nostalgia fact-check

How Does Newsies Hold Up?

Photo: Hollywood Pictures

The Nostalgia Fact-Check is a recurring Vulture feature in which we revisit a seminal movie, TV show, or album that reflexively evinces an “Oh my God, that was the best ever!” response by a certain demographic, owing to it having been imprinted on them early. Now, years later, we’ll take a look at these classics in a more objective, unforgiving adult light: Are they really the best ever? How do they hold up now? We’ve already reconsidered a number of once-beloved entertainments, this week we consider the 1992 movie musical flop, soon to be a new Broadway show, Newsies.

Background: For its first live-action musical, Disney chose to embellish the true story of the New York City newsboys who, in 1899, went on strike in protest of Joseph Pulitzer raising the cost to them of his New York World. With Disney Über-composer Alan Menken and director-choreographer Kenny Ortega (then of Dirty Dancing fame, later to be the force behind High School Musical) at the helm and 17-year-old Christian Bale playing ne’er-do-well hero Jack Kelly, the film looked poised to succeed, opening in 1992, a year after the megasuccess of Beauty and the Beast (also scored by Menken) and a few months before another hit-to-be, Aladdin.  Too bad few critics got onboard. “The film’s real trouble lies in its joyless, pointless execution,” Janet Maslin said in the Times, citing a “tedious” story which “will seem dull to children and badly contrived to their parents” (the Washington Post’s Hal Hinson was a bit kinder, calling it “a modestly enjoyable diversion” whose “payoff is more positive than negative”). Raking in just under $3 million, Newsies wasn’t only a flop, it was one of the lowest grossing films in Disney history (years later, Bale would say of the experience, “Time healed those wounds. But it took awhile”). But over the years, the film has gained a cult following and, after a successful Off Broadway run at Papermill Playhouse, Newsies will debut as a Broadway musical on March 15.

Nostalgia Demo: Admittedly, Newsies didn’t have a big audience when it came out, but for a certain subset of musically inclined kids born in the early eighties, it was a film in VCR rotation. It has since picked up fans among musical theater geeks and nostalgic journalists.

Nostalgia Fact-Check: I can’t claim the foresight of my good friend, who says that after seeing Newsies for the first time in a theater she remembers looking up to her mother and innocently asking, “So when is there going to be a Broadway musical?” But I was surely Disney’s target audience when, at age 10, I first saw the dancing and singing newsboys. I’d recently seen my first two Broadway musicals (Les Mis and The Secret Garden), and the concept of an entire cast of kids roughly my age (okay, a little older) sounded excellent. If I weren’t quite up to admitting that boys didn’t have cooties, I was ready for a movie hero slightly more realistic and more dangerous than Disney’s usual Prince Charmings, and Newsies had three (when someone asks me about the movie today, I’m inclined to just exclaim “Christian Bale! Bill Pullman!” because the third lead, David Moscow, doesn’t have quite the same name recognition unless I call him, “the actor who played Tom Hanks when he was little in Big“). Because of the poor reception Newsies received initially, asking whether the film “holds up” is a bit more complicated than usual. I loved it when it was released, but I was in the minority: Watching it again, I was curious not only how I, a former fan, would receive it, but also whether a case could be made that it was horribly misjudged back in 1992.

Revisiting Newsies almost twenty years later, I’m mostly embarrassed that I didn’t have the prescience of my fellow musical-loving friend.  From the moment little Max Casella’s New Yawkese comes in voice-over — “In 1899, the streets of New York City echoed with the voices of newsies” — Act One is perfectly set up. We know who the main characters are, and, soon, we know what they’re up against. They’re “a ragged army without a leader — until one day that all changed.” Cue our introduction to Jack Kelly sleepily rolling over in bed — oh look, a leader! And it’s adorable teenage Christian Bale! — and a pretty killer opening number, “Carrying the Banner,” which is catchy, upbeat, and nicely sets up the story. So far, so transferable to the Broad-Way!

