When I heard they were doing a stage version of Newsies, my friends and I laughed and scoffed and waited for the surely inevitable failure. After all, the movie it was based on, cult following or no cult following, was still a truly notorious flop. And its failure wasn’t a fluke, either—the film has a number of extremely serious flaws, and it seemed impossible for any adaptation to overcome them. Yet I have watched in disbelief as the show has become not only a smash hit, but one of those rare shows that pretty much no-one has anything bad to say about.
How did this happen? Well, the show’s most fundamental problem has admittedly not been fixed, and is in fact unfixable. This is, quite simply, a laughably absurd story that could never possibly happen in reality, even if it is extremely loosely based on an actual historical event. This show’s portrayal of its heroes’ accomplishments goes beyond the optimistic to the ridiculously naive; it was absurd in the film and it’s absurd here, and the fact that the show presents itself as a historical piece only worsens the problem.
And if anything, the plot of the musical is even less credible than that of the movie. You see, the stage show’s primary addition to the story was a love plot between the leader of the Union and a female journalist who turns out to be Joseph Pulitzer’s daughter, which is about six different kinds of historically inaccurate. But ultimately, this is essentially an old-school, lightheaded musical comedy that has been given genuine emotional depth without actually being rationalized in any other way. And let’s remember that the near-universally beloved classic Annie does the exact same thing…like this show, it feels deeper than a Twenties musical comedy, but it isn’t actually any more realistic in story terms. And if it worked for Annie, there’s no reason it shouldn’t work here.
And the truth is, Harvey Fierstein’s book is probably the best one that could be made out of a story like this one. In Kinky Boots, Fierstein had such strong source material that he didn’t really have to try, and it’s pretty apparent that he didn’t, but here, he seems to be taking painstaking effort to smooth over the show’s story problems as best he can. Pulitzer is something of a one-dimensional villain here, but at least he’s suitably menacing, and Fierstein manages to keep the business negotiations toward the end from coming off as dry or deflating, which couldn’t have been easy.
But the real reason show succeeded is that it accomplished the trick of convincing people to suspend their disbelief by offering rewards in the form of sheer theatrical magic. Offer people enough superb staging and choreography, stunning performances, and stirring musical numbers, and they’ll gladly ignore a plot that doesn’t make sense. Granted, this isn’t always the case on Broadway, but I suppose it depends on how well you do it, and there’s no denying that this show’s team did it spectacularly well.
The show’s Alan Menken score was poorly received when it was first released, with even Roger Ebert calling it ‘forgettable’, but time has been fairly kind to it. Granted, part of the problem in the film is that a young Christian Bale was cast in the lead singing role, and while his presence has clearly contributed to the film’s cult following, the truth is that he doesn’t sing any better than you’d expect him to. But heard on the stage or the Broadway cast album, the score sounds much better today than anyone realized at the time. It helps that the film’s worst song, the notorious clinker “High Times, Hard Times”, (which won a Razzie for Worst Song) has been excised from the score.
Granted, the score is about 90% anthem, but that’s exactly what makes it so enjoyable. It is completely shameless about its use of fist-pumping, anthemic rallying cries (something the story clearly calls for anyway), and if not exactly subtle, its excesses in that department are actually kind of thrilling. And the stage score does have a good bit more variety than the film’s music did, mostly thanks to the songs written for the new love plot. A particularly memorable addition is “Something to Believe In”, a love duet that ranks up there with the all-time great Alan Menken ballads.
Of course, the show’s most impressive and attention-getting element is its choreography. Kenny Ortega’s dances for the original movie, while not as brilliant as his work on Dirty Dancing, were decent enough, but Christopher Gattelli’s stage choreography blows them out of the water. Incredibly athletic and at times almost acrobatic, it has the dynamism necessary to drive the show’s spirit and help propel it past the plot problems. And since the real problem with the movie is that its very old-fashioned song-and-dance style of musical just looked awkward and dated on film by 1992, this is a story that gains a lot from being done on a stage and probably should have been done that way to begin with.
It also doesn’t hurt that the original Broadway cast was headed up by the brilliant Jeremy Jordan, who can still be heard on both the cast album and the recent film made of the stage show. Jordan had been equally superb in the flop Bonnie and Clyde musical earlier that same season, and it says something about the impression he made that he was immediately able to turn around and get a job in a hit show before the season was even out. He has now gone on the projects like the film version of The Last Five Years and generally been hailed as one of Broadway’s brightest new discoveries, so it says something that this remains his most iconic role to this day. He may not have been a star when they cast him, but they definitely pulled a Thoroughly Modern Millie in discovering one of the stars of the future before anyone else noticed them.
In any case, I will readily and willingly admit that this show has completely proved me and all the other doubters wrong, and it certainly stands as one of musical theater’s most unlikely success stories. No, it isn’t perfect, but it genuinely deserves all the success and acclaim it received. It took an idea that no-one thought would work and pulled it off beautifully, and shows that do that are often the most glorious of all. And for all the problems the show still has to contend with, this really is some of the most entertaining theater of of the New Millennium, and I have nothing but respect for its achievements.