Many of us who lived through the 1990s were singing and dancing to music from Disney’s “Newsies,” a film based on the real-life New York City newsboy strike of 1899. The movie, which quietly garnered a cult following over the years, now has a chance to win over a new generation as “Newsies The Musical” prepares for a limited engagement at New York City’s Nederlander Theater.
Directed by Tony nominee Jeff Calhoun and choreographed by Tony nominee Christopher Gattelli, “Newsies The Musical” stars Jeremy Jordan (Jack Kelly), John Dossett (Joseph Pulitzer), Kara Lindsay (Katherine Plumber), Capathia Jenkins (Medda Larkin), Ben Fankhauser (Davey), Andrew Keenan-Bolger (Crutchie), Lewis Grosso and Matthew Schechter (alternating the role of Les), and an ensemble cast that promises to sing, dance, and make headlines up and down the Great White Way.
But the decision to mount a Broadway production was surprising, particularly to Academy Award®-winning composer Alan Menken and lyricist Jack Feldman, the film’s original songwriting team. The Insider spoke with Alan and Jack, who were instrumental in taking “Newsies” from the page to the stage.
When I heard they wanted to add some songs to what we wrote for the film, I immediately wanted to do it. After all, it’s my baby! Our challenge was keeping what’s good about the movie, while trying to make it better and deepen the story. I guess the hardest part is deciding how to take that first plunge into telling the story. Once you do, and all the elements are working, then it’s a matter of craftsmanship and how you use those elements. In that first moment of creation, when you look at the characters, story, tone, and what kind of musical it is, you imagine what might be familiar and go after that.
Musicals are a very collaborative form so, for me, it’s always a matter of working with the book writer, lyricist, director, and everyone else to create moments that really feel like they’ll pop out of the film or on stage. Harvey Fierstein wrote the book and became a very strong collaborator for me and Jack Feldman. We’d map out what we had, what was needed, and take on the song moments one by one. I’d give Jack a piece of music, and he’d write the lyrics. After he ran it by Harvey and me, Harvey would write the corresponding scene. I’d demo the song and get feedback from my collaborators. If they liked it, we’d send it to Tom Schumacher and my musical director Michael Kosarin. If it needed to be redone, we’d repeat the proces.
The last element is the audience – they tell you a lot. You learn in this business that everything depends on how an audience relates to a piece. They tell you where they’re responding, where they’re getting bored, or where we’re losing them. It isn’t an exact science, but until then, you’re not complete.
What’s interesting is that even though it’s a turn-of-the-century story, “Newsies” is very much a rock ‘n’ roll, R & B-flavored score. It has a lot of contemporary rhythm to it that somehow registers as turn of the century. The style of the show’s music is simpatico with what we wrote for the movie. Some of the new songs are “Something to Believe In,” “Watch What Happens,” “The Bottom Line,” “That’s Rich,” “Don’t Come A-Knocking,” and “Brooklyn’s Here.” There’s also music from the movie (“Carrying the Banner,” “King of New York,” “Seize the Day,” “Santa Fe”), but the score is more new than old.
Anyone who liked the film will be happy with the musical. It’s better than the movie – we just added to it. And we have the most joyous cast … the energy in this show is like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Maybe it’s the age and enthusiasm of the kids involved. It’s incredible to be around. As you can tell, they’ve exhausted me!
Working with Alan was like riding a bike … we’ve known each other a long time. We were in a musical theater songwriting workshop together right out of college. He’s always been incredibly prolific and unbelievably fast in his ability to compose great music. He’s very flexible and willing to collaborate in the true sense of the word, so there was no learning curve when we got back together for this.
Writing for the movie was much different than writing for the musical. Actually, I prefer writing for musical theater, it’s my first love. In film, songs are prerecorded, so there’s less opportunity to make changes if something doesn’t work – you’re kind of boxed in. And we were on a really tight schedule for the film. There wasn’t lots of time to actually write the score or as many opportunities for songs.
With the show, we were able to musicalize many more situations and had new characters to write songs for. We didn’t change the story, just some of the way it’s told. Also, the actors had readings where they learned and sang the songs, which was invaluable because we learned what worked and what didn’t. It took about three years from start to finish. It was wonderful having that time, because we kept refining and revising until we got it to where we really wanted it.
Regarding the types of songs, it’s content before form. You decide what the song needs to accomplish – whether it’s furthering the plot, exploring a relationship, or whatever it may be. From there you find the best way to get that across. Sometimes it’s fairly obvious. If two characters are singing a love song, it’ll probably be emotional, most likely a ballad. If the newsies want to fight the odds and strike, that brings to mind something a lot more rousing and anthemic, although it’s not always as cut and dried as that. The old adage that “writing is really rewriting” is definitely something I subscribe to. Alan’s always saying, “Leave it alone! Leave it alone!”
One of my favorite parts of this experience has been the actual process of working on the material … rewriting it, sharpening it. I always woke up excited to work! The other is watching the actors bond. These kids are unbelievably talented, and seeing the results onstage is sensational. For a lot of them, it’s their Broadway debut – they’re right out of school. It’s been great sharing their excitement – not just because it’s a Broadway show, but because they’re pursuing their dream on a project that has had resonance for them since their childhoods. I love that aspect of it.
As far as opening night, the only thing I know for sure is that I won’t be able to sit and watch the show from the audience – I’ll be too nervous and excited. I’ll watch from the sidelines where I can pace!
Based on critics’ reviews and box office sales for its preview performances, the show has already garnered must-see status — even before its official Broadway opening. Check out “Newsies The Musical” at the Nederlander Theater, March 29 through August 19, and see what all the buzz is about!