SALT LAKE CITY — When the movie musical “Newsies” opened in theaters in 1992, it wasn’t the “King of New York” … or really the king of anything, anywhere.
Produced on a $15 million budget, the film grossed a paltry $2.8 million domestically, according to Box Office Mojo. Widely recognized as one of Disney’s biggest flops, the film even earned award-winning composer Alan Menken a Golden Raspberry Award or “Razzie” for worst song of the year for “High Times, Hard Times” in the same year he won two Oscars for his work on “Aladdin.”
Yet, despite the film’s less-than-enthusiastic critical reception, over time “Newsies” gathered a cult following, including here in Utah, where a production of the film’s stage adaptation will be performed at Hale Centre Theatre in Sandy from June 25-Sept. 1.
“'Newsies' never slipped into complete obscurity,” an Entertainment Weekly article about “Newsies” cult status states. “Throughout the 1990s, it found an incredibly supportive audience on video. … Moreover, the increasingly pervasive internet allowed fans, many of them young women, to share their passion. Online they could debate which Newsie was hotter (Racetrack Higgins or Spot Conlon? Discuss), revel in the film’s up-by-the-bootstraps message, and gush about Menken’s catchy songs — which years later were inspiring homemade tributes on YouTube.”
Dave Tinney, director of HCT’s upcoming production, remembers this “Newsies” mania being alive and well in Utah, with songs from the show — complete with the film’s choreography down pat — in what seemed to be every talent show, theater auditions and school performance in the state in the ’90s.
That never-waning fan-base throughout the U.S. eventually led to a successful Broadway adaptation that opened on the Great White Way in 2012 and earned eight Tony nominations and two wins — including for Menken’s and Jack Feldman’s music and lyrics, which, not surprisingly, no longer included “High Times, Hard Times” by the time the show hit Broadway.
“This is truly a phenomenon,” Tinney wrote in an email to the Deseret News. “When I saw it on Broadway, the screams from the audience were so loud and constant that I honestly couldn’t hear the show.”
Based on the real-life newsboy strike of 1899, “Newsies” follows a charismatic dreamer of a newsboy named Jack Kelly as he leads his fellow newsies to fight against the rise in newspaper distribution prices. The stage musical maintains many of the basics of the film, with a few tweaks to the character development and additional music.
“This is about a group of mere kids that shut down major corporations and sparked a movement that influenced major change, not just for them but for child labor laws all over the country,” Tinney said of why the show continues to resonate with audiences. “It’s also a great reminder that we live in a country where we are free to speak up.”
Between the “Newsies” national tour stopping in Utah twice in 2016 and stagings at Tuacahn Amphitheatre and Pioneer Theatre Company in 2017, Utah theater audiences have had several opportunities to see the stage adaptation.
“Both Tuacahn and Pioneer Theatre Company did such a great job with the show with such amazing talent, so naturally it is intimidating to approach the material with this much expectation,” said Tinney, who is also choreographing HCT’s production. “All I ever try to do is try to tell the story as honestly as possible. But, there is still plenty of dance and great music for the true 'Newsie' junkies.”
Both Tinney and Sally Dietlein, HCT’s vice president and executive producer, said Hale’s in-the-round staging on its Centre Stage Theatre is one of the main things that will make this upcoming production of “Newsies” unique.
“‘Newsies’ on the Centre Stage immerses the audience right into the center of the action,” Tinney said in a press release. “Staging and choreographing this show has been rewarding as we’ve been ‘sculpting’ on the ‘3D’ Centre Stage rather than ‘painting’ on a standard (proscenium) stage.”3 comments on this story
Dietlein said past productions of “Newsies,” both on Broadway and locally, have included tall scaffolding to represent the New York skyline, which fits well on HCT’s stage. “The New York scaffolding that kind of builds the skyline is very authentically built in 3D into the center rather than looking at it through a window box,” she said. But, perhaps most importantly, Dietlein said, Hale’s production is noteworthy in that it strictly utilizes actors and artistic staff living in Utah, giving those longtime local fans a chance to “Seize the Day,” “(Carry) the Banner” and be the “King of (Utah)” for a time.
“It’s all Utah born and bred,” she said, “so to be able to bring ('Newsies') to Utah and use Utahns to present it is really an honor and really, really fun after all these years (since the film).”
If you go …
What: Hale Centre Theatre's "Newsies"
When: June 25-Sept. 1, dates and times vary
Where: HCT's Centre Stage Theatre, 9900 S. Monroe St., Sandy
How much: $40 for adults, $20 for children and youths