28 July 2023

How Disney’s Newsies became a Broadway success

Back in the spring of 1992, cinema audiences and critics would have been very surprised indeed to be told that almost exactly 20 years later, Disney’s Newsies would become its own kind of news phenomenon. Nevertheless, its true.

On March 15 2012, the Newsies musical made its Broadway debut at the Nederlander Theatre in Midtown Manhattan – and though prepped for a limited run, it quickly became the hottest ticket in town. So what changed – how did a box-office bomb become a Broadway smash?

Success doesn’t happen overnight

In the case of Newsies, this old adage couldn’t be more appropriate. A movie that swiftly became one of Disney’s lowest grossing live-action productions never quite went away. In earlier times, it may well have remained a cult film and nothing more, but the 1990s was the height of the video-rental era (and DVDs were on the horizon), allowing Newsies to find its audience.

Initially, renters and buyers of the film were mostly comprised of fans who loved the film during its initial theatrical release – and now, they had the opportunity to watch it as often as they wanted. However, the video rental market often managed to cultivate slow-burn successes – and Newsies was a perfect example.

The domino effect

The home video and DVD market provided fertile territory for the 1992 film, generating renewed interest. Mini-renaissance inspired amateur (and technically illegal) theatrical productions sprang up across the United States, causing Disney to take note.

However, rather than get litigious, the House of Mouse decided to create a licensed adaptation which could be freely used by high schools.

Script refinements

While shaping Newsies for a new generation, Disney saw the opportunity to tweak the original screenplay. This resulted in significant character enhancements.

For example, the main protagonist, Jack Kelly, a tough-kid orphan with a heart of gold, was given different motivations and provided with a more sensitive, artistic side.

Most notably, two movie characters were merged into one. Sarah Jacobs – Jack’s love interest and David’s sister – and Bryan Denton, a New York Sun reporter, became the singular Katherine Plumber. Whereas Sarah was nice but inessential, Katherine was now a major player, a spirited, teenage entertainment news reporter who impacted much more on Jack’s character arc.

Musical additions (and subtractions)

The Broadway production featured seven new numbers, each written by Alan Menken and Jack Feldman, the duo responsible for the original movie’s songs and lyrics. Cue ditties such as The Bottom Line and Letter from a Refugee, the introduction of which meant that some earlier songs had to make way, including My Lovey-Dovey Baby and High Times, Hard Times.

The order of certain musical interludes and songs was changed too.

Classy choreography

While the movie’s song-and-dance sequences are serviceable, Tony-nominated Christopher Gattelli reinvented them for the Broadway version. Now, numbers performed by classically trained dancers bring a greater sense of dynamism to the production while maintaining a graceful edge.

There are plenty of other differences between the Newsies movie and the Newsies play, but we don’t want to spoil all the surprises…

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