Having been chastened by the reception of the over-produced stage versions of The Little Mermaid, Tarzan and to a certain extent Aida, the folks at Disney Theatrical seem to have changed course, switched gears, and concentrated on the writing and staging — rather than the sets and costumes — for Newsies. Here, we actually care about the characters and what happens to them, as opposed to simply watching actors swinging on ropes above trampolines or roller-blading under the sea. That act of caring makes Newsies the happiest and most pleasing Disney musical since The Lion King.
The show, which opened in March at the Nederlander, is based on the studio's ill-fated 1992 live action, singin' & dancin' feature. Which famously thudded at the box office, leaving all involved covered with soot (except for the resilient composer, Alan Menken). That was that, as they say; only that wasn't quite that. "Newsies," the film, found a new audience in the early days of cable TV; give kids a film they can enjoy and watch repeatedly, and they don't care about the grosses. As the video/DVD era came along, there was Disney's "Newsies" ready to find even more fans.
The pre-teens of that era — to whom "Newsies" is a fondly remembered hit, not a fiasco — are now, presto, hitting 30. Thus a built-in audience, some of whom have kids of their own to bring to Disney musicals on Broadway. Give them a stage version of "Newsies" that's "as good as the movie" — or, in this case, way better — and you've got yourself a hit.
And Disney, with Newsies, has got themselves a hit. For this Newsies turns out to be pretty good, a show in the tradition of Oliver! and Annie. There is a story you can latch onto (albeit one that is somewhat simplistic); characters you can root for; tunes you can enjoyably tap your toe to, should you be the sort who taps your toe; and dancing that'll rouse you out of your seat. There are also no less than four performers who are better than pretty good: Jeremy Jordan and Kara Lindsay as the boy and girl, Andrew Keenan-Bolger and Ben Fankhauser as the hero's top comrades.
|photo by Deen van Meer|
Menken is in fine form here, perhaps his most tuneful form. I have always found his work to be far more enjoyable when he puts aside contemporary rhythms and allows himself free license to sit back, relax, and write rich melodies. He is well matched with the humorous and artful lyrics of Jack Feldman, with whom we wrote the "Newsies" film score 20 years ago. (The Broadway version includes six newly-written songs.) Feldman is best known for "Copacabana," a song he wrote with Barry Manilow and Bruce Sussman back in 1978. At least he was best known for "Copacabana." Now, it seems like Newsies will finally establish Feldman along Broadway.
It should be noted that Menken presently has three new musicals running on Broadway, the others being Sister Act and Leap of Faith. This is quite a feat, and an uncommon occurrence. Doing a cursory glance at the record book, I can find only eight songwriters who have done this. (Going back to 1940, anyway; there might have been some in the early days, when a composer might write three or four shows a season). For the record, they were Rodgers and Hammerstein, for seven months in 1953; Jerry Herman, in 1969; Stephen Schwartz, in 1976; Andrew Lloyd Webber, in 1982; Tim Rice, in 2000; and Frank Wildhorn, in 1999. Are we missing anyone?
Fine art Newsies isn't, perhaps; but then, when was the last time you tapped your toe to fine art? With the arrival of awards month, I confess that my personal preference lies somewhere closer to guitar players in Dublin (Once) than newsboys in old New York. But no matter. I expect that Newsies will enjoy a long and prosperous life on Broadway, on the road, and overseas as well. Sure, they probably never heard of the villainous Joseph Pulitzer in Europe, Scandinavia or Japan; but I expect a large portion of the U.S. public never heard of him, either.
The original cast album of Newsies has now arrived, and it pretty well reflects the excitement you get onstage. Many of the musical numbers for the gang of newsies are simply exhilarating, typified by "King of New York." (A song as good as this would help propel a bad musical, even.) There is a pretty good ballad for the boy and the girl added since Paper Mill, "Something to Believe In"; and an especially pleasing song for the heroine called "Watch What Happens." (This latter set me smiling in the theatre when I first heard it in New Jersey, and did the same on Broadway.)
On the lesser side are two numbers which point to the weaknesses in the stage adaptation: "That's Rich," for Jack's burlesque queen friend, and "The Bottom Line" for Pulitzer and cronies. The writing of Pulitzer really ought to be stronger than it is; this character, played by John Dossett, mostly stands around sneering. Imagine how Newsies would soar if they had a villain like Annie's Miss Hannigan, with songs to match.
