NJ Recap

I really do love Newsies: The Musical, but that doesn't mean I thought it was perfect right out of the gate. The first time I saw the show I was so thrown for a loop that when I went back the next night I actually took notes. With a pen and paper. I know... I know. Don't roll your eyes at me! The great thing about all my notes on the show is that a lot of it has been addressed in the migration to Broadway! So, without further ado, here are my first impressions of the production at Paper Mill, and a little bit about how it evolved from open to close. Guys, I am not going to lie... this is mostly stuff I didn't like and there are spoilers abound, so read on only if you want to know some details about the show, and also run the risk of your opinion getting influenced by my own.

Opening Night at Paper Mill Playhouse – First Impressions
There's a quote from Cameron Crowe's coming of age film, Almost Famous, in which a hyper-sexual rock and roll groupie muses wistfully, and exhaustedly about the influx of "new girls" to her chosen profession. "They don't even know what it is to be a fan, you know? To love some silly little piece of music so much - it hurts." In a roundabout sense, Newsies fans are not unlike groupies (though, for the sake of Disney, let’s assume much less sexually active). Our passion for a group of rag-tag street rats who sing and dance might not make sense to anyone but us, but until now we have never had a place to travel in order to express our affection. Enter: Paper Mill Playhouse - a professional theatre so far off Broadway it's actually in New Jersey. 

From what I experienced in my trips to NJ, the devotion of the girls (and a surprising amount of guys) who travelled from all over the country to see their Newsies on stage opening night is impressive, but more so - it is heartwarming. These are a group of people who let themselves love a silly little piece of music, or a cleverly written one liner, or a personification of the rebellious teens in all of us, so much that it would have hurt to not attend. Some people might say I am a little obsessed, but we all have our motivating factors for odd (though I prefer to use the term “spontaneous”) behavior. This was a legitimate production that involved the original writers as well as excited new professionals who wanted to make Newsies into something great for the stage. This was something official from Disney, and there was no way I would miss it. I booked a flight and bought a handful of tickets for various nights opening weekend. The people of Summit and Milburn, New Jersey repeatedly asked why I was in town - I simply answered, “Newsies.” Sometimes with incredulity, because… why else would anyone be here this particular weekend? Newsies has the power to draw a crowd, and it was obvious to the out-of-towners as well as the locals.

The Set
The set is a phenomenon; a maze of painted metal, rolling platforms, gates and staircases, and a very Hollywood Squares-esque wall representing the high rises of New York City. It is a fantastic representation of all the back alleys and fire escapes a boy living on the street would be familiar with. It moved smoothly and silently - sometimes so close to the edge of the proscenium it made me worry if the Newsies were about to end up in my lap, or in the orchestra's. Each square had a retractable video screen and projections were used beautifully, depicting a variety of images, but mostly city streets, newspaper print montages, and my favorite - the headlines. This set is as Broadway ready as I have ever seen from a regional production. If Newsies: The Musical never makes it past the Paper Mill, I would weep for the destruction of a set this overwhelmingly beautiful. Could there be any downfall to such amazing complexity? Sadly, yes. If Newsies isn't meant for bigger and better stages, then it is meant for touring companies and local productions - without an incredibly wealthy patron, can Newsies even make it through the doors of a high school or community theatre? I will admit, I would rather see it have a run on the stages of NYC. While the crowds at the Paper Mill were large, there were empty spaces in the audience, but as a fan who is perhaps a little biased on the subject, I think we could help Newsies live a long life on streets of New York, or hell, “on the grounds of Brooklyn.” (Edit: This was written, of course, before the Broadway production was announced.)

The Characters
I feel like some of the characters have been sterilized, making important people into accessories, novelties, and not in any way that enhances the story. Some of the other characters are a fantastic addition to the show. I'll try to brain dump on all the ones worth mentioning. 

