Disney’s 2012 Tony-winning Broadway musical Newsies makes its debut on the big screen this week, playing in movie theaters nationwide for three days beginning Thursday as part of a new partnership between Fathom Events and Disney Theatrical Productions.
It’s an unexpected move for the cult favorite, which had a long journey to success.
Newsies was primed to be the High School Musical hit of 1992 — with a cast of singing and dancing teens (including a young Christian Bale), a score by composer Alan Menken (Beauty and the Beast) and lyricist Jack Feldman, and future HSM director Kenny Ortega at the helm.
But the film turned out to be a massive box-office flop when it hit theaters in April of that year, opening to negative reviews and becoming one of the studio’s lowest-grossing films of all time.
Still, there was a generation of kids who fell in love with Newsies in theaters and on home video — including actors Jeremy Jordan, Andrew Keenan-Bolger, Kara Lindsay and Ben Fankhauser. They, like many, gravitated toward the “David and Goliath” story of 19th-century newspaper kids unionizing against publishing giant Joseph Pulitzer.
“I really latched on to it,” Jordan, 32, tells PEOPLE. “Growing up in south Texas, I liked to sing but it wasn’t cool —I got made fun of for it. And finally there was a movie that showed young guys being masculine and being cool but also doing the things that I loved to do. So it was formative for me in shaping who I wanted to be and the things that I wanted to pursue.”
“I saw it in theaters,” Keenan-Bolger, 31, says. “I have very vivid memories of seeing it. It was one of the first movies I remember seeing in the theater, but it was also one of the first movie musicals I remember seeing ever. It had such an impact on me.”
Lindsay and Fankhauser experienced the material on- and off-screen — both singing the songs in summer camp. “I still get chills when I hear ‘Carrying the Banner,’ ” Fankhauser, 26, says of one of the movie’s opening songs. “It gives me such warmth to hear it.”
“I think that’s what it does — it brings us back to our childhood,” adds Lindsay, 31, who also sang the film’s songs in school choir. “That music does it to you. That’s what makes it warm and fuzzy.”
If they all sound ultra-gushy about Newsies, it’s because they starred in the 2012 Broadway show — Jordan in Bale’s role as newsboy leader Jack Kelly, with Fankhauser as Jack’s right-hand man Davey, Lindsay as Jack’s love interest Katherine, and Keenan-Bolger playing the loveably Crutchie.
But none of the stars thought Newsies would even make it to Broadway — let alone a filmed stage production on the big screen.
Keenan-Bolger first joined the cast when they weren’t even planning a physical show. Regional theaters across the country had long asked Disney for stage rights to the property, so they set up a reading “truly for licensing purposes,” Keenan-Boldger says.
It went so well that Disney piloted a limited stage production at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, New Jersey — with direction from Jeff Calhoun and a book from Tony winner Harvey Fierstein. It was intended to be released straight to licensing markets following its run.
Disney changed courses when fans flooded to the theater, though. Soon a limited Broadway production was planned at New York’s Nederlander Theatre. It was nominated for eight Tonys, won two, and became an open-ended hit — playing 1,005 performances and launching a national tour.
“It felt like a hurtle every single time,” Keenan-Bolger says. “There was never any guarantees. And now that it’s played to 2.5 million people, we’re here putting it on film. I don’t think any of us could have expected that from cracking open that script that first time.”
To create the big-screen stage musical — dubbed Disney’s Newsies: The Broadway Musical! — Jordan, Keenan-Bolger, Lindsay, Fankhauser and a handful of the show’s original cast were merged with the North American tour stars for a show captured by cameras live at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre in September.
Bulking up the cast by six gave Tony-winning choreographer Christopher Gattelli even more pirouetting newsies to infuse into his numbers, which are known for their high-energy, gravity-defying jumps, flips and kicks. “The show is going to look better than it’s ever looked,” says Fankhauser. “They’ve beefed it up … it’s so exciting.”
There’s also a new song for Crutchie — “Letter from the Refuge,” which comes in while his character is stuck in the children’s prison. “It’s a really vital moment,” Keenan-Bolger says. “It gives my character such an arc and a real stake for Jack to continue with the strike knowing there’s a human suffering on the other side of the wall.”
None of it, the four friends say, could have ever been possible without the help of the thousands of Newsies fans (dubbed “Fansies”) who championed the show. “It’s almost that life imitates art,” says Fankhauser. “The fans did all of this.”
“Newsies changed a lot of people’s lives, not just ours,” Keenan-Bolger adds. “Much like our show, the older generations underestimated a young generation’s power to mobilize. It was these young Fansies that demanded it have the vital life that it’s had.”
Jordan is also curious to see how its tale of social action resonates in today’s political climate.
“It’ll be interesting to see the kind of effect the story has now— the newsboys striking and the underdog of fighting for equal rights,” he says. “It’s always been a very inspiring, empowering story. But now it could have a different kind of effect.”
Disney’s Newsies: The Broadway Musical! hits theaters Feb. 16 at 7 p.m., Feb. 18 at 12:55 p.m. and Feb. 22 at 7:00 p.m. (all local times). Tickets and information about the 700 select movie theaters participating can be found at FathomEvents.com.