Newsies: how Disney turned an underdog victory into a car crash movie starring Christian Bale

Read all about it: Christian Bale in the 1992 Disney movie Newsies - Entertainment Pictures / Alamy
Read all about it: Christian Bale in the 1992 Disney movie Newsies - Entertainment Pictures / Alamy

It starred Christian Bale as the heartthrob teen hero, boasted original songs by Oscar-winning composer Alan Menken (The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin), and was directed by Dirty Dancing choreographer Kenny Ortega – plus it was based on a real-life David and Goliath story: the striking newsboys versus publishing giants Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst. So why was the 1992 Disney movie Newsies such a notorious flop?

Even more extraordinarily, that box-office bomb went on to spawn a Tony Award-winning Broadway musical, which is making its UK debut later this month at London’s Troubadour Wembley Park Theatre (and such is demand, the show has already extended its run). But if the material and music do in fact chime with audiences, it’s even more puzzling that the original film crashed so badly – savaged by critics and making just $2.8 million in ticket sales against a $15 million budget.

Let’s start with the real story: the Newsboys’ Strike of 1899. It’s a fascinating one, featuring child labour, war, and a youth revolution. At the time, newspapers were distributed by newsboys or newspaper hawkers (known as “newsies”), who bought a bundle of 100 papers and sold them on for a slim profit.

When the Spanish-American War of 1898 boosted paper sales, with readers eager to follow every dramatic development, canny publishers raised the price of the newsies’ bundle from 50¢ to 60¢; increased sales covered the raise. But after the war ended, and most newspapers put the price back to 50¢, two titans refused to do so: Joseph Pulitzer of The Evening World and William Randolph Hearst of The New York Evening Journal.

Unsurprisingly, that angered the hard-working newsies, who were now being squeezed but didn’t have the extra sales to offset the price rise. It also seemed monstrously unfair that these millionaire moguls should be attempting to profit even further from the low-paid youth workers who actually sold their papers. So, in July 1899, a gang of newsies in Long Island City – who had just discovered that a delivery man was trying to cheat them via a bundle with fewer than 100 papers in it –declared a strike against Pulitzer and Hearst’s publications until the price was put back to 50¢.

A group of newsies selling on the Capitol steps in Washington DC, 1912 - Imago History Collection / Alamy
A group of newsies selling on the Capitol steps in Washington DC, 1912 - Imago History Collection / Alamy

They were soon joined by newsies from across the city and beyond. These strikers were mostly kids (from teenagers to as young as seven) – they often sold papers after school, and their ranks had swollen recently when evening editions were introduced for commuters to read on the way home. But this was still a tough and violent strike. Any “scabs” were mercilessly beaten and their papers torn up. Pulitzer and Hearst tried offering police protection to their new sellers – using grown men instead of boys – but to no avail.

It took the management completely by surprise. When the strike first started, the World’s managing editor, Don Seitz, sent a memo to Pulitzer about “some trouble” because of the action, but predicted it would be “sporadic”. He was wrong.

Instead, the strike escalated. On July 22, 100 newsies gathered on Newspaper Row, the street where the delivery wagons collected their papers. The boys were armed with clubs and they rained missiles down on the wagons. After the police arrived, they quickly dispersed, but that was part of the plan: when the delivery wagons reached their destinations, they found hundreds more strikers creating impenetrable rings around the houses, and banners on every newsstand and lamppost with messages like “We Will Fight For Our Rights”, “Please Don’t Buy the World or Journal”, and “Help The Newsboys”.

The strike was impressively well organised and each faction communicated with the others through its appointed representatives. They took up a collection and used it to pay for thousands of leaflets, which publicised their cause. But there was also a youthful glee to their methods: delivery wagons and scabs were most often met with a shower of stones, like a playground showdown.

A truck distributes newspapers to the newsies, 1944 - Pictures Now / Alamy
A truck distributes newspapers to the newsies, 1944 - Pictures Now / Alamy

That particular method might have been crude, but it was effective. Following the July 22 attack, Seitz’s memos to Pulitzer became increasingly panicked. He described the strike as menacing and a serious problem: “Practically all the boys in New York and adjacent towns have quit selling.” By July 24, he admitted that advertisers were fleeing. Meanwhile, their rival papers were gleefully reporting on the David vs Goliath battle.

This strike didn’t just come out of nowhere, though. Revolution was already in the air: there was a wave of national strikes, including the streetcar drivers in Manhattan and Brooklyn, which occupied the local police force – and that in turn aided the newsies. They captured a more general feeling of discontent: an us versus them sense of grievance. The newsies also benefitted from how much the media tycoons originally underestimated them. After all, they were just children – how much trouble could they cause?