  • Race seems less overtly a gambler, so the bits of his character that we loved in the film and his jokes get lost in the shuffle because the audience doesn't understand who he is – now he’s just another Newsie. In fact, all the Newsies except for Jack and Crutchie are just “any other Newsie.” They do have names and bits of character (and the actors are all wonderful), but none of them are very important in the grand scheme of things.
  • Spot and his Brooklyn boys don’t show up until Act 2, well after the big fight scene against the goons (also, there is only one fight, not 2 like in the movie). They get a clever and cute introductory song, but there’s no need for them by the time they show up because there are no more fight scenes. It’s a lot of fan fare with no real payoff, and Spot is a badass with no scenes to be badass in. We don’t know why the other Newsies would be scared of him when he doesn't really threaten anyone or establish his dominance . A best case scenario would be moving these guys into Act 1 and giving them some real  raison d'être, but that  is all just wishful thinking, as the song list for the Broadway production appears to keep them in Act 2 after all. Bummer. 
  • In case you hadn't heard - there is no Sarah (and the fangirls rejoice!). David and Les have no sister to speak of, and while their mother was featured briefly during previews, she was written out by the time the show opened officially. There was no real need for her, and we never see David’s home like we do in the movie, so parents can just be referenced and not seen. You don't really miss them. 
  • Katherine Plumber is not Sarah – she is 100% more awesome. Most female fans hate Sarah, not because of Elle Keats, who is adorable, but because the character has no spunk. Katherine is spunky, and can hold her own around the rowdy boys, which makes her fun and the type of role model a young girl would want. She has a job, and lots of ambition and drive to win. Disney has slowly brought their leading women out of the kitchen and into the real world, so Katherine fits that mold beautifully. Her big solo song is wonderful and fun, I think you’ll really enjoy it. Some of those notes Katherine/Kara has to hit are a tad bit shrill, but all very Disney. Enjoy the newest leading lady; a princess in her own, more traditionally American, way. 
  • We get a very brief introduction to The House of Refuge via dialogue as Jack runs away from Snyder near the beginning of the show. Snyder though is reduced to a few growling moments throughout, and we’re not sure what this refuge is really – we never see it. Crutchie disappears to it at the end of Act 1, and Jack’s guilty conscience leads him to a powerful reprise of Santa Fe, but I am not sure Snyder’s presence was really felt. I can’t pinpoint what needs to happen with him, but something sure does. Again, it is an issue with establishing dominance. Something more than just a gravelly voice and a growl will accomplish. 
  • Pulitzer… oh Joe. I really want to love this Pulitzer (and by love, I mean hate), because he is the bad guy and John Dossett plays him so freaking well, but as soon as he starts to sing the energy of his first scene deflates. His introduction is a wishy-washy song (The News is Getting Better) that negates any real authority or dominance because it is literally ridiculous – he’s made a joke with a crazy chorus of idiots (his staff) and the tone of the song takes you right out of the streets and drops you into a cartoon. Don't get me wrong, it is a great song and I wouldn't expect anything less from Alan Menken and Jack Feldman, it just doesn't seem to fit the tone of this show.There are valid reasons why we shouldn't vilify Pulitzer in the musical, but I still want to. With Snyder reduced to an accessory, Pulitzer is the only villain left, and he’s as threatening as a 4th grade teacher.  (Edit: Hey... the news IS getting better! Pulitzer gets a brand new song for the Broadway incarnation. From what I can tell, the old song is gone for good, but perhaps there will be remnants of it in the new number? Only time will tell.)
  • Medda. Oh, Medda. We love Movie-Medda because she is clearly someone who treats Jack as family when he has none, because she tries to protect the Newsies at all costs, and even because she seems to have a bit of a crush on Race (was I the only one seeing that?) - but in the stage version Medda is a distraction. Her role isn't clear, and if I wasn't a fan of the movie, I am not sure I would really even understand her purpose, who she is, or why she is a part of it all. Her vaudevillian songs from the movie (Lovey Dovey Baby, and High Times, Hard Times) are replaced with a new, lighter feeling, more generic sounding song (Don’t Come a Knockin’ on My Door) that for all intents and purposes, doesn't move her plot along, or the overall story's. Her performance is a plot device to bring Jack and Katherine together for a chat. We only see one performance from Medda. She does not perform at the rally later in the show, as she does in the film, despite the fact they do use her venue for the event as they did in the movie. She wasn't even in the rally scene for the first few preview shows, if I recall correctly. She just popped up in the final scene when Jack confronts Pulitzer. Really weird, and distracting. Why would that random show-girl show up in Pulitzer’s office? This was corrected in later performances and Medda was given new lines connecting her to the Governor, which gave her purpose. Katherine Plumber seeks Medda’s help towards the end of the show in order to bring the Governor's attention to the events surrounding the Newsies, but even with the additional lines for Medda connecting her to Roosevelt, why would Katherine need help getting to the Gov? Katherine’s plot alone makes her more than qualified to connect to the Governor.  Not being familiar with Roosevelt’s personal activities (aside from bear hunting), I am unaware if he had a reputation with the ladies, which is what we are lead to believe by the added dialogue. Are we to assume Roosevelt was spending his evenings with a show girl? While Movie-Medda would be a loss, Stage-Medda seems unnecessary. Her role is obsolete, and her appearance in the first act, and then not again until our climax is disjointed and off putting. (Edit: Recently announced, the role of Medda has been completely rewritten for Broadway with new songs and one would assume, a new story line. This is exciting news because the Medda part needed some work! The Paper Mill actress was fantastic, but the role itself was desperate for some attention.)
  • Hanna is Pulitzer's idiot secretary, who in opening previews was SO stupid she actually negated all the good that a fantastic role model like Katherine was doing. Pulitzer asks for business ideas and she orders a pastrami sandwich or something equally as ridiculous. Not only was she taking women's liberation back to the stone age with her stupidity, but the audience didn't find her amusing or charming at all. I think, honestly, she made the audience uncomfortable with how blatantly stupid she was. This did not last long thankfully, and all her idiotic lines were cut by the time the show at Paper Mill officially opened. She was definitely a much more identifiable character after a rewrite, though still not really getting the laughs she seemed to be written for. I hope Hanna is a smarter woman in the Broadway version - not that I am against extreme characters, but it is hard to believe Pulitzer would hire someone that huge of an idiot if it was a man, let alone a woman.
  • Jacobi (a classic Jewish mensch) runs the deli where the Newsies all gather and refresh themselves with cool beverages. This guy has some funny lines, and will remind everyone of at least one old family member or neighbor who has words of wisdom (be they strange) in every situation. He gets some big laughs, and is a fun addition to the show. Think of him as Kloppman from the movie, if he worked the deli instead of the lodging house. 

