A couple of weeks before opening night of the hit Broadway musical "Newsies," two dozen young actors were flipping and twirling on stage at the Jewish Community Center’s White Theater. They ranged in age from 14 to 22.
For the two actors playing lead roles, this production was turning out to be more significant than it might have been in years past.
“It's happened for decades and decades, but especially right now, we're seeing so many teenagers trying to make change,” said Noah Lindquist, a senior at Kansas State University who plays Jack Kelly. “And you have all of these adults saying, 'They're just kids. What do they know?'“
Kids making change is the emotional throughline of the show.
Based on the real-life New York City newsboys’ strike of 1899, the musical centers on a conflict involving Joseph Pultizer, then the publisher of the “New York World." Pulitzer and the other newspaper tycoons in the city raise the price of a bundle of newspapers from 50 cents to 60 cents — a disaster for the newsboys and newsgirls who pay for each paper out of pocket. If they don’t sell each one, that might mean skipping a meal.
Life is already tough for the newsies, most of whom are orphans who live on the streets. As their de facto leader, Jack is infamous for his petty crimes and ability to sell newspapers using less than ethical means, usually telling white lies and playing to customers’ sympathy for parentless children.
“(Jack) has always had leadership qualities about him,” Lindquist said. "Being a leader is something he's always kind of done, but I don't think he ever expected to be a leader at this capacity where he was actually trying to make big change.”
Jack forms a union and leads the kids in a strike for better wages and fair treatment. And despite a lot of hardship in between, they come out on top.
Director and choreographer Jerry Jay Cranford, a theater professor at Kansas State University who is working on four other productions this summer, said “Newsies” is a politically significant show.
“'Newsies,' overall, I think is very important right now because of the whole idea of child labor laws and creating unions, and things that are really important to protect," he said. "Things like the poor, and the workers and things that we often neglect.”
Kelly Urschel, also a senior at K-State, plays Katherine, the female lead and Jack’s love interest. Katherine is a teenage girl with dreams of being a reporter. Her gender means the people around her don’t take her seriously, but that doesn’t stop her from trying to get the story.
“I think the thing that kind of drew me to her is that she is not afraid to break the rules in order to get where she needs to go, and that she does not feel the need to be kind and nice and gentle to people in order to get what she wants,” Urschel said.
Urschel first became familiar with the show when she was in high school at Blue Valley Southwest, memorizing the cast album and even getting to see it on Broadway. But she says “Newsies” feels different in 2018 than it felt when she was in high school.
“Now all of a sudden it's become so relevant, and especially Katherine,” she said. "My biggest hope is that some little girl or even somebody in high school or even a woman that's older than me can look at Katherine on the stage and see, 'Okay, I can be that. I can do that. I can make my mark.’”
Lindquist said the story has parallels to current headlines. The show’s newfound relevance comes through in “Once and For All” at the end of the second act. That’s when the newsies make a final push in their strike against Pulitzer by printing their own newspaper.
One night when they were rehearsing the song, Cranford compared the characters in “Newsies” to the kids who survived the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting earlier this year in Parkland, Florida. Ever since then, Lindquist said, the song brings tears to his eyes.
“It makes me so emotional, first of all thinking of the Parkland kids and what they went through, but then feeling inspired by the way that they have stood up,” he said.
“There are so many people talking down to them and so many people telling them that they don't know what they're talking about because they're only high schoolers.”
For this cast, “Newsies” reinforces a powerful lesson: Don’t underestimate a determined kid.
“Newsies,” a co-production of The Coterie and the Jewish Community Center of Greater Kansas City, opens at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, July 7 at the White Theatre, 5801 W 115 Street, Overland Park, KS 66211. Performances continue four times a week through July 29.
Courtney Bierman is a KCUR intern. Follow her on Twitter @courtbierman.