In 1899, newsboys across New York City went on strike, refusing to sell the New York Evening World or the Evening Journal after Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hurst raised prices the boys had to pay for a bundle. The boys forced the media magnates into a compromise deal. True story.
IF YOU GO
Who: MHS Theatre Company
When: Feb. 27-29, 7 p.m.; Feb. 29, 2 p.m.
How much: $12 adults; $10 students
This month, Maricopa High School Theatre Company is staging the musical Newsies based on that influential boycott.
“It’s about the 1899 newsboy strike. So, there’s people that you know – Joseph Pulitzer, real person; Teddy Roosevelt, real person,” said MHS Theatre Director Alexandra Stahl. “It’s about kids overcoming injustice.”
Newsies started as a Disney musical starring Christian Bale in 1992, a movie that struggled to get noticed despite a score by Alan Menkin and Jack Feldman. Twenty years later, it was converted to Broadway and was a big hit, running for 1,004 performances and winning a Tony Award for its score.
In the musical, leading the strike is the rough-and-tumble Jack Kelly, based on the real-life Kid Blink. While many of the supporting roles are gender-neutral, Jack has fairly steadfastly been portrayed by a male actor, until now.
“I didn’t even imagine that I could get this role. I was shooting for Davey,” said junior Emma Schrader, who played Golda in last year’s Fiddler on the Roof. “It’s the first time I walked out of an audition feeling good about how I performed. Then callbacks came out, and I got called back to play Jack. And I thought, ‘That was not even a possibility in my book.’”
Because the part involves a kiss – “They made it very clear that it had to be a stage kiss” – Stahl took the issue to Principal Brian Winter, who told her to cast the kid who most deserves it.
“Emma came in and blew our socks off,” Stahl said. “Every day since, she has proved that was the right choice. And Haley was always going to be Katherine.”
Haley Raffaele, a sophomore, plays a newspaper reporter for the New York Sun. “She gets tangled up in the newsie drama when she meets Jack Kelly,” she said. “She’s kind of follows their story and helps them out. she really ends up caring about all these boys and wanting to bring their story to light and help them figure out this problem.”
Raffaele played the lead in Maricopa Community Theatre’s Freaky Friday The Musical last year. For the school musical, she has worked to find connection with Katherine.
“She’s special character. I love her,” she said, but she’s also discovered the challenges of “balancing personal, school and theater life and being in AP honors classes.”
Like Schrader, senior Derek Blakely was surprised with the part he landed. Often cast as comic relief, he now plays Joseph Pulitzer, the primary nemesis of the newsboys.
“He’s a real dude and definitely the bad guy in this one,” Blakely said. “He raises the price the newsies have to pay for newspapers just to steal an extra nickel or dime off of them. I’m basically the reason they’re rising up.”
Blakely said he wanted to challenge himself in his senior year, and the part moved him out of his comfort zone. He would like a career in the animation industry in production and as a voice actor.
“This is the first time I’ve had a proper singing part up to this point. I was actually very scared to sing,” he said. “Like a year ago, if you’d asked me to sing, I definitely would have cried because it stressed me out so much. I got to this one, and I was like, ‘I want to end my senior year with the biggest part that I can, and I know that I’m going to have to sing.’”
Stahl said the company had worked through almost all the available musicals that did not require a lot of dancers. Newsies demands a lot of dancing. Stahl made junior Taya Johnson her student choreographer, and they brought in students from the Performance Group, the school’s dance troupe.
Johnson plays Splasher, as well. While the other actors have had to work hard at choreography – “again and again and again,” Schrader said – even the dancers were not all honed for Broadway style or tap. And while working on their lines, the actors are also working on their vocals. Some are even taking voice lessons.
“Bringing it together at the end is what’s really crucial for us,” Schrader said.
And then there’s the character development.
“Sometimes musicals don’t tend to be a lot of character work because it’s so showy and flashy, but Jack goes through quite the journey,” Stahl said. “We had the conversations: What is shame? What does that look like?”
“Jack is, on the surface, very cocky, very confident in his own abilities, but on the inside he just seeks a family, and that drives him throughout the show, to find people that he feels safe around and can truly show his inner self,” Schrader said. “A major character arc is Jack’s shame and him dealing with it. I didn’t know how to play that. I had to learn what courage and shame are in myself.”
This is Stahl’s second year as head of the company, which had already won state High School Musical Theatre Awards and was shaping up as a formidable force under Cynthia Calhoun.
“Well, I came in and told them, ‘Let’s make a name for ourselves.’ And then we won at Nationals, and I was like, ‘OK! Here we are,’” Stahl said. “I think we’re heading down the right track. When they’re on, and it’s not a hot mess running through, they’re very good. You fall in love with the characters; you believe the story they tell.”
MHS Theatre Company is preparing for national and state adjudications next year and has learned to adapt to the natural cycle of performers in and out of the program.
“They see what shoes they have to fill, and they just seem to fill them,” Stahl said. “We’re building up a company of strong actors and singers. I think we’re going to keep making a name for ourselves.”