“…and the torch is passed,
and the roar will rise,
from the streets below…”
There appears to be a growing effort to screen popular stage musicals and increase their accessibility. Like George Takei’s Allegiance, the film screening of Disney’s Newsies stage production introduces a chapter of history seldom seen in classroom history books. Based on the Newsboys Strike of 1899, the stage production of Newsies has a simple storyline with heart. A gang of paperboys set out for another day, another few cents, shouting “extra, extra” on the streets.
Young newsie Jack Kelly, played by Jeremy Jordan, makes a living selling papers in a time when success hinged on eye-popping headlines. Much to the boys’ annoyance, they haven’t gotten interesting headlines (“Trolley Strike, again?”) and Jack has to be a bit crooked with his Extra-Extra pitches. The newsies work under the whims of their white-collared corrupt employer, the tycoon Joseph Pulitzer (reprised by the Steve Blanchard of the National Tour) who decides to itch up his profits at the expense of the boys’ labor. When he’s told immediately that the idea is reprehensible, he rationalizes it as an education in hard work for the hungry boys. Jack Kelly and his band of newsies brothers stage a burgeoning protest. They have heart and catchy “Do You Hear The People Sing” show tunes on their side.
The plot's roots trace directly to the 1992 box-office bomb that raked in a cult following on home video. The musical plot, which was initially conceived as a straightforward serious drama, was poorly paced. One of its pointless song numbers, sang by the shoehorned-in Ann-Margaret, hooked it a Raspberry Award for Worst Original Song. For all its negative reception, the film does have some particular strengths: the strongest tunes feature that Alan Menken and late Howard Ashman’s charm, the earnest rapport between Christian Bale’s Jack Kelly and David Moscow’s David Jacobs, and a sincere crack at conveying an obscure chapter in history, even if it was through a Disneyfied lens. Despite misaimed execution, the 1992 film had its heart in the right place.
So it was a miracle that it received a Second Coming of sorts on the Broadway stage in 2012, snagging two Tony Awards. Shot for the screen in 2016, this production sees the prowess of the Broadway roles reprised by Jeremy Jordan, Ben Fankhauser, Andrew Keenan-Bolger, Kara Lindsay, and alumni from the National Tour.
The show takes pains to atone for the sins of its 1992 source material. The movie’s unpopular Sarah, who served as a contrived love interest, has evolved into a female figure of agency, Katherine, played by Kara Lindsay. In place of the movie’s damsel, is an aspiring muckraking journalist. While still designed as an obligatory love interest for the leading male, Katherine is far from paper-thin. She has charming quirks, like vocalizing her momentary writer’s block and exhilaration with the material she’s producing. Her stream-of-consciousness solo number “Watch What Happens” is a particularly poignant monologue-piece on the urgency and impact of the printed words in the fire of revolution.
The production takes advantage of close-up and intense over-the-head camera angles and editing to convey the kinetic energy of the stage choreography. Newsies follows the Broadway trend of stage showiness-over-substance but never falls victim to it, thanks to its choreographed energy. A sequence where they dance and pirouette on-top of Pulitzer newspapers fits symbolically with the momentum while balancing out spectacle. But the backflipping-cartwheeling-handstand choreography is visibly calculated for wows rather than furthering narrative momentum. Nevertheless, the eye-candy dancing is not distracting and moves swiftly before its gets old. The geometric-squared fire-escapes minimalist set design works wonders in terms of atmosphere. The projections utilize the vital-ness of words, a headline, a chalk writing of “STRIKE”, or Jack Kelly’s portraits.
While it does have its Disneyfied filters with a happy-go-lucky mood about revolution and a happy ending (to be fair, the resolution is rather consistent with history), it’s a family picture of worthy lyrical acumen in its subject matter: the price of revolution, starving boys working in parentless circumstances, a villainous white-collared figure conceited enough to believe his employees are wronging him. The urgency of the edits conveys the hodge-podge of violence not seen in the 1992 version. Jack Feldman’s addition to the lyrics also helps smarten the subject material, not to upstage Ashman, but compliment the late lyricists’ work on the 1992 film.
The filmed production is a slice of sincerity too pure to not like. After the curtain call and credits, its anthems of a determined fraternity of hungry boys echo in my head.