My mother came to New York City for a visit at the beginning of February and I thought a Broadway show would make a nice treat. She hadn’t been for a long visit in quite a while and there never seemed the right timing to book a show, but I had enough notice this time to do it. Mom loves theater and she goes often in Washington, but I decided that a light entertainment would be the best choice his time. So I got seats for Disney’s Newsies at the Nederlander Theatre on West 41st Street. Mom and I went up to Times Square for the 2 o’clock matinee on the snowy, rainy, slushy afternoon of Wednesday, 4 February. Despite the nasty weather, it was a delightful experience.
Based on the 1992 Disney movie musical of the same title (from Bob Tzudiker and Noni White’s screenplay), in turn inspired by David Nasaw’s 1985 book Children of the City: At Work and at Play which in its coverage of the lives of immigrant children in American cities at the turn of the 20th century recounted the New York newsboys’ strike of 1899, the stage play is officially known as Newsies the Musical. The 2½-hour adaptation (with one intermission), created by Alan Menken (music), Jack Feldman (lyrics), and Harvey Fierstein (book), premièred at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Milburn, New Jersey, on 25 September 2011 and opened on Broadway in a revised version (songs shifted and some new ones added) on 29 March 2012. The stage musical was conceived as a regional touring and licensing property for colleges and community theaters, but good reviews in Milburn made Disney Theatrical Productions consider a limited run on the Great White Way; the show’s popularity with audiences (and most reviewers) proved too enticing for the production company, which extended it into an open-ended run. The performance Mom and I saw was the Broadway production’s 772nd and since Newsies recouped its investment in December 2012 after just 41 weeks, that’s a certified hit. At the 2012 Tony Awards, it won for Best Original Score and Best Choreography; it also won 2012 Drama Desk Awards for Outstanding Choreography and Outstanding Music. The production will spawn a London staging in spring 2014 and a national tour that is scheduled to commence in October 2014. The original cast recording of Newsies the Musical was released on CD by Ghostlight Records in 2012.
Now, a couple of confessions before I get into my comments on the performance: I’ve never seen the Disney film of Newsies, not even on TV, so I have no idea how good it was (reportedly a critical and box-office flop that became a cult fave) or how it equates with the stage version (apparently quite a few changes, including new songs, a love story introduced, eliminated characters, and new characters added). I also never went to see the show when it opened, so I don’t know anything about the original actors and how they compare with the performers I saw (many of whom are replacements). I should also remind ROTters that I’m a sucker for old-time musicals (see “A Broadway Baby,” 22 September 2010), and Newsies is a real throw-back to the oldies of the ’40s-’60s, so I may not be as critical as some of the published reviewers back in 2011 and 2012. (I copped to a strong sense of nostalgia for the true oldies and have no critical distance from which to assess them in many cases. I have no nostalgic association with Newsies, of course, but the form is so reminiscent of the shows with which I grew up—Andrew Boynton, in the New Yorker, called the show “an underdog in a world of tech-happy, star-driven entertainment extravaganzas”—I find it hard to be a hard-line judge.) But as this is a “report” and not a “review,” I get to indulge myself some—and you’ll just have to go along with that, I guess.
Newsies is set in the summer of 1899 in Lower Manhattan, New York City. The boys and young men who hawk newspapers on the city’s streets are waking up in the lodging house where most of the boys live, most orphans, many otherwise homeless, and all are a few pennies away from starving. Jack Kelly, the natural leader of the newsies, sings of his dreams of a better life in far-away “Santa Fe,” the enticing Neverland of clean air, open space, and boundless opportunity. The main gang of newsboys, who’ve formed a surrogate family, go out to buy the “papes” they’ll sell that day, the New York World. When Joseph Pulitzer, the publisher of the World, raises the price the boys must pay by 10 cents for each hundred copies in order to spur them on to sell more papers, the newsies balk. Inspired by the strike by the trolley workers, which the press is covering heavily, Jack organizes a newsboys’ strike with Davey, a new seller who arrives with his 10-year-old brother, Les, as the brains of the new union. Jack becomes the spokesman for all the newsies in the city as each borough and neighborhood joins the strike, challenging the powerful publishers Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst, publisher of the New York Journal. With help from Medda Larkin, a vaudeville queen who befriends the boys, and the beautiful reporter Katherine Plumber, who turns out to be Pulitzer’s daughter writing under a pen name, all of New York City soon feels the power of “the little man.” Jack, who has an artistic streak (he paints backdrops for Medda’s shows), falls in love with Katherine; but he also has a weak spot.
