Upon entering the Fichlander Theater this winter, audiences immediately find themselves immersed in the world of New York City just before the turn of the 20th century. To reach their seat, they must dodge clothing and sheets on clothes lines hanging from the ceiling all around the top of the arena-style space. As audience members take their seats, in the center of the stage stands an industrial-looking structure, which will later move to give the audience visibility of characters from all sides. Suddenly, the lights go down, and the overture plays, themes and tunes soon to become Broadway classics. After all, director Molly Smith usually puts up musicals typically considered classics in this slot at the Mead Center for American Theater, the building that houses Fichlander. Anything Goes, Carousel, and Oliver! are some of the past shows Smith has directed at the center.
Newsies is a different take on the idea of classic Broadway: a newer addition to the world of theater that intertwines dance and contemporary Disney-style songs with a story of love and a labor union.
The show ran on Broadway somewhat recently, from 2012 to 2014. While the musical is fairly new, it has already left a massive impact on the world of theater. Songs like “Carrying the Banner,” “The World Will Know,” “King of New York,” and “Seize the Day” are well-loved and recognized by fans around the world. Newsies was written by Harvey Fierstein, with lyrics by Jack Feldman and music by Disney great Alan Menken, who also scored films like Aladdin (1992), The Little Mermaid (1989), and Beauty and the Beast (1991). In 2011, it premiered at Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey. The following year, it started its run on Broadway at the Nederlander Theatre, produced by Disney Theatrical Productions. It is based on a Disney film of the same name that came out in 1992, which was written by Bob Tzudiker and Noni White.
The plot of Newsies follows a group of young newsboys who go on strike following Joseph Pulitzer’s raising of newspaper prices. Group leader Jack Kelly (Daniel J. Maldonado) attempts to get back at Pulitzer and his newspaper by enticing the others to start a union and join in on protests and movements against the mistreatment of newsboys. The play sees the strike through and carries a powerful message when the Newsies expand their goals and begin to stand up for every child laborer in New York. These events are somewhat based on historical facts. In 1899, newsboys really did form a type of union and go on strike, an occurrence unsurprisingly dubbed the Newsboys Strike of 1899. These young people were able to reduce the circulation of newspapers in New York City and succeeded in getting Pulitzer and another news giant, William Hearst, to confirm that they would buy back the newspapers the newsboys could not sell.
Arena Stage’s production of Newsies attempts to bring to light “Children’s Crusades” of all kinds, especially the youth movements and gatherings of today: protests on climate change, gun control, and more. Smith’s note in the program as artistic director dedicates the musical to “young people everywhere who speak up for what they believe in and take action.”
Actor Michael John Hughes, who plays Romeo and Spot Conlan in the production as well as serving as its dance captain, spoke to the Voice about the process as a whole, explaining the emphasis on the movements of today and how it informs the work the cast and the production teams do onstage each night and did in rehearsals.
“Obviously, nothing we’re saying is about climate change, but because that charges our performances,” he said, “[audiences] will automatically feel that and cling to those feelings that they see on the news now.”
Another difference between this production and other productions of Newsies is the stage it takes place on. Fichelander Theater is an arena, meaning the seats surround the stage from all sides. Dance numbers and dialogue must, therefore, be done in a way that entices all members of the audience.
“In the case of the round, you have people all around you, so you may be standing facing one side of the audience, but the people who are behind you need to know exactly what you are saying,” Hughes said regarding performing in an arena setting. “So it’s basically adjusting yourself to make sure you’re being as inclusive as possible.”
Arenas can have downsides. Moments occur in which certain audience members might not be able to see a character’s facial expression. Curtain calls seem a little strange and complicated when actors must turn to face many different sides of the audience. Sometimes, actors can be hard to hear or understand, as Hughes points out, when they are facing away from a portion of the audience. However, plays in-the-round bring intimacy and immersion that a proscenium stage cannot. Instead of seeing Newsies from afar, detached from the theatrical world, the whole audience is immersed within the play. 1899 New York City is made more real and easier to grasp during moments when the police chase Jack around the top of the arena, behind audience members. During other moments, characters sit almost perched within the audience, furthering the emotional connection between the onlooker and the events unfolding in the play.
In all, Arena Stage’s production of Newsies effortlessly pulls its audiences into the world of the play while simultaneously supporting a type of positive commentary and focus on the children’s movements of today. Its staging brings audiences in physically, with action occurring all around them, and emotionally, with incredible acting and staging that pulls at the heartstrings.
Arena Stage will run Disney’s Newsies through December 29, 2019. The schedule, tickets, and more information can be found here.