But their sheer numbers overwhelmed the attempts of police to suppress the strike, and the impact on the papers’ distribution was devastating. By late July, the World’s press run had crashed: from 360,000 copies to just 125,000. On July 25, 5,000 newsies gathered at New Irving Hall to hear speeches, including from Louis “Kid Blink” Baletti. The redheaded, Italian-American 18-year-old (called Blink because he wore an eyepatch) was the charismatic co-leader of the strike, along with 21-year-old David Simmons, a Jewish amateur boxer, and 14-year-old Irish Brooklynite “Spot” Conlon.

Some speakers urged the boys to tone down the violence, but Kid Blink fired them up again, saying: “Ain’t that 10 cents worth as much to us as it is to Hearst and Pulitzer who are millionaires? If they can’t spare it, how can we?”

Jack Kelly (Christian Bale) leads the newsies' strike in the 1992 film - Entertainment Pictures / Alamy
Jack Kelly (Christian Bale) leads the newsies' strike in the 1992 film - Entertainment Pictures / Alamy

However, there’s a twist in this tale. A pervasive rumour spread that Kid Blink and Simmons then betrayed the cause: that they were bought off by Pulitzer and Hearst. Although it was never confirmed for sure, both were seen wearing smarter clothes. They resigned their leadership roles, and Kid Blink was chased by a mob of angry strikers. Ironically, he was saved when a police officer, assuming that Kid was actually leading the mob, arrested him.

Still, the strike was a partial success. On August 2, the publishers struck a compromise with the boys. The price remained the same, but they agreed to take back any unsold papers from the newsies and give them a 100 per cent refund. The union was disbanded. Further strikes followed elsewhere, although it was another two decades before child labour laws came into effect.

But the ragtag victory was immortalised – first in DC Comics in 1942, as the Newsboy Legion, and then in a Disney movie. And how could a story this rich, with such memorable characters and an incredible underdog victory, possibly fail?

The 1992 film Newsies wasn’t originally intended to be a musical: Bob Tzudiker and Noni White wrote a purely dramatic screenplay, based closely on the strike. But then Kenny Ortega, the successful choreographer behind Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Dirty Dancing, plus music videos like Madonna’s Material Girl and Olivia Newton-John’s Physical, took on Newsies as his directorial debut – and he saw it as the perfect opportunity to revive the movie musical. It would also be Disney’s first ever live-action musical film.

Ortega cast 17-year-old Christian Bale, who had impressed as a child actor in Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun, as Jack “Cowboy” Kelly, the experienced newsboy and swaggering strike leader. Joining him was David Moscow, who had played the young version of Tom Hanks’s character in Big, as intelligent newcomer David Jacobs. He becomes a newsie after his father gets injured in his factory job.

One small problem: neither were trained musical performers. “They had to calm both me and Christian down, like ‘Look, we’re never going to make you look bad’,” Moscow told Insider. “They brought in Madonna’s voice coach for us. It was wild.” Despite their intensive training, neither really leads the big song-and-dance numbers with any conviction; Ortega artfully cuts around them. The lip-synching, from everyone, is dreadful.

More behind-the-scenes drama ensued during the California shoot. Welsh native Bale almost had to quit when he had trouble with his visa; reportedly, Spielberg intervened and sorted it out for him. Bale also started dating his movie love interest, Ele Keats – who played Sarah Jacobs, David’s sister. That might have aided their chemistry. Instead, the pair broke up right before they filmed their big romantic scene together. (The writing of Sarah has not aged well: she’s there purely to gaze lovingly at Jack, and later be saved by him when some goons attempt to rape her.)

There were troubles on the creative side too. Tragically, Alan Menken’s long-time song-writing partner Howard Ashman, with whom he’d created the stage musical Little Shop of Horrors and Disney favourites like Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid, was dying of Aids; in fact, he passed away just before writing began for Newsies.

David Moscow (centre) with the striking workers in Newsies - Moviestore Collection Ltd / Alamy
David Moscow (centre) with the striking workers in Newsies - Moviestore Collection Ltd / Alamy

So Menken asked lyricist Jack Feldman (responsible for Barry Manilow’s Copacabana) to work with him instead. They were under serious time pressure, as all the songs had to be pre-recorded – but they also had to make constant revisions as the script kept changing. Plus, as Feldman noted, “Break-into-song musical movies were not fashionable at that time. They were prior, and they became so again, but at that time it was an anomaly.”

Ortega was also feeling the constraints of their small budget. He actually changed the ending of the movie, which originally saw Jack fulfilling his dream of boarding a train to Santa Fe, just to save money. There was no money for reshoots either, which means that Moscow’s accent varies (he was told to change it partway through filming), as does Bale’s appearance, since Ortega decided later he should look scruffier.

