I first discovered Newsies when I was fourteen years old and in the prime of my awkward years. I fell in love with the energy of the show– the kind of playful, energetic, can-do attitude of these kids as old as me who were changing the world. And they were men! Who could sing! And dance! That’s what teen girls do isn’t it? Fixate on good looking, talented men? What more could a fourteen-year old ask for in a musical?
Newsies was everything that I wanted, but nothing that I needed as a young, closeted queer woman. In a time where it’s critical to find positive role models, I attached myself to Katherine Plumber, claiming the character as my “ultimate dream role.” But Katherine is far from the pinnacle of positive feminine representation. Her #girlboss energy is superficial at best and performs several toxic tropes rooted in misogyny. And furthermore, her role in the musical serves little more than to insert a heterosexual narrative where none needs to exist, ultimately undermining the critical commentary on class Newsies claims to deliver.
Most of my experience with (and therefore opinions of) Newsies comes from the original Broadway production, originally premiering at the Nederlander Theatre in 2012, with music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Jack Feldman, and book by Harvey Fierstein. The stage production is nothing short of spectacular, with Jeremy Jordan starring effortlessly as hero Jack Kelly and Kara Lindsay as spunky reporter Katherine Plumber, backed up by an ensemble cast of incredibly talented men. Notably, in this original production there are no female newsies (besides honorary newsie Katherine), though as the show has transitioned off Broadway and rights became available for local theatres, there have been an increasing number of productions that incorporate female newsies.
I’m spending time laying out the casting choices because I think the musical’s original intent to have a cast of all male newsies is significant, and ultimately defines the portrayals of masculinity and femininity that we see performed onstage. From the beginning of Carrying The Banner, we get a sense of the heavily masculinized camaraderie shared by these boys as they tease each other while getting ready for the day. Most of this teasing is physical, with lots of shoving, tapping, spit, and swagger. The energy that is created is very “boys will be boys,” a picture of stereotypical teenage behavior– this is the default of masculinity in Newsies. Each character is allowed some moments of depth and vulnerability (only if they have a name in the show book, though), which is a step towards showing a more rounded vision of what it means to a man. However, these moments are fleeting (Race in particular gets about thirty seconds of depth in the opening number), and by and large Newsies makes it clear to the viewer that there are more important things that make these boys men: just look at their swagger! Their bravado! This is masculinity!
Enter Katherine Plumber: Newsies’ female lead. She is not the only woman in the show (shoutout to Medda Larkin who has one of the best songs and costumes in the entire show), but she is the only one who receives any sort of depth. However, all of Katherines’ “depth” and development is related in some way to another masculine character. She is a reporter, yes, but she is a reporter for the newsies, she is the daughter of Pulitzer, she is the love interest of Jack. She is presented to us as a woman trying to make her way in a man’s world, as she says herself in Watch What Happens (“A girl? It’s a girl! How the hell! Is that even legal?”). Ironically, though, the show never really allows her this success or this independence. The article she writes gets shut down by her father, and her brilliant idea to print papers for all the laborers in New York gets carried out by Jack and the other newsies, who get much more credit (and in Jack’s case, a sweet job offer) than she does. Katherine’s existence is inextricably linked to the men in her life, which makes her feminist attitude surface-level at best: it’s as if Disney wants to promote feminism without actually promoting feminism.
Katherine is only respected as a woman in the masculinized space of Newsies because she is able to be “one of the boys,” a tired iteration of the very tired “not like other girls” trope, which is rooted in misogyny and ideals of male desire. She attracts Jack because she is smart and witty, because she is able to hold her own against him: unlike the other women he has been with, who he seems to see as disposable (“Girls are nice/Once or twice/Til’ i find someone new”). This is inherently sexist– Jack is revealing to us that not only does he not actually respect women as anything more than romantic playthings, but he believes himself to be superior to them. Katherine is attractive only because she is smart and independent and therefore different. This pits her against other women and reinforces the idea that being a woman means being what a man wants, as well as presenting femininity as an inherently undesirable state of being.
