In 1899, against all odds, a ragtag army of young newsboys took on New York publishing giants Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst and won.
The newspaper tycoons had raised the price of a bundle of 100 wholesale papers from 50 to 60 cents. It put the squeeze on the kids “pushin’ the papes”, many of them either the children of poor immigrants or down-and-out orphans living on the streets. The newsies organized and went on strike, rallying on New York’s fabled newspaper row, pelting delivery wagons with fruit, and successfully cutting circulation within days.
It’s the ultimate story of the underdog beating out corporate greed—a Dickensian tale that screamed out for the musical treatment. That’s exactly what it got in Newsies, which initially came to life as a 1992 Disney movie, and then as a rambunctious Broadway stage adaptation that’s now hitting Theatre Under the Stars for the first time.
“It’s really kind of devastating: they raised the price only 10 cents per 100 papers but that’s everything to them, a whole week’s worth of meals, a huge raise for them,” says Adam Charles, who plays plucky, cap-wearing strike leader Jack, talking to the Straight over the phone before rehearsals. “It feels really relevant to today, because it’s these kids finding their voice and starting to be more political and being able to speak for themselves.”
He points to young people joining forces against everything from gun violence to climate change as modern equivalents to the newsies’ strike—an event that paved the path for the first child-labour laws in the early 20th century.
What sets Newsies apart as a stage show is not just Alan Menken and Jack Feldman’s songs (with such rousing titles as “Seize the Day” and “Something to Believe In”), but its raucous, hyperenergized dance sequences.
“The newsies are the stars of the show and they have some epic numbers where they come one after another,” enthuses Julie Tomaino, who’s not only choreographing this production, but directing it. “This is grounded, athletic, and scrappy dance. I don’t want clean technical dancers; I want dancers that can keep the dancing scrappy.
“That’s why I was so drawn to it at the very beginning,” adds the artist, whose first TUTS assignment was choreographing Shrek the Musical in 2014, and who’s since moved to Toronto to continue staging shows across the country. “I’m a storyteller and I use that physical expression to tell a story.”
Newsies’ dance often features huge phalanxes of kids coming at the audience, and there are spring-loaded jumps and back flips galore.
“We found a couple of tumblers for the show,” says Tomaino. “There are a couple dancers who aren’t classically trained gymnasts, but they have flips in their back pocket.”
As you might expect, Charles says the high energy demands make the show an endurance test.
“It is physically draining,” he admits. “There’s a lot of dancing and then all these big set pieces where we’re climbing over and up and down ladders—and then you have to sing a big ballad. Julie’s kind of built in time for me to catch my breath and make sure I can sing. I haven’t encountered that before with musicals.”
With this version of Newsies, both Tomaino and Charles are drawing inspiration from the 1992 Newsies movie that starred Christian Bale as Jack. Although it was a box-office flop, it’s risen to bona fide cult status, especially among young song-and-dance fans.
For Charles, it was nothing less than seminal in his decision to pursue musical theatre.
“I was obsessed with the movie. It was the first time as a young boy seeing guys sing and dance,” says the Toronto-based star, who was nine and growing up in Chilliwack when he first watched it on old-school video. “I was doing some singing back then, and my family is super into musicals, but this was the first time I saw something where I thought, ‘Oh, I could do this!’ I had it on VHS and wore it out. I was especially drawn to the role of Jack, who I immediately connected with and wanted to play.”
For a young Tomaino, who was already pursuing serious dance training in Vancouver, the movie was just as mind-blowing.
“I idolized most of the dancers in that movie—some used to come up and teach here,” she recalls.
The stage version, they concur, improves the story. There’s a new character, a female reporter who covers the kids’ cause and fights for her own voice in a male-dominated industry. Tomaino has also cast a few female newsies, after finding out that is historically accurate.
Neither can quite believe they have the opportunity to finally tackle the feisty show they both love so much—and on a historic outdoor stage in the place where they grew up, before they headed out into the spotlights of the bigger stage world.
“Julie has brought together a unique group that wouldn’t necessarily have auditioned for TUTS if she wasn’t doing Newsies,” Charles says. “It’s been fun to be back in Vancouver and be with her. It’s my dream job.”
“We’re having a blast,” agrees Tomaino. “I said, ‘There’s no way I’m going to take an offer anywhere else with that opportunity to direct and choreograph Newsies in Vancouver. Last night after rehearsal, I said, ‘I don’t want to leave the theatre.’ ”
Theatre Under the Stars presents Newsies at Malkin Bowl in Stanley Park from Wednesday (July 10) to August 17.