Let Me Tell You What I Liked About: Newsies

Welcome to a new series I call “Let Me Tell You What I Like About…”    The premise is basic.  I am going to write about the things I LIKE about a Broadway show.  My theory is this:  I see a lot of shows, and in this era of the snarky armchair critics that haunt the Broadway message boards, a moment of “Hey, you know what I thought was cool” isn’t a bad thing.  Last I wrote What I Liked About…Evita.
On top of that, I want to continue our conversation about the ins and outs of a Broadway show, but this time, talk about a real Broadway show, not just a television show that’s about a Broadway show.  Are you all with me?  Instead of doing fact or fiction, we’re doing:

Let Me Tell You What I Liked About….

Newsies

Let’s start with a quick history of Newsies to catch up those of you who might not eat, sleep and breathe musical theater history the way some people do–and by “some people” I mean my husband Rob Meffe, who just so happens to be a professor of musical theater history and repertoire for Pace University’s musical theater program.

Rob says I always drag him into my projects (in fact, as I type this sentence he is recording music for a show I am directing), so let this series not be an exception to that rule.

And now, direct from the piano, Mr. Rob Meffe.

Newsies the musical is based on the 1992 Disney film of the same name that had a score written by Alan Menken.  Menken had three huge successes with the scores for The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin, yet Newsies was a critical and financial disaster, only grossing $3 million on a $15 million budget.  There was a lot of acrimony amongst Disney executives around this project and it wasn’t until a few years ago that Disney chose to adapt this (seemingly obvious) show for the stage.  This time around, however, Disney was not interested in pouring buckets of money into a Broadway project (even with the successes of The Lion King andMary Poppins, they were not interested in repeating the stage musical versions of The Little Mermaid and Tarzan), so when they approached Alan Menken through his agent, they suggested that they use his previously written songs and they would hire a different composer to write the new songs for the stage production.  Right away, Alan insisted that he write all of the new music for the show, even at a highly reduced rate.  He was further encouraged to take on this project by Newsies’ two biggest fans; his two daughters.  One of his daughters actually performed in a version of the show at her summer camp and created a girl newsboy named “Swifty” which she tried (unsuccessfully, so far) to add to the stage production.

Thank you Professor Meffe.  If you were in his class, following his lecture you would have to perform songs from the era he is currently teaching (this lecture would be a part of “Menken/Schwartz week”, so you would probably be assigned “Somewhere That’s Green” or “Corner of the Sky”.  You should hum along as you continue reading).

Two thoughts on what Prof. Meffe wrote:

1)  The use of the SAT word “acrimony”.  We are very highbrow.

2)  There is a female newsboy, but only a true insider could tell us what her name is.  Someone with a connection to Newsies please get that info for us.  Thank you!

What I liked #1:  Taking my 14-year-old daughter, Charlotte.  Charlotte’s friend Emily saw the showfor her birthday and loved it, so Charlotte already had Newsies on her radar. What was so fun for me was Charlotte’s genuine enthusiasm (it wasn’t quite Beatles level, but it was up there.)

Because of my career path, I see a lot of shows (obviously) and I take Charlotte to a lot of theater (and rehearsals, and auditions…the kid eats sleeps and breathes theater). This fortunate kid has seen about 100 Broadway shows in her short life. She should write a theater column for New York Kids magazine.  She never has to beg to go…she just gets to go.

So, when Charlotte comes to me and says, “I want to see…” (fill in the blank Broadway show) my ears go up like a German Shepard’s. You wanna see something and it’s not my idea to go? You got it. So often I am in the position of filling her in about the show as we walk in and take our seats, but time Charlotte was texting with her friend and telling me important facts from her 14-year-old perspective.

“The lead guy is hot.”

“Emily says I have to run to the stage door as soon as the show is over to get autographs. The line gets huge.  She got an autograph.  I have to get one, too.”

“Mom.  Emily says this is a true story. Cool.” It makes me look at the whole show with a different perspective–as is the case with Newsies. I was sitting with the demographic audience and she loved it. It’s hard not to love it, too.

I’m sure Charlotte and Emily would be happy to see Newsies again, if anyone would like to borrow them.  They will scream and run around.  It’s satisfying when musical theater excites a teenager.

What I liked #2:  The stage was flat. I know that is a very random thing, but I will explain myself. First of all, by “flat” I do literally mean flat. No incline on the stage (which is called a “raked stage”). Raked stages are used (I’m going to get this wrong) to show more depth on stage. They are literally built on a slope, so for example, if you set a can of coke on the back of the stage, it would roll to the front and fall into the orchestra pit. The steeper the rake, the faster the coke can rolls. Of the shows I’ve done, both Cats and Les Miserables were on a rake. Think about that. Les Miz, with that giant turntable, was raked…meaning the ENTIRE TURNTABLE moved on an angle. I could tell you nightmares about getting on that raked stage in the dark when the turntable was spinning, but I will spare you the details  and concentrate on Cats instead. Cats had an extreme rake (if there is someone who knows the exact degree it was raked, let me know), and it was glossed so the cats could slide across it. I remember the first time I put on my tap shoes and got on the stage–even after being warned about the rake and the gloss–I fell on my ass immediately.

Who cares if a stage is raked? Directors and producers do, for one.  It makes the set look better, the sight lines are better (you can see the actors and dancers upstage) and hey, if it is better for the audience, it’s better for everyone, right? Wrong. I will sum the problem up in one word.

Injuries.