At the first confrontation with Pulitzer’s thugs and the police, the striking newsies are beaten and sent packing and Jack’s friend, the crippled Crutchie, is seized by Warden Snyder and hauled off to the Refuge, a juvenile reformatory where incarcerated boys are treated cruelly. Jack capitulates to Pulitzer’s demands to spare the boys further harm, but Davey, Les, and Katherine convince him to return to the union. When the powerful publishers ban coverage of the strike, the boys start their own pape—using an old press in the basement of the World building itself—and spread the word of their grievances and their successes (the World’s circulation, rather than increasing as Pulitzer wanted, has fallen dramatically). Newly-elected Governor Teddy Roosevelt, hearing of the mistreatment of the newsies and seeing a cartoon by Jack depicting the abuses at the Refuge, steps in like the deus ex machina the role is and forces Pulitzer, who had campaigned in his newspapers against Roosevelt’s candidacy, to agree to the union’s terms and opens an investigation of Snyder and the Refuge. The power of the press may belong to those who own one, but with a little ingenuity and gumption, the play attests, even the littlest guys, the boys “Carrying the Banner,” can “borrow” one long enough so that “The World Will Know” who they are.
First, let me expand on the “delightful experience” a little. I never went up to Times Square to catch Newsies because it didn’t seem like something I wanted to spend time on. Now, don’t get me wrong: I have no problem with material for children or with Disney. As a matter of fact, years ago I took my mother to The Lion King because I wanted to see Julie Taymor’s work and I knew Mom would enjoy the experience, too (and I was right). But normally, especially these days, I don’t spend my limited theater dollars on family entertainment when there are so many meatier performances I want to see and at Broadway prices, I can’t afford just to throw money away on frivolities. But my friend Kirk Woodward (a frequent contributor to this blog), who knows a thing or two about the musical stage (see “Theatrical and Popular Songs,” 2 October 2011, and “The Jukebox Musical,” 7 October 2011), saw Newsies a year or so ago and recommended it when I asked. “‘Newsies’ is exhilarating, and politically in the right place,” he e-mailed me. On an earlier occasion, shortly after he and his late wife saw the show, he wrote that it’s a “vigorous show . . . . It’s a fun show, definitely. . . lots of fun.” (He also added that it was “kind of funny to see the people who buy Broadway tickets, cheering union organizers!”) So I selected it as a good choice for Mom’s visit since she sees serious plays and dramas at home. (Given the crummy weather that day, something bright, energetic, and pleasant was a lagniappe, as it turned out.)
Newsies is a wonderful show, taken at face value. It’s not deep or profound—it is Disney, after all—but entertaining and well done. It’s a throw-back, I’d say, to the musicals of old and so offers no challenges in either structure or themes. I loved the Erector Set-jungle gym set, the dancing was exciting, and the littlest newsie, Les, played by 10-year-old Zachary Unger in our performance, was truly adorable! (My mother insisted he looked like a little cousin of ours, but I think the resemblance was more psychological than actual. Still, I’m delighted by the way Hollywood Reporter’s David Rooney described the role—in a performance by another young actor: his “moxie is in inverse proportion to his size.”) I must record, however, that I didn’t think much of the score, which is repetitive and unmemorable. Mother commented at the end that she felt the company kept singing the same songs, and, in addition to the many reprises, the songs do all sound alike. Immediately after the performance, I couldn’t hum a single tune—and back in the day, I could actually sing the whole score of a musical as we were leaving the theater!
Kirk found the play’s politics “ironic” because the script is “so pro-union and the unions are having a rather tough time right now.” In her Newsday review Linda Winer wrote, “Newspapers and unions haven’t had much to sing and dance about for a long time,” and on Huffington Post, Mark Kennedy even applauded, “Credit the massive conglomerate Disney for cheering the victims of capitalism.” Still, Newsies’ emblematic musical refrain is “All for one and one for all” which is more romantic Three Musketeers than laborite The Cradle Will Rock (on a concert performance of which I reported on 1 August 2013). Nonetheless, there is a strong redolence of synchronicity in the Nederlander at this moment, what with the union-busting legislation being passed in some state houses and the policies of some governors to disenfranchise unions in their states. Newsies is decidedly pro-labor, depicting Pulitzer and his ilk as greedy—they don’t have enough money that they want even more so they decide to get it at the expense of the already-poor, seemingly powerless newssellers. Pulitzer is in cahoots with the police and the reprehensible Snyder, whom he uses to terrorize and bully the boys and to threaten the stalwart Jack, who has a secret past as an escapee from the Refuge.
