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Hayfield & Newsies in the summer of ’99—1899

ALEXANDRIA, Va. (May 4)— The Dramahawks of Hayfield Secondary School here told the musical story of a self-organized strike by newsboys, many of them not yet teenagers, against two of the most powerful publishers in the world: Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst.


The New York Times above the fold, July 17, 1899

The makeshift union formed by the newsboys of Manhattan and New York’s other boroughs didn’t last very long after the strike, but the protest against an increase in costs was effective in bringing about important concessions.

The biggest news of the day was a trolley strike in Brooklyn, which wasn’t nearly as damaging to the transit system as the newsboys’ strike was to the publishers: advertisers were requesting rebates on advertising rates and circulation had gone down.

The Spanish-American War and the boom in newspaper circulation had been over for nearly a year, and most stories on the front page were not very effective at selling newspapers—or in bringing income for the newsboys. So their action of organizing a union and walking out on strike caused two publishers in New York to agree to certain terms with the young people, specifically to buy back newspapers they couldn’t sell on the street.

But neither a war over Cuba and Puerto Rico nor a trolley strike makes for as robust a Broadway musical plot from Disney as the blossoming romance between a rather resourceful and quick female reporter, Katherine Plumber (Brooke Smith) and the charismatic dreamer at the heart of the strike, Jack Kelly (Max von Kolnitz).

Add to their love interest the tight, on-point choreography of dozens of seventh through 12th graders on a crowded set that had two upper floors with windows, a balcony, and a “penthouse” overlooking Manhattan, and the back flips, tap dancing, and a few well-placed kisses exploded with the energy young people always find when they demand fair treatment—no less effectively than the youth of today.

Although the trolley strike couldn’t even shut down rail lines during the day, the newsies had found their voice, and even Crutchie (Patricia Villaroel Narvaez), who, despite having only a few moments of solo vocal work, wouldn’t let her crippled leg keep her from supporting the newsies’ effort—though she might have taken advantage of her disability a little with customers.

Crutchie’s paradox—that she’s a strong dancer despite her disability and has a kind of goofy optimism in the face of unfair treatment from rich publishers—is the key to the story, and Ms Villaroel Narvaez brought a spunky, never-say-die sweetness to the role. Even on a stage of rows and balconies of newsies singing and tap dancing their hearts out, in a spectacular ballet, it can’t be hard to pick her resilient enthusiasm out of the crowd.

Music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Jack Feldman, book by Harvey Fierstein, and in performance at Hayfield Secondary School in Alexandria, Virginia, May 2–4, 9–11, Newsies is directed by Pat Mitchell, Sarah Prince (vocals), Andrew Clifford (pit orchestra), and Samantha Haughton, Ally NewRingeisen, and Allison Taber (choreography). Set design by Claire Hackney.

Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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