BY MELISSA RUGGIERI
It was impossible to imagine that a mega-flop Disney film about a late-19th century newsboys strike – starring a teenage Christian Bale! – would, two decades later, become a Broadway hit.
But Disney’s “Newsies,” which scored a pair of Tony Awards in 2012 for best choreography and best score for Alan Menken and Jack Feldman, had a healthy run of more than 1,000 shows at the Nederlander Theatre before closing in August and embarking on its first national tour two months later.
The show, starring Dan DeLuca as head “Newsie” Jack Kelly and Steve Blanchard as Joseph Pulitzer, will make its Atlanta debut with a run at the Fox Theatre through Sunday.
The pedigree of “Newsies” includes a book by Harvey Fierstein (currently enjoying another Broadway triumph with “Kinky Boots”) and a musical collaboration from Menken, a wizard at Disney scores who has eight Oscars on his resume and lyricist Feldman, who has written for several Disney movies as well and co-wrote Barry Manilow’s unforgettable “Copacabana.”
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Feldman recently chatted from New York about what makes “Newsies” so special.
Q: Were any modifications made in the score when the show moved from Broadway to the national tour?
A: The biggest difference was that we wrote a new song (“Letter From the Refuge”), which I’m told is unusual for a national tour, where material is sometimes cut out of a show…It’s sung by a character (“Crutchie”) who you didn’t see between the first act and the last scene (of the show), so this gives him a solo moment within the second act so we can keep an eye on his character. He’s a fan favorite, the most optimistic and gung ho of any of them. He lands in this heinous children’s refuge under horrible conditions, so we get to see him in that environment and we see him writing a letter to the Newsie he’s closest to ensure he’s fine. I definitely didn’t want it to be a self-pitying song, and it seems to play well and the actor who plays him (Zachary Sayle) is magnificent.
Q: What was it like working with Alan Menken?
A: Alan Menken is sui generis. I can’t really describe how he does what he does. I can sit there and watch it and still not be able to describe it. He writes from a place inside him, and it’s not that he’s not very conscious of the story being told or the technical aspects of writing, but when he is in the pocket and knows what he wants it to sound like, he works very fast. But he is always flexible in terms of accommodating lyrics that might not fit exactly what he’s written and he’s always happy to try to change it meet the lyric. Between his generosity as a collaborator and his genius as a music person, you can’t ask for more than that. He and I and Harvey (Fierstein) had a super-great time writing this.
Q: Given that the movie wasn’t exactly beloved, were you surprised when they wanted to turn it into a live production?
A: For the first five or seven years after the movie, it never occurred to me that anything else ‘”Newsies” related would be on the drawing board. I think because of the Internet and social media and the fact that kids growing up 10 years after the movie were watching it on the Disney channel or pay cable, before we knew it, the movie had developed a cult that was much, much deeper than I had any idea about. Apparently the company which licenses to shows to schools (Music Theatre International) had more requests for a stage musical of “Newsies” than any other show.
Q: The show has a dedicated following that calls themselves “Fansies.” What do you think speaks to people, especially that younger audience?
A: With the original cast and the cast of the tour, I can’t tell you how many of them came up to me and said it’s because of having seen this movie on TV that made me want to be a performer. Or guys would say after seeing this, “I had the courage to go to dance class,” which was extremely moving to me. I think part of it is that it’s a story about the younger generation finding its place in the world and getting the courage and realizing they have the strength and smarts to take over positions that they never thought they would. So a lot of it is about empowerment, the it-takes-a-village kind of thing. They had to realize how much they depend on each other and I think kids today are as susceptible to that message as they ever were. In terms of the girl “Fansies,” well, there are 18 cute, incredibly talented guys dancing their feet off onstage. Most of the girls are hypnotized at the talent they’re seeing.
Q: Well, there will be no argument from a newspaper writer about a show that spotlights newspapers for a younger generation!
A: (Laughs) It’s funny, because where a lot of the momentum of the show is due to social media and online access, (younger attendees) are embracing a show about newspapers. It’s so analog! It’s ironic, but sort of fitting.
“Disney’s Newsies”: 7:30 p.m. Jan. 20-22; 8 p.m. Jan. 23; 2 and 8 p.m. Jan. 24; 1 and 6:30 p.m. Jan. 25. $25-$125. Fox Theatre, 660 Peachtree St. N.E., Atlanta. 1-855-285-8499, www.foxtheatre.org.