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The Cult of 'Newsies'

Twenty years ago, a film with Christian Bale as a singing and dancing paperboy flopped big-time. But thanks to a rabid cult following, it's finding new life on Broadway

The throng outside Broadway's Nederlander Theatre tonight is largely twentysomething, largely female — and largely squealing. Tonight's performance of Disney's Newsies has just ended and a crowd's gathered by the stage door. Meagan Lewis, 26, recalls discovering the 1992 movie musical that inspired the show in drama class when she was 15. Kate Hicks, 28, and her cousin used to mount the film's production numbers — the anthemic ''Seize the Day,'' for one — on a trampoline in her backyard. Tami Salame, 29, a superfan from Daytona Beach, Fla., isn't here tonight, but that's okay, because she's seen the show 20 times already — and plans to attend eight more performances in June. ''I'm kinda at this place where it's like, 'Wow, do I really need to keep spending money on Newsies?''' she says. ''But yeah, I kinda do.''

Wait a minute. Didn't the movie Newsies flop? Wasn't it about a bunch of scrappy newsboys in the 19th century? Wasn't Christian Bale in it when he was, like, 17? They made a Broadway musical out of that? Yes to all of the above. Newsies was an endearingly ambitious but structurally problematic film. When it was released 20 years ago, it grossed a measly $2.8 million — making it one of Disney's biggest bombs (before John Carter, of course). The stage version, which began on Broadway March 15, outearned its film predecessor in less than four weeks. Thanks in part to the movie's devoted cult following, Newsies is breaking records at the Nederlander, raking in up to $1 million per week. The show scored eight nominations for next month's Tony Awards, including ones for Best Musical, director Jeff Calhoun, and lead actor Jeremy Jordan (in Bale's role as head newsboy Jack Kelly). It's a surprising reversal of fortune for a project that once earned headlines for all the wrong reasons.

The Early Edition

Newsies began as a classic underdog story ripped from the history books. In mid-1990, writers Bob Tzudiker and Noni White approached producer Michael Finnell with an idea for a nonmusical drama based on the newsboys' strike of 1899, when paperboys across New York City organized a union to demand fair compensation from publishers Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst. Finnell liked the idea. ''It had the Disney feel,'' he recalls. ''You know, the little kids going up against the big bad industrialists.'' He brought a pitch to Disney's then studio head, Jeffrey Katzenberg, who swiftly ordered a script.

After several drafts, Katzenberg, who had just overseen production on The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, decided to take Newsies in a vastly different direction. ''The musicals that we were making in animation were really enjoying incredible success at the time,'' says Katzenberg, now CEO of DreamWorks Animation. ''We all felt that this story, the period setting — New York and the street — was a great template for a musical.'' When Finnell heard the news, he says, he was stunned: ''There was dead silence on my end of the phone. Probably for a minute.''

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