The newsies of Newsies have been criticized for their age; some say they look less like 15-year-olds and more like they have been shaving for 15 years. Seeing them at Paper Mill last fall and at the Nederlander in March, I found them thoroughly convincing; obviously not teenagers, but the combination of high spirits and exuberant dancing more than won me over. This, I'm afraid, doesn't quite apply to the recording. These same boys, divorced from the stage and the choreography, sound like full-fledged adults — and in that I must include Mr. Jordan. Which makes me glad I saw the show before hearing the recording. This is a minor quibble, but one I feel honor bound to note.
Neither Oliver! nor Annie are perfect musicals, in my opinion, but they both work. Let us add Newsies to their class — a nifty class in which to be.
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Bonnie & Clyde [Broadway Records]
Bonnie & Clyde, the sixth Broadway musical from the aforementioned Frank Wildhorn, rolled into town on Dec. 1 and was shuttered by New Year's Eve. The phrase "Frank Wildhorn musical" has a certain connotation in some circles, but here the composer confounded at least some of his critics. The show — about those Depression-era bank robbers familiar to the world courtesy of Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway — didn't work; the music, though, wasn't the problem. This was the best of the scores Wildhorn has given us, which might in itself not sound like much of a recommendation. But Wildhorn, here, actually seemed to be writing for the theatre. Don Black's lyrics, though, were not particularly helpful.
Listen to the duet "You Love Who You Love," with Laura Osnes and Melissa van der Schyff, or Ms. Osnes' solo "Dyin' Ain't So Bad." This is a different Wildhorn, and one with more to offer than the fellow who last spring turned out Wonderland. And yes, the Clyde of the occasion was the same Jeremy Jordan mentioned in the review above. He was good in Bonnie & Clyde, but better in Newsies.
Fans of Wildhorn (of which there are many) and fans of Bonnie & Clyde (of which there are some) will be glad to add the posthumously-recorded CD to their collection. It is brought to us by a new label, Broadway Records, who are on a beginner's spree. Soon to arrive are a mini-CD of Nick Jonas — the current J. Pierpont Finch in How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying — singing his songs from that show, followed by the original cast album of last winter's cheerful but underattended Lysistrata Jones.
One Man, Two Guvnors [DRG]
The funniest show on Broadway — and the funniest show I've seen since the original production of Noises Off, or perhaps before — is One Man, Two Guvnors, presently rolling them in the aisles at the Music Box. Ringleader of the affair is a fellow named James Corden. Broadway audiences might remember him from History Boys, where he played the student who looked like a budding Richard Griffiths. In the interim, Corden has become a U.K. sitcom star, courtesy of "Gavin and Stacey" (which he created for himself). "One Man," which originated in June 2011 at the National in London, has launched him into what is fast becoming international prominence. And well deserved.
When I ran into Corden at the live New York screening of the Olivier Awards last month, he said, "Write something good about me!" Simple enough; James Corden is sidesplittingly droll, a delectable wonder. Richard Bean's play itself is howlingly funny, and let me add that it holds up remarkably well after three viewings. Miss One Man — and Corden, along with his hysterical cohorts — at your peril.
As if to enhance the experience of seeing the play — and in order to give me an excuse to discuss it in this column — DRG has now given us a local release of the original cast recording. One Man is not a musical, but it is interlaced with a dozen songs from an on-stage skiffle band. And not merely as scene-change diversions, which is what they initially seem to be. As the play progresses, each actor sits in for a number. (One plays car horns, another kettle drums, and one — Daniel Rigby, as an over-the-top wannabe actor — slaps out a solo on his bared breast.) Thus, the score does not merely cover for set and costume changes; while they initially provide recovery time from the laughter, director Nicholas Hytner starts sneaking his actors into the songs with unexpected and lovely results.
The CD was recorded in London, with the original foursome (which called itself "The Craze"). There is a different, New York-bred Craze playing the show on Broadway. They are not yet up to the frenetic level of the Brit group, perhaps due to the absence of vocalist/guitarist Grant Olding (who wrote the songs). The recording does include the actors currently appearing on Broadway, inasmuch as they — Corden and all — participate in the finale, "Tomorrow Looks Good From Here." We also get the girls' trio, "Lighten Up and Lay Low." Plus plenty of those skiffle songs.
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(Steven Suskin is author of the recently released updated and expanded Fourth Edition of "Show Tunes" as well as "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations" (now available in paperback), "Second Act Trouble" and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He also pens Playbill.com's Book Shelf and DVD Shelf columns. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)