Performing Arts

‘Newsies’ rises from Razzies to razzle-dazzle

Original company, North American Tour of NEWSIES.
Original company, North American Tour of NEWSIES. Disney

Most of the time, a flop stays flopped. But on rare occasions, it gets a second or third chance to emerge from the dustbins of history.

Such is the case with Disney’s Newsies, a 1992 movie musical that not only flopped at the box office, but received unfavorable reviews and several Golden Raspberry nominations and wins.

But thanks to home video and then the Internet, those who loved it rallied around this story about a group of orphans in late-19th-century New York who get to work during a newspaper strike. Fans kept it alive until it reached cult status and was shared by parents with their own kids, who then grew up loving it and wishing it were a stage musical for their high schools to produce.

“Nobody escapes without failures, but sometimes failures are very important in your growth, in this case as a writer,” says Jack Feldman, who wrote the lyrics to Alan Menken’s songs in the film.

“If you can learn from them, and you try to stretch and do something that is not in your comfort zone or in the audience’s comfort zone, in hindsight, you can see if it hadn’t been for the failures, you wouldn’t have had the successes.”

Feldman and Menken heard the calls for a Newsies stage musical, and Disney finally greenlit it. They brought on multiple Tony Award winner Harvey Fierstein to write a new book, and they were off.

Newsies opened on Broadway in 2012, where it would run for 2 1/2 years and make a Broadway star of Jeremy Jordan, who played Jack, the role Christian Bale played in the film.

It also picked up two Tony wins out of eight nominations (including one for Menken and Feldman’s score and lyrics), losing the big award to the not-so-traditional storytelling device of the terrific Once.

But you can bet your bottom dollar that Newsies will end up generating much more than Once in royalty money from the scores of amateur and educational productions bound to follow after the show’s national tour — which currently is playing at AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Winspear Opera House in Dallas.

That prospect is not lost on Feldman, who was just thrilled to have another crack at the property.

“I don’t think anybody who writes something that is not a critical or commercial success works any less hard on it than something that is,” Feldman says. “So when you work that hard it is disappointing. Then we realized there was a fan base, and that was such an amazing discovery thanks to the Internet.”

‘It’s a living thing’

When Disney gave the project the go-ahead, another member of the team was director Jeff Calhoun, whose Broadway credits (also for choreography and musical staging) included Grey Gardens, Brooklyn, the Deaf West production of Big River and revivals of Annie Get Your Gun and Grease.

“Like any new musical, it’s a living thing,” Calhoun says. “Much to Disney’s credit, [Disney Theatrical Group president] Tom Schumacher told [the team], ‘Everything you wanted to do to it, you can now do it.’”

That meant revisiting the storyline and deciding which songs worked, which didn’t, and which had to be rewritten.

“In certain cases, it was a question of the storytelling,” Feldman says. “When Harvey came aboard to write the book, he suggested a bunch of changes that eliminated more than one main character, added a main character [a love interest for Jack, which also adds a theme of women’s rights]. … Some of the song placement changed, such as Santa Fe, so the lyrics needed to be changed for the song where it now fit.

“It was natural, but never easy,” Feldman adds. “It was natural because once I was back into the Newsies head, and there are lines or verses that have bugged me for years and years; it was a question of not just trying to eliminate the things that bugged me, but trying to find replacements that have real meaning and were germane to the situation or the characters.

“It’s what makes writing for characters so much more fun, more than writing a pop song. The limitations of character and story tell you so much about what you can’t or can do.”

The show deals with a newspaper strike and was being developed as a stage musical at a time when the newspaper industry was in bigger flux than ever, but the story could really be about any changing industry, and the idea of making change happen.

“There were discussions of will this speak to an audience that is not growing up with the daily newspaper as a part of daily life,” Feldman says, “but the kids could have been shoe shine workers, and if it is done well, it would have power about passing the baton to a new generation and not settling and listening to people just because they were older and wiser.”

Calhoun says that idea is what resonates most with audiences of all ages.

“For young people to take responsibility for the generation and making the world a better place, that’s a big idea,” he says. “But bottom line, it’s a just a great thrilling dance and great old-fashioned score that kids, their parents and grandparents enjoy.”

That’s why Newsies was never going to settle for being a flop.

Newsies

▪ Through May 10

▪ Winspear Opera House, 2403 Flora St., Dallas

▪ $30-$150

▪ 214-880-0202; http://www.attpac.org

Five other box-office bombs that would make fun musicals

Newsies was nominated for five Golden Raspberry Awards in 1992, and won one — for Menken and Feldman’s song High Times, Hard Times (which did not make it into the stage musical). With that in mind, here are five other Razzie favorites that could work as a stage musical.

1. Mommie Dearest: This movie about Joan Crawford gone cray-cray has had a couple of music parodies, but let’s hear it for a straight-up musical version of the movie. The showstopping number: No More Wire Hangers!, with a chorus of hangers tapping the stage.

2. Rhinestone: New York is always trying a country-music musical — and it rarely works (see Urban Cowboy). But c’mon, recent musicals made from movies that starred Sly Stallone and Dolly Parton (Rocky and 9 to 5) weren’t so bad. So why not?

3. Howard the Duck: Fowl are popular on stage — see Swan Lake, Honk! (The Ugly Duckling) and, well, Chekhov’s The Seagull — so why not add this one to the coop?

4. Showgirls: The ultimate example of unintentional badness turned into camp art, and the story is inherently theatrical — if racy. The scene in which Nomi kicks Andrew’s butt could be an exciting combat musical number.

5. Who’s That Girl: Madonna was in so many Razzie winners (Swept Away, Body of Evidence, Shanghai Surprise, The Next Best Thing), and she won the Razzie for Worst Actress a record five times, so we have to give one of her movies a shot. Who’s That Girl could be super-fun. On second thought, just go watch the film version of Evita.

— Mark Lowry

Related stories from Fort Worth Star Telegram

  Comments