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‘Newsies’ at Community Players is a fun show with a serious message about kids changing the world

 Two young people in 19th century costumes smile at the camera. They are in separate rows of a theater with black walls and mustard-hued seats.
Lauren Warnecke
Olivia Prescott, standing, and Marcus Hanna are members of the "Newsies" cast at Community Players Theatre. Both are in their first show with the 100-year-old troupe.

The Community Players Theatre wraps its 100th season with the heartwarming summer musical “Newsies.” Based on the 1899 New York newsboys’ strike, “Newsies” prompts reflection about child labor, workers’ rights and the power structures that dictated the narrative during a volatile period of American history.

So, obviously, Disney made an endearing film about that — the 1992 hit was directed by Kenny Ortega and featured Christian Bale in the breakout role of Jack Kelly. Disney’s stage version, with music, lyrics and book by Alan Menken, Jack Feldman and Harvey Fierstein, premiered on Broadway in 2012 and won two Tony Awards for best choreography and best original score that year.

As the youngest cast member in Community Players’ production, running through July 30 at the Bloomington theater, 12-year-old Olivia Prescott at first did not meet the age requirement to audition.

“I came and saw ‘Cinderella’ and I absolutely loved it,” Prescott said. “We didn’t know the age yet, so we asked, and I was not old enough.”

“We really wanted to give young people, especially first-time people a real opportunity,” said producer Matt Drat, who is also on the Community Players’ board of governors. Drat has been involved in 25 productions dating back to 2000. “We shifted the entire thing back, so as long as you were 13 by the day we closed, you were able to audition.”

Like Prescott, Marcus Hanna, 20, makes his Community Players debut in “Newsies” this weekend. He plays Specs and is understudying one of the lead characters, Davey.

“I have not been in a show for over two years,” Hanna said. “I went to college; I had other stuff going on. But now I’m back, it’s summer and I’m just happy to be involved (in theater) again.”

The intergenerational cast of “Newsies” has had different experiences with newspapers. Hanna picks up his parents’ print Pantagraph from the driveway each morning, but doesn’t read it. He mainly gets his news from TikTok. Prescott also uses YouTube and TikTok to stay informed. Her parents used to get a newspaper, and she’d read the comics — but they canceled their subscription. Now, her family mainly uses the Internet and television for news.

“I can see the implications of it,” Hanna said of the historical importance of newspapers. “It used to be the only way you could get the word out. That’s what these newsies were doing.”

Newsboys (and girls) as young as 4 sold papers, which they bought at wholesale price. Often, the newsies were only way people had access to the news. Somewhat similar to a multilevel marketing scheme, the newsies lost money if they couldn’t sell their inventory. Many were orphans and lived on the street; children with homes were sometimes providing their family's sole source of income.

In 1898 during the Spanish American War, New York publishers responded to voracious news consumption by raising wholesale prices. All but two dropped their prices when the war ended and newspapers became harder to sell. With Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World and William Randolph Heart’s Journal refusing to budge, the newsboys went on strike in July 1899. They would not buy a single paper, fought for workers' rights and placed pressure on some of the world's most powerful men.

Hanna was surprised to learn how influential newspapers were during this period.

“One of the lines in the show that really sticks out to me is, ‘A war isn’t won on the battlefield. It’s the headline that crowns the victor.’ That resonates throughout this whole show in how the news could manipulate and manifest basically anything that they wanted to at the time.”

In a time of “alternative facts” and rampant misinformation, there are parallels that could be drawn between the yellow journalism of the 1890s and now.

“Even today, news is influenced by the people of power and privilege,” said Drat. “The story of ‘Newsies’ is the story of young people fighting against that privilege to change the world around them.”

By that logic, you could draw a straight line from the newsboys’ strike to Greta Thunberg, a youth climate activist, or to women’s rights activist Malala Yousafzai.

“Each generation has new resources — new elements that factor in,” said Prescott. “Each generation can learn from the past and make those changes moving forward. The generations that are coming up now really focus on equality — of all kinds.”

To that end, the internet has become a vital tool that gives youth a platform and way to quickly organize.

“You are equal if you’re behind a screen,” Hanna said. “No one can assume what’s going on behind that screen.”

Community Players Theatre presents “Newsies” through July 30 at their Bloomington theater, 201 Robinhood Lane. In the “one-for-all and all-for-one” spirit of the show, the understudy cast will perform three shows, on July 15, 23 and 28 (including Hanna starring as Davey!). Tickets are $10-$20 at communityplayers.org.

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Lauren Warnecke is a reporter at WGLT. You can reach Lauren at lewarne@ilstu.edu.
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