The headlines from the “Newsies” slice of 1899 mirror the headlines of today, as the scrappy kids hawking papers on New York City street corners fight for their lives and livelihoods.
The Disney musical running Friday (6/28) to July 21 at Theatre Cedar Rapids revolves around a very real newsboys’ strike that brought about change. From July 18 to Aug. 2, 1899, the youths protested the low wages paid for the child labor used to sell Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World and William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal. The newsboys bought the afternoon editions for 50 cents per hundred and sold them for a penny, earning them a halfpenny profit.
When the price to the boys jumped 10 cents per hundred, the boys fought back.
The story is just as relevant today as when the Disney musical opened on Broadway in 2012, said TCR guest director Amy Osatinski, 35, of Cedar Falls. A theater professor at the University of Northern Iowa, she also knows a thing or two about staging the show. In March, she published her detailed study, “Disney Theatrical Productions: Producing Broadway the Disney Way.”
“It’s the first academic work that evaluates their history, and ‘Newsies’ is one of the chapters in the book, so I got to do a lot of research on the show,” she said.
The musical actually is a reworking of the Disney movie that bombed at the box office in 1992 but became a cult classic through repeat showings on the Disney Channel, she noted. When high schools started doing their own versions of the movie, Disney Theatricals created a show for licensing purposes, not for Broadway.
Eventually, Harvey Fierstein came onboard to revamp the screenplay, and working with composer Alan Menken, they turned it into the solid Broadway production that garnered eight Tony nominations in 2012, winning for choreography and musical score.
Timing is everything in theater, and this show hit the mark.
“When it premiered, it was right in the middle of the Occupy Wall Street movement,” Osatinski said. “That protest — the first one on Wall Street — actually happened just a couple days before the show opened on Broadway, which is a really cool connection, because it’s this idea of the 1 percent and 99 percent, the worker versus the uncaring owner, David versus Goliath, which is something that pops up in the show.
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“And in this instance, the little guy wins. These kids stand up for their rights. They protest, they strike, they come together, they work as a team, and in the end, the powers that be say, ‘You know what? You’re right — this isn’t OK and we’re gonna listen to you and fix it.’
“That is so relevant right now, especially,” she said. “Our country is so divided at this moment. All of these different movements and protests and marches and people standing up and saying, “Hey, this isn’t OK. We want our rights. You can’t put us down.’”
The various story arcs are wrapped up in high-energy song and dance, with nearly 30 people ages 12 to 50s in the cast.
“Newsies” is the first show Osatinski has directed at TCR, and it’s the local swan song for choreographer Alvon Reed, 37, of Cedar Rapids, who is moving on opening night for his new position at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa.
Reed is pushing the dancers — especially the newsies — by leaps and bounds to uphold the show’s reputation of excellence.
“We believe that everyone should be putting their best foot forward in this production. And I think it also changes how they approach the simple mundane things in life: Showing up on time, being ready and always giving your best, even when the day is terrible, and be present, because everything you do affects everyone else around you.”
The show not only demands movement, but focus, and knowing your body and what it can do — then pushing beyond that to discover things you didn’t even know you could do, he added. He is showcasing jazz, ballet, tumbling and tap, with some stepping incorporated into the tap to add to the percussive feel. The time period of the show also comes into play.
“We talked about how people were moving at the time,” he said. “The body moved with a different kind of feel, like gusto or drive or intention. And so we worked really hard to create this rugged shape and style of movement that was gritty, that was aggressive, but also movement that can be soft (and) accessible to the audience.”
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To achieve all that, during auditions, he turned his eye toward finding inner energy, desire and willingness. “All of those elements are very evident in ‘Newsies,’” he said. “We also were looking for them to be open to trying new things.”
He also was looking to try new things. A Los Angeles native, Reed started dancing at age 16 or 17, then studied at Coe College in Cedar Rapids, the Milwaukee Ballet School and the Alvin Ailey School in New York. He has served as artist-in-residence at Cornell College in Mount Vernon, and has choreographed shows around the Corridor, including Cornell, Coe and the University of Iowa, as well as Revival Theatre Company and TCR. He considers himself a collaborator, and has worked with the legendary Bill T. Jones and tap giant Maurice Hines.
“Newsies” fulfilled that desire for a new choreographic challenge.
“I think the weight of the show, the pressure of the show with regard to it being excellent, gave me a little bit of trepidation in the beginning,” he said. “But in terms of creating for this show, I just had to do it one number at a time. ... (That) actually gave me an opportunity to really think more deeply about what is being asked of the number. That’s important for any choreographer in musical theater — what is this number asking and then how do you begin to navigate putting the pieces together.”
From the beginning, he staged “boot camp workouts” to prepare the cast for the demands of the dances, and to keep everyone strong and healthy as rehearsals and performances unfold. Audiences will reap the rewards of all that hard work.
“I can’t say it enough that people are in store for something exciting,” he said. “They’re in store for a really good show. Amy has directed the hell out of this thing, and she’s really worked well with the actors and even the ensemble to help them gel in the way to really help create this 1899 time frame.”
WHERE: Theatre Cedar Rapids, 102 Third St. SE, Cedar Rapids
WHEN: Friday (6/28) to July 21; 7:30 p.m. Friday, Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday
TICKETS: $22 to $50; TCR Box Office, (319) 366-8591 or Theatrecr.org
EXTRA: July 13 is an ASL interpreted performance; contact the Box Office to reserve seats with best view of the interpreters