It’s biblical: The smallest stone can take down a giant.
In Alan Menken and Jack Feldman’s Newsies, that small stone is a ragtag group of newsboys hawking The World. The giant is none other than Joseph Pulitzer, publisher of The World and the behemoth that was New York City publishing at the butt end of the 19th century.
Newsies — which Music Theatre of Denton opens this weekend at the Campus Theatre — dramatizes the real-life newboys’ strike of 1899, a moment when Pulitzer and his archrival, William Randolph Hearst, were building newspaper empires and making mountains of money. Meanwhile, New York was a city split between wealth and poverty.
In Newsies, Jack Kelly is a newsboy who dreams of leaving the city for Santa Fe, but is bound to the streets of the Big Apple by poverty. He’s something of a wrangler to the other newsboys, who grow more worried as the publishers hike the prices of the papers they buy before hitting the streets.
“The newsies strike really got the ball rolling on workers fighting for something better,” said Cayden Candioto, who plays Jack in Music Theatre of Denton’s production. “These kids, they were poor. Some of them were orphans, or were from families that couldn’t take care of them. They’re walking all over the city, sweating, trying to sell these papers to take care of themselves.”
The musical, which is the stage adaptation of the 1992 Disney movie, sets the pieces in motion — big business versus worker. The stage musical, though, adds an element to the story. Katherine Plumber is a child of privilege. But like the newsboys, Katherine wants something more. She works for The New York Sun — a Hearst property with a bit of a seedy, craven side. She tracks Jack down hoping for an exclusive story about the strike.
“She’s a reporter who catches wind of the strike,” said Delaney Gebhart, who plays the role of Katherine. “She understands being an underdog, being a woman in a newsroom. She’s drawn to the story and the boys because she thinks it’s important.”
The musical bridges the generations with the introduction of Davey and Les, brothers who come from a privileged family endangered by the patriarch’s work injury.
Les, the younger brother, has a knack for sales.
“I lie about being really poor,” said Hunter Julian, who plays the role of Les. “I lie about being poor and needing a home. I’m really good at it. I give out a really good sad face.”
Les and Davey aren’t on the margins like the other newsboys, but their sense of fairness draws them into the strike.
“Les very much has that childlike faith we hear about,” Candioto said. “The other guys are like, ‘Let’s go on strike,’ but some of them are like, ‘That could be dangerous.’ It’s Les who says, ‘So?’ And Jacl hears that and he’s like, ‘Yeah, so?’ Les makes him think differently about it.”
The musical tracks Jack’s growth from a boy trying to hustle to becoming the leader of a movement.
“I think Jack — I mentioned this to [director] Eric [Ryan] — is very self-conscious about being a romantic,” Candioto said. “He’s sort of a secret romantic. He’s leading all these boys, but he’s not just leading them, he’s got a heart.”
Harvey Fierstein’s script doesn’t pad Katherine’s role with fluff, Gebhart said.
“The dialogue in this show, especially when you compare it to the dialogue in other musicals, has real meat to it,” she said. “Even with Katherine. As an ingenue, you normally don’t have a lot of dialogue with any meat to it.”
The musical weaves a romance between Jack and Katherine, but it doesn’t consign Katherine to a predictable dramatic fate. Her craving for purpose mirrors Jack’s hunger for dignity and justice.
“Jack is a natural leader, but he doesn’t know it,” Candioto said.
“Katherine is a pretty sassy person,” Gebhart said. “She’s had to toughen herself up, and she’s not willing to take a lot from people. She’s learned to use people the way she wants to, and she’s sharp. There’s an element of her wanting to be a successful person.”
Both Gebhart and Candioto said they’ve been fans of the musical, but both thought they might not get to perform in a local staging because the rights to the musical hadn’t been released until recently.
“I love this show through and through,” Candioto said. “Playing Jack Kelly, a role that Jeremy Jordan played? That’s pretty amazing. What’s cool though is that we’re not the same cast now as when we started. This is such a talented cast.”
“I figured I’d be too old to play the role by the time the rights were available,” Gebhart said. “The score isn’t easy, either. It’s a high belt role. I normally get cast in roles like Laurie in Oklahoma, so this is a challenge.”