Zooey Deschanel’s character, Jess, on “New Girl” spoke to many a Millennial this week when listing off her DVD collection: Adventures in Babysitting, Prancer, Newsies and Curly Sue. All films from our childhood, though not all are great or even really good. But Newsies stands out above the rest in terms of its underground popularity. And its awesomeness.
The $15 million 1992 Disney movie musical about newsboys in 1899 New York City grossed only $3 million (my brother and I contributed to that sum) and was considered a flop. But thanks to VHS tapes and later DVDs, fans kept the tale of newsboys on strike alive and well — so alive that Disney let its failure be revived for the stage in hopes it will head to Broadway and find a broad audience. The new stage production just opened at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, N.J., and to pretty positive reviews. Now people like me are trying to find a way to get to New Jersey. And there are plenty of people like me, people who can sing all of the musical’s songs, recite much of its dialogues and who aren’t ashamed to admit they once attended a Newsies singalong at an Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, Texas, waving copies of The Onion to the song “Carrying the Banner.”
But here’s the thing: While the revamped stage production appears to be a hit, Newsies isn’t very good. From its poor script to its varying degrees of poor acting, it’s one of those films that probably can only be truly appreciated by fans who have stood by it from the beginning, who first saw it with innocent and not critical eyes. Coming into Newsies as an adult may be near impossible.
As an overview, at least, here are five reasons why it is beloved by geeks like me.
The story is classic: A group of underdogs stand up to The Man, this time with newsies, poor and most of them orphaned, going on strike against Joseph Pulitzer (Robert Duvall, chewing the scenery), who has raised the distribution price of newspapers. New guy David (David Moscow) proves himself as a leader, pairing with the charismatic Jack “Cowboy” Kelly (Christian Bale).
The songs in Newsies, from “Carrying the Banner” to “Seize the Day” to “King of New York,” are damn catchy. Alan Menken (Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid and Aladdin) wrote the score while Jack Feldman wrote the lyrics. It’s the screenplay that is the problem, with a weak plot and dialogue from Bob Tzudiker and Noni White. The music is what fans cling to, although the cheese factor is fun for nostalgia purposes. For the revamped stage production, Menken returned to his work, adding more songs, and Harvey Fierstein (“Torch Song Trilogy,” “La Cage aux Folles”) adapted what appears to be a more appealing book from the screenplay.
Newsies director Kenny Ortega is best known for his choreography on everything from Dirty Dancing to the abomination that will be the remake of Dirty Dancing. As is clear in the various High School Musical films he choreographed and directed, he likes large group numbers and some rad ’90s break dancing. Unfortunately, his work here makes the film feel like a series of music videos strung together.
From Duvall as the crazy Pultizer, to Ann-Margret, as vaudeville star Medda Larkson, to Kevin Tighe, as Snyder, the creepy warden of a juvenile detention facility who really just seems like a pedophile, the adult characters are frankly bizarre. The best one, though, is Bill Pullman, as reporter Bryan Denton. Our Man Denton sings! Too bad this role was cut from the stage version.
Bless his uncomfortable little heart, the young Bale was not made for musical theater. I believe he signed onto the project while it was still slated as a drama and decided to stick around once song and dance was added. We’ll commend him for that. Newsies wouldn’t have quite the same feel to it if Bale weren’t the one singing “Santa Fe” in a fake New York accent whilst pretending to ride a horse on a fake New York street. They call him Cowboy!
Anyone up for a road trip to New Jersey?
Sarah Carlson lives in Alabama has a front-row seat to the decline of the newspaper industry, and sometimes she wonders if she got into the business because of Newsies. It’s possible.