‘Extra ! Extra ! Read All About It’: "Newsies" Makes Media History Soar

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News.

Newsies: the Musical
Paper Mill Playhouse
Millburn, N.J.

The Disney 1992 movie Newsies was one of the most boring films I have ever seen.  I watched it on television about ten years ago and sat through another small screen showing of it last week.  It was the story of the 1899 newsboy strike against New York’s biggest and most powerful newspapers, set to music.  The movie was savaged by critics, ignored by audiences in droves and lost nearly $10 million.

Now, nearly two decades later, the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey has brought the awful movie back as a stage musical. Now, amazingly, it’s just wonderful.  Newsies: the Musical is not only a splendid show, but a marvelous look at raucous media history just before the turn of the century, when it was being written by unforgettable media moguls such as Joseph Pulitzer Jr. and William Randolph Hearst.

How did Newsies resurrect itself so magnificently? First, Harvey Fierstein has written a new book that is 100 percent better than the old one. The 1992 movie was pure Disney sap.  The newsboys joke and dance their way through a two hour story, totally isolated from everybody else who lives in New York City.  The entire film was sanitized.  You know the boys are going to win the strike because this is a Disney movie.  The acting was atrocious; at times you even cheered for the police to stop the kids from singing any more.

Fierstein has made Newsies a dramatic, tension filled story.  You don’t think the boys are going to win the strike.  In fact, they look like they are going to lose it.  The kids are very realistic and they have both professional and personal problems.  Fierstein has made the newsboys, and publisher Joseph Pulitzer, very believable and jarring historical figures.  This is a rough, tough, streets of New York, circa 1899 and the people in the show clash hard with each other. It is now a terrific story.

Songwriters Alan Menken and Jack Feldman, who wrote the music to the film, have added some new songs and re-designed their work in the show.  Some of the better ones were the rousing ‘Carrying the Banner,’ ‘Santa Fe’ and ‘Seize the Day.’  The tunes now help tell the story, rather than just provide a reason for dancing. The choreography by Christopher Gatelli is majestic.  He, Fierstein and Menken have created a big, bold and brash show, with lots of dance numbers that fill up the stage and rattle the roof.  Director Jeff Calhoun has taken all of their work and transformed the creepy film into a soaring theater production, a fiery, to-the-barricades, fist-pumping Les Miserables about the nineteenth-century newsboys.

And director Calhoun has an ace-in-the-hole—actor Jeremy Jordan as charismatic newsie leader Jack Kelly.  Jordan, soon to star in Bonnie and Clyde on Broadway, is a New Yorker through and through, with a lusty New York accent and a tough guy New York personality.  He reminded me of James Cagney in his best years.  This is the story of the newsboys, but it is the gifted Jordan’s show from start to finish.  He owns it, whether he is singing, dancing, battling the police or staring down publisher Pulitzer.

Historically, the musical is very accurate.  It carefully chronicles the two-week-long 1899 newsboy (the kids were aged about 10 to 17) strike against the papers of Pulitzer, Hearst and others.  The publishers increased the cost of newspapers to the independent newsboys, who stood on street corners and sold them, shouting out the edition’s headlines as loud as they could over the din of congested street traffic in New York.  There were more than 10,000 newsboys in the city at the turn of the century.  The newsboys refused to pay the increased price and went on strike for the first time ever. The kids formed a union, rounded up thousands of members, held meetings and staged outdoor rallies.  The publishing moguls used goons, newspaper workers, the police and city hall to crush them.  The city was fascinated by it all.

It was a time, too, that saw one of the great circulation wars in media history. Technology permitted newspapers to print far more papers than ever.  The political parties that had owned or dominated newspapers for nearly 100 years had been forced out by independent publishers.  This meant larger, better newspapers, but also papers driven by sensational news to drive up sales.

The story covers a lot of true historical ground.  We learn much about publishing, how newsboys worked and lived, the press circulation wars of the era, the 1890s economic depression, tenement housing and labor strife.  It discusses the other industries in the country that hired children, as did the press, and the horrific lives of those children.  You learn about the workings of city hall, brash, tough talking Governor Theodore Roosevelt and marvel at the kids as they produce their own strike newspapers and stage massive rallies.

Most of all, you learn about the newspaper business.  I think part of the reason I liked the musical so much is that I was a newsboy myself in the 1960s, and so was my dad in the 1930s (I later spent 23 years as a newspaper reporter in New York).

The big, triumphant set is striking.  You sit down for the show looking at a mammoth 1890s black and white photograph of a ‘newsboy hotel’ in lower Manhattan and big as the theater.  That lifts to reveal a large, three-story-high steel erector set of boxes that are frequently moved about the stage and serve as rooms, streets and balconies.  At one point all nine boxes are filled with people singing a rousing tune.

In addition to Jordan, director Calhoun gets fine performances from Andrew Keenan Bolger, Ben Fankhauser, R.J. Fattori, Ryan Breslin, Garett Hawe, Ryan Steele, Kyle Coffman, Aaron J. Albano, Andy Richardson, Evan Kasprzak, Scott Shedenhelm,  J.P. Ferreri, Corey Hummerston, Tommy Bracco, Brendan Stimson, Mike Faist, and Max Ehrich as the delightful newsboys.  Kara Lindsay is reporter Katherine Plumber, a late love interest of Kelly’s in a winning role.  John Dossett is the villainous, contemptible publisher Joseph Pulitzer, ever intent on huge circulations and enormous profits, no matter who gets hurt.

As the dialogue and song lyrics say, the newsboy strike was not just a bunch of kids versus some newspaper moguls over a ten-cent price increase.  It was a strike to end the child labor atrocities that plagued America in that era, a strike to give the growing labor movement real strength and a strike to mobilize the people of New York behind a bunch of kids in a war against the most powerful men in America.

‘Extra ! Extra ! read all about it’—Newsies is a huge hit and a wonderful trip through U.S. media history.

PRODUCTION: Produced by the Paper Mill Playhouse in conjunction with the Disney Company. Sets: Tobin Ost, Costumes: Jess Goldstein. Lighting: Jeff Croiter, Projection Design: Sven Ortel, Sound: Randy Hansen, Fight Director: J. Allen Suddeth. Directed by Jeff Calhoun.

Bruce Chadwick can be reached at bchadwick@njcu.edu,

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