Originally published on TalkinBroadway.com.
There’s an entire genre of books detailing the “making of” Broadway musicals from idea to opening night, and it’s not hard to understand why. Few musicals spring forth fully formed from the minds of their creators, no matter how perfect the final product. The collaborative nature of theater, and musical theater in particular, ensures that the birthing process involves disparate artists hoping to merge their individual visions into one production, and their individual personalities into a team. When the unified vision, or the team, fails to coalesce, you may end up with a Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark situation, where the creative differences and the backstabbing combined to make a narrative more interesting than the show itself. But as Newsies: Stories of the Unlikely Broadway Hit demonstrates, even a relatively smooth creative process can make for a good read. Taking the form of an oral history, including diverse voices from the property’s history brought together by editor (and Newsies dramaturg) Ken Cerniglia, this new addition to the genre makes an entertaining and informative read, whether you’re a “Fansie” or not.
If the word “Fansie”—that’s what Newsies fandom has dubbed itself—causes you to make involuntary gagging noises, don’t worry. Although this book might look at first glance like an elaborate souvenir program pandering to teenage girls, the “Fansie” content is limited to a few interstitial pages of fan-submitted photos and quotes about how the film or the show affected their lives. Well, that’s only half true, for one of the biggest revelations of the book is how many members of the team that brought Newsies to Broadway, from management to designers to (especially) the dancers, were inspired by the original film to pursue careers in the arts.
Of course, those familiar with the Newsies backstory might recall that the 1992 Disney film was an epic flop, scaring Disney away from attempting another big-screen, live-action musical for fifteen years. Consequently, only about a dozen pages of the book are devoted to the film. (A section about the actual newsboy rebellion of 1899 that inspired Newsies receives a similar-length chapter with significantly less depth.) The film chapter is a mixed bag. Essays by Noni White and Bob Tzudiker, the married screenwriting team whose career was launched with the film, hint at some of the birthing pains behind the film: dropped characters, smoothed edges, etc. The powers that be at Disney clearly have a sense of humor about the film’s failures, as evidenced by choice pull quotes from its devastating reviews included in the book. But the book never lets you forget that it was put together by a full-time Disney employee; Cerniglia was not only the dramaturg for Newsies, he’s also the literary manager for Disney Theatricals. The reader is left with a sense that the whole story isn’t being told, and nothing is said of what went down at Disney HQ after the film’s disappointing premiere. And while Christian Bale has made his wish to distance himself from Newsies well known, the absence of other Newsies notables like director/choreographer Kenny Ortega and stars Ann-Margret and Bill Pullman leaves a palpable hole in the book.
Still, the focus of the book is on Newsies‘ path to Broadway, and from the first, ill-received reading through the show’s first anniversary on the main stem, that path is well-documented. To the extent that there’s dramatic tension in the narrative, it comes from the question of when this project, originally conceived of for licensing purposes only, became Broadway bound. There’s a definite split in evidence between those involved who had Broadway dreams from day one—this camp largely consisting of those who grew up with the film—and those who took no step for granted.
It’s a treat to hear from the problem-solvers who navigated through the rough patches in developing Newsies in their own words. Librettist Harvey Fierstein describes the first steps he took that transformed the script from the failed first reading (in which he was not involved) into a script in which everyone saw promise. Lyricist Jack Feldman explains his process in revisiting and rewriting his decades-old lyrics. And set designer Tobin Ost becomes one of the heroes of the production when he conjures a set that is built to tour—enabling not only Disney’s larger-than-usual investment in the Paper Mill Playhouse production, but also the quick transfer to Broadway when that production is a success.
More than script, score or set, dance is center stage in Newsies, and it is as well in the book. The book covers everything from choreographic concepts to dance auditions through rehearsals to adjustments for a Broadway transfer and what it takes to keep such athletic routines looking sharp over a long run.
The book’s broad look at everything that goes into putting on a show, right down to the decisions about which souvenirs to sell and what educational programs to offer to school groups, means that fans looking for lots of information about the particular aspect of the show—or performer—they care most about may be disappointed. Jeremy Jordan, Ryan Steele, Andrew Keenan-Bolger, and even Alan Menken each get their moment in the book’s spotlight, but you’ll likely come away with a clearer picture of company manager Eduardo Castro than any of those more famous names.
Still, for a book that attempts to be all things to all people, it largely succeeds. If you find yourself wanting to learn more about the original Newsboy Rebellion of 1899, you’ll find references to the books the Newsies writers used. If you want lots of glossy color photos of dancing newsboys, you’ll get that too. And if you’re looking for tidbits and trivia to impress your friends at cocktail parties, there’s plenty of that as well. (You won’t believe which composer teamed up with Bob and Noni post-Newsies to develop a Disney animated musical that never got produced!)
Newsies: Stories of the Unlikely Broadway Hit may not be an essential title for your Broadway library, but it is an unlikely worthy addition nonetheless.