Touring production of ‘Newsies’ gets to the heart of a real event
When he began directing the musical “Newsies” in 2011, Jeff Calhoun had no expectations that it would be a longtime relationship.
The production Calhoun directed at Papermill Playhouse in Millburn, N.J., was originally conceived to fill a void in Music Theatre International’s catalog of shows available for licensing to schools and amateur theaters.
School directors and administrators knew about “Newsies” from the 1992 movie musical produced by Walt Disney Pictures and wanted to bring it to their stages.
The movie, which starred a young Christian Bale, was based on a historical 1899 David-and-Goliath struggle between children who sold newspapers on New York City street corners against newspaper moguls Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst. Faced with price increases that would lower their already small profits, the ragged band of boys called a strike — and won.
“It was the No. 1 requested title MTI received from schools. But they had nothing to license,” says Calhoun, a graduate of Pine-Richland High School who is now a Manhattan-based director and choreographer and a three-time Tony Award nominee for his direction of “Newsies” and his directing and choreography of the 1994 revival of “Grease.”
So, the producers put together a team to adapt the movie into a stage musical to fill the demand.
Only it wasn’t the void the producers originally envisioned, he says.
The Papermill production was intended as a limited engagement. But it proved so popular with audiences that the run was extended.
Buoyed by its popularity, the producers decided to polish its promotional credentials by moving it to Broadway for a 12-week run.
It ended up playing for more than two years and earned eight 2012 Tony nominations and eventually two Tony awards for best original score of a musical and best scenic design.
It also generated a loyal following of admirers who are referred to as “fansies.”
When it finally closed after 1,004 performances, “Newsies” was still playing to 90 percent of capacity and making a profit, Calhoun says.
“Nobody predicted it would become a bona fide Broadway hit,” he says.
Calhoun has been in the business long enough to know that it’s impossible to predict whether a show will be a hit or a flop.
He’s been involved with 15 Broadway productions, including long-running hits like “My One and Only” and “The Will Rogers Follies,” and ones that broke his heart, such as “Bonnie and Clyde,” which closed after 36 performances, and “Brooklyn.”
“I thought it was the next ‘Rent.’ That’s why I produced it,” he says of “Brooklyn,” which he also directed.
He’s clearer on why “Newsies” deserved to succeed.
Alan Menken and Jack Feldman created the songs, and four-time Tony award-winner Harvey Fierstein wrote the book. The show includes Menken-Feldman songs from the movie, plus some new songs.
“It has a very compelling story and all the big physical trappings you would want for a big Broadway musical,” he says. “Its exuberance is surprising and heartening.”
Calhoun also is proud the producers didn’t cut back on the quality of the show when it went on the road.
“It’s the same physical production you would have seen on Broadway,” he says. “You’re seeing a Broadway production, not a cut-down tour.”
The creative team was given the go-ahead to tweak or change bits that they didn’t have time to do during its journey from page to Papermill to Broadway.
“There’s a new song in Act 2 and some new choreography and directing,” Calhoun says. “It does feel fresh and new.”
Musical draws from real-life 1899 newsboys strike
The musical “Newsies” was inspired by an actual event.
While the 1992 movie and the musical may differ in details, here’s the real story of the strike by newsboys that began in New York City on a hot day in July 1899.
The real “newsies” were young boys and some girls — many of whom were the age of today’s elementary school or middle-school students — who sold daily newspapers on Manhattan’s sidewalks.
Many were orphans, abandoned children or runaways working for food and shelter. Others were augmenting their family’s earnings. As independent vendors, they bought newspapers at a cost of 50 cents for 100 copies, then resold them for a penny or two more and kept the difference as their pay.
Unsold copies could not be returned for credit or cash. With a one-cent markup, a newsboy did not make a profit until he had sold 50 copies. Earnings averaged around 26 cents a day.
In mid-July 1899, Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World and William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal raised the street vendors’ price to 70 cents for 100 copies. When some of the newsboys complained, they were told to accept the new price or quit.
About 300 chose a third option. On July 20, they voted to strike unless the price increase was canceled.
They began persuading and pressuring other young street corner sellers to join them.
“Ten cents in the dollar is as much to us as it is to Mr. Hearst the millionaire. Am I right?” Kid Blink, one of the strike’s leaders, was quoted as saying in newspapers of the time. “We can do more with 10 cents than he can do with 25.”
They attacked kids who continued to sell the World and the Journal and tore up their newspapers or threw them into the river. Delivery wagon drivers were beaten and their carts overturned.
As the strike continued, it spread to other towns, some as far away as Rochester, N.Y., Providence, R.I., and Fall River, Mass., and gained support among those who sold papers at newsstands.
The strike ended Aug. 2 with a compromise offered by the publishers: the new bulk rate of 70 cents would continue. But the newspaper would buy back any unsold newspapers for a 100 percent refund.