The newsies, of course, are shown to be loyal and upstanding, competitive with one another—Jack takes on Davey and little Les because he immediately sees the sales advantage of a cute little kid at his side—but always fairly and straightforwardly. (The New York Times’s Ben Brantley calls this sentimental depiction “Urchin Appeal,” harking back to the Dead End Kinds, Our Gang, and the Bowery Boys and familiar from previous musicals like Oliver! and Annie.) Jack teaches Davey and Les how to sensationalize headlines to sell more papes and he returns to the strike in order to free his friend Crutchie from the Refuge after the invalid’s nabbed in the first street battle. The boys enlist the help of clearly good-hearted allies like Medda and Katherine (who, despite being Pulitzer’s daughter, is always on the newsies’ side), while their foes are the scabs—whom they win over when they explain their goals—the police, Snyder, and the paid thugs who work for Pulitzer and Hearst.
All the clichés are struck (and milked) in this classic David-versus-Goliath tale, and as in many old-time musicals, the issues are black and white (“like newsprint,” quipped Huffington Post’s Kennedy). The good guys line up against the bad guys, the Have-nots against the Haves, and the difference is never in question. Jack may vacillate in his support of the action he initiates, but it’s out of concern for his fellow newsies, like a father for his children, it’s not his own self-interest or venality that makes him waver. Even Jack’s criminal record is based on altruism: he was arrested for stealing food to feed the forsaken boys in Snyder’s Refuge, ending up incarcerated there himself until he escaped in Teddy Roosevelt’s carriage, unbeknownst to the future president. I said Newsies isn’t The Cradle Will Rock, and it’s not Waiting for Lefty, either, but it shares a laborite sentiment with both activist plays, although the treatment is softer and more Disney-fied, if you will. But, as Scott Brown of New York magazine asked, “Why shouldn’t musical fantasy attach itself to a struggle for social justice, however pseudohistorical or simplified?” I can’t think of a good reason why not! (I was tickled, by the way, with Brown’s final comment: “Can’t wait to see what [conservative TV commentator Sean] Hannity makes of all this.”)
Next to the evocation of the current union-busting rhetoric and legislation in states like Wisconsin, where Gov. Scott Walker signed a bill in 2011 stripping public-employee unions of the right to bargain for their members, and Gov. John Kasich’s Ohio, where the legislature passed similar bargaining restrictions, the action taken by Jack, Davey, and the newsies looks a lot like the grass-roots uprising known as Occupy Wall Street. (In 2012, New Hampshire Gov. John Lynch vetoed an anti-union bill passed by his legislature. That same year, Indiana and Michigan became the latest states to pass right-to-work laws. Last year, Oregon’s biggest labor union, the Service Employees International Union, defeated an attempt by anti-union Gov. John Kitzhaber to wring concessions from it during contract negotiations.) Like the Occupy movement, the newsboy strike starts as an ad hoc action taken by an unorganized group of kids, spurred on by a grievance that had been building over time until it simply exploded into a demonstration. Also like Occupy, the opposing sides are defined by money and power: the newsies, like the Occupiers, have little or none and Pulitzer, Hearst, and the publishers, like the “one-percent,” have most of it and want the rest. In the rhetoric of Occupy, the one-percent don’t really care about the 99-percent as long as they do their work and produce for the corporations and the industries—which is precisely how Pulitzer, Hearst, and the newspaper barons are portrayed in Newsies (as Pulitzer sings in “The Bottom Line”). And like the Occupy Wall Streeters in New York City who were soon joined by like movements all across the country, we know the paperboys on the Nederlander stage are right-minded and noble because they are soon joined by newsies from all the other boroughs of New York City from Richmond (that’s Staten Island, for those not in the know) to Queens, starting with the fabled boys from Brooklyn. (In the real newsboy strike, other child workers in the city walked off their jobs in solidarity with the newsies and the city ground to a crawl. Child-labor laws were passed as a consequence of the newsies’ action.)
