by Jin Yeo
Queer people love musicals.
It might as well be a fact. With all of the glitz and glamour, it allows for freedom of expression in a way that isn’t allowed in many other places. You can be as excessive as you want – in fact, it’s even encouraged, in the name of entertainment. But what is it about Newsies and Jack Kelly that makes it a fan favorite?
Newsies The Musical (2012) is based on the 1992 film of the same name. With music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Jack Feldman, and the book by Harvey Fierstein, both the film and the musical are based on the historical Newsboys Strike of 1899 in New York City. While it premiered with Paper Mill Playhouse in 2011, the version I will be talking about today is the 2012 Broadway version, directed by Jeff Calhoun. It was opened with Jeremy Jordan as Jack Kelly, Kara Lindsay as Katherine Plumber, Ben Fankhauser as Davey, and John Dossett as Joseph Pulitzer.
I think the core reason for its status among modern fans – especially the LGBTQ+ population – is that Newsies calls upon a lot of experiences that queer people are familiar with. Essentially, Jack and the other newsies are (probably unintentionally) queer-coded for modern audiences. The story of disenfranchised populations fighting back against an oppressive system and getting their dues is one that never grows old. As the times change, it just finds a new audience to resonate with.
Let’s Start with the Basics: Costuming, Choreography, and Vocal Range
The costuming of the Newsies makes all of them look very NGC (non-gender conforming). They are all wearing pants, and the only main female character is wearing a dress, absolutely. But for the modern audience, pants are a gender neutral outfit choice. Additionally, short hair is also pretty gender neutral, and it’s covered most of the time anyway. Although one newsie is shaving at the very beginning, none of them have beards. Anyone can put themselves in the position of one of the newsies, no matter how they identify. The newsies are masculine-leaning, yes, but they aren’t necessarily male, and that’s the key element. After all, in real life, there were a lot of girlsies too.
The choreography lends itself to this as well, because Newsies incorporates a lot of dance moves from stereotypically feminine dance practices. Even from the beginning of the musical, the third number “Carrying the Banner” involves leaps and twirls that we typically associate with ballet. Although songs like “Seize the Day” includes a lot of masculine militaristic marching elements, with sharp angles and loud stomping, the dance break also includes synchronized leaping and twirling, not to mention a 7-second long second turn (I counted). “King of New York” is fully in tap, chair choreo, and a liberal number of splits.
The vocal range is also of notice, because it’s mostly in the tenor/contralto range, which is the highest male range and the lowest female range, respectively. While it’s sung by men on stage, it’s not in the lower baritone/bass registers we typically associate with men and masculinity. A woman with a lower vocal range could easily sing these numbers. In fact, the lowest notes actually come from a song sung by Medda, a female character (an F3 in “That’s Rich”).
These three are essential to the understanding of characters on stage, because it is how they present themselves to the audience. Through the discussion above, we have established how the newsies are NGC and that any modern viewer can relate to these characters, putting themselves in these shoes. Because the newsies are supposed to be pretty young, anyone can see themselves as a newsie. Kids are the most gender neutral group among humans, because their secondary sex characteristics haven’t kicked in. They literally haven’t developed gendered features, other than their privates. That’s not to say society hasn’t tried to gender them (they start at birth – just look at baby onesies!) but it is hard to tell the difference between a girl and a boy if you put them both in shirt and pants and cover their hair with a hat. At this point, you might ask, “Why so much emphasis on the gender neutrality of everything?”. Because media is usually super gendered, that’s why. Other than Jack, Spot, and Davey, none of the newsies are really gendered. You might say that it’s only because they’re past puberty, but none of that matters. The fact that they aren’t super gendered is the point. It’s one of the few outlets for people who maybe aren’t super sure of how they fit into society’s cishet patriarchal views. It’s the same reasoning for why main characters of large franchises tend to be super lame – the audience needs to relate, be able to see themselves as the main character, and the best way to do that is to give them nothing at all. Create a bare minimum character that has just enough characterization to lead the story where you want it to go, and voilà, a main character
The Quintessential Found Family Trope
Why do queer people love the found family trope? Easy answer, because a lot of them relate. Many queers deal with familial issues, so their friends become their family. On average, LGBTQ+ youth are 120% more likely to become homeless, and around 20-40% of all homeless youth are members of the LGBTQ+ community.
Even the ones that aren’t homeless grapple with mental or physical abuse at home, with many choosing to stay closeted (which is still a form of mental abuse). They can only be themselves with their friends, who are allies or also queer. The concern about losing family and familial support is one that is always on the forefront of concerns for queer youth, so when the newsies mention not having parents, it’s something that they can relate to. The line “If you can find her” in “Carrying the Banner”, in addition to the indignant “who asked you?” by a whole group of newsies is put in a whole new frame of reference through the modern queer lens. They didn’t lose their mother on purpose, and perhaps their mother doesn’t want to be found. Losing your parents to something other than death is a reality for many LGBTQ+ folks, and it’s a sensitive topic to many. This reaction must feel so different as a queer youth who still wants to make their parents proud, but can’t get that approval.
