Two Minutes' Traffic: Newsies, Arena Stage

I have owned in my life three different copies of the Newsies film. One was poorly taped off the Disney Channel, but even missing the first two minutes, was a vast improvement over our previous strategy of "just watch it whenever you find out it's already playing and you missed half of it." By the mid-90s, I had an official store-bought VHS copy with an inexplicably pink back cover and every glorious minute preserved. In the early 2000s, you better believe I bought it on DVD, still carefully preserved in my apartment. But when the movie was finally adapted for the stage and I finally got to see it (twice), my heart sank.

Harvey Fierstein's adaptation made changes, many of which were harmless, some of which haunt me to this day (that's how you treat Spot Conlon, Harvey? He's the key.) But in the slickness of the transition to Broadway, some of the movie's clumsy, too on-its-sleeve heart got lost. The extended dance sequences were technically masterful but felt soulless and perfunctory. And it was fine! I had the movie, after all, and if another generation got to have songs like "Carrying the Banner" stuck in their heads all day, too, that was a win.

But it turns out that when you take Newsies back out of the proscenium and into the round at Arena Stage, a lot of that heart comes rushing back into the piece. Newsboys leaping and tapping and tumbling without a barrier between them and the audience, rushing up the aisles and running into chase sequences around the back wall of the Fichlander stage suddenly make it all work for me again. The fact that the story involves all that singing and dancing about unions, fair wages, and exploitation of child labor just becomes part of the shine again, especially in an age when newsroom unions keep making their own headlines and injustice is all around us, fighting to be heard.

I thought I was content to have Newsies as a movie, but I'm grateful that Molly Smith found the way to make it sing as theatre. I'm sure not everyone is as ready to charmed by the show (and to be fair, the adaptation still has flaws), but when I can look across the stage and see the beaming face of another woman my age during "Seize the Day," I know she and I are right there together, sharing a moment as audience members in a way that nothing else can recreate, and one we've waited a long time to see.


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