TAMPA — The characters in movies about labor unions might be noble or embittered or corrupt, but they typically have one thing in common.
They are adults. That adultness was a quintessential part of their persona.
Think of a scowling Lee J. Cobb in On the Waterfront, or Sally Field and those exhausted-but-not-defeated eyes as the title character in Norma Rae.
But the real precursors of the labor movement had fresh faces, though sullied by the New York sidewalks where they sometimes slept or bloodied in fights. The newsboys strike of 1899, hundreds of boys as young as 6 to their teens, helped bring about an awareness of unfair working conditions, including child labor laws.
Their struggle inspired a Broadway musical, Newsies, running Tuesday to Nov. 15 at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts. The success of the show is an unlikely outcome for Newsies, originally a 1992 Disney movie musical starring Christian Bale.
Despite music by Alan Menken (who also composed scores for Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and Sister Act) and lyrics by Jack Feldman, the $15 million production grossed just $1.2 million, according to the New York Times.
The film nonetheless "had a cult following and was long thought to have potential as a regional musical," Jeff Calhoun, who directed the stage version, said in a phone interview.
"It's a David and Goliath story," he said. "Newspapers were 'the man' at that time."
The story centers on the boys who hawked newspapers on the streets, paying 50 cents to buy 100 copies of the New York World owned by Joseph Pulitzer or the New York Journal owned by William Randolph Hearst.
Facing declining profits, the two publishing giants raised the wholesale price to 60 cents per 100 copies, triggering the strike. The real-life newsboys tore up copies of the papers and harassed the scabs who sold them, even throwing rocks at grown men.
To Disney, reviving that movie premise seemed too good to pass up, especially in the current economic malaise. The elements of a stage musical started to come together.
Harvey Fierstein produced a new book from the original screenplay. Choreography by Christopher Gattelli introduced what Calhoun calls "acrobatic, muscular" dancing, with eye-popping back flips and spins that catch serious air.
"There has not been a dancing demand this difficult since Bob Fosse's Dancin'," said Calhoun, 55.
The musical opened at New Jersey's Paper Mill Playhouse in 2011.
"Disney simply wanted to create a show that could be licensed to stock and amateur theater," Calhoun wrote in an article for broadway.com. "That was it — a 'one-off,' as we say in the business. Nobody had anticipated what was about to happen."
After a run extended by demand, Newsies moved to Broadway's Nederlander Theatre, where it ran for two years. Newsies won 2012 Tony awards for best original score and best choreography.
Newsies is the latest in a string of directing accomplishments for Calhoun, including a Tony for best choreography for Grease (1994). A Pittsburgh native, Calhoun played football and took tap-dancing lessons from Gene Kelly's teacher.
In the late 1970s he met dancer and choreographer Tommy Tune, who hired him to a regional production of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers on Broadway. Calhoun made his Broadway directing debut with Tommy Tune Tonight in 1992.
"I think of (Tune) like my parents," Calhoun said. "Though they don't tell you how to behave in every situation, they give you the principles to handle them. I found out how to create a musical."
Broadway dancing today is "like the Olympics," Calhoun said. "They can jump higher and turn faster. It's in their DNA.
"When I was a kid growing up in Pittsburgh," he said, "A Chorus Line was the big show. We all wanted to get to New York and be in A Chorus Line.
"Now," he said, "Newsies is that show."
Contact Andrew Meacham at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.