Newsies vs. The World takes a microscope to the historical events of the newsboy strike of 1899 against publishing titans Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst, then traces the adaptation of the strike by Disney into a film and a Broadway show.
The newsies’ strike of 1899 was the last successful child labor riot of the 19th century, but by the time the history books were scripted and printed, it was little more than a footnote. Newsies vs. The World takes a microscope to the events of the strike and its ongoing legacy in contemporary film and musical theatre. It explores the intense rivalry between publishing tycoons Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst, from their vicious circulation battle and the invention of “yellow journalism” to their involvement in the Spanish-American War and the ripple effects of that war on New York City’s young newspaper hawkers. It also dives headfirst into the skirmishes of the 1899 strike, chronicling the events that inspired the newsboys and newsgirls to band together against Pulitzer and Hearst and detailing the stories of their various riots and rallies.
Not only do readers get the full story of the children’s boycott, but they also get the inside scoop on Disney’s treatment of the movement. Despite a heartfelt performance from a teenage Christian Bale, the musical talents of Academy Award-winner Alan Menken, and director Kenny Ortega’s ability to transform unknown child actors into a polished anthem-belting, tap-dancing company, Newsies (1992) was panned by critics and audiences alike. Driven by a massive cult following in the 1990s and early 2000s, however, its surprising resurgence as a breakout Broadway musical in 2012 took Disney—and the story of the 1899 newsies—to unprecedented heights, not only spawning a successful national tour but netting two Tony Awards as well.
While Newsies (1992) and Newsies the Musical were imperfect and inadequate vehicles to capture such a complex historical moment, their indomitable spirit accomplished exactly what newsboy Kid Blink and the newsies of New York City set out to do: It turned their story into a headline, and in doing so, made the world know the newsies by name.
Chapter 1: Carrying the Banner
Chapter 2: King of New York
Chapter 3: The Chief
Chapter 4: A Crooked Game
Chapter 5: Strike!
Chapter 6: Once and for All
Chapter 7: The Story Behind the Story
Chapter 8: Newsies Forever
Chapter 9: The Story They Needed to Write
Timeline of the 1899 Strike
The Newsies of the 1899 Strike
Timeline of Newsies
Newsies the Musical
Blood Drips Heavily on Newsie Square (1991)
The Rebirth of Newsies at the Disney Parks
Stories find us in unusual ways.
Before this one found me, it was buried in the pages of an old journalism survey, where historian David Nasaw first unearthed it in the 1980s. His 1985 child labor retrospective, Children of the City: At Work and at Play, illuminated his findings: among them, a two-week strike mounted in the summer of 1899, when a gaggle of school-age newspaper sellers fought back against the most influential publishers 19th century New York City had ever seen.
It was a compelling tale of David-and-Goliath proportions, albeit one that had been largely lost to history over the years. The book itself was well-received by critics, and on a spring day in ’85, a favorable review in the New York Times introduced Nasaw’s work to its most important reader: amateur actor and screenwriter Bob Tzudiker.
“In 1899 an event took place that would have been perfect for film use by the Dead End Kids,” the Times’ Avery Corman had written, “but as Mr. Nasaw points out, it has been a neglected episode.”1 His brief summary of the strike’s events struck a chord with Tzudiker, who filed the story away in his notes for future use. He’d revisit it four years later with his wife and fellow screenwriter, Noni White. Together, the two fashioned Nasaw’s account into a script and sold it to Disney. In 1992, Newsies was born.
My own run-in with the story felt no less serendipitous. It happened on a bright, sunny day in January, the kind that makes you feel doubly awful for staying home sick. I had curled up on the couch with a bottle of cold medicine and a box of tissues and started cycling through Hulu’s limited menu of Disney films. There, sandwiched between Hercules and Mulan, was Newsies, a campy ‘90s flick I vaguely remembered for a childhood friend’s adolescent crush on a slingshot-swinging Gabriel Damon. Misty visions of choreographed dances, newspaper-waving, and Christian Bale swinging off the frame of a fire escape flitted through my mind, but beyond that, nothing but the faint glimmer of nostalgia forced me to press “play.”
I watched it once, then twice, then a third time.
Crap. These were the warning signs of an oncoming obsession, and whether it was a side effect of the cold medicine or due to a sudden onset of sentimental feeling, I didn’t care. There was something inexplicably wonderful about the tale of the newsbnoy-capped underdog taking on a cartoonish newspaper editor. I couldn’t get enough of it.
A month later, I drove to the local theater. Among a smattering of the usual rom-coms and dirty comedies, the marquee advertised a one-night showing of Disney’s Newsies: Broadway’s Smash Hit Musical. I was enthralled. The clunky charm of the 1992 film had been buffed and polished to a professional shine. The colors were more vibrant, the lyrics sharper, the choreography sparkling with graceful pirouettes and big tap dance numbers, and at the heart of it, the newsies’ story was endearingly unchanged. It still carried the same self-sure message of relentless hope, the kind that empowers the marginalized and downtrodden to rise up and fight for justice against insurmountable odds.
In other words, it was the stuff of your standard Disney tale. I found myself clasping hand to heart as New York Sun reporter Katherine Plumber stepped onstage, punching the keys of her typewriter as she attempted to put the newsies’ story to page. Like David Nasaw and Bob Tzudiker and Noni White and Harvey Fierstein before her, she was captivated by the newsies’ plight, irresistibly bound to a cause in need of a champion:
There’s a story behind the story
Thousands of children exploited, invisible
So speak up, take a stand
And there’s someone to write about it
That’s how things get better…
I left the theater in a daze, unable to shake the lyrics from my head. Disney had cast a pretty sheen over the newsies’ story, one in which they triumphed over their one-dimensional villain with relative ease, but I wanted to peel back the curtain and take a look at the wizened face of the Wizard himself. Who were the real newsboys and girls of New York City? I wondered. What connection did they have with Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst, and what inspired their protest against such powerful figures? Did they prevail easily and honestly, or had their real story been tossed aside to fit some tidy Hollywood narrative?
As Katherine put it, it was time to find the story behind the story.
Ashley Varela is a professional writer and author based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Through 2019, she has published over 2,000 articles online and in print with USA Today, NBC Sports, SB Nation, and Theme Park Tourist, among other outlets. Her writing was most recently featured in the 24th edition of the Baseball Prospectus Annual, a New York Times’ bestselling guide to the baseball industry.
Guided by a profound passion for history, she has conducted original research and put forth multi-part analyses on many topics, including the development of Major and Minor League Baseball in the Pacific Northwest; the creation of the four main theme parks of the Walt Disney World Resort; and the contributions of prominent women designers and costumers at Walt Disney Imagineering.