But then the boys stop singing, and I’m forced to face the one consistently annoying thing about Newsies: the so-called New York accents.  When they’re not slapping down quarters for “papes” or getting dreamy over “goils,” these kids are declaring, “We’ve got woik to do!” What are they, the gangsters in Guys and Dolls? Casella’s the only one who vaguely pulls it off (though as Racetrack Higgins, he’s stuck with a bizarre Guys and Dolls–esque name). Davey (Moscow), Jack’s more well-spoken new friend, on the other hand, mysteriously has no accent at all (neither do his family members, with the exception of his scrappy little brother Les). And then there’s Robert Duvall’s Joseph Pulitzer, who talks like a mixture of Bill the Butcher, a German professor, Fagin from Oliver!, and The Apostle. Thankfully, he also says crazy things like, “There’s lots of money in these streets. I want to know how I get more of it — BY TONIGHT!”

Unfortunate accent notwithstanding, Disney at least lucked out in the casting department: Christian Bale is still a credible enough lead with more than a glimmer of future talent in his slit-eyed gaze. His floppy-haired charm is both alluring and alienating; one minute he seems like the buddy who’ll never let you down, the next like a firebomb ready to explode. He’s at once a real departure for Disney — he smokes, he lies, he says “asshole!” — and a perfect fit with the Disney heroes of the past and future: a scrappy loner, smarter than he looks, motivated by a dream of something that may not be as wonderful as he imagines it to be (hey, hey — just like Aladdin!). “Santa Fe,” his big solo, is the classic, character-defining “I want” song that every good musical needs (it also bears more than a passing resemblance to Aladdin’s soliloquy, “’Riff raff, street rat’/ I don’t buy that/If only they’d look closer …”).  

Refreshingly, Jack is also very much a realistic teenage boy. Bale’s no great vocalist, but when his voice cracks throughout “Santa Fe,” it’s endearing and seems like just the right touch. Even the irritating adult affectations the newsies adopt — like sealing every handshake with spit — are believable for a crew of teenage boys who have a lot of strong feelings they’re not sure how to control (like Billy Elliot, Jack even has an “angry dance,” in the middle of “Santa Fe”). They find comfort in forming their own gang and need a leader of some sort to look to. They’re also at that odd crossroad between childhood and adulthood, wanting to be taken seriously but not sure how to navigate the divide. Bill Pullman — who was and still is amazing in his crinkly-eyed, self-deprecating glory — functions as that bridge as Brian Denton, a New York Sun reporter who takes a shine to the newsies’ story and gives them the publicity push they need.

As long as the newsies are singing, the movie bumps along at a nice pace. There are at least three more great songs as the film moves through its first act and into the beginning of the second: “And the World Will Know,” which is basically the newsies’ version of “Do You Hear the People Sing”; and “Seize the Day,” the song everyone still remembers; and “King of New York,” a wonderfully choreographed number that’s only second to “Seize the Day” among the movie’s sing-along tunes, led ably by Casella (the guy who would one day play Timon the meerkat in the original cast of The Lion King!), and easy to imagine on a bigger stage.

But things get a bit slower from “King of New York” onwards, as the musical numbers become fewer and more far between and the labor-dispute-centric plot proceeds. Plenty of story points begin and then are left to dangle: Jack’s actually an orphan, and a criminal, sort of? He once met Teddy Roosevelt, apparently? Joseph Pulitzer’s mansion door is apparently open to any street urchin who walks in? And what exactly is the purpose of Medda, the vaudeville dancer/possible prostitute played by Ann Margret? Then there are the poorly drawn bad guys, the Delancey brothers (who attack Sarah in what I can only think was supposed to be a PG rape attempt), and Sarah herself: Davey’s sister and Jack’s love interest, but not much more self-reliant than the Disney princesses of old (though her introduction is amusing: girl knitting in a corner whilst gazing demurely up at Jack obviously translates as “Secretly, she wants it bad!”).

Without my rosy preteen glasses on, I have to admit that Newsies plays today as a full-on trip to a nostalgic vision of New York — and sometimes that holds up, and sometimes it egregiously does not. Modern realism makes it tough to buy into the newsies’ ultimate success. While I don’t expect Gangs of New York–level violence from Disney, it’s obvious these street kids might have more to fear than the caricature of a warden who oversees the “refuge” where Jack and his crew live. And there’s a big difference between a successful strike and actual labor organization. Still, it’s charming to think that there was a time when newspapers, and the larger-than-life men who ran them, were so important, and it’s impressive that at least half of a movie hums along nicely on the energy of that passion. And just when a labor dispute seems like poor material for a musical, I think of Billy Elliot and how those coal miners managed to make me cry. Maybe Broadway is the right final home for Newsies after all. 

How Does Newsies Hold Up?