(The Occupy movement began in 2011, of course, just about the time that Newsies opened in New Jersey, so it’s unlikely the movement influenced Menken, Feldman, and Fierstein or even Jeff Calhoun, the stage director. The gestation period of a musical is too long to allow for Occupy to have been a gleam in anyone’s eye before the play was written and conceived. Furthermore, the film on which the play’s based—and which has the same themes—predates Occupy by almost 20 years. The union-busting policies of some governors and legislatures began earlier, of course, and came to a head in 2011, so that may have had some impact on the Disney decision to stage the play so long after the movie—but I don’t actually know if there was any crossover at all.)
In support of the rousing pro-labor theme of Newsies, choreographer Christopher Gattelli incorporated vigorous and dynamic movement into the newsboys’ dances. (The ensemble is exclusively male and all young—the women and older male characters don’t participate in the big numbers, which dominate the dancescape of Newsies.) There are plenty of flips, somersaults, spins, jumps, cartwheels, high kicks, handsprings, and other acrobatic and athletic moves, and in more than one number, it almost seems as if the boys are competing to show off how daring and virtuosic they can be. (This show probably couldn’t have happened if it hadn’t been for West Side Story and Jerome Robbins 57 years ago.) Andrew Boynton, a copy editor at the New Yorker who, from 1985 to 1995, was a member of the modern-dance troupe Susan Marshall & Company, aptly described the choreography as “big, fearless, athletic movement that perfectly conveyed [the newsies’] rough-and-tumble world.” The dances, if they weren’t themselves startling or innovative—I did say Newsies is a throw-back, didn’t I—were all excellently executed and the performances were universally charming and disarming all around. (I have a friend who’s a dancer and dance teacher, working now in the elementary schools of her community. Like many a dance and theater teacher in primary and secondary education, she finds it hard sometimes to coax boys to join the classes. I kept thinking that if she could bring those little fellows to Newsies so they could see how muscular and masculine the dance can be, more like gymnastics than ballet, there might be less resistance.) The message seems to me to be: these are boys with guts, strength, and will, and they can do anything they’ve a mind to. As Boynton expressed it: “The tumbling conveys the playfulness of boys—the gamesmanship, the energy.” Place an obstacle in their path, and they’ll overcome it. Don’t underestimate these boys and don’t get in their way! It’s not very complicated or sophisticated, but it’s infectious. It’s hard not to have fun when the paperboys of Newsies get a head of steam up.
If there’s a complaint here, it may be that for some, the show is too much about the dancing, clearly the emphasis for the production. The dancing, however, is the point of the production: it may not tell the story on its own, but it conveys the play’s heart, it’s substance. Boynton makes the argument straightforwardly: the boys dance “as if to say, ‘I am going to give this everything I have, and I am not going to give up.’” To my mind, that’s the central theme of Newsies.
The songs, as I’ve intimated, aren’t in the same category. Alan Menken’s music and Jack Feldman’s lyrics are both repetitive. Ben Brantley remarked of the score in the New York Times that “if you asked me to explain what distinguishes one of these songs from another, I couldn’t begin to” and one commenter on the paper’s website said flatly, “[T]he songs [are] all identical to each other.” The fact is that there are quite a few reprises, more than I think is average for Broadway musicals, but with few exceptions, all the songs do in fact sound alike. When we were leaving the theater, my mother—who’s seen her share of musicals at least since my dad took her on a date to see the original Oklahoma! 70 years ago—remarked, “They kept singing the same songs!” I guess the rationale is that the songs were really vehicles for the energetic dance numbers more than plot or character devices of themselves.
Brantley also commented that the songs “take their cues from the hard-sell tactics of the show’s title characters,” suggesting another stylistic note of the adaptation: the production’s a sales pitch for itself, presenting songs whose titles are the musical-theater equivalent of banner headlines (“The World Will Know,” “Seize the Day,” “Something to Believe In,” “Once and for All”). In the final analysis, unless this tactic offends you, that’s part of the appeal of Newsies—it’s jubilant, undisguised, unapologetic hype. The show has no pretensions, so if you watch it in the spirit in which it’s presented, there’s not a thing wrong with it. If you go with it, it’s immensely pleasing and fun; if you overthink the play’s structure or m.o., you’ll queer the pitch for yourself. I mean, if you judge chocolate cake by the same standards as a healthy plate of fish, you’ll just ruin a good desert for yourself and deny yourself a tasty treat.