There is a significant increase in injuries to performers who work on raked stages. In fact, the problem is so bad that it became a major negotiation point for Actors’ Equity Association vs. producers. AEA made some significant improvements in regulating the rake of the stage.  Citing from the AEA website, this is from the Stage managers instruction packet:

Raked Stages: As you may know, Actors’ Equity Association is currently examining the effects working on a raked stage may have on our members. As the Stage Manager, please help us track rake-related injuries by assuring that they are properly reported. Both acute injuries and chronic symptoms (also sometimes called “repetitive stress injuries”) should be reported through either Stage Management or Company Management, using the appropriate forms – both a “C-2 form” and an Equity Incident/Accident Report.
A recent study on raked stages discovered that the most common types of injuries are injuries to the lower extremities, the neck, and the back.

This is the actual rule:

Raked Stage
Prior to the construction of any raked stage where the incline will be greater than 3⁄4 inch per foot, the Producer shall promptly notify Equity of such plans and provide such information as Equity may reasonably request. It is understood that when a Producer is utilizing a set from a prior production, said notice may not be possible and the Producer agrees to notify Equity as soon as a determination is made that such set will be utilized.

So what does this have to do with Newsies?  There is some of the most athletic dancing you’ve ever seen on that stage.  These boys tumble and leap for over 2 hours, and I promise you, if the stage was raked, they’d be plagued with injuries.  I suspect Christopher Gattelli the choreographer insisted on the flat stage.  Chris, a friend of mine and former Cats dancer lived through the Cats injuries.  Bravo, Chris.

What I Liked # 3Kara Lindsay.  This kid is going to have a sit com soon.  Pay attention to how she sings “Watch What Happens” (the best song in the show, in my opinion).  I teach a class called Acting The Song, and she embodies everything I try to pass on to my students.  Her work is rich and detailed, but never feels over worked.  As an audience member you get to sit back and enjoy it, hearing every word.  She’s a delight.

What I Liked #4:  Jeremy Jordan (the lead guy).  I liked him in the show very much, but that isn’t what impressed me the most.  I really enjoyed watching him talk to the kids at the stage door.  He took time to talk to each one, sign autographs and pose for pictures.  It was generous and heartfelt and much appreciated by this mother.  It is easy (and I’ve seen people do it a million times) to leave the theater by another door and avoid the public outside.  Jeremy Jordan seems to understand that working the stage door at a show like this is an unwritten part of his job descriptionYes, it is politically smart for his career, but he could easily skip it and still go on to more leads in shows (he was also Clyde in this season’s ill-fated Bonnie and Clyde) and have a film career (he has a major motion picture out, Joyful Noise with Queen Latifah and Dolly Parton) without signing every autograph.  Good form, Mr, Jordan.

About Sharon Wheatley

Mother of Charlotte and Beatrix. Sometimes an actress. Sometimes a writer. I'm glad you're here.
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8 Responses to Let Me Tell You What I Liked About: Newsies

  1. nkirchmar says:

    HOLY SMACK DOWN!! This blog is already #7 in google for "Raked Stages Cats Musical" I was hoping to find the degree as you got me curious.

    Sharon, you never cease to amaze and inspire me. You know, somedays I am sicker than a dog and then your little ray of sunshine pops up on my Mac screen and gives me hope and joy and fills me with fun factoids!! I am so honored to be your friend and lucky to get little glimpses into your life. I know that if I still lived in NYC I would see you nearly every day for coffee… well, every other day because I know I am a lot to handle for most people on a daily basis… or so I have been told.

    xoxo

  2. Michael Dale says:

    I did a summer stock production of Forum with a raked stage and the proteans on roller skates. Thank goodness nobody died.

  3. Guest says:

    I love that you are doing positive-spin blogs on shows that are currently running! I'm a huge music theater nerd and found your blog through another site I read….which tends far more toward the snarky. I've loved going back and reading all of your old blogisodes! At any rate. It's so easy in this world to spend time ripping things and people apart. You don't pretend everything is perfect with the shows (and you can read between the lines sometimes to see what might be lacking) but I think that we would all be much happier if we were to spend more time focusing on "What we love about" an awful lot of things rather than the opposite. Thanks!!!

  4. Emma says:

    Thank you so much for pointing out how important it is to greet people at the stage door. As a musical theatre major and someone who grew up going to Broadway shows, that is the biggest deal to me! I love when actors, stars or not, take the time to talk with their fans. That's the sort of behavior that inspires younger people to go into the business, after all!

  5. David Cleveland says:

    do you remember Alan Alda leaving the Plymouth and coming INTO Phantom and walking out the front door of the Majestic just to avoid the 3 people who wanted his autograph? Bad form Mr. Alda.

  6. Christy says:

    I'd really love to see 'Newsies' and have all my fingers crossed for a further extension to the run as I can't make it across the pond until next year. I've been waiting for this to get to Broadway for years, it would be typical to miss it!

    Agree on raked stages, I know a few people who have ended up injured because of them – I know it looks better from the audience's point of view, but surely not enough to justify injuring your actors?

  7. Colleen says:

    The female Newsie (played by the incredibly talented Laurie Veldheer) is named Smalls. And to provide more background on Swifty, this was actually a character cut from the film version. Screenwriters Bob Tzudiker and Noni White tried unsuccessfully for a very long time to incorporate a female Newsie into the group, but it perhaps just wasn't meant to be.

    Thank you for your wonderful and insightful comments on the show! Your blog is fascinating and I very much look forward to future posts.

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