In the lead-up to the release of the live-action The Little Mermaid, Consequence will be looking back at the Disney Renaissance and how it shaped our culture. This time, we’re looking back at the enduring legacy of the 1992 live-action musical Newsies. Watch the film now on Disney+.
When exploring the Disney Renaissance, its successes are easy to focus on — the string of blockbuster animated films that transformed the studio into the cultural behemoth it is today. In fact, the studio was on such an unstoppable winning streak in the 1990s that even its flops stand out as memorable achievements: One 1992 live-action musical lost the studio millions of dollars, even while it was helping launch a future movie star’s career and evolving into an enduring cult favorite… one which would, eventually, lead to a $100 million payday for its studio.
Based on the true story of the 1899 newsboys strike, Kenny Ortega’s Newsies debuted in theaters to middling box office, making $2.8 million theatrically — not enough to recoup its reported $15 million budget. The critical response wasn’t great either, despite Christian Bale throwing everything he had into his starring role as newsies leader Jack Kelly and the involvement of composer Alan Menken, who wrote the music for the film’s enduring songs under the shadow of partner Howard Ashman’s passing.
One of Hollywood’s most curious twists of fate, in fact, is that the failure of Newsies coincided with Menken receiving massive acclaim for his and Ashman’s work on films like The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast — in Insider’s recent oral history of the film, Menken recounts how he found out Newsies had won Worst Song of the Year at the Razzies “literally backstage when I was in the press room for having received the two Oscars for Beauty and the Beast.”
The Razzies, as it’s been said before, were wrong about this; not only is Newsies a musical packed with bangers, but it still holds up today as a solid blend of history, heart, music, and even comedy. The opening sequence is masterful in establishing life as a newsie on the streets of New York, revealing where they live, to how the adults in their world treat them, to the petty squabbling and larger economic issues that will play a larger role in the story later on. Yes, the pacing drags a bit in the second half, as the authorities crack down on the fun of rebellion, but that makes the power of the climax, with a whole city’s worth of child workers rising up in support of the newsies, all the more unforgettable.
And the choreography of the musical numbers also really shines, with the approach leaning hard on mimicking the play-fighting of boys, the leaps and rhythmic movements proving iconic no matter what music they’re set to.
Newsies also bears the remarkable distinction of being a Disney movie that doesn’t varnish over its more period-accurate details — imagine Disney releasing a movie in 2023 where pre-teen characters are casually shown smoking cigarettes and going to (PG-rated) burlesque shows — in ways that give some extra grit to what was always a nascent Broadway musical, in the end.
There are definitely points in Newsies where its true destiny is clear, such as the four-minute-long “Santa Fe,” a largely solo number for Bale that stretches the audience’s ability to buy into why, exactly, this teenage kid is high-kicking his way down the street while singing about finding a real home for himself someday. Yet Bale does his best to sell it, especially when you consider that per a 1997 interview with Movieline, he was never interested in starring in a musical:
“When I first read the script, I thought it wasn’t a musical. Later, after I realized it was, I asked Kenny [Ortega] if maybe I could duck over here into the pub while the numbers were going on, and then come out when it was over. I hoped I could be the lead in a musical without doing any singing and dancing! Eventually I said, ‘Fuck it, let’s just do it.’ But I had a lot of doubts about it — I never liked musicals, and even then I knew I’d never do anything like that again.”
And as he notes in that same interview, “You say something bad about Newsies and you have an awful lot of people to answer to” — even then, it was becoming known as a cult hit, with Bale himself becoming the first star to develop a fanbase on this new and exciting thing called the World Wide Web. “If the Internet is the ultimate democracy, Christian Bale has been elected its biggest star,” Entertainment Weekly wrote in 1996.
EW’s metrics for that declaration, which I share in all their glorious vintage details: “On America Online, correspondence about him is filling a 12th Movie Talk folder, while Mel Gibson scores three and Chris O’Donnell two. On CompuServe, Bale dominates eight files. In March, the Usenet newsgroup alt.movies.christian-bale launched, though postings about him pop up on nine others. And the home page of the Christian Bale Fan Club (www.interlog.com/cbale) reported more than 76,000 hits one week in August, while fellow boys celebre Will Smith and Ethan Hawke don’t even have official sites.”
It wasn’t Bale’s ascent to the top of Movie Star Mountain, though, that led to what may be Newsies’s most enduring and profitable legacy: the 2012 Broadway musical adaptation, which ran long enough to make Disney a reported $109 million, recouping the show’s initial $5 million investment in just seven months. Menken’s songs (with lyrics by Jack Feldman) definitely played a role, though, along with the same high-jumping choreography and powerful underdog narrative.
If Newsies has one enduring message, it’s in the lyrics of “Seize the Day”: “Wrongs will be righted, if we’re united… Nothing can break us, no one can make us, give our rights away.” They’re lyrics that might be sung right now on the picket lines outside Walt Disney Studios, as the Writers’ Guild of America strikes to fight for the future of their profession, and SAG also mobilize in preparation for a similar move.
Because perhaps the most fascinating element of Newsies’ legacy is this: One of Hollywood’s biggest studios, just as it was reclaiming its power in the industry, ended up making one of the most aggressively pro-union movies ever, a movie designed to teach children about the power of collective bargaining and labor rights, with the added bonus of a nascent heartthrob, catchy songs, and great dancing.
Newsies is streaming now on Disney+.