Tobin Ost’s multi-level set, an Erector Set evocation of 19th-century New York tenements (backed by black-and-white cityscape projections by Sven Ortel), glides around the stage suggesting the city that remakes itself constantly as the young newsboys clamber up and down the ladders and scaffolds, contrasting with the sedentary, lavishly furnished office habitats of Pulitzer and the Haves he represents. The constantly shifting set, which works simultaneously as a jungle-gym for climbing and swinging and as stacked cages like the ones in a kennel, reminded me a bit of the 1998 sci-fi movie Dark City without the menace. The newsies in their shabby yet musical-comedy picturesque garments, designed by Jess Goldstein, just distressed enough to suggest poverty and wear but not quite filth (think the street urchins of Oliver!), move up and down, in and out, like the denizens of the city’s demimonde they’re supposed to be—always around, in every precinct, but normally invisible.
Individual performance in Newsies are less important than the ensemble, and USA Today’s Elysa Gardner noted that “Newsies is at its most exhilarating, though, when the focus shifts from individual characters to the ensemble.” When the musical premièred, it had no name stars in the cast, though the actor playing Jack, Jeremy Jordan, became a figure to watch, nominated for a Tony for his Newsies performance and taking the role of Clyde Barrow in the short-lived Broadway adaptation of Bonnie and Clyde in 2011. (The fact that the same actor playing Jack, ostensibly 17 years old, and Clyde, 23 at his death, suggests that many of the “boys” in the company are a little older than the characters they play. No matter.) As Erik Haagensen of Back Stage put it, the youthful ensemble “conjur[es] a visceral sense of boyish camaraderie,” which is just what Newsies requires. The cast of the performance Mom and I saw includes Corey Cott as Jack, Ben Fankhauser as Davey, Zachary Unger as Les, Andy Richardson as Crutchie, Liana Hunt as Katherine, Julie Foldesi as Medda, John Dossett as Pulitzer, and Tom Alan Robbins as Roosevelt, all of whom did more than creditable work in their roles. (I already commented on how cute Unger was in his part, spunky and energetic like a little firecracker. New York’s Brown called the role a “tiny wiseacre.”) Cott and Hunt formed a barely credible romantic couple, relying more on the set-up than any true chemistry, but given the nature of the show, as I’ve said, it’s passable work. Romeo and Juliet, they’re not. On the other hand, Cott and Richardson come off as a kind of latter-day Tom and Huck (if Huck had a bum leg), and when Jack returns to the newsies’ family to rescue Crutchie from Snyder’s Refuge, it’s entirely credible and immensely heartwarming, even as it’s a predictable and formulaic plot element. Dossett’s Pulitzer is suitably grasping and scheming, a kind of poor man’s Judge Turpin, using even his daughter to further his ends.
Leading off the press response, the Times’s Brantley asked readers “to imagine a special kind of supertabloid. It would consist of nothing but headlines, all set in extra-large type, all goal-posted with exclamation points.” Set to music, Brantley wrote, that tabloid is Newsies and “if attracting the attention of potential customers requires yelling, pushing and pandering to baser sentimental instincts, well, a boy’s gotta do what a boy’s gotta do.” The dances contain “little originality,” complained the Times reviewer (as he did of the songs), but “they have enough raw vitality to command the attention and even stir the blood.” In the New York Daily News, Joe Dziemianowicz declared, “An exhilarating jolt of youthful energy has hit Broadway” that even has “something meaningful to say.” When the youngsters are on stage, Dziemianowicz said, “the show flies,” but “it sinks when the adults appear” because they’re “mere cardboard cutouts.” The reviewer from the News summed up with “‘Newsies’ is corny at times . . . but it’s good, old-fashioned family entertainment.”
Newsies “covers all the familiar bases,” wrote Elisabeth Vincentelli in the New York Post, with an ensemble that’s “so adorable, you want to pinch their cheeks and give them whatever they want—and that’s before they even start tapping up a storm.” Vincentelli attested, “It’s a rare thrill to watch so many of [the cast] dance and jump en masse” despite “the toothless ‘Newsies’ book . . . [that] leaves no good sentiment unturned.” In Long Island’s Newsday, Winer called the musical “old-fashioned, by-the-numbers yet enjoyable,” explaining, “What the show, directed with rousing two-dimensional enthusiasm by Jeff Calhoun, lacks in originality is disguised—if not quite hidden—by a big, talented cast” performing “lots of exuberant, soft-bounce high-precision tap, balletic and acrobatic invention.” She ends with the pronouncement, “There’s not much news in ‘Newsies,’ but its most appealing headlines are selling hunks and hope.” Calling the show a “feel-good populist musical” in USA Today, Elysa Gardner characterized Newsies as “swaddled in . . . romantic hooey.” Librettist Fierstein, however, “provides enough heart and wit to make it fly” because the “contrivances are served with a light, knowing touch.” Observing, “It’s not revolutionary stuff, to be sure,” Gardner concluded that “if Newsies doesn’t make today’s or yesterday’s problems seem any less daunting, at least you’ll forget about them for a few hours.”
