- Hap Erstein Special to The Palm Beach Post
Twenty-five years ago, after producing a string of hit animated musicals, Disney Pictures tried pumping new life into the live-action musical with “Newsies.” Featuring songs by Alan Menken (“The Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast”), it told the history-based tale of an 1899 paperboys’ strike against the New York newspaper owned by stingy Joseph Pulitzer.
But the movie was panned by reviewers and the box office results were anemic. So it came as a surprise in 2012, when Disney’s theatrical division chose to retool the story for the Broadway stage. Almost as unexpectedly, it was favorably received, leading to a two-and-a-half year run and a pair of Tony Awards.
Now available to be performed by regional theaters, the Maltz Jupiter Theatre has grabbed the rights for the South Florida premiere, beginning Nov. 28.
To direct the show, the Maltz tapped Marcos Santana, who had choreographed the Jupiter company’s “Kiss Me Kate” two seasons ago. He had been a fan of “Newsies” since seeing the movie in high school, and he found a young, agile cast that was also passionate about the show.
“Young performers are dying to do this show,” agrees choreographer Al Blackstone. “I think if you asked them individually, I think they would tell that their dream is to do this show. They’re dying for me to ask them to flip upside down. They’re just very enthusiastic.”
In fact, John Arthur Greene, who plays strike leader Jack Kelly, took a leave of absence from the Broadway cast of “School of Rock” to be in the Maltz’s “Newsies.”
“I love this show. I think it’s beautiful,” Greene says. “There’s a lot of emotional weight. No matter who comes and sees it, I think it’s going to affect them, because it’s so poignant.”
Menken and his lyricist, Jack Feldman, extended and deepened the musical score from the handful of songs in the movie, and when Harvey Fierstein got the assignment to adapt the script, he added a crucial new character. “The big difference between the movie and the musical is the character of Katherine. She’s not in the movie,” explains Santana. “It’s a musical piece, so you’ve got to have a girl. You have the hero, the bad boy, the good girl, conflict, a love story.
“And I have to say he did an amazing job writing that character,” the director adds. “Because he portrays a young woman so progressive for 1899, but it fits. It doesn’t feel forced. It feels like the beginnings of woman empowerment and feminism, showing that women can be equal to men.”
In a further acknowledgement, Santana has cast several girl newsies. He emphasizes that this is historically accurate, pointing to vintage photographs of the era he found in the Library of Congress.
“One thing that appealed to me about the show is it’s a true story,” notes Santana. “All that violence and all those riots actually happened. I wanted to keep that pure as much as possible and to bring that slightly dark side to this Disney light musical.”
Like the movie, though, the musical of “Newsies” is anything but heavy drama. “There are moments that are shticky, that are written shticky,” says Greene. “They’re great moments, but I have a way of playing the truth of a moment. The shtick is still there, don’t get me wrong, but the truth of these kids who don’t have anything and their whole world is centered around working to get paid – it’s feast or famine for them.”
And “Newsies” is a big dance show. “I’ve built a career on creating dance that tells a story,” says choreographer Blackstone. “Because there’s so much dance in this show, there have been many opportunities for me to take a piece of music and figure out what do we want to say here. I think that’s been really thrilling. It also allows for so much physicality, and very few musicals today do that.”
The physical production at the Maltz takes a different approach from “Newsies” on Broadway, which relied on a series of automated mobile pillars to suggest the many locations throughout New York City.
“Because the set is very different, there are challenges to telling the story,” says Blackstone. “But every challenge has been an opportunity for us to re-invent.”
While “Newsies” takes place 118 years ago, Greene insists it is a reflection of life today. “The same struggles we were going through then are the same struggles that we as a nation, we as a world are going through now,” he says. “There are people who stand up every single day and people who get shut down by the Pulitzers every single day.
“The message of the show, which is ‘never give up,’ is very important to me. It’s a coming of age story, but it’s also very poignant for right now.”
“I think for me it’s about the power of community, and the fact that these boys realize that they’re a family,” adds Blackstone. “They come to realize that they’re all that each other has.”
The result is an emotional roller coaster, says Santana. “It’s very heartfelt. You’re gonna laugh, hopefully you’ll cry and then you’ll laugh some more.”
“I’m exhausted emotionally by the end of it,” says Greene. “It’s a big journey and, if we do it right, the audience will be exhausted too.”