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Newsies: An In-Progress (F)anthropology

You’ll see it in the faces of the uninitiated—people who are too young or too old, or people who just didn’t get the film, or have never seen it. Mention the word Newsies to them and they will be fully baffled. And then try to explain it: It’s a musical about newsboys.

The idea is unintuitive, and the movie is (mostly) bad. So why are we still talking about this? Why has a 1992 box office flop become the most unlikely of things – a bona fide cultural touchstone?

Here’s why: Newsies is the phenomenon that the fangirls built. A cult smash from almost the minute it existed, its popularity grew with the internet – with the advent of message boards and fan tributes and password-locked slash fiction penned by 14 year olds. With easy-access, downloadable media, and whole generations of kids who watched nothing but The Disney Channel between the ages of 5 and 10.

Newsies is not just a thing. It’s a whole kind of thing. What you’re about to read didn’t start as an essay, but as an act of memory. It’s about stuff that I remember, that I stayed up late on Saturday night to record on VHS. Because I was that kid, and because so were you: Musicals-obsessed, riveted by anything with singing and period costumes. Hypnotized by 17-year-old Christian Bale.

This is what you know, and have always known, about Newsies. You just needed to be reminded somewhere to remember it.

Click on the doodle below to read more. Or just keep scrolling forever (less fun!). And feel free to add your own random thoughts, non sequitur memories, and half-remembered Newsies-related flashbacks in the comments.

Alan Menken, A Backstory
It’s not like composer Alan Menken was an unknown when Newsies opened. He was famous – already an Oscar-winner four times over for The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast – by the time it opened in theaters. It’s undoubtedly that cache that got the film green-lit in the first place. But it was a weird time for Menken. His collaborator Howard Ashman had died the year before, and every review of the Newsies, overtly or not, wondered what an Ashman-penned Newsies would have sounded like. It wasn’t an entirely fair question. There’s never been evidence that Ashman was slated to write a word for Newsies. But it was an easy one to ask. And the film was a foray away from the blockbuster formula that had won Menken his Oscars. It was live-action. It was full of boys. On the surface, after Newsies failed so badly at the box office, it seemed like Disney had badly missteped. Except it hadn’t. It took time, and years of Sunday afternoon Disney channel replays, but the kids who loved The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast discovered and embraced Newsies. And the gender gamble wasn’t such a big one: If you were ten and you wanted to be Belle or Ariel, it was a pretty natural progression, at 13, to fall in love with Jack Kelly.
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Kenny Ortega, Secondhand
Here’s the important thing to know: Among Newsies fans, there is a distinct generational divide. A lot of Newsies fans, right now, are in their late 20s and early 30s. Jeremy Jordan is 27. I’m 31. That’s the first generation sweet spot, right there. But there is a second generation out there – and it was largely unknown to me until I walked into the Paper Mill Playhouse last September and saw that it was filled with young teenagers. I was fully shocked. How did these kids know about Newsies? And then it was explained to us: Even after my generation outgrew the Disney Channel, Newsies continued to air on Sunday nights. It did so, in fact, straight through the High School Musical years, when its audience was hungry for anything that sang and danced. And thus the second generation was born. They’re tainted by Zac Efron, for sure, and have weird expectations about what “singing” is supposed to sound like, but we’re choosing to focus on the things that unite us – Christian Bale, and the general sense that it would be really fun to spin around on a ceiling fan.
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High School Musical, for the Whippersnappers
Ah, the ground zero of musical theater appreciation for anyone born in 1996. Director Kenny Ortega is shrewd enough to know that little girls of all ilks – before they become too cool to shun them – like musicals. Years after Newsies, he directed this insanely successful franchise.
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Dominic Lucero, in Retrospect
In the Newsies film, he plays a small role – a non-speaking character named Bumlets. But he’s front-and-center in every single song, and for a good reason: He was a beautiful dancer. He is the one your eyes are always drawn to. He’s the one who spins on the ceiling fan. Born in 1967 in California, Lucero has a fandom all his own, and a riveting story. After dancing in a slew of successful projects – from Newsies to Paul Abdul videos – he died of lymphatic cancer at 26.
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Paula Abdul, the Dancer
You want to see Dominic Lucero dance? Look no further than Paula Abdul’s first music videos. He’s featured prominently in “Cold Hearted.” And if Newsies is a whole kind of thing, Lucero was a whole kind of person – a young, exceptionally talented dancer working in Los Angeles in the early 90s. As you’ll see, the cast of Newsies pops up everywhere in these years. On every TV show, in every movie that needed dancers. It’s because in that moment, this kind of dancing – theatrical, more Bob Fossee than Janet Jackson – was integral to the pop culture landscape. This is what the world looked like in 1990. Rumor has it that Lucero actually helped choreograph this too-awesome-to-be-real number from the American Music Awards that year. It features Paula in a very sparkly dress (wait to the end to see it), a cameo from the animated MC Scat Cat, and dancing that looks like Broadway. And like Newsies.
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David Sidoni, Ivan Dudynsky and Roundhouse
You want to see the entire cast of the Newsies film doing something other than Newsies? Check out the grainy YouTube videos of a TV show called Roundhouse, which aired on Nickelodeon from 1992 to 1996. Part of Nick’s tween-oriented Saturday night primetime lineup that included Ren and Stimpy and Clarissa Explains It All, it was a variety show that featured weirdly serious comedy sketches, belty singing, and a lot of kick-ass dancing. Ivan Dudynsky, who plays Dutchy in Newsies, and who spent most of the early 90s rocking a pristine mushroom haircut, featured prominently. So did David Sidoni, who plays Pie-Eater in Newsies, and Mark David, who played Specs, and who weirdly looks like Robert Sean Leonard. Memorable about Roundhouse: The insanely catchy opening theme song, and Dominic Lucero, who was fighting cancer during the show’s four-year run. He passed away a month before the show taped its last episode.
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Max Casella and His Accent
Max Casella as Racetrack, a badass gambler kid, was a fine bit of stunt casting. At the time, he was already on a hit TV show – Doogie Howser, M.D. – and thus was the only true known quantity in the Newsies cast. At 24, he was also the oldest person in the cast. He’s known for playing toughs, and New York toughs specifically, but Casella actually grew up in Boston. So when Racetrack says, “Deah me, what is that unpleasant aroma? I feah the sewehs may have backed up during the night,” you’re not really hearing a New York accent, but a tricked out Boston accent. Go pick up the pieces of your shattered brain and read on.
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Christian Bale, Who Is The Batman
If it makes you feel any better, Christian Bale – many things, but certainly not a dumb guy – is fully aware that people are mad at him for hating Newsies. And he hates on Newsies a lot. In fact, one of his first quotes about the movie was, “Time heals those wounds.” Ouch. But here’s the thing: Time hasn’t really given Christian Bale a choice in the matter. He’s won an Oscar and done weird voices and emaciated himself and become a shout-y, argumentative YouTube phenomenon. And he’s still Jack Kelly. And people still care about that. Which means that no one will ever stop asking him about it, and that he’s still be annoyed. Which says a lot more about Christian Bale than it says about Newsies.
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David Moscow, Who Has Curly Hair
To call David Moscow a total unknown is a little unfair. Before he starred as David in Newsies, he was best known as a the cute little kid who grows up to be Tom Hanks in Big. Fun facts: He dated Kerry Washington for years, and he remains super attractive.
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Blood Drips on Newsies Square, Shenanigans Abound
No one passes through the Newsies fan gauntlet without finding this underground video. It’s 25 minutes long. It was filmed on the set of Newsies by Mark David, Michael Goorjian, Max Casella, and Trey Parker. And its very existence is mind-blowing. It’s just a bunch of goofy teenage boys turning a camera on themselves, but it’s notable for its distinctly un-childlike attitude, and some exceptionally foul language. Christian Bale and Kenny Ortega both make cameos, as do many members of the production staff.
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Newsies and the Case of the Missing Verse
People swear they saw it on screen when the movie aired in theaters. This verse in “Carrying the Banner”: It takes a smile as sweet as butter / The kind that ladies can’t resist / It takes an orphan with a stutter / Who ain’t afraid ta use his fist!

