Theatre Review: Fandom Finds its Song

review

Newsies, book by Harvey Fierstein, music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Jack Feldman; directed by Jeff Calhoun; produced by the Hollywood Pantages: seen August 30, 2016.

When the movie Newsies came out (apparently in 1992 – I could’ve sworn it was late ‘80s), I fell madly in love with it, and practically inhaled the soundtrack (which I think I still own on cassette tape somewhere). However, it wasn’t exactly a hit: fresh on the heels of the success of The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, it was Disney’s latest attempt to get back into doing live action movies and was a critical and box office flop.

As a result, there are two ways I contemplated writing this review. In case you’re unaware, the general overall plot is (very loosely) based on the Newsies Strike of 1899. However, like all good stories, that’s only the framework, and the story is actually about new “Newsie” David (Ben Fankhauser), and his friendship with the rest of the newsies, most notably the ringleader, Jack Kelly (Jeremy Jordan), who’s eager to get out of town and go west.

Theatrical

The first way to approach this review is from the more traditional theatre reviewer aspect. This approach first tries not to actually compare the movie to the theatre version I saw last night, yet still writes about what changes were made (like combining the sister and the journalist into one character), and how they made sense to me from a storytelling perspective (makes the heterosexual romance a bit more believable).

This approach also is where I write about how this musical, based on a movie from the ‘90s and taking place in 1899, is still highly relevant: how the musical version punches up more the pro-union storyline/theme during a time when unions are more contested than ever before; how the idea of how money rules publishing, and media is owned by a small group of people who are more interested in making a buck than in getting the news to the people, isn’t a new ‘trend’ after all; and how the musical emphasizes the newish concept of found families and how they can be stronger than more traditional families. (Not to mention the not-so-casual commentary of Pulitzer calling Teddy Roosevelt both a socialist and a communist for supporting the trolley strikers for wanting decent working conditions and a working wage.)

This is also where I praise the truly extraordinary choreography, the clever use of a stairwell/fire escape as part of the rotating set, and the acting and singing (especially of our leads). The show moves quickly, but still leaves time for some character development, and I enjoyed the new songs.

Cast of the Broadway production of "Newsies" / Photo courtesy of Newsies Facebook page
Cast of the Broadway production of “Newsies”. Photo courtesy of Newsies Facebook page.

Geeky

The second way, however, is influenced by my (fairly recent) foray into covering geek culture, and is more from a fan and fandom perspective. A fan of movie musicals since a young girl, I had grown up sad that they weren’t a thing anymore, outside of the occasional animated movie intended for kids. As I said, I fell head over heels in love with it: I remember watching a ‘behind the scenes’ on The Disney Channel, focusing on the choreography of Kenny Ortega when I was desperately wishing I had the limberness and talent to become a dancer myself. I’ve also realized that this was pretty much my first ‘real’ introduction to the concept of unions, as well as this period of American history and the exploitation of child workers in America as well as the idea that Pulitzer wasn’t exactly a nice guy.

In fact, as a fan of the movie, I was a bit nervous when I found out I was going. I’ve heard parts of the Broadway soundtrack on AccuRadio, and the music was close to the movie soundtrack and yet off enough for my inner ear to be constantly thrown off track by the music. A strong believer in the idea to not compare two different versions of an adaptation, as each medium is different and so can do different things to the end product, I was terrified I’d not be able to NOT compare the two.

As I stated, the movie wasn’t exactly a hit. No one, apparently, wanted a live action movie musical, and thought a musical about the Newsboys Strike of 1899 ridiculous (although, as any theatre person knows, that’s actually quite tame considering the plots of some musicals). I still remember being mocked for liking the movie. And yet, when I got to the theatre, I saw audience members cosplaying newsies and the girls that loved them, the audience was clearly filled with fans of either the musical or the movie (or both) as they cheered just at the opening orchestration, and the amount of selfies being taken both outside the theatre and in front of a ‘news’ prop that the Pantages put out let me realize I was not alone.

Of course, Christian Bale’s popularity since starring in it has given the movie a bit of a new life, and Wikipedia mentions that the movie developed a bit of a cult following on VHS. Even so, there’s a very small feeling of ‘why couldn’t it have been like this when it was first released?’

I’ve never been a big fan of the gatekeeping ‘I liked it before it was cool’ attitude: while yes, I do experience a bit of exasperation when I find something that I’ve liked since it started finding sudden popularity (especially in cases like this, where I was mocked for my adoration of the media), I’ve also come into fandoms late because I kept hearing about others talk about it (i.e., because it became popular) and felt the sting of ‘you’re not a *real* fan’ because I had the audacity of not liking it from the beginning.

While yes, I couldn’t set my love for the movie aside, I felt the musical did a good job of taking the source material and keeping the spirit of ‘carrying the banner’ while making it something that works on a stage. In other words, seeing the love for the show has made me feel glad that I’m not alone.

I admit: I kind of ship these two now thanks to the musical. Photo courtesy of Newsies Facebook page
I admit: I kind of ship these two now thanks to the musical. Photo courtesy of Newsies Facebook page.

Newsies continues at the Hollywood Pantages through September 4. For more information, visit the Pantages’ website or the official Disney’s Newsies website.