Disney’s Newsies the Musical is a Broadway hit based on a movie musical flop. It’s the not-so-little show that could, and it arrives at Miami’s Arsht Center this week with its fact-based story and its chorus of high-flying newsboys.
The show’s male star, Dan DeLuca as restless newsboy leader Jack Kelly, wasn’t born when the 1992 movie (which starred a young Christian Bale) came out. Its female star, Stephanie Styles, was a 1-year-old. But like so many of the young talents involved with the musical, the two discovered that a show never intended for Broadway has ignited their careers.
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Opening at 8 p.m. Tuesday at the Arsht, Newsies is, like the movie, inspired by the Newsboys Strike of 1899, a real David-and-Goliath story. When newspaper moguls Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst increased the cost of the bundled newspapers boys sold on the streets of New York, the kids went on strike for two weeks, and the big boys of journalism backed down.
Lyricist Jack Feldman and composer Alan Menken wrote the score for the movie and the stage musical, winning a 2012 Tony Award for their work. Though the movie tanked at the box office, it enjoyed a successful afterlife as a DVD, inspiring fan sites and blogs. Feldman notes that schools and amateur groups were inventing their own stage versions, using the screenplay and sheet music to cobble together a show without getting the rights to do so.
“Disney decided to do an official production so it would have quality control and get royalties,” Feldman says. “We did it at [New Jersey’s] Paper Mill Playhouse, to make sure what we were sending out worked. Then, they decided to do it on Broadway for a limited run. It got extended and extended. And here we are.”
On Broadway, Newsies ran for more than two years, chalking up 1,005 performances. The avid fan base — they’re called “Fansies” — made a difference, and so did some of the changes Tony Award winner Harvey Fierstein made.
“Harvey made the story more theatrical, so it was inevitable that it had to be onstage,” Feldman says.
“The real heroes of Newsies are Harvey, Alan and Jack,” says director Jeff Calhoun. “Harvey’s adaptation makes the hero an artist instead of a cowboy. He added the love interest. And it was his bold idea to start the show with Santa Fe,” the well-known movie song about Jack’s longing for a freer life.
One of the most spectacular aspects of Newsies onstage is its muscular, athletic dancing. Choreographer Christopher Gattelli won the Tony for his work.
“Chris Gattelli is my hero,” Feldman said. “He never choreographs anything without an explicit storytelling reason. The boys’ tumbling is a metaphor for the kids saying to older people: ‘Look what we can do,’” Feldman says.
Gattelli, currently choreographing the next Coen brothers movie, was tough and exacting when he auditioned the actor-dancers.
“I knew it was going to be a very physical show, so the main thing I looked for was technique. … The audition combination was pretty tough, and I could tell in a second. I put a double tour in the combination — they had to start in fifth position, jump, turn around twice and land — and most of the boys could do it. It spoke to the talent that’s out there,” Gattelli says.
As for the way the dance helps tell the story, Gattelli says, “It’s just taking the boys where they were emotionally, beat by beat, and letting them go through that physically. They change from boys to men in the show. At first, they’re childlike, running through the street, playing hopscotch. Later, they literally put their foot down. They become this army.”
DeLuca, only the third actor to play Jack Kelly in the stage musical, can attest to just how challenging the dance in Newsies is.
“I went to Broadway to audition to understudy Jack. I wasn’t good enough to be in the ensemble. But that’s OK. They called me back in for this,” he says. “This is my first big thing out of school, and it’s so exciting. Working for Disney is my dream, and this is my dream role.”
For DeLuca, not any Disney role would do.
“I never wanted to be Prince Charming. I wanted to be Peter Pan or Aladdin. Jack Kelly is the ultimate Disney underdog. He gets to roughhouse with his brothers, he gets the girl, and he gets to sing a big power ballad. That role is for me,” he says.
Touring requires discipline. The actor once hid a Fitbit under his costume and discovered that he burns 906 calories and takes at least 4,060 steps each show — and some days, there are two shows. DeLuca has perspective, though.
“I figure if these orphan kids can beat the biggest newspaper tycoon at the time, I think I can put on my mic pack and go out and perform,” he says.
Like DeLuca, Styles landed the Newsies tour as her first big job since graduating from the University of Michigan — in fact, she flew to New York after her last day of class and before her first final to audition. She’s also besotted with Disney and belongs to D23, the company’s official fan club. And of course during the show’s run in Orlando, she hit the Disney theme parks.
Playing Katherine, the show’s reporter with a secret, Styles particularly enjoys singing her solo Watch What Happens, which takes the character from self-doubt to realizing her power to create change — one of the show’s key themes. And like just about anyone who sees the Newsies guys dancing, she’s in awe.
“I am continuously inspired, every single time. The dancing is so athletic yet so beautiful. I saw the show four times on Broadway, and it’s just hard to believe that what they do is humanly possible,” she says.
Actor Steve Blanchard plays Joseph Pulitzer in Newsies, touring with his wife Meredith Inglesby (who is also in the show, her fourth for Disney) and their 2-year-old daughter Wren. He’s enjoying the opportunity to do for the young actors in the cast (some still in their teens) what older actors did for him.
“This is paying it forward. I had seasoned pros drop kernels of wisdom on me,” he says. “I’ve passed along nuts-and-bolts stuff about doing a long-running show and keeping it fresh, like doing different takes in a movie.”
Blanchard thinks he knows why a broad audience has embraced Newsies this time around.
“It resonates with young folks, with the story saying, ‘We’re not gonna take that,’ rebelling against the man. Girls love it because it has so many handsome guys in it. The score is off the charts, and the script is like a textbook of storytelling. Older folks like it because their parents [or grandparents] were from that generation,” he says.
“I love introducing a whole new generation to theater with Newsies — onstage and in the audience,” director Calhoun says.
And when the “Fansies” wait for him outside the stage door, DeLuca doesn’t mind in the least.
“It’s so flattering and honoring. I’m just a theater and Disney nerd. They’ll write sweet letters about how we inspire them or make their day better,” DeLuca says. “If we can spread any happiness, that’s the most fulfilling thing to me. People of all ages thank us.”