Newsies Take the Nation

Newsies Take the Nation

Extra! Extra! Hey, look at the headlines! Historical news is being made.

Yes, the lyric comes from Gypsy, but now it more accurately applies to Newsies — a musical that just so happened to last longer on Broadway than Gypsy’s initial production and its first revival combined.
With such success in the Big Apple, a national tour for Newsies was inevitable. And so, one starts on October 11 in Schenectady, New York, courtesy of Disney Theatrical Productions.

In the next 43 weeks, 25 cities from sea (Boston) to shining sea (San Francisco), and more to be announced, will discover what the Broadway excitement was all about. The 33 cast members will pack up their dance shoes and head to 17 states, one Canadian province, and the District of Columbia.

There was talk that the scenery would have to be diminished for the tour, but director Jeff Calhoun staunchly stresses that the nation will see the same set that Broadway audiences experienced. “The tech people have reengineered the giant steel towers into larger pieces so they can be erected and disassembled in a couple of hours,” he says.

The trucks will have to make room for something else, given that approximately 150 newspapers are essential for every performance. For Newsies is a fictionalized take on the 1899 strike in which New York City’s newsboys warred against publishers who planned to increase their profits at the lads’ expense.

Dan DeLuca and Jacob Kemp now will respectively play Jack Kelly and Davey Jacobs. They’re the leaders of the Newsies who go toe-to-toe with no less than Joseph Pulitzer, who will be portrayed by Steve Blanchard, previously seen on Broadway as the Beast in Beauty and the Beast.

Back in 1992, who’d have imagined a Broadway run, let alone a tour? After all, the film that Bob Tzudiker and Noni White wrote to music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Jack Feldman opened that year and grossed all of $2,819,485.

Twenty years had to pass before Newsies was a hit. In March 2012, the Broadway edition at the Nederlander Theatre eclipsed the film’s gross after a mere 25 performances. Newsies was on its way to setting and breaking seven Nederlander Theatre house records and running until August 24, 2014. That meant 1,005 performances, attendance of more than a million, and a gross of more than $100 million.

And to think that the original plan was to stage a Newsies production simply to see if it would be viable for the amateur market. Music Theatre International, which licenses such Disney properties as Mary Poppins, Beauty and the Beast, and High School Musical, kept getting requests from schools and community theaters for the rights to present Newsies.

“It seemed as if not a day went by when we didn’t hear from someone asking us for a script and score — which we didn’t have,” says John Prignano, Music Theatre International’s senior operations officer.

So the property lay dormant. Then in 2010, Harvey Fierstein, one of the few writers who has won a Tony for playwriting (Torch Song Trilogy) and book-writing (La Cage aux Folles), came to see Menken to discuss writing a new musical.

Says Fierstein, “I saw the poster of Newsies in Alan’s office, and told him how much my nephews loved the picture. Alan mentioned those phone calls and asked if I’d like to try writing a new script.”

Fierstein did, and Thomas Schumacher, president of Disney Theatrical Productions, liked it enough to arrange for a production at the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey. It was just a thorough way of coming up with a script and score for the amateur market.

“But just a week into rehearsal when we did the opening number,” says Calhoun, “I knew this wasn’t going to be a production that would only play at Paper Mill.”

Correct. Audiences in Millburn, New Jersey, adored the show, so Schumacher decided to take a chance on Broadway. Even a limited run would create greater Newsies awareness for community theaters and high schools.

It didn’t take long for that to happen. Not long after the Nederlander was booked, the official Newsies Facebook page was begun and amassed 100,000 friends. Chatter on Twitter reached 14 million. Still, Schumacher stayed conservative and announced that Newsies would run 100 performances.

But people wouldn’t stop attending. Newsies was a solid hit even before the Tony Awards committee gave it eight 2011–2012 nominations, including Best Musical.

There’s an irony here. For the film version, Menken and Feldman had “won” a Razzie Award for Worst Song — “High Times, Hard Times” — but now they would win a Tony Award for Best Original Score.

They’d worked hard for the honor, for they’d written six new numbers while retaining many of the film’s songs. However, they apparently did take the Razzie to heart, for they dropped “High Times, Hard Times.”

Those who haven’t yet seen the stage show but attend the tour will be introduced to one song for Pulitzer, another for the Brooklyn newsies who join the strike, one for music hall entertainer Medda Larkin, and two that involve Katharine Plummer, the reporter who tells the Newsies’ story. One is a solo, but the other is a duet with Jack.

