In the nineteen-eighties and nineties, there were very few musicals being produced, at least not live action ones. Some people said that it was because Hollywood had forgotten how to make that type of film. There were movies that featured dancing, or maybe a song or two, but as far as films with plot-driven soundtracks, they were an endangered species. So when TV spots for 1992’s Newsies began to pop up, they created a stir. Not only was it a musical, but there was something else. Mention Newsies to any Gen-X woman, particularly one born in the mid-to late seventies, and chances are, her eyes will go starry. And why not? It’s a guy-fest. Christian Bale. David Moscow. Max Casella. For starters. They were cool. And they could sing and dance.
Anyway, the story is the fictionalized retelling of a real newsboys strike that took place in the summer of 1899. This is a group of guys who are orphans and runaways, and who all sell papers, or “papes” on the street for Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World. The newsies are a scrappy bunch, who tease their overseer, Weisel (Michael Lerner) and spar with the Delancey brothers, Oscar and Morris (Shon Greenblatt and David Sheinkopf), the two thugs who lurk around the yard.
Into this melée come David Jacobs (David Moscow) and his little brother, Les (Luke Edwards). They’ve had to leave school because their dad got injured on the job. Since there was no such thing as workman’s compensation back then, he was let go, which meant David would have to be the family breadwinner for the time being. Not wanting to be left out of anything, Les tags along, and the two of them find themselves in a world that’s absolutely foreign to them.
Fortunately, big-man-on-the-street Jack Kelly (Christian Bale) steps in to help them, and help himself into the bargain. Selling papes comes down to hustle, particularly when the headlines are boring. The newsies have a whole bag of tricks, including making up the news and pretending to be infirm, and Jack thinks Les’s cuteness could be their ticket to pulling in major bucks. He’s right; all Les has to do is cough pitifully and people are digging for loose change. David doesn’t like lying, but he goes along with it under protest.
Jack’s instinct pays off, because the boys make a pile of cash. They also pay a visit to Jack’s friend, Medda (Ann-Margret) who owns a theater and lets the boys watch her show from backstage. David and Les see Jack’s life, which is not just selling papes, but running from the law. Turns out, Jack was put in a boys’ home called the Refuge, which is really a prison, for stealing bread.
After the day is done, it’s Jack’s turn to see David and Les’s world. They bring him home to their apartment for dinner, where Jack meets their parents (Jeffrey DeMunn and Deborra-Lee Furness), plus their sister, Sarah (Ele Keats). Jack tries to play it cool when he sees this glimpse of David and Les’s home life, and pretends his parents are out in Santa Fe setting up a new home for him. It’s all a lie, though–Jack is an orphan, and Santa Fe looks like freedom to him.
Meanwhile, on the top floor of the World building, Joseph Pulitzer (Robert Duvall) is trying to figure out how he can make more money. What can he do? Circulation is high, they’re charging as much as they can to stay competitive with Hearst, so what are their other options? Why, raise the price the newsboys pay when they buy papers to sell, of course. Not outrageously, but just enough to raise Pulitzer’s profits. And, just in case any of the newboys decide they’re getting a raw deal and go to work for Hearst, Pulitzer plans on convincing Hearst to raise his price, too. Bing bang boom.
The newsies don’t think it’s such a great idea. Pulitzer and Hearst raising their prices eats into their profits–if they don’t sell all their papers, they have to absorb the cost, and most of them are barely making it as it is. So yeah, they’re ticked off, and they decide to strike.
These underdogs may seem to be outmatched, but they have allies. One of them is Bryan Denton (Bill Pullman), a reporter for the New York Sun, who chronicles their activities and gives them plenty of publicity. Medda also allows the boys to use her music hall for a rally, and they have kids hanging from the rafters, because every newsie in New York has joined the fight. Jack, of course, is the de facto leader, with David as his nervous right hand.
Since it’s a musical, there are plenty of songs, of course, many of them featuring soaring five-part harmonies. The music was composed by Alan Menken and J.A.C. Redford, two men with prestigious resumes. The choreography is equally impressive, such as this number, “Seize the Day”:
How will it end? I won’t spoil the movie, but the real strike ended after only two weeks. Jack wasn’t the leader; that credit goes to Brooklynite Kid Blink, whose actual name was Louis Ballatt. The reason the strike began was that during the Spanish-American War, the papers’ circulation went through the roof, and in those days, there were two or three editions published daily. Even though the prices the newsboys paid to sell the papers went up to sixty cents per hundred, they were able to unload so many copies that they still made money.
