Newsies: The Musical comes to New Paltz High School

Cast members: Rhys Weires as Darcy, Maddy Leitner as Davey, Andrew Geher as Jack, Emily Barbato as Specs and Kiah Saxe as Katherine. (Photo by Lauren Thomas)

It’s always good news when New Paltz High School’s Drama Club performs its annual spring musical; but this year, the headlines are the headlines. In a time when journalists are regularly being characterized by the president of the US as “the enemy of the people,” and some of them are being shot by political extremists on account of what they do for a living, what could be timelier than a revival of Newsies? It comes to the high school auditorium Thursday through Saturday, April 4 to 6.

Based on a not-very-successful 1992 Disney movie starring a very young Christian Bale, Newsies: The Musical was nominated for eight Tony Awards and won two (Original Score, Choreography) when it eventually came to Broadway, slightly retooled, in 2011. Disney animation stalwart Alan Menken wrote the music, Jack Feldman the lyrics, Harvey Feierstein the book.

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The plot of Newsies is based on an actual strike by newsboys in New York City in 1899. The delivery boys – many of them orphaned and/or homeless – are required to pay for all the papers that they try to sell; whatever copies they don’t sell amount to a loss to their already-meager income. When Joseph Pulitzer, publisher of the New York World, raises the price per copy, the Manhattan newsies organize a strike and try to get their counterparts in Brooklyn to join them.

Pulitzer brings in strikebreakers; violent clashes ensue. But he’s forced to negotiate after the rival New York Sun gives front-page coverage to the newsboys’ strike and rally, raising issues about exploitation of child labor. In the stage musical version, the reporter for the Sun, writing under the pen name Katherine Plumber, is Pulitzer’s own daughter. In real life as in the play, Pulitzer eventually changes his policy, agreeing to buy back all unsold copies.

As befits a Broadway musical, there’s a romantic subplot as well. In the NPHS production, sophomore Andrew Geher plays the lead part – in his words, “a charismatic young man named Jack Kelly, the leader of the newsies.” Jack is a composite character, based on several of the real-life strike’s principal instigators; one of them actually was bought out by Pulitzer, not merely tempted as Jack is by the offer of train fare to his dream destination of Santa Fe. “Santa Fe” is also the title of the character’s recurring solo ballad in the show. “Jack’s character is very tough – he stands up for the newsies – but he has a lot of heart, which comes out in the love songs.”

Jack’s love interest is Katherine Plumber, herself a composite of a male New York Sun reporter who covered the 1899 strike and of the sister of two other newsies, Davey and Les, in the movie version. NPHS senior Kiah Saxe – who played the same part in a recent Center for Performing Arts at Rhinebeck production of Newsies Jr., an abridged version for middle-schoolers – will portray Katherine. Davey and Les, two brothers who become newsboys after their father breaks his leg and has to stop working, are played respectively by Maddy Leitner, a senior, and Alina Gorney, a junior. Described by Leitner as “shy at first,” Davey becomes one of the main union organizers, kicking off the show’s big anthem, “Seize the Day.” Other major characters include Crutchie, a disabled boy attacked and captured by Pulitzer’s “goons,” played by sophomore Ryan Hovey; Medda Larkin, the owner of a vaudeville theater used by the newsies as a hideout, played by junior Christina Rust; and Pulitzer himself, played by senior Trevor Crofton.

Casting girls in what are nominally boys’ roles is not an uncommon practice in the Drama Club, which most years tends to attract more female than male students. But in the case of Newsies, says director Nancy Owen, there’s a real-life historical precedent: “I looked it up. Ten percent of the newsies were girls” at the time of the strike. In choosing what musical to produce this year, Owen was also thinking of the timeliness of the concept of high-school-aged people organizing protests – “how kids now are standing up for themselves, for example after the Parkland shootings.” NPHS had its own student-led walkout to call for gun reform after that tragic incident, she notes. “This supports them. We thought it was kind of empowering to do.” Besides, says Owen, “The music is so great.”

The young cast seems to agree. “There are a lot of dance numbers that get you going,” says Gorney. “It has a serious topic, but a lot of comedic breaks,” adds Leitner. “It’s a pretty popular musical; it was back on Broadway not long ago,” says Geher. “So a lot of people know it pretty well, and they’ll want to come see it.”

Coming to see a play or other event in the NPHS auditorium has just gotten easier: The school district now uses an online ticket-purchasing service for the first time. You can buy tickets in advance, without having to wait on a long line at the door before a performance, and you even get to pick your own seats. “We’ve already sold about 200 tickets in less than two days,” Owen enthuses. To purchase, visit www.showtix4u.com/events/nphsnewsies. Tickets cost $10 for all for the 2 p.m. matinée on Saturday, April 6; for the 7:30 p.m. shows on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, the prices are $15 general admission and $12 for seniors and students.

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