Amongst the other newsies, it is much of the same story. She gains their respect because a) she is helping them with the strike and therefore useful and b) she proves that she is more “boy” than “girl” (because girls are dumb and weak, right? Am I right, guys?). In King of New York, she engages in a competition of sorts with the other newsies. She begins with a simple tap sequence and is subsequently booed. So what does she do? She hikes up her skirts and taps ferociously, symbolizing to the newsies and to us that she can be “one of the boys”– which, again, is implied as being better and more desirable than being one of the girls. Not a great message to send to teenage girls (the main fan base of Newsies) who are already struggling to find their place in a patriarchal society. This is the irony of Katherine– she is both emblematic of the struggles of young women and thus relatable AND a portrayal of deeply sexist ideas about femininity. She has the potential to be such a powerful character, but the way she is utilized in the musical falls so flat as soon as you give the lyrics more than a cursory glance.
Another sticking point for me is Katherine’s seemingly forced relationship with Jack. She goes from completely uninterested to being in love with him in a matter of 40 minutes real-time and about 2 days show-time. This fast turnaround is unsurprising when we consider that this musical has been funded and produced by Disney, a company notorious for creating stories that center heterosexual romance at the expense of strong, well-rounded female characters. In Disney-verse, life is only worth living as a woman if a man is in love with you. In recent years Disney has been on a more positive trend of feminine portrayals, but Newsies was produced at a time where that hadn’t started to happen yet: the pre-Frozen era, if you will. That being said, while it is unsurprising that the producing corporation felt the need to tie the plotline up with a neat heterosexual bow, it doesn’t make it any less frustrating.
In my opinion the Jack/Katherine romance serves three purposes:
- To ensure the audience that though this is a musical about close relationships between men, there is absolutely NOTHING gay about it. No, really, we promise! Look how straight Jack is!
- To soften the labor critique aspect of the show
- To keep the production in line with Disney values and give the whole plot a happy ending (because sad musicals have never been successful… Les Mis, anyone?)
Disney is maybe not the most gay-friendly corporation (though I did get an excellent pair of rainbow Mickey ears pre-Covid, so that counts for something… right?). So it’s unsurprising to me that they’ve inserted a heterosexual romance into a story that genuinely does not need one. But honestly, Newsies would be better if there was some sort of non-heterosexuality explicitly written into the script. By forcing this narrative of heterosexuality, Newsies is implying that homosexuality is incongrous with masculinity– or at least their version of it. Would it really be so bad if Jack was gay? What is it adding to his character to make him explicitly heterosexual? What does it add to the plot, for that matter?
The more insidious answer is that the ultimate function of Jack and Katherine’s relationship is to undermine the labor critique that the plot is based in. Yes, we are supposed to feel bad for the newsies and root for them to take down Pulitzer, but I believe that Newsies (and by that I mean Disney) doesn’t want us getting any ideas beyond the action portrayed onstage. At the very end of the musical, Jack is gearing up to leave for Santa Fe. But he stays… in part for his brotherhood, in part for Katherine, and in part for the sweet cartoonist job that Katherine’s father, the man we spent the entire musical rooting against, offers on a whim. Notably, Katherine is the one who first questions Jack’s impulse to leave New York (“What’s New York got that Santa Fe ain’t?), therefore becoming the driving force that convinces him to stay. It’s implied that Katherine is an important part of his decision (though she does offer to travel with him), and thus she becomes a part of the reason that he accepts a job with Pulitzer. This acceptance of the job is really what undermines the labor critique that the entire plot thus far has built. Jack’s activism ends with the strike and he becomes a part of the same system that he just fought against. Therefore Newsies reminds us that though strikes are exciting fodder for a musical’s plot, Jack hasn’t really changed the system– and we shouldn’t either.
So, if Katherine as a character is being used to perform heterosexuality and create a happy, non-radical ending for the story, what does that say about women? Are we just men’s plot devices to make messy situations more palatable for a wide audience? Do we ever get the opportunity to exist apart from that purpose? The answer is yes… just not in Newsies. The more I’ve written about this show, the more upset I am about the missed opportunities for strong character development and an actually progressive message. There are plenty of other musicals that do these things so much better than Newsies. But as scathing as my words may have been, that has not stopped me from listening obsessively to the soundtrack for the past three weeks straight. It has not stopped me from attempting to learn the Seize the Day dance break, newspapers and all, and it has DEFINITELY not stopped me from crying tears of joy while recording Katherine’s part in Once and For All for the Original Cast’s semester revue. That is to say, Newsies may not have been what I needed growing up, but it remains a deeply important piece of nostalgia and a genuinely enjoyable show– as long as you acknowledge it for what it is, which is a piece of media produced by Disney whose commentary on gender, class, and sexuality is dubious at best. I’m going to go listen to the soundtrack again… but maybe I’ll skip Something to Believe In.