"The first thing I learned about producing is that nobody knows nothin'," says Thomas Schumacher with a chuckle. But there are indications that the self-deprecating Disney Theatrical honcho knows at least something: Disney's Tony-winning The Lion King and popular Mary Poppins are still raking in visitors after nearly 15 and 6 years on Broadway, respectively, and this month Schumacher opens his eighth show — an adaptation of the 1992 film musical Newsies. For this project, however, the Disney team has taken a rather unconventional (for them) route to the Rialto.
Newsies proved to be a box office bust when it opened in movie theatres two decades ago, costing Walt Disney Studios about $15 million to produce and grossing less than $3 million. But with a cult following of now-20-and-30-somethings, there seemed to be an unusual demand to give Newsies the full musical-theatre treatment.
" Newsies was originally a stage musical put on film," says Schumacher. "We were discovering that schools were transcribing selections from the Hal Leonard movie songbook and staging versions of the show and posting it on YouTube." In addition, over the years Newsies has become the most-requested title by amateur theatres across the country.
But could Newsies actually work on a stage? Schumacher organized a creative team made up of the movie's original songwriting team, Academy Award winner Alan Menken ( Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, Sister Act) and Jack Feldman. He also brought in Tony-winning actor-writer Harvey Fierstein ( La Cage aux Folles) to write the book and Jeff Calhoun ( Grease) to stage the final product. Based on a series of real events, the pro-union tale follows teenager Jack Kelly and his fellow newspaper boys as they revolt against publishers Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst in turn-of-the-20th-century New York City. On film, a young Christian Bale played Kelly; on stage, Bonnie and Clyde's Jeremy Jordan dons the newsboy cap.
|photo by T. Charles Erickson|
After several workshops, Newsies made headlines last fall when it opened to critical raves at the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey. While Paper Mill was supposed to be the only stop for the show (with the musical going directly to licensing after that), audiences demanded more — and the Disney team realized that they could either stop the project or "Seize the Day," as a song from the show goes, and continue on.
"I've gotten to a certain point where nothing about Newsies surprises me," says Alan Menken when asked about the property's resurgence. "It was an assignment at hand when I first took it on — and it did abysmally at the box office. Why would there ever be a future for this film? Yet there's this phenomenon going on. Young people know it so well — and with that there's a whole new generation of kids who will soon adopt it as their own."
What is it about this show that made it a hit at Paper Mill? Is it Menken's anthem-based score (including new music that wasn't in the film)? The show's energetic and lovable tweens? Fierstein's reworked story (which adds a love interest for Jack)? Or, simply, a combination of all three?
Whatever the formula, Schumacher says, "We still have work to do. We need to mount a new show at the Nederlander and let people know that Newsies is happening on Broadway. And the important thing is to keep the connection of show and audience — that connection that was present in New Jersey."
Whether Newsies becomes the "King of New York" or follows in the footsteps of the film will be determined by business at the box office. And while he may claim to know nothin', as a producing vet, Schumacher does have a plan: "Unlikely choices lead to failure and sometimes unlikely choices lead to great success. From that, you do tell yourself to surround yourself with great people — and that I've done with Newsies." (Frank DiLella is a producer for NY-1's "On Stage" program. This piece appears in the March 2012 issue of Playbill magazine.)