Maybe it made the movie too long. Maybe it was deemed insensitive to people who stutter. Maybe it was deem insensitive to orphans. Maybe it was deemed insensitive to people who don’t like punching. At any rate, it’s gone from the DVD release. It remains on the movie soundtrack, however.
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Everybody Hates Sarah
In the film, Jack’s love interest is David’s sister Sarah, who was played by Ele Keats. And by and large, all the fans hate her. Frankly, we understand the venom. Treated as window dressing — and as a weird kind of prize for Jack at the end — she doesn’t add much to the story. There’s even a rumor that Keats didn’t sing the one line attributed to her in “Once and For All.”
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{ 5 comments… add one }

  • Lindsay March 15, 2012, 7:09 pm

    First off, I love everything about this article. I am a member of that first generation sweet spot…I grew up watching Beauty and the Beast, Newsies, Roundhouse, Clarissa Explains It All, etc. It’s because of Newsies I even know who Christian Bale is – it was like being in on a secret before the rest of the world found out. And then after seeing the stage show at The Paper Mill, I knew about Jeremy Jordan just before he became Broadway’s next big thing. Jack Kelly is a star-making part, clearly. P.S. – Max Casella is from BOSTON??? Mind. Blown.

  • Esther March 17, 2012, 11:31 pm

    I’ve gotta admit I’d never heard of Newsies until you mentioned it during that fateful dinner at 5-Napkin Burger. But you know there’s nothing I love more than a newspaper-themed musical, of which there aren’t nearly enough! So it went right to the top of my Netflix queue. I think it’s a fun movie and I’m not sure why it flopped. My guess is that it was too boy-oriented for girls and too musical-oriented for boys. Anyway, I have my ticket for next month and I can’t wait!

  • Matt March 20, 2012, 9:24 am

    “There’s even a rumor that Keats didn’t sing the one line attributed to her in “Once and For All.””

    Oh gee whiz, you think so.

  • Renee March 20, 2012, 6:07 pm

    GREAT piece! I am of the older generation (almost 50!) that never heard of Newsies, but love everything musical theatre, have Paper Mill season tickets, and a theatre arts major daughter who plans to be a director…

    When the Paper Mill season announced “Newsies”, I had no clue what it was, so we bought the DVD. Have to admit, did NOT enjoy it – almost donated our tickets for a school auction. OMG. Thank GOODNESS we kept them, or we would never have known the wonderful voice (and smile) of Jeremy Jordan! 😉 Half way through Act One, my husband turned to my daughter & I and said “I thought you said you didn’t like this. It’s GREAT!”

    I love the changes in the story – and I still don’t really love the movie, but we ADORED the show at Paper Mill! We just saw it the second night of previews – and now that the run is extended, we are going again the night before closing, which is the night before my daughter’s 19th birthday.

    It’s hard to explain, but the entire production just makes me smile.

  • Heather March 20, 2012, 9:58 pm

    So I’m outing myself as being in my mid-30’s when I say that I saw Newsies in the theater and immediately fell in love with Christain Bale. At one point I had a VHS copy that I’d taped off the Disney Channel and watched so much it wore out. I’m so psyched about the Broadway version, that I’m planning to fly in from TN to see it!

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