When the 1992 Disney movie musical Newsies tanked at the box office, few expected the title to ever resurface in any form. But this real-life David vs. Goliath tale of exploited young newsboys who fought back against the rich, ruthless New York City publishers with the 1899 newspaper strike would not be silenced.
“It was becoming the number-one requested title to Disney from all the schools in the country,” says Tony nominee Jeff Calhoun, who eventually directed the show on Broadway, as well as the national tour that opens at Fort Lauderdale’s Broward Center on Tuesday night. “Schools were doing their own versions, so I think Disney just realized that with lost revenue they should create an authorized version.”
The interest in Newsies, at every step of the way, was a pleasant head-scratcher for Disney executives. “Yes, I think ‘puzzlement’ and ‘delight’ are two great words that explain this whole journey,” agrees Calhoun.
He had worked previously for Disney Theatricals, directing its national tour of High School Musical, so he got the call to consider doing the same with Newsies. The film’s lack of success did not bother Calhoun. “I’d rather try to take something that wasn’t necessarily successful, where there seems to be room for improvement, than messing with a masterpiece,” he says.
Brought in to hear a reading of the reworked script (by Harvey Fierstein) and expanded score (by Alan Menken and Jack Feldman), Calhoun found himself quite moved by the story and agreed to take the show’s reins. “My reaction was ‘Absolutely, it would be an honor.’ But everyone made it clear the whole time, we all knew that we were just doing this at Paper Mill (Playhouse, a New Jersey non—profit theater), just to create something to license to stock and amateurs.” Taking Newsies to Broadway was specifically not in the cards.
Calhoun is unclear about when that attitude changed. “It’s a good question. Because I know that the business department at every corner was very conservative,” he says. When they changed their mind about Broadway, “They said, ‘OK, we’re going to do New York, but we’re only going to do it for a few months.’ And then they kept extending that. And then they finally said, ‘Open end.’ ” Eventually, the show ran for 1,004 performances — nearly 2½ years.
By the time Calhoun joined the project, Menken had written the new songs. Left to do was get Fierstein to trim his script, but he was reluctant to make changes. “I would never use the word ‘change’,” explains Calhoun. “It would be ‘The set is this, and it’s very difficult for me to get from here to here, can you help me?’ And he was masterful at it.”
Calhoun insists that he never watched the Disney movie of Newsies, so that he would not be influenced by Kenny Ortega’s choreography. Although dance is one of Calhoun’s strengths, he brought in Chris Gattelli (South Pacific) as choreographer. “The show is much better with Chris and I working together. To be honest, I’m just too old, my body is too much falling apart,” says Calhoun, 56. “It’s a young person’s game, I really think it is. Certainly something for teenage boys that needs to be really Michael Kidd athleticism, which is what I knew this show needed, that would not be me.”
Reviews at Paper Mill were extremely encouraging, but Calhoun continued to keep his Broadway expectations low. “I thought, well, this would be nice if we could fill the theater for — I think they said — 16 weeks.”
Eventually, Disney executives bowed to the evident demand for the show and agreed to mount a national tour. “It took a long time, because the physical production is quite daunting and intimidating,” recalls Calhoun. “It took a long time, because the physical production is quite daunting and intimidating.
“These brilliant engineers took a long time to figure out how we could dismantle three two-ton tower units. Once they did that, I think the tour became much more feasible and they called theaters and there seemed to be an appetite for it. But Tom (Schumacher, head of the Theatricals unit) didn’t want to do the tour unless he could give them the real Broadway version. You’re not getting a cut-down version of the show, that I can promise you.”
So far, this very American story has been licensed for production in Italy and Brazil, with London’s West End expected in the near future. Newsies’ appeal seems limitless.
“There’s just some infectious energy that goes over the footlights. I think it’s the exuberance of these kids, watching them sort of slay Goliath in front of us. It sort of warms your heart and gets you rooting for these kids,” says Calhoun. “I think that’s very moving, and when you see that these really are teenagers. It’s not like we have Rex Smith playing Danny Zuko in ‘Grease’ when he’s 40 years old.
“These are kids playing kids, trying to change the world. And what’s great is it’s sort of like life imitating art, because these kids really are the future of the theater. They’re making their mark as their telling a story about kids who are making the world better. It’s a wonderful sort of Escher painting.
“We did hit the trifecta,” Calhoun notes with pride. “We got lucky with incredible, exuberant dancing, a great Alan Menken score and a great story. Those three things are hard to find together. Every show has something, but we got lucky and hit it all.”
NEWSIES, Broward Center for the Performing Arts, 201 SW Fifth Ave., Fort Lauderdale. Tuesday, Nov. 17-Sunday, Nov. 29. Tickets: From $35 and up. Call: 954-462-0222.