The Newsies are on tour right now, and we talked newsboy caps and menswear with Newsies costume designer, the Tony Award-winning Jess Goldstein.
When he’s not outfitting newsboys with their tweed ensembles, Goldstein has an eclectic costume background that has ranged from contemporary to period productions, plays to musicals, and is currently also teaching costume design at Yale. Goldstein explains that, compared to some productions, Newsies is conveniently grounded in a not-so-distant history that has been well documented by photography, providing the basis for those dapper costumes we all know and love.
“Fortunately, in 1899 when the story takes place, photography was very much in use and documented life in New York City. There’s a treasure trove of photos to be found of all aspects of life in New York. It’s not hard to find actual newsboys from the period.”
The reality of the newsboy’s dark, woolen clothes attractive though they might be, did create some constraints for Goldstein’s design when it came to color and movement capabilities for the dancers. The real Newsies’ clothes weren’t exactly bright in color, and the musical, after all, is a musical. To keep the costumes from being too drab, Goldstein had to find ways to keep things interesting. “We wanted the costumes to always look real, but there was a little bit of cleaning up that needed to happen. I made them look a little bit more glamorous or interesting than they do in real life.”
One opportunity for color was with the costumes of females like Katherine. “We wanted to take the opportunity whenever we could to use pretty colors, so she’s dressed in a lot of pinks and reds and deep orange, the more feminine colors.”
Goldstein was also challenged with creating believable, dapper looks for the dancers that could still be danced in. “It’s a very dance-heavy show, and all the boys have to do incredibly acrobatic dancing, which you wouldn’t think would be possible in period clothes.” Surprisingly, not too many changes had to be made to allow all those dancers to leap around, seizing the day and whatnot. Says Goldstein, “The guys that play those parts are so flexible, they’re able to wear authentic fabrics. We tailored it just right so that they can do splits and kicks still.”
Because the Newsies weren’t the most spiffy bunch, their costumes don’t have to be replaced nearly as often due to wear and tear–all that use just contributes to their scrappy Newsie charm. According to Goldstein, it’s the shoes that have to be on heavy rotation. “The boots that they wear are all custom made and are all of very flexible leathers. The shoes are constantly being repaired and replaced from so much wear.”
Speaking of boots, each dancer has a special pair just for the performance of “King of New York,” which requires special taps. That energetic number happens to be Goldstein’s favorite: “I could watch that over and over again. I think what’s genius about it is that it looks so effortless, but of course it’s not, it takes enormously skilled dancers to do that tap dancing.”
If your favorite Newsies song wasn’t stuck in your head before, it certainly is now.