Disney’s 2017 rendition of Newsies: The Broadway Musical!, directed by Jeff Calhoun, seems to captivate its audience and pull each spectator in many different, creative directions. Some strong feelings have been assigned accordingly surrounding the ideas of gender and sexuality when further investigating the role that Jack Kelly plays within the musical. Jack Kelly’s character and portrayal investigates the duality of masculinity, and in doing so, both reinforce and broaden the masculine male stereotype. While possibly not the model musical for progressive gender and sexuality ideals, Newsies begins to break the barriers of “previously understood” masculinity in the context of this time period while reconstructing Jack’s role as a stereotypical male leader.
Let’s start from the beginning. This production was created to encompass the true events of newsies in 1899 through musical form. I don’t know much about 1899 except for the fact that this was the year Al Capone was born and also during a time period when masculinity had a definitive reputation — Ya know, the aggressive, big muscled, confident, independent, and assertive, dashing young man type. There we go, I just described Jack Kelly…well, the “masculine” side of Jack Kelly.
Let’s address Jack Kelly’s “strong” masculine side. Within the first 6 minutes of the musical, we see him approach Katherine in a charming, confident manner in an attempt to flirt with her. Although we quickly see Katherine shut this down, Jack’s masculine side is slightly more revealed to viewers as he is not afraid to go for what he wants (assertiveness ✔). We also get the same sense from his environment and his actions. His New York accent subtly reinforces the idea of brashness and aggressiveness. This is also revealed in how he interacts with Pulitzer and the rest of his crew. When the newsies are disrespected, Jack springs into action to be their protector (✔) as they work to form a union. Within the newsies, he interacts with the others by bumping into each other and playfully hitting each other like guys do (tough love ✔). In addition to the shouting, grunting, and yelling embedded in the choreography and vocals, Jack’s body language and dance style is combative in nature at times (aggressive ✔). We specifically see this in the fight scene involving Pulitzer’s two men that sell the newspapers.
OK, I know it sounds like I’ve been really laying it down on Jack and his strong masculinity, but the importance of this post is to capitalize on the duality of masculinity and how men, specifically leaders, are “supposed to act” according to society’s standards. While we see the tough guy act from Jack often, there are numerous times we see the “softer” side of his masculinity; sometimes, we even see both at the same time. We begin to see this benevolence in the very beginning with the rest of the newsies. Jack is informally established as their leader and takes care of the group even though he’s an orphan himself (care taker ✔). He even takes the worst sleeping spot so the other newsies can sleep a bit more comfortably (humility ✔). He also sings with Crutchie about his dreams of leaving New York City in “Santa Fe” and living out the dreams he has for himself there. Here is the big kicker, are you ready? Jack is also an artist (a softy with a creative side ✔). He loves to draw and paint and has established a relationship with Medda, a vaudeville performer. She lets Jack paint backdrops for the theatre in exchange for protection against Snyder and the refuge. It’s very clear throughout the musical that Jack has a soft spot for his friends and especially for Katherine, whom he gets all flirty and gushy for (emotional ✔).
There are numerous instances throughout the musical in which we see the duality of masculinity present in Jack Kelly’s character. In addition, it’s imperative to investigate the role the musical plays in showcasing the blend between the stereotypical man and the role a male leader plays in society. Within Newsies, we can quickly identify Pulitzer as being the ideal “male leader” of this time, a stereotypically strong man with an abuse of power problem. While we also see Jack as the leader of the newsies, it’s clear these two characters display leadership in two very different contexts. We see this even during the distribution of newspapers for each new day; Pulitzer’s men, while not even in a seemingly large position of power, look down on Jack and make him out to be less than them. Through this, we can see the outdated form of masculinity clashing with the new. Jack, himself, experiences a duality of masculinity in which the “old” has a time and place, and the “new” paves the way for a dually soft but strong leadership approach.
During this time period, men in power seemed to be of the utmost masculinity. They were deemed strong, aggressive, assertive, and unafraid to fight. They were the ones who could provide and had the most influence. However, we see throughout the musical that while Jack did not have this stereotypical masculine leadership, he arguably had more influence than the ones in “power.”
While Disney’s Newsies typically gets a bad reputation for reinforcing the most basic gender stereotypes, a closer look at this musical shows just how keen the writers and directors were to begin a societal push for the duality of masculinity in male leadership. Thankfully, it is our normal. In our society now, we have this idea of our leaders being more approachable and better listeners, as well as decisive and confident. Overall, while it may not be the most progressive model for gender stereotypes, Newsies begins to crack the barriers of strong masculinity within established gender stereotypes, and does a pretty good job at it, especially for its time. And hey, who doesn’t like Jeremy Jordan?