I had an internet-based Broadway showtunes radio channel on the other day, and suddenly out blasted “King of New York.” Not a Broadway melody at all, of course, but a Hollywood one, from Newsies, Disney’s disastrous 1992 attempt to reinvigorate the American movie musical.
It took me back to a whole era when not just Hollywood musicals but Broadway ones seemed doomed. When the original Beauty & the Beast cartoon first hit in 1991, Theater Week magazine put it on its cover as exemplifying the best characteristics of a big Broadway musical. A few years later, of course, it was one, and Disney was intently transforming Times Square back into the theatrical, family-friendly 42nd Street of yore. But in the early ‘90s, times were dire: the “best musical of the year” was a Hollywood cartoon, and the biggest hits Broadway could manage were Crazy for You (the crassest sort of simplistic nostalgia) and Kiss of the Spiderwoman (the kind of obtuse modern turn which frightened away as many tourists as it lured). This was the era of—I have to invoke it—Nick & Nora, not to mention The Best Little Whorehouse Goes Public. Desperation, sheer desperation.
And it was catching. Newsies wasn’t awful, just not the sort of film you could pin a resurrection on. The same unfair expectations doomed the British film Absolute Beginners, another shoot-for-the-moon musical where the presumed universality of youthful rebellion is tempered by the undeniably un-universal specifics of time and place. (For Newsies, that was the 1899 New York newspaperboy strike; for Absolute Beginners it was the post-war England of nascent neo-Nazis and other extremely short-tempered authority figures.)
Newsies’ commercial failure doomed the youth-oriented movie musical genre for at least another decade and a half, until the very same director, Kenny Ortega was given another try and scored beyond a generation’s wildest dreams with High School Musical. Composer Alan Mencken, meanwhile, reverted to Beauty & the Beast’s Broadway transformation.
Anyhow, “Extry, extry, Joe! Read all about it!”: “King of New York” still kills. “Comin’ at ya, lousy wit’ stature.”
Reminded of Newsies’ best song, I checked the DVD out of the library and watched it with my daughters. Eight-year-old Mabel was captivated. Six-year-old Sally railed loudly against for its first half-hour (“This is horribly boring!”) but finally warmed to it and was dancing on the couch to it by the time the newsboys won their labor struggle. For older viewers, it’s hard to not get caught up in seeing Christian Bale still playing boyish roles (and singing in a New Yawk accent besides), or Max Casella (who in ’92 was still on Doogie Howser, and who wouldn’t really resurface after Newsies until the last few seasons of The Sopranos) tap-dancing in a bowler hat.
Try as I might, I can’t remove Newsies from its flop mystique. I once interviewed Kevin Tighe, who plays the evil warden of the prison-like “House of Refuge” in the film, and he was impressed at how the film had become a cult favorite following such an ignoble initial reception. But Newsies is too spectacular to be a cult hit, even too spectacular to be reenvisioned as a stage musical in the way that Xanadu or Hairspray has been. It depends on throngs of strapping young boys with piles of newspapers poised on their shoulders, platoons of short-pantsed dancers who eclipse the stars—especially since those stars (Bale, Bill Pullman, David Moscow) can’t sing or dance distinctively at all.
Eschewing star turns for chorus-line overkill may be what Newsies actually did right. In an age where Broadway was still overly dependent on name stars (even the aforementioned Kiss of the Spider-Woman, which hung its hat on Chita Rivera), Newsies soft-peddled them. The secret, it turned out when Ortega’s High School Musical came around, was to have a whole ensemble of overbearing personalities scrapping with each other, then forming the faceless kickline for the big all-in-this-together power ballads. You could say Rent took that route too.
Newsies is an unexpectedly strong footnote in the history of the late-20th century American musical. It’s lousy with stature.