Extra, extra special: 'Newsies' on stage

A scene from the show "Newsies," the tale A scene from the show "Newsies," the tale of newsboy Jack Kelly, played by Jeremy Jordan, center, who dreams of a better life far from the hardship of the streets. (March 14, 2012) Photo Credit: Ari Mintz

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There are 13 Broadway debuts among the cast and creatives of the new musical "Newsies." Twelve from the cast. All in their early 20s, by the looks of them. And one fellow . . . well, not.

"I may be one of the oldest people making his Broadway debut as a songwriter . . . ever," says Jack Feldman, chuckling.

The "Newsies" lyricist, at 61, has been writing songs since growing up in Lawrence and pen- ning student shows at Woodmere Academy. "I've written pop music and songs for movies and TV," he says. "But the one thing I wanted to do most took me longest to get to. Which makes it sweeter."

And unexpected given that it's . . . this show. "Newsies," loosely based on the New York newsboy strike of 1899, opens at the Nederlander Theatre Thursday. It follows newsboy Jack Kelly (played by Jeremy Jordan) and his ragtag pals in a revolt against newspaper owners like Joseph Pulitzer, who charged newsboys for the papers they sold on street corners. And it's the least likely show to reach Broadway in some time.

A cult following, fueled mainly by kids watching the 1992 movie later on TV or video, revived its reputation. Disney had so many requests from school and theater groups for a stage version they finally relented, reuniting Feldman and composer Alan Menken to flesh out a full score and hiring Tony winner Harvey Fierstein to rework the troubled plot.

Whip up something workable, do a quick run at New Jersey's Paper Mill Playhouse, then license the sucker to theater groups across the country. That was the plan. Broadway? No way.

But the fans -- or "fansies," as ardent ones are called -- had other ideas.

 

Life imitating art imitating life

In a scenario akin to "Newsies' " plot, public outcry could not be ignored. Last fall's Paper Mill production sparked rave reviews and feverish online chatter. So with a big corporate shrug of its shoulders, Disney scheduled a Broadway run.

"It was a complete surprise," says Feldman, who knows something about show biz and serendipity. One of his biggest songwriting hits, Barry Manilow's "Copacabana," was written (with Manilow and Bruce Sussman) "almost as a lark," he recalls. But radio stations started playing it, making it a hit single "by popular demand."

In the case of "Newsies," Disney originally slated a limited run. Just 101 performances, which "positions us so much better to do well with licensing," Disney Theatricals' Thomas Schumacher told Variety.

Again -- cue the fans. After a few previews, with the Nederlander filled with screaming teens and tweens, Disney announced an extension to Aug. 19. Given current ticket sales, more extensions are likely.

They've been playing the "cautious card," says Jordan. "You really don't know what to expect in theater -- you can love something with all your heart . . . but that doesn't necessarily translate into monetary dividends."

Jordan knows -- he recently traded in his Clyde Barrow fedora for a newsboy cap after Broadway's "Bonnie & Clyde" closed a month after opening.

 

Getting an artistic do-over

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For Jordan and other cast members, "Newsies" is a cherished memory. Many cite the film as the thing that motivated them to become performers.

For Feldman, the Broadway run is a chance to make long dreamed-of changes.

The music for the film was written quickly and prerecorded, so he couldn't do rewrites. "The do-over is one of the great joys in this," he explains.

Taking a crack at the dance numbers is choreographer Christopher Gattelli, who was not involved in the film. "I definitely was nervous -- every boy in our show knows all the original moves," Gattelli says, laughing.

His goal: to preserve the film's athleticism, but keep it more period, like Michael Kidd's acclaimed choreography for the 1954 film "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers."

"The newsies are scrappy but they have pride in their work," he says. "When they dance it has to be with integrity." Athletic, yes. But graceful.

 

Cult status

Why kids, many now in their 20s and 30s, latched onto the film is still something of a mystery.

"Dance is part of it," says Feldman.

"It was guys dancing in a way that kids could see themselves dancing without being laughed at," he says.

Rousing, anthem-like songs suited to glee clubs and graduation ceremonies also helped. As did the take-charge theme.

"As a kid, you're always told what not to do," Jordan suggests. He recalls liking the idea of kids standing up for themselves. "And it was about boys," he adds. "No princesses."

Whether "Newsies" could have -- should have -- come to Broadway sooner is impossible to say, though its arrival now seems particularly advantageous.

"It's a time of great discontent," says Feldman. "The recession, the rich versus poor -- I think on some level that does resonate."

Still, the lengthy journey has been worth it, he says. "Twelve Broadway debuts in this show," he notes (omitting his own). "To watch . . . I start to break up just thinking about it. To watch their faces when they have to hold for sustained ap- plause. I lose it -- I just lose it.

"They're getting spoiled," he admits. "But for right now, it's such joy. That's a gift for them. Really a gift."

Feldman pauses, chuckling again. "It doesn't make me feel so bad either."

 

Who got edited out of 'Newsies'?

BY JOSEPH V. AMODIO, Special to Newsday

 

Fans of the 1992 film "Newsies" cherish various characters. Alas, not all could make it to the stage.

 

1. DENTON -- A reporter who befriends the newsies (played with panache by Bill Pullman).

2. SARAH -- Ele Keats played Jack's love interest, sister of a newsie, and pretty bland by all accounts. Harvey Fierstein combined Denton and Sarah to create Katherine, a feisty reporter Jack falls for (played by Kara Lindsay in her Broadway debut).

3. PATRICK'S MOTHER -- Yes, the pleading woman with the pipes of Patti LuPone, who appears out of nowhere for a brief (and inexplicably belty) moment in "Carrying the Banner," searching for her son, is gone. Feldman has heard many complaints. But "Mother" fans, take heart -- Andrew Keenan-Bolger, who plays Crutchie, is also a talented director (check out his online series "Submissions Only") and shot a "Patrick's Mother" moment with cast members last fall. (Search "Patrick's Mother" on YouTube to get your fix.)

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