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In ‘Newsies' musical, story of child workers who triumphed over industry giants

Back in 1899, a bunch of kids squared off against powerful media moguls Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst. The publishers blinked first.

The Newsboys Strike is the inspiration for “Disney’s Newsies: The Musical,” which runs through Feb. 2 at the Glenn Massay Theater in Palmer.

“I’m not sure how many people realize it was based on a real piece of history,” says visiting director Rodger Sorensen, a former theater department chair at Brigham Young University.

Newsboys selling on Brooklyn Bridge. Sunday, February 23rd, 1908. Photo by Lewis W. Hine (Library of Congress)

Those boys and the publishers they outgunned are portrayed by a 58-person cast made up mostly of local tweens and teens. Sorensen made sure they knew about the strike and the living conditions of that time, and showed them photos of real-life newsies.

He even gave them all homework: “I required them to write a history for their characters.”

In 1898, during the Spanish-American War, some New York publishers raised the price of newspapers to 60 cents per hundred. Since the kids were already making just half a cent per paper, this caused real hardship.

Most publishers dropped the price back down to 50 cents after the war, but Hearst and Pulitzer did not. The street sales crews declared a strike against the two newspapers. Initial encounters were violent, such as the overturning of a newspaper distribution wagon and the beating of newsboy found selling the two boycotted publications.

Later, the newsies adopted more peaceful means, such as traffic-halting demonstrations on the Brooklyn Bridge and the distribution of flyers and placards. Ultimately they accepted a compromise from the publishers: The price would stay at 60 cents per hundred but any unsold newspapers could be returned for refunds.

It was a big victory for the kids, some of whom helped support their families. Other sellers were homeless, sleeping in the basements of the newspaper companies whose products they hawked.

Sound grim? Often it was. Between 1890 and 1910, almost one in five children between the ages of 10 and 15 worked. But this isn’t “Les Miserables,” here. As kids in less-than-ideal situations often will, the newsboys find pride in their work and even some joy in their lives.

Chief among those joys is camaraderie. The lead character, Jack, comforts a homeless kid by saying, “We’re your friends – we’re family.”

Collin Christiansen, who plays Jack, calls the show “a great story of perseverance and courage in the face of a lot of adversity.

“The newsies are faced with insurmountable odds at one point and they aren’t sure they can win. But they don’t quit,” says Christiansen, 26, whom you might recognize as Digger from the locally made film “Sudsy Slim Rides Again.”

The show’s music and lyrics are by Academy Award winners Alan Menken and Jack Feldman, and its book is from Tony Award winner Harvey Fierstein. It opened on Broadway in 2012 and ran for 1,000 performances. Within seven months it had recouped its initial $5 million initial staging cost – the fastest of any Disney musical on Broadway.

The show is similar to (but not an exact copy of) the 1992 film “Newsies,” another Disney product, and maintains four of the movie’s songs: “Carrying the Banner,” “Seize the Day,” “King of New York” and “Santa Fe.”

The show is being presented by Triumvirate Theatre, a group based near Kenai. A.J. Seims, who’s both producing and acting (as Joseph Pulitzer), describes it as a family-friendly musical with high energy and a timeless message.

“Never giving up, and following your dreams,” Seims says.

“Disney’s Newsies: The Musical” will be at the Glenn Massay Theater in Palmer Jan. 25-Feb. 2. Tickets $25. For more see glennmassaytheater.com

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