Those who only know the Newsies film may well be saying “Katharine who?” Fierstein knew that many a musical included a love story, so he changed the sex of the movie’s male reporter. Stephanie Styles plays Katharine on this tour.

Also winning a Tony was Christopher Gattelli for his choreography that includes not only countless spins, leaps, and tap steps, but also 31 distinct backflips. Newsies, armed with those same awards from the Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle too — and sensational business — wound up running more than 10 times longer than expected.

Much of the success must be given to the young people who’d grown up seeing the show on the Disney Channel or watching the VHS tapes they’d received as birthday presents. Teens loved seeing underdogs who were their own bosses in business for themselves. Not having parents monitoring their every move and roaring at them when they arrived home late seemed appealing. Viewers agreed with the lads’ sentiment in the opening song that “it’s a fine life.”

And yet, when young viewers saw how un-fine Pulitzer could make life, they admired the Newsies’ pluck and determination. How they cheered when these disparate kids merged into a unit with one common aim: to stand up to adults, shake up the system, get their just due, and beat corruption. Younger viewers identified with Les, the pint-sized Newsie who got to hang out with the big kids. But all mostly admired Jack Kelly, who maintained, “I always land on my feet.” So did the others — especially while dancing.

By 2011, these viewers had reached theatergoing age and felt compelled to see the show on stage. The ones who came repeatedly were soon dubbed “Fansies.” Among the most devoted was Patty Devery of Brooklyn, who saw the show more than a dozen times. She expects that get in a few more viewings somewhere on the tour, most likely in Boston.

Devery does admit, however, that she’s seen the original film more — “A billion times,” she says — and her tone suggests she may be only slightly exaggerating. It was the movie that got her to Paper Mill in the fall of 2011 for the first-ever performance — and the first of many, many trips to the stage door. Devery says she felt she’d really arrived when Andrew Keenan-Bolger, who originated Crutchie, saw her and called her by name.

Of course, YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter helped. Social media allowed the Fansies to alert their peers that they were seeing the show at a certain performance, inspiring many others to attend too and meet with them. This was the beginning of many a beautiful friendship.

Director Calhoun reports that this won’t be precisely the same production. “I’m looking at the young men I have here, and I can see that their musical DNA is different from what we’ve had before. That will impact what we have on stage.”

Calhoun stops to think about those boys. “They take me back to when I was growing up in Pittsburgh. I was dancing, and was very lucky to eventually have the chance to be mentored by Tommy Tune,” he says of the only director-choreographer to win both direction and choreography Tonys in successive years (for Grand Hotel in 1989–1990 and The Will Rogers Follies in 1990–1991). “Now,” he says, “I’m mentoring these young men, and who knows how many they’ll mentor in the years to come?”

Some of them might very well be kids who become entranced with Broadway after seeing the tour of Newsies in their hometowns.

The cities, theatres, and dates for the tour are as follows:

Schenectady: Proctors
October 11–17, 2014

Waterbury: Palace Theater
October 23–25, 2014

Philadelphia: Academy of Music
October 28–November 2, 2014

Cleveland: Palace Theatre
November 4–16, 2014

Louisville: Kentucky Center
November 18–23, 2014

Pittsburgh: Benedum Center
November 25–30, 2014

Baltimore: Hippodrome Theatre
December 2–7, 2014

Chicago: Oriental Theatre
December 10, 2014–January 4, 2015

Charlotte: Blumenthal Performing Arts Center
January 6–11, 2015

Columbus: Ohio Theatre
January 13–18, 2015

Atlanta: Fox Theatre
January 20–25, 2015

Orlando: Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts
January 27–February 1, 2015

Miami: Arsht Center for the Performing Arts
February 3–8, 2015

San Francisco: Orpheum Theatre
February 17–March 15, 2015

Las Vegas: Smith Center for the Performing Arts
March 17–22, 2015

Los Angeles: Pantages Theatre
March 24–April 19, 2015

Tucson: Centennial Theatre
April 21–26, 2015

Dallas: AT&T Winspear Opera House
April 29–May 10, 2015

San Antonio: Majestic Theatre
May 12–17, 2015

Houston: Hobby Center for the Performing Arts
May 19–24, 2015

Nashville: Tennessee Performing Arts Center
May 26–31, 2015

Durham: Durham Performing Arts Center
June 2–7, 2015

Washington, D.C.: National Theatre
June 9–21, 2015

Boston: Opera House
June 23– July 5, 2015

Toronto: Ed Mirvish Theatre
July 7–August 16, 2015

Photo by Deen Van Meer.