Tuesday, August 19, 2014

What's It All About, Newsies?

As most of the Broadway world knows, Disney’s mega-smash theatrical production of Newsies will be closing on August 24 (but don’t worry, “Fansies”, the national tour kicks off this October). I had two initial thoughts about Newsies before seeing it: 1) Judging by the insanely loving response the show received from fans of the original movie and frequent theatregoers alike, I figured this show had more time than the barely 2½ years it ultimately got; and 2) Judging by the number performed at the Tonys, it was an all-singing-all-dancing (not that there’s anything wrong with that) overhype.  Read on and learn if I was right!

Music: Alan Menken
Lyrics: Jack Feldman
Book: Harvey Fierstein
Broadway Debut: March 29, 2012
Tony Nominations/Wins: 8/2
Based On: 1992 cult film Newsies, which was based on the 1899 Newsboys Strike

Upon hearing of the show’s imminent closing, my mom said, “Amy, we’re going to see this before it closes!” So we rode on up to the Big Apple, said “Hi” to the Naked Cowboy, had a disgusting amount of deliciousness at Southern Hospitality BBQ in Hell’s Kitchen (apparently that’s Justin Timberlake’s place), unsuccessfully tried to find some homeless people, and finally sat down to an evening of singing, dancing teenagers in their late 20s and early 30s doing insane pirouettes and flips… and maybe a story somewhere.

The Story:
This high-energy tale based on the Newsboys Strike of 1899 centers on New York teen, Jack Kelly, and a band of fellow orphaned Newsies who sell “papes” to the city of New York. New York World publisher, Joseph Pulitzer increases the cost of the newspapers to the Newsies by ten cents per hundred to outperform his competitors. The Newsies, led by Jack, go on strike and organize a union (of sorts) to demand the former price be reinstated. Fledgling reporter Katherine scoops up the story as well as Jack’s heart (ew). The newsies stage a protest, which is broken up by the police and strikebreakers. Discouraged, Jack wishes to flee the worries and strife of New York for sunny Santa Fe. But Katherine’s story makes the front page of the New York Sun and the Newsies vow to continue the strike. Despite revelations that Jack has a criminal record and Katherine is actually Pulitzer’s daughter (*Gasp!* Wait, WHAT?!), their romance blooms. Using an old printing press of Pulitzer’s, the newsies print their own newspaper, exposing Pulitzer’s price hike to the city, as well as the abuses conducted in the city’s Refuge (juvie). Governor Theodore Roosevelt reads their paper and puts the kibosh on Pulitzer and the Refuge. Pullitzer offers a compromise to buy back every “pape” the Newsies don’t sell; the strike is over! Jack is about to leave for Santa Fe, but has a change of heart (ew) and stays a Newsie. There is much rejoicing.

The Reaction:
My initial assumption that Newsies is an overhyped piece of Broadway entertainment turned out to be pretty true. The dancing was spectacular and the creative use of sets was impressive. However, I found the subject matter (or lack thereof) to be quite a missed opportunity. The movie had some pretty dark moments, emphasizing the risks these kids took to stand up for their rights. They organized amongst themselves to show that they would not be abused by the man. There were dangers and consequences to what they did, as well as a rippling influence that expanded to and affected all child workers in the city. I found the show didn’t touch on any of that as well as they could have.  Most of the time was spent on Jack either bantering with Katherine, or wishing he could run away to Santa Fe… and gratuitous dancing. They had the chance to tinker a decent movie into a compelling, anti-authoritarian, little-guy-wins, David vs. Goliath journey that could have focused on child labor/treatment at the turn of the 20th century, newspaper magnate corruption, class warfare, and/or the importance of family and friendship. Heck, how about a girl reporter! But they merely scraped each of these surfaces and stuck primarily to dancing. Pity…

During the early development of Fiddler on the Roof, choreographer Jerome Robbins constantly asked the creative team (composer, Jerry Bock & lyricist, Sheldon Harnick), "What is the show about?" After several suggestions alluding to the show's plot, one of them stated, "...It's about tradition." Robbins replied, "THAT'S what it's about — and now we have to tell the audience." I think someone should have asked Newsies' creative team what their show was about.

As for my other initial assumption the Newsies should have run longer, I also believe I was right. Since this was not the hard-hitting world changer I dreamed of, it is perfect for dance fans, movie die-hards, and excellent tourist fodder. It is a light, bright, energetic piece that keeps you interested. So they've at least got that going for them. As Chicago has shown for years, crazy dancing and weak plots sell! 

What really took me by surprise was the audience. I have only heard a Broadway crowd flip out like this once: when Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel made their respective entrances in Wicked (I gotta admit, I myself may or not have made a mess in my pants when I saw them). However, there was no star power at this performance. In fact, I found the female lead’s voice considerably weak for Broadway caliber (she had mad dancing skills, but her singing? “Meh” at best). Yet the house practically shook at the end of almost every song. Sure, the dancing was great. But I was watching very closely and I didn’t see Justin Bieber or Elvis in the building, so I say cool your jets, people. This isn’t A Chorus Line. But then again, they were giving the love like it was going out of style. Maybe they saw something I didn’t.