But the story of David (the ragtag paperboys, aka "newsies") versus Goliath (publishing titans Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst) still reverberates.
"It's amazing how 100 years later it can still resonate," director Jeff Calhoun says in a telephone interview. "Here we are in the middle of the same thing. There's no doubt about it."
"Disney's Newsies" is also the little show that could. The story started out in 1992 as a movie by director and choreographer Kenny Ortega that starred Christian Bale and Robert Duvall. It flopped. But over time, the film became a cult favorite, with legions of fans (they call themselves "fansies") watching and re-watching the movie on VHS and, later, DVD. There were unsubstantiated rumors that high schools were putting on the musical, without a script or score … or permission from Disney.
"I have to be candid and tell you I never saw the movie," says Calhoun ("9 to 5: The Musical," "Grey Gardens"). "I was never aware of this title. I didn't even know what a newsie was. I didn't even know there was a movie. It's funny, but I've done two Kenny Ortega movies as musicals, this and 'High School Musical.' And both times, I went out of my way to now see the source material, because I wanted to come to it fresh. You can never un-see something."
So in 2011, a critically praised musical version of "Disney's Newsies" was staged at Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey, playing to sold-out houses of teenagers and young adults. That show, helmed by Calhoun and vigorously choreographed by Chris Gattelli ("Altar Boyz," "Sunday in the Park With George"), made it to Broadway in 2012 for what was supposed to be a limited run.
But the fansies had other ideas, propelling "Disney's Newsies" to two extended runs before Disney announced the musical would have an open-ended engagement. The run lasted 1,005 performances, with attendance just over 1 million and a gross of more than $100 million. With a book by Harvey Fierstein, the show closed on Aug. 24, 2014, after winning a Tony Award for best original score for composers Alan Menken and Jack Feldman and one for best choreography for Gattelli.
"I did watch the movie," Gattelli says via email. "[It was] when I was about the 'Newsies' age in the [movie] theater. It was incredibly inspiring for me. As a young dancer their age, before the time of YouTube and the strong presence of reality shows, I had never seen so many guys my age dance before. I grew up watching Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, but to see all of those incredible guys dancing that were so young, it changed my life. It completely inspired me, and it's a true gift to be a part of this show and hopefully pass on that inspiration to new generations."
The stage version introduces seven new songs by Menken and Feldman, while keeping many of the songs from the film, including "Carrying the Banner," "Seize the Day," "King of New York" and "Santa Fe."
For the uninitiated, "Disney's Newsies" tells the story of Jack Kelly, the charismatic leader of a band of paperboys on the rough streets of New York circa 1899. But when newspaper barons Pulitzer and Hearst raise distribution prices at the newsboys' expense, Jack finds a cause to fight for and rallies newsies from across the city to strike.
"Heart," says Calhoun when asked what he felt had to transition from the screen to the stage. "It has to be moving and it had to touch you. It couldn't just be information about something that happened at the turn of the century. You had to care about these boys. I think that credit largely goes to Harvey's [Fierstein] interpretation, and that's why it resonated so much with people."
"Disney's Newsies" will run Feb. 3-8 at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., in Miami. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, 7 p.m. Sunday, with 2 p.m. matinees Saturday and 1 p.m. Sunday. Tickets cost between $26 and $125. To order, call 305-949-6722 or go to ArshtCenter.org.