Sing a subversive song

Musical memorializes bid for fair wages

Published: Jul 13 2013, 05:56:pm

Friday, April 10, 1992.
NEWSIES. Written by Bob Tzudiker and Noni White. Music by Alan Menken. Lyrics by Jack Feldman. Choreographed and directed by Kenny Ortega. Running time: 121 minutes. Rated General with the warning "occasional violence and swearing."

     Born 145 years ago today, [10 APR., 1847] press magnate Joseph Pulitzer was one of the men who shaped the modern American newspaper. He's best remembered for his generosity to the Columbia School of Journalism and the annual literary awards that bear his name.
     This year, his celebration includes singing and dancing in the streets. With Newsies, its super-charged new screen musical, The Walt Disney Company packages Pulitzer's tale in a new and dynamically different way.
     Meet Joe (Robert Duvall), the villain. It's 1899 and, in a move to gain advantage over rival publishers, Pulitzer hits New York's independent newsboys with a price increase.
     Meet Jack Kelly (Christian Bale), a street kid with sales savvy and well-developed survival instincts. Together with his eloquent partner David Jacobs (David Moscow), Kelly organizes a city-wide newsboys strike (an event that actually happened, say screenwriters Bob Tzudiker and Noni White).
     Together with director-choreographer Kenny Ortega. they've created a story that's part Annie and part Les Miserables. And Duvall's Faginish (and by all accounts accurate) portrayal of a tyrannical Pulitzer contains echoes of Oliver.
     Full of Broadway brass and soundstage spectacle, Newsies returns to the days of the big studio musical. Ortega, a self-described student of Gene Kelly, develops its plot through a series of production numbers.
     True to musical theatre traditions, there are moments of mawkish sentimentality, young love and noble self-sacrifice. Though composer Alan Menken and lyricist Jack Feldman produce no great songs, their work is entirely serviceable and appropriate to the occasion.
     Colourful characters abound in the huge cast. Gabriel Damon is outstanding as Brooklyn newsie Spot Conlon, while adult actors Bill Pullman and Ann-Margret shine in important supporting roles.
     Heir to Hair's rebellious spirit, Newsies offers its energy and deliciously subversive ideals in a proper period package. It's an appropriately saucy gift to Joe.

The above is a restored version of a Province review by Michael Walsh originally published in 1992. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.

AFTERWORD: Newsies, with its pro-union theme, was the first of three pictures the Disney organization released in the 1990s that could only be described as subversive. It was followed by Swing Kids (1993), a tale of teen rebellion in Nazi Germany with a blunt anti-authority subtext. Finally came 1995's Tall Tale: The Unbelievable Adventures of Pecos Bill, in which a trio of American folk heroes return to help an early 20th-century community battle a rapacious corporate executive. I used to joke that there must be a rogue executive in the Disney head office green-lighting these politically-charged projects. If so, they caught him, because nothing to equal them has been seen since.