It's the hard-knock life for boys peddling Joseph Pulitzer's papers in 1899 in Newsies, which, after some hesitation, finally found a home on Broadway March 29 at the Nederlander, where the Rent-strikers squatted for 12 years.
They've made themselves right at home, too, coming at you in movable steel towers that look like a tenement version of "Boys Town," overstuffed with teeming, young, huddled masses who seem to be singing "it's a fine life." They change their tune quick enough when publisher Pulitzer tries to pinch their pennies to increase his fortune, and the paperboys rebel in what would be the historic New York newsboys strike of 1899. The World, Pulitzer's rag, grinds to a halt. "Newsies Stop The World," sez the head.
Composer Alan Menken and lyricist Jack Feldman have fired up their 1992 film flop for Disney once more for the East Coast, revamping it as a stage musical with a cheerfully functional book by Harvey Fierstein rewriting and refining the unwieldy screenplay by Bob Tzudiker and Noni White.
After its dismal original release, "Newsies" quietly became a cult hit in the DVD bin, and fans began pelting the head of Disney Theatrical Productions, Thomas Schumacher, with requests to do high school and regional productions. Figuring something was afoot, and that Disney could lease to the masses, Schumacher green-lighted a proto production which lifted off under Jeff Calhoun's direction at the Paper Mill Playhouse last year. Even from New Jersey, it looked like a Broadway show, it felt like a Broadway show, it behaved like a Broadway show.
"I'm so proud of the show because it found its own life," a visibly relieved Schumacher beamed a few hours after it became a Broadway show. "It followed a path that wasn't predestined — I love that about it — and this cast is so delightful and so charming and so fresh. These young men are so extraordinary. Their capacity for singing and dancing has really brought this thing to life."
The property's secret ingredient — Boy Power — was always there, even in the movie version which marked choreographer Danny Ortega's directorial debut. He had masses of males hoofing up a frenetic storm, but he didn't know where to place the cameras.
The scientist in charge of dispensing the show's secret ingredient now, choreographer Christopher Gattelli, was spared the camera-placement problem. "When you have a movie, all you can do is stage the numbers," he said. "The thing about this show is that the boys' energies come off the stage and into the audience. It's so hard to ever capture that sort of thing in a film. Even the YouTubes that people watch don't do it. There's still nothing like being in that theatre watching them do it live."
Opening night marked Gattelli's one-year anniversary of taking on the task. Working from the anthem-riddled Menken-Feldman score and with Jeremy Jordan as the lead rabble-rouser, he mapped out his battle plan on the dance floor. "When I went into this, I told them, 'I don't just want to do tricks-for-tricks. I don't want it to look like we're flying around for no reason.' We had long talks about it. There are parts of 'Seize the Day,' the big number in Act One, where you see them becoming this little army. Jeremy starts it, and they join in. The way I thought of the number was the way that an army would work, whether by horseback or Air Force. They would fly in formation, then open up. It was all about how an army would work."
Songs with spine abetted his concept. "The trick was how to make them each different. At first, I was concerned, but, as you track through the show, they all arrive at a very specific point. Initially, it bothered me that 'The World Will Know' comes two numbers before 'Seize the Day,' but, with 'The World Will Know,' they're not that army yet. They're just finding their feet. It was easier to make it about their intent. In 'Seize the Day,' that's when they literally go, 'We're a union. We're coming together, and we're going to do this.' It made the dancing I could do unison dancing, and I could do a little more heightened choreography there because it earned it."
Just about everything dancers can do with a newspaper Gattelli has them do, whether it's an assembly line moving bales of bound newspapers or evenly tearing a newspaper page in half — with dancing feet. "We went through a huge process of how they have to be rigged, but they're real newspapers. They're not like felt or anything like that.
"To see the audience tonight respond to the boys, to see them get their due and have everyone just fall in love with them the way I have was terrific. Just to see this show have its opening night was great. It was never intended. It's a dream come true."
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