In the Village Voice, Michael Musto asserted, Newsies “is a slick, entertaining show that’s sort of like Annie meets Billy Elliot” representing “the height of Broadway professionalism,” though it’s “not exactly profound, and it’s somewhat mechanical.” Musto observed, “It’s one big, well-oiled machine . . . and several times, it erupts into leaping and spinning that has the audience catching its breath,” concluding that “it’s zippy fun, and it’s . . . expertly done.” Scott Brown, identifying Newsies as a “gateway musical” (a show “that invite[s] in younger fans . . . who find themselves curious about this ‘musical theater’ they’ve heard so much about”), described it in New York magazine as “as gloriously square as it is automatically ingratiating.” Dubbing the show “a Disney labor musical for kids,” Brown admitted, “Oldsters like myself are powerless to do anything but sing along. (Oh, who’s kidding whom? I was singing along before the house lights went down.)” Acknowledging that Fierstein’s libretto, “fleet and witty for the most part,” still has “a few tiresomely repeated beats,” Brown pronounced Newsies Disney’s “finest fairy tale in over a decade” with “enormous magnetism.” In “Goings On About Town,” the New Yorker characterized the play as “scores of plucky ragamuffins” who “put across Christopher Gattelli’s athletic choreography with bravado.” “Less can be said,” continued the magazine, about the music and book “which stick unerringly to the Disney formula.” The New Yorker reviewer finished up by noting, “But take comfort, liberal parents, in knowing that this corporate behemoth comes with a potent message about workers’ rights. Solidarity!” In his commentary on the dance in Newsies, Andrew Boynton concluded, “We come to know [the boys], and root for them—and for this spirited show.”
In the theater and entertainment press, Steven Suskin of Variety called Newsies a “corker of a family musical” without the “lavishly expensive sets and costumes, state-of-the art automation and writers seemingly under the direction of some marketing wizard from Burbank” that form the “hallmarks of Disney on Broadway.” More specifically, Suskin said, “High spirits go a long way toward countering several weaknesses of the evening, as some will no doubt carp about simplified plotting . . .,” adding that the production boasts “a tunefully friendly score” and “high-leaping choreography.” Fierstein’s book “provid[es] a breezy if simplistic framework,” but Gattelli’s choreography “may not be Broadway’s most artistic . . ., but it’s surely the most exuberant dancing currently on the Rialto,” wrote Suskin. In Back Stage, Erik Haagensen “was heartily surprised by ‘Newsies’” at Paper Mill because the creative team “had done the sow’s-ear-to-silk-purse thing” with the poorly-received movie. Allowing that “the pluses far outweigh the minuses,” Haagensen declared that “Broadway has a galvanizing new hit.” He backed off a little in his final summation, however: “‘Newsies’ may not be perfect, but few shows are. Seize the day and make a beeline for this Disney winner.” Entertainment Weekly’s Thom Geier quipped, “Disney has produced a winning, high-energy musical for family audiences that doesn't include a single flying witch, talking animal, or dancing teacup.” Geier specified that “the standouts remain ensemble numbers” buoyed by “aggressively acrobatic choreography and a high-flying male chorus.” He observed, as I did, “As you might expect, these cap-wearing, backflipping urchins manage to upstage all the adults.”
In the Hollywood Reporter, David Rooney dubbed the “crowd-pleasing” Newsies “the boys’ answer to Annie” with Menken’s “exhilarating melodies” and Gattelli’s “athletic dance moves.” Rooney warned, “Aficionados looking for art or subtlety in their musical theater might sniff, but for nonpurists, the show’s exuberant old-fashioned charms will be irresistible.” Of the production, the HR reviewer wrote, “Nimbly staged by Calhoun on designer Tobin Ost’s terrifically versatile and constantly reconfigured three-tiered Erector Set structure—with details sketched in via Sven Ortel’s projections—the show never lags.” Rooney admonished, “You can call the show brashly formulaic, sentimental or simplistic,” but affirmed in his final word, “It woiks.” “Not since Wicked has there been a big-tent, family-friendly Broadway musical,” insisted Time Out New York’s David Cote of Newsies. The show’s “blissfully fun,” the man from TONY wrote, with a score that “pleasingly blends music-hall orchestral swing and power pop,” lyrics that are “more graceful than you’d expect,” a book that “brims with sass and big-hearted sympathy for the underdog,” and the designs that “balance a gray-brown palette with splashes of color (mostly from costumes), creating grit to rub up against the material’s built-in melodrama and sentimentality.”
