Bull’s eye: ‘Newsies’ at CMHS is a hit!


From Jack (T. J. LaClair) and Crutchie’s (Victoria Pendzick) poignant but hopeful duet “Santa Fe” in its prologue, to its finale featuring the entire company, Center Moriches High School’s Drama Club production of “Newsies” delivered, playing to a full house for all three performances Feb. 9, 10 and 11.  An enthusiastic audience, some of whom were seen rocking to the score in their seats, was engaged and entertained by the exuberant cast directed by Nancy Harkin and Patrick Campbell, jazzy choreography by Katie Lemmen and Anna Moceri, and the superb pit band directed by Sara Greene that made it a truly special evening’s entertainment.

Jack Kelly, a 17-year-old newspaper hustler on a gritty patch of the Lower East Side of Manhattan, dreams of a better life in Santa Fe, but his moral compass keeps him anchored in place.  Such is the plight of this turn-of-the-last-century David, who chafes against the inequities imposed by one of the Goliaths of the newspaper publishing establishment, Joseph Pulitzer, when he’s compelled to forgo his own dreams to take up the cause of his newsie peers.

While set in a world long past, it is a world not unlike our own.  It confronts issues of poverty, disenfranchisement, betrayal, bullying labor tactics to suppress unions and workers, immigrants scraping to get a toe-hold in a new city, dreams vaporized by harsh realities.

Originally a Disney production with a book by Harvey Fierstein, music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Jack Feldman, its characters are based on real people who stood up against reigning yellow journalists, Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst, and organized the Newsboy Strike of 1899 that drew over 7,000 newsies—street hawkers, often kids from poor immigrant families working for pennies after school—together for a rally at Irving Hall in Manhattan.  Led by 18-year-old Louis “Kid Blink” Balotti and 20-year-old David Simmons, it garnered support from prominent local politicians and union leaders and raised awareness of the newsies’ plight.

The issue was fair compensation.  The industry relied on street sellers for distribution of afternoon and evening editions of its papers.  Prior to the Spanish-American War, a newsie would pay 50 cents for each 100 papers they hoped to sell; there was no refund for unsold papers.  The war increased public appetite for papers, and publishers were able to capitalize on the increased demand, raising the cost to 60 cents per 100.  Most reduced the price at war’s end; Hearst and Pulitzer did not.

The actual strike was effective and resulted in a compromise: while not lowering the cost of the papers, it gave newsies compensation for unsold papers.  Its success helped promote other efforts to organize and achieve better working conditions for labor and set in motion reforms in child labor laws.

The balance in the plot draws on an ensemble of hopeful young people.  There’s Medda’s (Grace Marrin) boisterous burlesque to “That’s Rich,” an ironic take on wealth and broken promises; Katherine (Alexandria Gilroy), a young reporter hoping to break out of the social pages to which her writing is assigned; and street kids hoping their voices reach the powerful invisible publishers who exploit them.  The serious themes are buoyed by the lofty, hopeful anthems against the power of the press.

“Newsies Stop the World” and “A Little Hyperbole Never Hurt Anybody” both mock and define their struggle against towering forces: Pulitzer published The World; hyperbole was yellow journalism’s stock in trade.  Later, when Katherine intones how, by telling the story behind the story—“watch what happens when that story gets told”—she exhorts Jack to keep his resolve.

There’s strength in numbers and the power of the press works in both directions.  Or, as Jack declares in his decision to strike, it’s “what stop the presses really means.”

In a larger sense, the play addresses a quandary: how to organize, and maintain the morale of a group uncertain of its goals, its strength, or its power to affect change.  The plaintive lyrics and dialogue—“courage cannot erase fear,” “stare down the odds and seize the day”—remind us that commitment isn’t always constant and change creates risk. 

The issues “Newsies” raises are old but still relevant today: child labor; exploitation of immigrants and the disadvantaged; the power of strength in numbers when workers unite against unfair labor practices.

“Newsies” is still news.  And Center Moriches’ Drama Club production hit its marks. 


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