Back in 1992, Newsies hit the silver screen as a film musical based on the New York City newsboy strike of 1899. While the movie itself wasn’t much of hit back then, that was not the death of this story. Over the years, the movie would have a bit of cult following of sorts and through the rise of the Internet and social media, new life was thrust into the Newsies entity by it’s avid fan base, and would eventually get a proper adaptation on Broadway before hitting the road as a touring company.
Recently, I was able to chat with the original movie lyricist Jack Feldman, who was brought back on to rework and add new songs to the stage show, about the Newsies‘ popularity and the changes he was able to make the second time around.
Newsies really wasn’t much of hit as a movie when it first came out, but then it caught a bit of a cult following, then the musical became really popular. Why do you think that is?
I think there are several reasons. I think that the musical told the story better in some ways than the movie did and I think the phenomenon of social media really fueled it. There’s a pretty large group at this point, relatively, called “Fansies” that is the name that the die-hard fans of the show made up. Through Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, they have really spread the word and you can see it in the people that would wait at the stage door after the show when it was playing on Broadway. The number of people got bigger and bigger, and the cast was usually very gracious and grateful and came out and spoke to them and took selfies with them and signed autographs. It just became an event. I think, without trying to sound like I’m bragging, we wrote a show that’s really entertaining and even people that didn’t know what they were coming into see before they saw it, ended up feeling really good when it was over.
How did the musical show version on stage of Newsies come to be?
It came to be because in spite of the failure of the movie back in 1992, and unbeknownst to us for a long time, it did develop, as you say, a cult following. It was only when the Internet became such a huge part of popular culture that we were able to see web sites that were devoted it, on YouTube, you could see schools doing numbers from it for various occasions, and even a lot of illegal productions where they took the screenplay and the sheet music form the movie and basically put on a stage adaptation. Plus, the biggest company that licenses musicals to schools and theater groups told Disney that it was their most requested title of everything that had yet to me made into a musical, Newsies was at the top of the list. So when Disney decided to do it, it was really just for licensing, to do one production of show, make sure it was in good shape and solid show to send out all over the place. Because the one production took place close to New York, there was a buzz that developed, critics came, and then everything was just one surprise after another in terms of what happened to it.
A couple of the songs from the movie, there are many fewer songs in the movie than on stage, needed to be re-written lyrically because their function in the story changed. The scenes in which they were sung and story that they were telling just didn’t match anymore, so that was required. Then, there was the opportunity which was one of the best things for me to go back and rewrite things that, in the haste of finishing the songs for the movie, I never really got to spend as much time on as I would have liked. Where was this opportunity to do just that, to take verses or even a line here and a line there and strengthen it and make it more significant in terms of telling the story or explain who a character was.
Do you think this was ultimately something that was just made for the stage, period? Do you think a musical like Newsies could have happened if the movie never happened?
That’s a great question! I don’t know! Obviously, its something you can never know. I think it might have. I think the biggest hurdle would have been to entice people into the theater at the very beginning to get that word of mouth spinning because if they’d never heard of it and they had no idea what it was, and most people hadn’t, but enough people had that it started to make a noise, so I would like to believe that the show is strong enough on its own. Also, just the unbelievable choreography and the unbelievable skill of the dancers, some of whom are as young as 16, maybe the oldest is in their early 20s. To see these kids with this unbelievable talent is really breathtaking. They stop the show every night. They did on Broadway and they do on tour as well. So, who knows? I’ll say yes, it would have been a success because nobody can prove me wrong! (laughs)
How did you come about being involved in the original movie in the first place?
I originally got involved because Alan Menken, who I had known for many years and who was of course a Disney composing legend, was asked to do it with his long time collaborator Howard Ashman, but unfortunately, Howard was very ill at the time and he couldn’t do it, but he insisted that Alan go ahead and do it, and work with somebody he knew and respected. So, luckily, Alan picked up the phone and called and that’s how my involvement in it started.