The cyberpress was pretty much in the same vein as the print media. On Huffington Post, Mark Kennedy opened his notice with, “There are lots of musicals that inspire and stimulate. Only one makes you want to rush outside to buy a newspaper, join a union and hug someone from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.” He continued about the “relentlessly cheery” Newsies, a musical “with heart [and] soul,” that the “Fierstein touches are welcome, but scant and slightly predictable.” Remarking that Gattelli’s choreography “thrillingly combines ballet with bold athletic moves,” Kennedy made a sweet point I’d like to emphasize (for non-theatrical reasons): “In one sequence, the performers dance on newspapers, a neat trick that takes advantage of paper's inherent slick qualities. Try that with an iPad.” (My reference for this comment, both Kennedy’s and my own, is my blog post “Books in Print,” 14 July 2010 on ROT. Have a look and see why I glommed onto that particular remark.)
On Talkin’ Broadway, Matthew Murray declared, “Nothing is going to stop Newsies . . . from becoming a monster hit”—begrudgingly, it’s clear. A moment later, he let readers have it between the eyes: “Newsies isn't good.” By far the most negative reviewer, Murray explained, “I know that doesn't matter with this show . . . . But . . . don't prospective ticket buyers at least deserve to know what exactly they're in for?” Obviously no fan of Disney musicals (though he seems to have a soft spot for the original Newsies film), Murray went on: “If what they've come up with is better than Disney's last three shows, it's at best a hollow victory, because they've replaced the (mild) grit and honest charm of the original with glitz and bombast that annoy rather than electrify.” The cyber-reviewer complained that “without warmth, even this surefire story can become oppressive,” for which “the lion's share of blame” goes to Fierstein’s libretto. What Murray called “anglings toward melodrama,” he said, “may broaden things into more family-friendly territory, but they don't lend substance to” the play. Even the dances “more excitedly display the ballet-drilled proclivities of the gifted dancing corps” than “illuminate” the narrative or characters. Overall, Murray felt, the play “fills a niche and a checkbox, but otherwise leaves itself and you empty.” He concluded that “if all [audiences] want is safe entertainment . . . this is as harmless a product as any.”
Andy Propst, in contrast, called Newsies “utterly beguiling and heartwarming” on TheaterMania, adding that it “seems tailor-made for our era of the Occupy movement.” “The production, directed with panache by Jeff Calhoun, bursts with a richly melodic score,” Propst wrote, and “boasts some of the most energetic and cleverly conceived dancing on Broadway.” In the end, the reviewer correctly declared Newsies a “crowd-pleasing show.” On CurtainUp, Elyse Sommer launched her assessment of the Broadway musical with “I'll begin with an EXTRA! EXTRA! Newsies is the go-to show for the whole family,” even though “it’s hokey,” because it has “so much creative and decidedly sophisticated ingenuity and performance talent.” Sommer characterized the choreography as “eye-popping, mind-boggling” and the young ensemble “amazingly fleet footed”
Look, there’s no fooling anyone here: Newsies isn’t great drama and it isn’t in the same league as Carousel, My Fair Lady, or Cabaret. It’s not even really up to Oliver!, one of the shows many reviewers invoked as a comparison. It’s a lightweight entertainment with really good performances, a terrific set, and delightful choreography. Nothing’s innovative or challenging, and the outcome’s predictable (what, you thought Pulitzer might win in the end? Silly wabbits!). But it’s huge fun, and I enjoyed it immensely, clichés and all. I’ve never been one to disparage theater as entertainment—there’s a place in the canon for The Boy Friend and Girl Crazy, as long as they don’t pretend to be anything they’re not. Newsies doesn’t put on airs and it works like gangbusters (not to say union-busters) at what it means to do. If you don’t expect something Newsies isn’t prepared to deliver, it’s a light but satisfying meal. So what if it’s hamburger and not steak? A good hamburger is mighty tasty when that’s just what you want.