Once the war was over, there weren’t as many papers being sold, but the World and the Journal accidentally-on-purpose didn’t lower the price back to pre-war levels. Something had to give. There was force brought against the striking newsboys, and the papers in question hired grown men to deliver their publications for two dollars a day and at forty cents per hundred. The newsboys had the public on their side, though, and the resolution came when the papers agreed to buy back any unsold copies of the papers. The 1899 strike wasn’t the first time newsboys walked off the job and it wasn’t the last, yet this instance caught the public’s fancy, because, among other things, it got more publicity than previous strikes.
While I’ve always enjoyed Newsies, the film has three drawbacks for me. First of all, the numbers aren’t framed as well as they could be. It seems a little awkward sometimes, and some of the sequences include star closeups of Christian Bale, which means everything else is cut off. It’s a shame, too, because the choreography is robust and busy. If the producers had taken cues from director Kenny Ortega’s past work on Dirty Dancing, or had a consultant like Stanley Donen overseeing things, maybe the finished product would have been smoother.
The second part that bugged me was Ann-Margret. There’s nothing wrong with this woman or the part she played, but the two songs she sang, “Lovey-Dovey Baby” and “High Times, Hard Times,” were annoying, even though their language fit the time period. I think it might have served the story better to stick in some bonafide show songs from the nineteenth century. It would have upped the authenticity factor, for one thing.
Speaking of authenticity, my last beef is that Newsies needed more historical context. As it was, it was too clean and Disney-looking. One of the reasons the real newsboys strike struck a chord with the public was that child labor was a widespread problem in the United States and throughout the world. Labor conditions in general weren’t so great at this time for adults either, as there were no standards for safety or reasonable wages and hours. If someone got injured on the job, well, hard cheese. Children had added concerns, though, as they had to grow up very quickly. It wasn’t uncommon for these kids to have life-altering injuries or stunted growth, and many employers considered them expendable. Even if they escaped injury, they often spent their entire lives in the streets, which meant that they weren’t in school, and therefore the future looked bleak for them. After the turn of the century, wiser heads began to recognize that in order to benefit children and the nation as a whole, kids had to be allowed time to grow and learn how to be adults. Since Newsies doesn’t set the scene clearly, the story doesn’t have much resonance–just a bunch of upstart boys sticking it to The Man. Ergo, it’s way too easy to dismiss it with a “So what?”
It wouldn’t have taken much to fill in the blanks, either. The song, “Once And For All” does detail the plight of 1899 laborers, but it’s almost at the end of the movie, so it seems like an afterthought. What’s especially disappointing is that apparently there were scenes shot which would have fleshed out the time period. One of the trailers shows a very brief blip of Sarah motivating David to keep fighting injustice. For whatever reason, though, it ended up on the cutting room floor.
Who knows, maybe that’s why Newsies tanked at the box office. I wonder if Disney didn’t have enough faith in the story to give it the best presentation possible.
If they had, it’s likely people would have responded to it the way they received the Broadway treatment of the film. While the stage show eliminates Denton and Sarah, combining the two in the form of reporter Katherine Plumber, there’s a lot that’s familiar. It’s also much more surrealist, fleshing out each of the major characters and giving attention to what 1899 was like. Starring Jeremy Jordan as Jack, the show was highly anticipated before it even opened, and later garnered eight Tony Award nominations. I saw the filmed version on Netflix, and I have to say, Jordan is completely wasted on Supergirl. Christian Bale’s Jack may have been a too-cool-for-school kingpin, but Jordan played Jack as a guy with fire in his belly.
What was also fun was the audience reaction. At the curtain call, the whole house leapt to its collective feet. I chuckled when I saw the majority of them were high school and college-aged girls.
Some things never change. 🙂
Hope you all enjoyed this, and check back next week for another Shamedown post, plus we’re gonna hop between four blogathons in four days. Yep, it’ll be crazy. Thanks everyone, and see you soon!
This film is available on Amazon.