So lately I’ve been listening to a lot of my favorite songs from the Disney Broadway musical Newsies. In my opinion, it’s one of the best musicals out there and, every now and again, I find myself rewatching and falling in love with it all over again. Now, I know some of you may not know what the story is, so I thought I’d give a brief summary of this Disney gem before I get into the real meat of this post.
Newsies is the story of a young man named Jack Kelly who lives in New York with his friends. The kids make a living selling newspapers under Joseph Pulitzer as newspaper salesmen (called newsies), with Jack aspiring to one day make enough money to move to Santa Fe, New Mexico. The newsies’ job requires that the boys pay for the newspapers themselves before reselling them and, when the price is raised at their expense, the kids (being poor enough already) decide to go on strike. When Pulitzer threatens to imprison Jack in the refuge (juvenile detention center) unless the strike is called off, the boys decide to print their own paper to compete with him. But when one of the newsies is brutally beaten during a rally and taken to the refuge, Jack is forced to reevaluate whether fighting for this is really worth it in the end, torn between doing what he knows is right versus protecting his friends from Pulitzer’s men.
I will admit right now that part of the reason I love this play so much is connected to nostalgia. When I was a kid, I took theatre classes that required we perform one scene from a famous play at the conclusion of the year in a showcase, and when I was nine or ten, the “King of New York” scene from Newsies was selected for my class. I got the role of Davey’s little brother, Les. To this day, acting out “King of New York” remains one of my fondest memories from the class. I fell in love with the camaraderie shared amongst the boys and found myself excited to play the role, however brief it was.
Some years later, my eighth grade history teacher decided to show us the 1992 Disney film as part of our unit on the Newsboys’ strike of 1899. I remember getting all excited about this and admitting to the class that I’d gotten to play Les not too long before then. Being that it was the first time I was watching the movie, I remember when the “King of New York” scene came on that I found myself quietly singing along to the lyrics excitedly. I quickly fell in love with the entire story and felt sympathetic to the kids’ cause.
Recently, I found a copy of the 2017 Broadway production being sold on iTunes and bought it. And I love it! It is mainly this production that I will be commenting on in this post, as I feel that the musical is the stronger version of the story compared to the Disney film.
I admit, I like the 2017 theatrical production better than the film in part because the energy is much higher in the play than it is in the film. Even when something bad is happening (such as when Jack is being chased by city constables early in the story) there’s a certain thrill to it that doesn’t come off as well in the movie. And I like that the production doesn’t shy away from the danger. For example, seeing poor Crutchie being beaten by the city constables was horrifying, even when I knew it was staged and that nobody was actually getting hurt. I honestly didn’t expect it, and seeing poor Crutchie be hauled off to the refuge rather mercilessly was pretty dark, especially for a Disney production.
On that note, the reason I’m even sympathetic in the first place is because the characters in this play are awesome! I want to discuss some of them a bit, because it helps to make the story as strong as it is.
Jack Kelly is an amazing and complex protagonist. I really like his willingness to do all he can for the other newsies. Seeing him act as a sort of big brother the others look up to is really sweet, and that affection is shown as soon as the story starts. It’s obvious that the others care about him and want to help in any way they can, and that camaraderie among them is easily one of the strongest aspects of the entire story.
I also love how Jack is not afraid to show emotion when he has to. I think it’s great that we see the clear inner conflict he’s facing throughout the story, particularly after Crutchie gets taken to the refuge. It’s obvious that he cares about his friends and will go to great lengths to protect them. And it also makes his desire to leave New York about more than just the freedom he believes Santa Fe will give him. It becomes obvious throughout the story that being the newsies’ de facto leader is a stressful thing for him, and that stress heightens the tension while also adding to Jack’s humanity and likability.
That being said, Jack had enough sass and defiance that he didn’t become a complete sap. His emotional side is offset nicely by his complete hatred of Pulitzer, especially during the scenes where he ends up in the office with him. It was so satisfying to see the smug defiance on his face, and it was clear that he was determined not to break in front of the man. That’s really something I commend, because I personally would fold in front of someone that intimidating! Jack has amazing personality to him, and it made it easy to root for him in the story.
In terms of the other newsies, I found myself really liking Davey. He’s a great friend to Jack throughout, helping him look at things positively when all seems grim. This is especially prevalent during the reprise for the song “Watch What Happens” where Dave is working to make sure that Jack doesn’t give in and end the strike. The clear concern he shows for Jack is particularly heartwarming considering that Dave is actually one of the newcomers to the group along with his little brother Les. It was nice to see him be there for Jack in his time of need, when Jack desperately needed someone to remind him why the strike needed to go on.
Katherine is a fantastic character, too. I love how she shows support for the newsies pretty much right off the bat and wants to see them achieve what they’re working towards. And while her gender is commented on a little (given the time period the story is set in), I like that the ultimate message they come out with regarding her is a positive one. It’s commented that she could have lived in leisure, but instead chose to pursue a career in journalism. And I think that that really adds to her character; even though she does so behind her father’s back and never directly confront him, she does stand against him by helping Jack.
And speaking of the big bad, I need to talk about Pulitzer and give a great villain credit where it’s due. This production’s version of him is actually one of the best versions of him I’ve seen. The threat he posed to Jack and the others was plain to see, and I think the actor did a great job portraying him. His delivery was just on-point and it was clear that he was enjoying putting the newsboys through hell if it meant he would get what he wanted in the end. In my opinion, that’s the best kind of villain, the one that so clearly enjoys being bad. What really got to me was how he used the owner of the refuge to corner Jack in his office, and it just made him all the more threatening and fun to hate.
I think one of the strongest aspects of this show (and, really, this is true of almost every production of this play, not just the 2017 one) is the amazing musical score! The songs are incredibly catchy and enjoyable. The singers do an amazing job. The way they harmonize in the songs just has this way of always putting a smile on my face. From “Carrying the Banner” to “Brooklyn’s Here,” and “Once and For All,” almost all the songs make you want to jump up and sing along!
Another aspect of this is the dancing in the musical numbers. The 2017 production really stands out because of the incredible choreography. Never mind that it takes a lot of work to put together song and dance numbers with what looks to be over twenty people in said numbers, but the fluidity in the dance moves makes them a lot of fun to watch. The actors are incredible dancers, and the choreography really helps this production to stand out, mainly because it’s common for huge flips to be done during a lot of the numbers. Doing that on a crowded stage and sticking the landing is no small feat, and I admit the acrobatic-like moves added a lot of energy and fun to the songs. I also really liked that they weren’t afraid to play with the set during those numbers, such as when we see the newsies’ banner across the different cubicles on the stage at the end of “Once and For All.” It’s little touches like these that really help make the scene.
I also need to give some mention to the camerawork used to film this play. Normally, I wouldn’t consider this, but given that it’s basically a filmed theatre production, it needs to be mentioned. When you’re in a theatre watching a play or musical, it can be difficult at times to feel the full impact of the characters’ emotions because you see their faces at a distance. The camerawork in this production does a lot to make up for this, with a lot of meaningful close-ups on the actors’ faces to help show what emotion is being portrayed. This kind of tactic can come off as cheesy, but the production manages to avoid that by not actually zooming into the actors’ faces, instead just focusing on the expression for a couple of seconds before moving on with the scene.
I watched this musical a couple of times before deciding to write this post and, I have to admit, I’d forgotten how much I love it! The story is riveting and the camaraderie shared amongst the newsies makes them all the easier to care about. The musical numbers are full of life and the emotion and heart in the production is incredible! I can’t recommend this play enough. It’s an amazing story with boundless energy that will leave you smiling from ear to ear from beginning to end.