Other Stuff (that I might add to later)
The show opens with a rewritten Santa Fe that is now a duet between Jack and Crutchie. It’s beautiful, so you don’t mind that the lyrics don’t match the movie (a reprise of the song that is closer to Jack’s original ballad happens right before intermission).

All your favorite Newsies are there for Carrying the Banner, and like the movie, the action of the show begins with us seeing the Newsies getting ready in the morning, then making their way through the streets of the city in song and dance. Little bits of lyrics here and there are changed just enough to make singing along a bad idea. Greeted by the charitable nuns, the boys are given food and drink, but Patrick’s Mother is gone and instead we hear what the Newsies have to say instead of a random character. More on Patrick’s Mother in my Broadway Primer.

The lack of historical accuracy is abundant, as it was in the movie, though if accuracy doesn’t matter then why do we get a rewrite on the ending instead of the great joyous victory presented in the film? Compromise on the final price, while it might be more realistic to the actual newsboy strike, deflates the win and left me feeling used up with no payoff. Pulitzer is too redeeming.

Curtain call is awesome, and the guys seem to take turns doing bell kicks each night. Lots of energy, which is good cause the show ends a little flat since the win against Pulitzer is less grand. 


Alright, I realize this is all a lot of wah-wah-wah, but I promise you I do love this musical, and it is lots of fun. I wouldn't see it so many times if it wasn't something really wonderful! I honestly can't wait for Broadway, and I truly hope my initial reactions don't turn you off. Come see the show and make up your own minds, it is totally worth the trip. Please don't send me hate mail... I am very fragile.