|Deen van Meer|
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Question: The chief antagonist in the new musical Newsies is newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer, who tried to break the newsboy strike. How much of the conflict depicted in the show is based on truth?
Villains in Disney stage musicals are usually pretty cartoonish. And for good reason — the shows are often based on animated features. Scar, the malcontent lion brother of the king Mufasa, is the chief baddie in The Lion King. In The Little Mermaid, it's Ursula, the sea witch. And in Beauty and the Beast, the buffoonish and bigoted he-man Gaston makes life hell for the two title characters.
Newsies, Disney's new hit-bound show at the Nederlander Theatre, is different. For one, it's based on a film that featured live actors. For another, some of those characters are based on real people. The 1899 New York newsboy strike dramatized in the show actually happened, with a pack of paper-hawking ragamuffins squaring off against powerful newspaper publishers William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer — who is a main personage in the play and the newsboy's chief antagonist. The Tony Award nominee John Dossett plays the man whose name and career inspired the famed Prizes for writing. (The 2012 Pulitzer Prize recipients will be announced on April 16.)
So how much of what bookwriter Harvey Fierstein, composer Alan Menken and lyricist Jack Feldman wrote is true? Well, quite a bit, actually. The strike happened in July and August of 1899. As shown in the show, newsboys did indeed buy papers at the rate of 50 cents per bundle of 100. And the strike was sparked when publishers raised the price to 60 cents. (Though the Brooklyn Eagle reported it was actually 70 cents.)
Where the plot differs is in the timeline. In the musical, Pulitzer hikes the price because sales are down since the Spanish-American War concluded. In reality, the newsboy price when up during the war, to capitalize on increased paper sales. Once the war ended, all the publishers took the price back down to 50 cents — except Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst of the New York Morning Journal.
"Pulitzer and Hearst hated each other," said David Nasaw, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. Professor of History, at the CUNY Graduate Center. Nasaw's book "Children of the City: At Work and at Play," published in 1985, helped inspire the film and the musical. "But they had to work together on this." Joseph Pulitzer, however, did not play the hands-on role in the strike that he does in Newsies. "Joseph Pulitzer had nothing to do with it, because he was out of the city," Nasaw said. "He was miserably ill."
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