, one of my least-favorite characters, is redeemed in the show as the only Newsie who is developed at all, besides the aforementioned. He is portrayed as Jack’s best friend, and a lot of the reasons Jack makes the choices he does in the end of the first act and the second act have to do with Crutchy. Spot still exists and plays a pivotal but small role. None of the other Newsies are really developed beyond lines here or there, and they primarily exist as a dance corps. That’s fine, since they’re awfully good at it.
As for other characters, Medda is less annoying. The cut both of her original songs and replaced them with a new song, which is not too horrific. Pulitzer is played less as a little miserly and more as out and out evil in this version, and he gets some fun singing.
But the biggest change is Katherine. So this character replaces the Denton role and is supposed to have been inspired by Nelly Bly or some such. She’s of unclear age, and has been writing for the society pages for the New York Sun but is trying to break out into real news. However, Katherine’s romance with Jack isn’t all smooth sailing thanks to a big twist in the second act….
OK, beyond characters there were some plotting changes, many small lyric changes, and the addition of several new songs. All of this is fine. Of course, the lyric changes were a little jarring, but I have no major problems with any of the larger cuts or additions, and overall the show is more streamlined and more sensical than the movie, I must say (I mean, let’s be real and admit that the second half drags). The biggest hit numbers are still just as fun (and excellent with the live dancing).
Probably the show will undergo some changes before (and if) it hits Broadway. If I were directing/producing, I would replace a couple of the actors and might build in a little more substance for David and Pulitzer. But overall, it’s good—very good. The transition to this theatrical form suits it well.
Oh, one more thing worth mentioning is my favorite joke from the show. At one of the umpteen times when Jack talks about wanting to go to Santa Fe, someone tells him the west isn’t so great, since “Even Horace Greeley came back to New York.” Reply, deadpanned: “Yes. And then he died.” Horace Greeley jokes! Love it. I guess it makes up for the fact that the Horace Greeley statue setpiece didn’t make it into the show.
If any readers of this blog who haven’t already heard this from me want a more thorough rundown of scenes/songs/plot/changes, email me. And hopefully one day I’ll be able to experience Newsies again with some of my other favorite fans.