Wednesday, June 06, 2012


In my professional life, I spend a fair bit of time dealing with branding.  Not the scars burned into livestock to establish ownership - though that is the etymology of "branding" in the modern sense - but branding in the sense of establishing and maintaining an image for a product or service or organization.  Great brands reinforce themselves over time:  Coke is about refreshment, Apple about design and user experience, Honda is about reliability and efficiency.

Disney has long been one of the most respected brands in the world, building their reputation on their ability to deliver happiness.  Disney theme parks are branded as "The Happiest Places on Earth," and if you can find a Disney-produced movie with anything other than a happy ending, I'd like to hear about it.

In the 90s, Disney branched out into Broadway musicals, beginning with "Beauty and the Beast," then adding the wildly-successful 'The Lion King," "Mary Poppins," "Aida," "Tarzan" and others, winning multiple Tony awards along the way.

Disney's most recent Broadway effort is another Tony-nominated show, "Newsies," based on the 1992 film of the same name.  And it hews closely to the Disney brand, attempting to spread happiness at every possible turn.  The story is vintage Disney: scrappy kids fighting a great power, a love interest between a princess (in this case, the fetching daughter of famed publisher Joseph Pulitzer) and a commoner (the newsboy), evil henchmen, a wacky sidekick, life lessons and ultimately triumph by curtain time.

It's a proven formula - but as we all know, following formulas usually leads to results that are, well, formulaic. That's certainly the case here.  Though the production values are high (the set, in particular, was stunning), the sense of soul is non-existent.  The performers are talented and earnest, but there's no sense of sincerity behind what makes it to the stage.  There was never a moment where I heard a clever lyric, and really only one interesting turn in the story.  "Newsies" is loud (especially the dancing) and bright and cheerful, but ultimately empty.  Which, unfortunately, is right on brand for most of what Disney has produced in recent decades.  (Save for Pixar.  In fact, what "Newsies" needs is a heaping helping of Pixardust!)

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