People love to root for the underdog. And who’s more of an underdog than a ragtag kid shouting “Extra!, Extra!” as he sells newspapers on the crowded streets of a big, dirty city? That’s a big part of the appeal of Newsies.
“It is an immigrant story,” says Aaron Thielen, artistic director of the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire, which is producing the regional premiere of Disney’s Newsies, the stage adaptation of the 1992 Disney film. “You root for those kids because you see yourself—or your grandparents. There was a time when every family that came here had to fight to survive.”
Newsies is not a Broadway fantasy. It is inspired by historical facts. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, newsboys were a common sight—not just in New York City, where the musical is set—but in other cities across the country. On street corners in Chicago’s Loop, these boys engaged in “physical battles for supremacy,” one report noted. According to a study in 1903, most Chicago newsies were ten to 13 years old, but a few were as young as five. Many were the children of poor Italian, German, and Irish immigrants, as well as African-Americans. Quite a few were orphans. It was an era when child labor was common, with kids facing grueling, dangerous conditions in factory jobs. In comparison, a job selling newspapers on the street might not have seemed so bad. When Chicago’s aldermen passed a law cracking down on newsstands in 1902, the young sellers got organized, forming the Chicago Newsboys’ Protective Association. They lobbied the City Council, persuading aldermen to change the law and let them use small portable newsstands.
Newsboys in New York City demonstrated a similar sort of gumption when they went on strike in 1899—events that inspired the 1992 movie musical Newsies and the 2012 Broadway musical based on the film. Demanding better pay for selling the newspapers of Joseph Pulitzer and another publishing tycoon, William Randolph Hearst, the boys blocked traffic on the Brooklyn Bridge and tore up newspapers carried by anyone who dared trying to sell them. One of the strike’s leaders was Louis Ballatt, nicknamed Kid Blink because he was blind in one eye. Reporters captured Kid Blink’s street accent whenever they quoted him. At one rally, he told the other newsboys, “Friens and feller workers. This is a time which tries de hearts of men. Dis is de time when we’se got to stick together like glue.” The boys did stick together, ending the strike after they’d won a concession from Pulitzer and Hearst and the publishers agreed to buy back unsold papers.
The 1992 movie was a box-office flop, perhaps because it came out at a time when few musicals were being made for the screen. But over the years, it developed a cult following. “You say something bad about Newsies and you have an awful lot of people to answer to,” actor Christian Bale, who’d starred in the film as Jack Kelly at the age of 18, remarked years later.
Newsies found more success when it arrived on Broadway in 2012, with music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Jack Feldman and a book by Harvey Fierstein. It was a hit with both audiences and critics, winning the Tony Award for Best Original Score. In this version of the story, the leader of the strike is Jack Kelly (played at the Marriott by Patrick Rooney), who becomes smitten with Katherine Plumber (Eliza Palasz), a young journalist covering the newsboys’ labor action, adding a love story to the dramatic tale of immigrant children fighting for a better life in the New World. Jeff Award-winning Chicago actor Kevin Gudahl plays Pulitzer, the newspaper baron.
As he was preparing to direct Newsies at the Marriott, Alex Sanchez envisioned the show as a blend of the spirited, uplifting music audiences expect, along with some touches of grittier realism. Sanchez and set designer Kevin Depinet took their visual cues from photos of elevated train lines and New York City tenements with clotheslines. “And we’re going to have fire escapes,” Sanchez says. “There are a lot of chases in the show, so they’ll be using the fire escapes to climb.” Those fire escapes will also provide a balcony-like setting for the Jack character to sing one of the show’s most emotional songs, “Santa Fe,” his dream of escaping to a better life in the Southwest.
I’s one of Sanchez’s favorite tunes in the show, along with “King of New York.” That song, he says, “is the moment where the kids see themselves in the newspaper. It gives them confidence. It makes them feel for a moment that they are worthy of this conflict. They get to celebrate and they get to feel—for a moment—that they truly are kings of New York.”
Sanchez, who lives now in New York, but grew up in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood before attending Schaumburg High School in the suburbs, says the Marriott’s theater-in-the-round space inspires his creativity. (Sanchez previously directed and choreographed Evita at the Marriott in 2016.) “There’s freedom to explore different staging effects in terms of where I place actors or how I can have them enter and exit,” he says, explaining that he wants the audience to feel like it’s surrounded by the action of the play rather than just sitting back and watching it from a distance.
“We’ve known Alex for a very long time, starting out as a dancer and then choreographing shows for us, and then his work on Evita, which I just thought was spectacular,” Thielen says. “Alex builds his choreography out of truth, instead of, ‘Look at all of the tricks I can do.’ It’s going to be a much more intimate and honest telling of this story.”
Sanchez, 50, says the story of Newsies reminds him of the chances he took in his own youth. Despite growing up in what he calls “a very traditional blue-collar, Midwest Chicago environment,” he chose a career in the arts. And when he escaped from an apartment fire during his college years, that brush with mortality made him even more determined to become a dancer. “I’d always been longing to go that route, but I was too scared,” he recalls. “I didn’t think I was worthy of it. It took a life-and-death situation for me to re-evaluate my life. It gave me the courage to follow a dream that I’d had.”
Courage. That’s what Sanchez hopes audiences will sense in the Newsies crew. “I think the audiences are going to be inspired by the incredible energy coming from these young performers,” he says. And that will translate in his message to audiences: “Your voice can be heard, so don’t give up.”