On Tuesday I will see the second show of the Playhouse Square Broadway Series, Newsies (or, rather, “Disney Newsies the Musical“). This is the only show of the season that I have seen before, having caught the original cast of the Broadway production. I’ve always been a huge fan of the movie, ever since I saw it IN THEATERS and bought the soundtrack, at the Disney store, packaged in a CARDBOARD LONG BOX. I’ve attended Brooklyn-hipster-sing-along nights. For years (and kinda still today) Newsies was my primary reference point of Christian Bale, Robert Duvall, and Ann Margret. And I know that the movie is about 30 minutes of awesome (all of which involves singing and dancing and shirtless men whose ages we will never ever discuss) surrounded by about two hours of really boring movie.
Disney Newsies the Musical was as big of a surprise hit as anything leading off with “Disney” can be. It started at Papermill Playhouse in New Jersey and originally came to Broadway under the guise of a “limited run” that would then launch a national tour. But then the “limited run” ran for over two years, fueled by enthusiastic singing and dancing of a corps of muscular, obviously-over-18-but-under-25, men. Harvey Fierstein wrote a new book that streamlined the story, balanced the pacing, and generally greatly improved upon the screenplay. It even took home Tonys for its score (Alan Menkin and Jack Feldman) and choreography (Christopher Gattelli).
So why didn’t I like it nearly as much as I (desperately) wanted to?Disney Newsies the Musical performed with a shell of an orchestra. I could see directly into the pit at the Nederlander theater and there were so few musicians you could fit a ping-pong table in there. It LITERALLY had fewer musicians than Once. The set looked cheap and was too frequently covered with busy projections. And they cut the nuns and Patrick’s mother from the opening number, which is basically unforgivable. (If you’re not familiar, the opening number–in which new boys sing about how the love selling newspapers–is interrupted but a group of nuns who sing a new melody as they serve gruel from a cart to the apparently otherwise unfed newsboys. This melody is then taken up by an unnamed woman who is looking for Patrick, her MIA son, while the other boys–all of whom are presumably named anything BUT Patrick–sing a counterpoint to the nuns in which they gratefully accept the gruel.) This may sound like the whining of someone upset that the new thing is not exactly the same as the old thing and should probably just want the old thing if they’re going to be that resistant to change. And there might be some truth to that. But the sequence does a lot to inform the audience of the kind of lives these boys leave–motherless, impoverished and lost. (Information the musical does little–if anything–to replace.) One gets the sense that it is cut from the musical not because of dramaturgy, but because hiring nuns and featured soloists is expensive.
All that being said, I’m glad I have the opportunity to give the musical a second chance. Perhaps, going in with lowered expectations (expectations set the first time not only by my familiarity with the film but also the initial raves in the press), I can get over some initial disappointments and enjoy the show more. And the show has been selling VERY well here, so perhaps there will be an infectious enthusiasm in the crowd. And I’ll be happy to see Steve Blanchard (whom I enjoyed working with on a NYMF show a few years back) as Joseph Pulitzer
Newsies will be my first show in my “regular” seat at the Connor Palace, and, as will be the case with every subsequent show in the series, I will be seeing the first local performance. (Motown began performances on the Friday preceding my “First Tuesday” ticket and played in the larger State Theater).