Read All about It: Newsies Revives the Musical

By Turner, George E | American Cinematographer, May 1992 | Go to article overview

Read All about It: Newsies Revives the Musical

Turner, George E, American Cinematographer

"You know, I've read quite a few scripts since the beginning of the year, most of which were well-written studio pictures with stars and top directors," Andrew Laszlo, ASC mused recently on a set at Universal City.

"A lot of them have to do with horror, violence, shoot-'em-up, blow-'em-up. At this stage of life I was hoping for a picture that had another side to it, and when producer Mike Finnell called and told me about Newsies I could not believe it! This was a period song-and-dance musical with kids, about kids. There hasn't been one like this in I don't know how many years. I jumped on it."

Thus did the distinguished cinematographer describe his pleasure in tackling a difficult but rewarding picture for Walt Disney Productions. Laszlo came to this country in 1947 as an emigrant from Hungary, where he started his motion picture work as an apprentice at the Motion Picture Studios in Budapest. His credits as a director of photography feature First Blood, Thief of Hearts, Poltergeist II, Innerspace and Star Trek V.

Production for Newsies began on April 15, 1991 following 10 weeks of intensive rehearsals. Although the screenplay (by Bob Tzudiker, Noni White, David Fallon and Tom Rickman) is set entirely in New York City, the film was produced at three studio backlots, six locations in the Los Angeles area, and seven sets built on sound stages.

The soft-spoken Finnell, the producer, at first wondered if the story would be practical to make. "However, it was dear that it was true and my feeling was that this was something that I would love to see. But I also knew that it would be very, very difficult to bring to the screen."

The director, who is making his feature debut in that capacity, is Kenny Ortega, a top ranking choreographer who has worked on some 40-odd movies and videos during the past 15 years. He began directing television in 1988 with the Dirty Dancing and Hull High shows. "When I read that script I could hear music," Ortega said. The music in the final product is by Alan Menken (an Oscar winner for The Little Mermaid) with lyrics by Jack Feldman.

Based upon historical fact, Newsies is set in the summer of 1899, when publisher Joseph Pulitzer announced a one-tenth-of-a-percent price increase for his daily newspaper, the New York World. The newsies, impoverished youngsters who hawk the newspaper on the streets at a tiny margin of profit, realize they will be ruined. They decide to strike, an action which eventually brings the top publishing companies in America to their knees.

Pulitzer is portrayed by Robert Duvall and the leader of the embattled kids is Christian Bale, the 17-year-old British actor who is remembered for extraordinary performances in Empire of the Sun and Henry V. Bill Pullman is an ace reporter who helps the boys at the cost of his own job and Ann-Margret is the music hall star who also lends a hand. Principals among the newsies are David Moscow, Luke Edwards, Max Casella and Trey Parker, none of whom are the usual Hollywood kid types.

AC looked in on Laszlo in mid-production at Universal City. At the time Laszlo was working in an interior/exterior set that represented part of a reform school. It consisted of the upper floors of a building exterior, which was designed to match a backlot exterior a mile or so to the east on the Warner Bros. lot, with an interior room (visible through the windows) designed as a big, nightmarish cubicle packed with closely jammed two-tiered bunks. The room, lighted (ostensibly) by simple fixtures hanging from the ceiling, was at the moment brimfull of boys - a claustrophobe's worst-case scenario. The exterior was effect-lighted for night with the proper intensity and color to contrast realistically with the yellowish artificial light of the room. The Panaflex camera was about 15 feet above the floor on a Chapman Zeus crane. Operating the camera was the director of photography's son, Jeffrey Laszlo, whose youth belies the fact that he has worked on an impressive number of major productions. …

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