Disney, an entity notorious over decades for its negative view of labor organizing, has created a pro-union musical. To be exact, it has produced a stage version of Newsies (Nederlander Theatre), its 1992 movie about a historic incident in labor history, the New York newsboys’ strike of 1899. In our current political atmosphere, that constitutes an intriguingly ironic and equivocal fact. Perhaps inevitably, the result is an intriguing, equivocal show. Full of bright, entertaining moments and youthful energy, Newsies mingles those virtues with peculiar flat moments and shifts of tone that leave a thoroughly mixed impression, as if the big corporation were trying to turn a smiley face toward newly riled-up workers and consumers, but with deep reluctance in its corporate heart.
Heart, anyway, is what Newsies often seems to lack, despite the care that some of its makers have clearly lavished on it. Alan Menken’s score, a mix of new songs with those carried over from the movie, overflows with zingy, up-tempo numbers (the early “Carrying the Banner” is the best), but turns thin-blooded and jumpy whenever a ballad is required. Jack Feldman’s lyrics, neatly crafted in the rhyme department, tend to heighten the jumpiness by piling up familiar phrases, rather than putting a personalized spin on them. Sometimes even Feldman and Menken’s rhythmic rousers, like “King of New York,” seem melodically short-breathed, supplying a catchy opening phrase with no follow-through.
Harvey Fierstein’s dialogue, slangy and dotted with sharp-toothed laugh lines, has to fight its way through a story, somewhat modified from the movie script, in which major characters regularly flip their allegiances with the ease of playing cards tossed in the air. Even the show’s strongest asset, Christopher Gattelli’s leaping, somersaulting, cartwheeling choreography for the newsboys, sometimes seems almost too busy: Its dazzling parade of applause-winning balletic, acrobatic, and tap displays provoke constant excitement but carry little emotional “build.”
Yet you’d think these highly accomplished artists would have no trouble finding their way to the core of this instantly heart-tugging topic. The newsboys or “newsies” of the late 19th century were mostly poor, often homeless, street kids; their paper-peddling was the source of the vast circulation, and vaster fortunes, racked up by mass-market tabloids like Joseph Pulitzer’s World and William Randolph Hearst’s Morning Journal. The newsies were not actually employees, but independent contractors, buying each day’s paper in bulk as it rolled off the press, and stuck with any copies they couldn’t sell during that day. When news was slow, you could hear them wearily crying out their unsalable headlines long after midnight.
The Spanish-American War made circulation boom. When it ended, the steep drop in sales pinched the magnates’ pockets; Pulitzer and Hearst tried to recoup the loss by raising the bulk price the newsboys paid. That, added to the unsold papers they were stuck with nightly, triggered their fury. Newsie strikes had been attempted before, but this one took: Within two weeks, the boys had reduced the tabloids’ circulation by nearly two-thirds. After futilely trying scabs, goons, and cops, Pulitzer and Hearst capitulated: Though retaining the price increase, they agreed to reimburse the boys for unsold papers.
Making Pulitzer (John Dossett) a totalitarian of stonelike rigidity, Newsies streamlines the strike’s history into a simplistic us-versus-them melodrama—the kind where you can tell a villain because he kicks a cripple. The show locates its dramatic conflicts, instead, in the wavering commitment of the strike leaders, Jack Kelly (Jeremy Jordan) and his newfound pal Davey (Ben Fankhauser), egged on by a girl reporter (Kara Lindsay), whose multiple hidden agendas provide Fierstein’s most problematic inventions. Betrayal, blackmail, guilt feelings, self-doubt, secret deals, and a restive membership are the union organizer’s lot—not the greatest inducements to break into song.
Nor apparently, do these troubling matters resonate much for director Jeff Calhoun. The acting, apart from Jordan and Fankhauser, is perfunctory at best, hammy at worst. Jess Goldstein’s costumes are colorfully apt, but Tobin Ost again provides Calhoun a blankly unevocative set, and Ken Travis’s ultra-mixed sound design turns every chorus number into colorless vocal mousse. Despite Newsies‘s basic premise, cheerful tunes, and superb dancing, it still feels like a gift from management during contract negotiations, laden with the aesthetic equivalent of hidden give-backs.