Additionally, Newsies also touches on the sentiment of missing the kind of family they wish they had, the one that would care for them and accept them for who they are. After “Carrying the Banner”, Jack has a weird reaction when Davey and Les invite him over for dinner with their family. The hesitant way that Jack says “You got folks, huh?” exposes how, as much as he puts on a tough face with everyone, he still misses that sense of stability and belonging with family. Les says “Doesn’t everyone?”, but Davey holds him back and makes him stop talking. Davey is easily one of the more dense individuals in the show, but the fact that he immediately realized he screwed up and then invites him to dinner shows how vulnerable Jack is in that moment. He says his friends are his family, but he doesn’t really see them that way, not yet. Only through the process of setting up the union and the strike does Jack really accept them as his family. You can see the moment he considers them to be more than friends, when he breaks down after the first unionizing attempt. He doesn’t want to go through with it anymore, because he knows it’s a life-or-death situation for them. The only people looking out for them is each other, and with a bunch of newsies injured and Crutchie in the Refuge, he’d rather be a little poorer than have them dead and injured. This bond forged from dealing with the same oppressive system is something any queer – or frankly any minority – friend group can relate to.
Jack Kelly: Gender AND Sexuality
It makes sense that Jack Kelly is the most popular. He’s the main character after all. However, there’s more to him. He seems very trans-coded throughout the musical. To start off, he has a dead name, something only Warden Snyder calls him. Some people really hate their name, but for trans individuals, it’s not hate – it’s more of a deep sense of unbelonging. It could be, but the common thread seems to be the feeling that that name isn’t theirs. That that isn’t who they are. There’s also how Jack does the unmanly thing (against his whole macho act) and tries to call the entire operation off for the sake of survival. It’s very reminiscent of how people will go back into the closet for work, even though they are out in their personal life, or how people will be out at school and in the closet at home. Survival is the initial goal, and then once they’ve gotten to a place of stability and independence, then they can do whatever they want. But if there are consequences, despite wanting to do whatever you want, sometimes you have to take the temporary hit. Additionally, he has this charming charisma, but it’s conveyed through this exaggerated machismo. A masculine character is confident, so confidence is masculine, so Jack is masculine. It was definitely written this way to show how his confidence is an act, that he’s actually very worried and easily shaken. However, through a modern queer lens, it can be extended to question whether his masculinity is an act. The confidence was an act, and that’s what made him seem so masculine. If the confidence is an act, what else is? It’s an easy line of logic to follow. It is also so easy to interpret Jack to be non-binary or trans. He’s masculine, yes, but he’s also sensitive. He’s an artist. He wants to hide his stereotypically feminine side. This could be seen as wanting to hide his feminine past and then him growing to realize that it is okay to still enjoy those hobbies, or growing into his feminine side to really embrace the NGC. His love interest sees that side of him, and tells him that it’s okay, that in fact, it’s wonderful. Isn’t it the dream of anyone, much less a queer individual, to hear someone say they love even the parts you think are bad?
Sexuality is a bit more complicated, because Jack has a canonical lover at the end, Katherine Pulitzer. However, there is an argument to be made for his relationship with Davey. They’ve had tons of duets since the first act, but Davey is also the first one to comfort Jack (“Watch What Happens”) after the fight, after he truly realizes the weight of what they’re about to do. Jack and Davey are the only ones to call each other by a nickname as well, Jackie and Davey, respectively. He regains his courage, only to be shot down again after he goes to Pulitzer’s office, sees Katherine, and is simultaneously threatened and bribed by his greatest dream (Santa Fe) and worst nightmare (Crutchie dies and the rest of the boys are also thrown into the Refuge). This is in parallel with how Katherine persuades him to come back after this incident. Jack needs both of them, Davey being his other half both in his personal life and in the union, and Katherine being his actual other half. There’s also something to be said about polyamory, because Davey and Katherine also get along very well, as seen in all the banter in Act Two. In “Watch What Happens”, Katherine pats Davey as if to say “well done” after Jack is cheered up. Then, all three of them also have a trio together, right before “Once and For All”, and singing in a duet or trio is a sure sign of unity, and maybe even chemistry. This whole operation wouldn’t be possible without all three of them, so maybe it’s inevitable that people see more than friendship between Davey and Jack too, not just Katherine and Jack.
Why Does Any of This Matter?
Newsies shows how modern interpretation can create a whole new layer of meaning on a classic musical. Context is important to any media, and putting media into new context can change its core message. Newsies went from an inspirational narrative about making change as the little guy, to a hopeful success story about found family, being true to yourself, and the power of challenging the status quo. This change in message, the modern interpretation also says something about us, the audience. It shows how we’ve evolved, how we focus on different parts of the story, and how more and more people feel free to express themselves the way they feel best. We are more willing to acknowledge and discuss topics like queer-coding and the effects it has on its audience, because it’s less taboo, less dangerous. Not only does comparing the interpretations over time show how the media can change, but also how the viewers have changed, and I think that that’s what makes media analysis so much fun, but also so important.