Why Newsies Became a Hit Broadway Musical—According to Alan Menken

Seth Rudetsky   Why Newsies Became a Hit Broadway Musical—According to Alan Menken
This week in the life of Seth Rudetsky, Alan Menken shares stories from his early composing days with Howard Ashman, plus stories about Little Shop of Horrors, Beauty and the Beast, and more.
Clockwise from left: Lee Wilkof, Terrence Mann, Kerry Butler, Seth Rudetsky, and Alan Menken
Clockwise from left: Lee Wilkof, Terrence Mann, Kerry Butler, Seth Rudetsky, and Alan Menken Courtesy of Seth Rudetsky

Happy (almost) May! This is the month where I go to L.A. for two shows with Chita Rivera. On May 10 we’ll be at The Wallis and I am very excited. I work with a lot of stars who’ve originated one amazing classic role or played some brilliant roles in a revival, but Chita has originated SO MANY classic roles! Anita from West Side Story, Velma from Chicago, Rosie from Bye Bye Birdie, etc. Andrea McArdle tells a story about being 20 years old doing Jerry’s Girls and how much she hated singing “Tomorrow” at various functions. She was so sick of people always asking for it. Carol Channing sassed her and told her how extremely lucky she was to have a famous Broadway song associated with her. Carol pointed to a photo of another actress who didn’t have a song associated with her and said “Look at this poor thing! If she wins a Tony Award, what song will they play?” Well, if Chita wins again, the people who decide the music have so many songs to chose from! P.S. I love that I get to duet with Chita in our show. We just added a song from The Rink where I sing Liza’s part (see photo)!. Come see us!

This week I did a full show of Seth Speaks on SiriusXM dedicated to Alan Menken, who’s being honored by the NY POPS tonight. He initially made his living as a jingle writer and, on the side, was writing music and lyrics for musicals. At one point, a new lyricist named Howard Ashman asked Maury Yeston to collaborate. Maury wasn’t available and told Howard to meet with Alan Menken. They hit it off and began writing together. Their show, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater was very well-received but hardly a mega-hit.

Alan was making okay money doing jingles but was told he could make more if he dedicated himself to it. He decided he’d write one last show and if it didn’t really take off, he’d stop his sideline of musical theatre and go full time to jingles. Well, the show was Little Shop Of Horrors and, suffice it to say, he didn’t go back to jingle writing.

I had Lee Wilkof (Little Shop’s original Seymour) as a guest, as well, and he remembers flying in from L.A. to audition. Even though it was a little Off-Broadway show, he wanted to be involved because he loved the film of Little Shop. He was actually being seen for the role of the dentist! If you know Lee, you know that he doesn’t have much hair. He was going for a new look back then and walked in to the audition with a full toupee! They told him to lose the wig and Howard Ashman asked him to read for Seymour. He got the gig after beating out the other guy who had a final call back….Nathan Lane! After telling the story, Lee wondered out loud “whatever happened to him.”

Howard Ashman and Alan Menken
Howard Ashman and Alan Menken

Speaking of people vying for the role, Alan told us that someone who wanted the film role very badly but was rejected for it was…Tom Cruise! And, along those lines, I brought up the story of my friend who tried out to be in the ensemble of Alan’s Beauty And The Beast and was also rejected. The interesting part is, because she wasn’t in the chorus of that show, she wound up getting a role in another musical that same season and winning the Tony Award! Yes, Audra McDonald was told to “clear for talent” at the Beauty And The Beast audition and then got cast as Carrie in Carousel. P.S. She got her chance to to do Beauty years later when she played wardrobe in the the recent live action film version. Vengeance!

Alan told us about sending the demo of the title song of “Beauty And The Beast” to Angela Lansbury for the film version. It’s a perfect song for her…but she felt she couldn’t sing it! He was in complete shock since it would obviously sound great with her singing it. He finally realized that the demo she got was intended for the other version…the one sung by Celine Dion! I guess Angela felt her riffs weren’t as fierce as this.

Terry Mann, the original Beast from the Broadway Beauty And The Beast, told us that they did a final run-through of the show in the rehearsal studio with no costumes or makeup and it went amazingly! Then, on the day of their first preview in Texas, they did an afternoon run-through in full costume and makeup for around 80 people including Disney execs. Well, this time the show clanked! Jeffrey Katzenberg ran backstage after the run-through and told them that their costumes/masks/makeup were completely dehumanizing them. They were physically stiff plus no one could see any facial expression. He got a team of local makeup artists and costume people to come and take stuff away from each person so their look remained, but the real “them” could be seen by the audience. They did all of this in the time between shows! End of the story is…it worked!

Here is a video of “Be Our Guest” and, side note: Howard Ashman wanted a French can-can type song so Alan wrote a dummy melody for Howard to add lyrics. It was just something Alan improv’d in two minutes to give the essence of what the song should be. Howard then wrote lyrics that fit what Alan wrote. Alan got the lyrics back and started re-writing the song…but realized that what he composed in two minutes completely worked! That quick little improv is the song we all know! Here’s the original Broadway cast on the Tonys (not seen… Audra MacDonald in the audience, glaring at one of the utensils while holding her Tony Award).

Alan felt Howard Ashman was a genius. Even though it sometimes backfires when one person does book and lyrics and directs (because there’s not another point of view giving other opinions), Howard was able to make all the right choices. When Howard was at the top of his game and could do anything, Alan asked him what he wanted. To run a movie studio? A television production company? Howard said he’d love to run a children’s theatre. How great is that!?!? Howard is the one who thought that the enchanted objects in the castle should have different personalities. And when I mentioned The Little Mermaid, their first Disney musical, Alan said that Howard thought up the idea that Sebastian the Crab should be Caribbean and not the original idea… British! That Caribbean accent led to the composition of the island-flavored “Under The Sea.” Here’s Tituss Burgess doing it in the Broadway production…crazily up the octave!

Alan gave us some scoop about how Newsies came back to Broadway. The original film was a box office failure but definitely a cult classic and there were tons of unofficial versions being performed live at schools and camps. Finally, Disney decided to release a published version. They told Alan they had to add some songs to the score make it long enough but not to worry, because they would bring in another songwriter. He told them hell to the NO! He would write the new stuff! He wound up having a meeting with Harvey Fierstein about writing the score to Kinky Boots and Harvey saw Newsies stuff lying around. He asked why. Alan said they were turning it into a stage show and Harvey said “I know how to fix it.” Alan called Disney, Harvey was hired, the show was presented to see if it worked as a school version and, long story short, it wound up coming to Broadway and being a big, fat hit! On a related note, Jeremy Jordan, the original star of Newsies is going to be with me this summer in Provincetown! Tix at PtownArtHouse.com Here he is sounding great with Alan playing for him:

The whole interview ended with Alan playing Terry Mann’s Beast song and Terry sounding like the record and Lee Wilkof singing Seymour to Kerry Butler’s Audrey. Amazing!! Though not as amazing as Lee’s Seymour to my Audrey!

All right everyone, I’m signing off from Chicago where we just saw the Lyric Opera production of Jesus Christ Superstar. We loved it and you should see it! We especially loved Ryan Shaw who plays Judas. The high notes! The riff fluidity! So good! Turns out, he was on America’s Got Talent. Take a gander here.

And, P.S. Obsessed with the choreography as well as King Herod’s crazy long gold cape. It’s totally the gold version of Elphaba’s giant cape at the end of Wicked Act 1. You can see both choreo and cape here:
Now peace out!

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