Let me begin this review by saying that I am one of many teenagers that loved Newsies when it was released in 1992. Today I recognise that the film is flawed, but a recent viewing made it clear to me that the film has more to offer than reviews of the time suggested. That is why Disney Theatricals was able to resurrect the film as a stage property, albeit with numerous revisions, some of which make sense and others of which do not. A discussion of the show as a whole needs to be saved for another time: this review deals only with the score as represented on the cast album of the Broadway show that was released yesterday on CD following a digital release in April and which the many once-teenage fans of the show are sure to pick up, if only to hear how the Alan Menken and Jack Feldman score has been expanded and altered for the stage.
Of the 8 songs and 4 reprises that appeared in the film, most have survived the transfer. None is unchanged. While that may appear to be a good thing in theory, in practice the changes more often than not do not improve things. Perhaps it is useful to look at what worked best in the film, the music written by Menken. Musically, songs like “Carrying the Banner”, “Santa Fe”, “Seize the Day” and “King of New York” contribute solidly to storytelling and to characterisation and represent some of Menken’s best work. What is missing is Howard Ashman. Ashman was a meticulous storyteller, even when there were lapses in his craftsmanship. Menken was not his equal in that respect, as evidenced in his more recent ventures in film and musical theatre, such as Tangled and Sister Act, and Feldman is possibly the weakest of Menken’s collaborators since Ashman’s death. The film’s lyrics serve the story for the most part, but there are moments when rhyme overcomes sense or when the lyrics are clearly filling up musical phrases in a trite or otherwise uncompelling manner. While it would seem that this stage adaptation would be a perfect opportunity to revisit and polish the lyrics, it seems that this has been done in a rather indiscriminate manner and that many of the new lyrics crafted for the existing melodies are not any better than those that were in the songs before. Take, for example, some of the changes to “Carrying the Banner”. Some of the meaningless banter has been dropped (‘I smell money / You smell foul / Met this girl last night / Move your elbow / Pass the towel / For a buck I might’), but are replacements like ‘It’s a crooked game we’re playing / One we’ll never lose / Long as suckers don’t mind paying / Just to get their news’ really any better? Yes, the line makes more sense and now actually says something, but something that is rather destructive to the cause of character and situation. Why should the audience feel empathy for the Newsies and care about whether they are being cheated by Pulitzer when they identify themselves as cheats themselves? Later in the same song, a solo counterpoint sung in the film by a mother seeking for her lost son is altered in favour of the Newsies’ laments about the quality of the food they are served by a group of nuns: in this case, a verse of storytelling that was irrelevant to the bigger picture has been substituted with something that is relevant to the moment, but the new lyrics are uninspiring and the loss of the female vocal undermines the power that the contrapuntal passage had musically. So much for Feldman’s rewrites.
The second kind of song that appears in the score is that which replaces wholesale material from the film. There’s only one: “That’s Rich”, a vaudeville style song for Medda, a performer who is a consort of the show’s leading man, Jack Kelly, which replaces the two songs, “High Times, Hard Times” (which earned a nomination for Worst Song at the Golden Raspberry Awards) and “My Lovey-Dovey Baby” (the song from the score that truly deserved that nomination). This new song is more savvy than both of them, a meeting of something like Stephen Sondheim’s “More” and John Kander and Fred Ebb’s “When You’re Good to Mama”, but it is plagued with silly lyrics ultimately ground it when it should be the foundation of a soaring cameo role.
Finally, there are the original songs, a handful of pieces of varying accomplishments. “Watch What Happens” is possibly the best of the bunch, a soliloquy written for Katherine Plumber, the reporter who is an advocate for the Newsies’ cause. “The Bottom Line” is a song created for Joseph Pulitzer and his cronies, and is heavily reminiscent of “Blood in the Water” from Legally Blonde in how it characterises the villain of the show. “Brooklyn’s Here” feels derivative and uninspired, but not as uninspired as the new love duet crafted for Jack and Katherine, where Menken makes absolutely no attempt to marry his music to either the milieu or overall style of the show. Thus, the original material remains the strongest part of the score, flawed though it may be.
The performances on the album tend to be either very distinctive (Jeremy Jordan’s Jack, Kara Lindsay’s Katherine and Andrew Keenan-Bolger’s Crutchie) or very generic (Capathia Jenkins’s Medda and Ben Fankhauser’s Davey), but they serve the material well and that’s what counts. One only wishes that the material served them better. Newsies may be one of the most high-profile new musicals of this season, but this season has turned out to be a weak one for new musicals. It’s likely that Menken and Feldman will pick up the Best Score award come Tony Award time. This will be Menken’s first Tony and it is a pity that it will not be for his best body of work for the stage.