Adding to the pressure was the heavy hand of Brand Disney. The cast did get to visit Disneyland, but some were baffled by the set visit from Mickey and Minnie Mouse. Jeffrey Katzenberg, top Disney exec, also came to check their progress. That actually made Keats feel more confident: surely a Katzenberg-backed project couldn’t fail? “Everyone was supporting this movie to be a huge success,” Keats remembered. “So when it bombed, I think it was a shock to all of us.”

And bomb it did. Menken had breakfast with Katzenberg at the Four Seasons in Los Angeles after its woeful opening weekend, and asked what they could do. Katzenberg replied: “Menken, I could throw $10 million up in the air right here, and it would do just as much good. It’s DOA, baby, DOA.” The film was yanked from most theatres, and went on to make just $2.8 million – not even close to recouping its $15 million budget.

Christian Bale (centre) with his fellow newsies, including Marty Belafsky as Crutchie - Everett Collection Inc / Alamy
Christian Bale (centre) with his fellow newsies, including Marty Belafsky as Crutchie - Everett Collection Inc / Alamy

Actor Marty Belafsky took a group of friends to the cinema to watch it, expecting a movie star moment as everyone there realised he was in the film, only to find that his party were the only ones in attendance. Reflecting on it later, he blamed Disney for trying to market the film to too wide an audience. “They wanted the music and the hijinks to appeal to the kids but the actual story and some of the more adult themes to appeal to adults.” Moscow, meanwhile, has come to realise the irony of Disney, which has never exactly been pro-union, actually releasing a movie extolling the virtues of collective bargaining.

Keats was in Canada shooting another movie when Newsies opened, but she didn’t escape the horror. Disney actually posted her a stack of terrible reviews – including “some personal-attack type of reviews. And it was really hard for me when I read them.”

Critics certainly didn’t hold back – although, having done a recent rewatch, I can’t say that I blame them. The film has a bizarre tone, giving this tough, real-life story a glossy Disney sheen. It turns the strikers into Oliver! or Annie-type urchins, with screeching Noo Yoik accents that make Guys and Dolls look positively understated. There’s also a warped sort of humour in having the “kids” (the actors’ ages yo-yo around; all are conspicuously hale and hearty) smoke cigars and gamble in world-weary fashion.

That schtick gets into tricky territory when it comes to the friendship between Jack and a music hall madam, Medda, played by Ann-Margret. Their interactions are weirdly suggestive, considering the pair’s relative ages, and the distracting character is there purely as an excuse to have Ann-Margret belt out a couple of numbers.

Ortega’s choreography for the rousing songs is creative but muddled, mixing in everything from an Irish jig to acrobatics and anachronistic breakdancing. As for the strike leaders’ supposed treachery, that’s softened considerably; here, Jack is blackmailed into changing sides in order to protect his loved ones, but is too noble to keep up the ruse. But most fatally of all, the film is far too long and, well... boring. No wonder it picked up five Golden Raspberry nominations.

And yet… Fans just wouldn’t let go of it. Newsies found a further life on VHS, becoming a cult favourite for teen sleepovers, and unofficial amateur stage productions kept springing up in schools, summer camps and community theatres.

That prompted Disney to create their own theatrical version, with Tony-winner Harvey Fierstein (Kinky Boots) brought on board to rejig the book, and Menken and Feldman returning to add new songs and revise their previous ones. One major change was the creation of a new vaguely feminist character, Katherine Plumber, combining two previous ones: Jack’s doe-eyed love interest Sarah and the reporter Bryan Denton. Spoiler alert: she is later revealed to be Pulitzer’s daughter.

This new musical version premiered at the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey in 2011, and opened on Broadway in 2012, where it ran for two and a half years and won two Tony Awards, for its propulsive choreography and for Menken’s score. The show was filmed for theatrical release in 2017, grossing $3.47 million (so topping the original movie’s box office), and that version was later put out on Netflix and Disney+. Music Theatre International also created a one-hour version for schools, omitting the darker material – perhaps finally solving that conundrum of how to pitch the show to the right target audience.

So, is Newsies now hitting the headlines for all the right reasons? British audiences can make up their own minds when the musical begins its run at the Troubadour Wembley Park Theatre this week, in a fresh in-the-round production helmed by Matt Cole.

One aspect that might well chime with current audiences is the sense of social justice, fuelled by a new generation. As Fierstein put it when the show opened on Broadway: “Watching young people change the world is interesting. That’s what Newsies is like: children changing the world. This is your world and you have the power to change it and make it what you want it to be.”

Newsies is at the Troubadour Wembley Park Theatre Nov 29-Apr 16; troubadourtheatres.com