Despite being the benefactor of a prestigious humanities prize and a generous philanthropist, pioneering newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer is cast as “a pretty bad guy” in “Newsies” according to the lead actor in the next musical theater production coming up at the Saenger Theatre.
Joey Barreiro, who is performing the role of Jack Kelly, the young leader of a New York City newsboy strike, explained that the production makes Pulitzer the fall guy for the events that led to the strike. Loosely based on a true story that took place in the summer of 1899, “Newsies” runs Dec. 1-6.
A Tony Award-winner and the highest-grossing show from the 2011-2012 Broadway season, “Newsies” will stage eight evening and weekend matinee shows in New Orleans.
During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when daily newspapers in major American cities were at their competitive peak, the papers were loudly hawked on city streets by young boys. These newsboys were nicknamed “newsies,” and the wages they earned from the sales of their papers were barely above subsistence level. They had to buy the papers in bundles of 100 and then sell enough of them to make a profit — not an easy accomplishment when the bundles cost 50 cents each and the papers themselves sold for as little as a penny or two cents apiece.
So, when newspaper publishing titans Pulitzer of the New York World and William Randolph Hearst of the New York Journal raised the bundle price to 60 cents and refused to lower it as the newsies demanded, most of them went on strike. Led by a charismatic, half-blind Brooklyn newsboy named Louis Ballatt, nicknamed “Kid Blink,” the New York City strike had the support of an estimated 5,000 newsies.
The sometimes-violent, two-week strike ended Aug. 2, 1899, when the publishers agreed to buy back all of the newsboys’ unsold papers. Among the budding and struggling union movements of the time, the boys were lauded as heroes.
Barreiro, 25, is well-versed in the history behind the events in this musical. His character, Jack Kelly, is the Kid Blink prototype who boldly stands up to Pulitzer with the newsboys’ demands. Although there is no historical evidence that this confrontation took place, “For story purposes, we had to demonize Joseph Pulitzer,” Barreiro said. “He made some poor decisions, especially about raising the price on the papers, so he’s a pretty bad guy in our show.”
Barreiro is also well-versed in the history behind the musical itself, having seen the 1992 Disney movie version of “Newsies” starring Christian Bale that led to the later musical version.
“The movie was a flop, but it had such a cult following that Disney was getting requests for many years to turn it into a musical,” Barreiro said. “So they finally did it, not thinking it was going to be a success. But it had a very successful Broadway run and the tour is doing very successfully, as well.”
In both the film and stage versions, Jack’s character dreams of a better life off the city streets and in an exotic location like “Santa Fe,” the title of one the signature songs of the musical. It is one of Barreiro’s solos near the end of Act I.
“Jack had just run away from a big fight between the police and his friends, and he had seen his friends getting hurt. In the Broadway version of the show, he’s expressing how much he just wants to get away from all this,” Barreiro said.
Barreiro, who joined the tour in October, had lavish words of praise for the cast members he shares the stage with, especially the other newsboys and their dance numbers.
“All of the dancing we do tells stories that are great,” Barreiro said. “The story is really fantastic. A lot of people discredit musicals when it comes to acting and telling stories, and I think that’s unfair to some musicals. We can’t put them all in that category. ‘Newsies’ isn’t Sondheim, but it’s a really, really fantastic story. I think everyone will enjoy it.”