Jack-yll and Hyde?

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?

“GET YOUR PAPES RIGHT HERE”

After watching Disney’s Newsies I realized how lucky I am to access my news and information online. No screaming newsboys, no children using pity as a means for more sales; I mean to decline a seven-year-old on the street selling papers would be a bit harsh.  Or you might take another stance, that to live during this era and all that came with it like getting your real brick and mortar papers from some underpaid newsie would be to witness the life on the streets of New York Cities that has since been dominated by wide-eyed tourists. Debating over the pros and cons of then and now is getting me off topic but maybe that’s what happens when I rewatch Newsies 3-ish times for this blog post.     

Disney’s Broadway production of Newsies (2017) directed by Brett Sullivan is a filmed version that showcases the performance of the 1899 newsboys strike in New York City. Young city dwellers, usually without a home and especially male, find themselves at the hand of newspaper companies selling papers as a primary source for their very, and I mean VERY insignificant incomes. I understand it was a long time ago and prices have thus changed a lot but I have never seen that much excitement over a dime. The opening scene of Jack Kelly, the hero of the film and is actually the hero of this post (so get used to that name), and his friend/work-buddy/fictitious family member Crutchie are waking up early in the morning talking about their lives and aspirations. I thought this was a clever opening as it told the audience members the setting, situation, and where the story will go all from the dialogue between the two boys. Now onto business, speaking of the opening scene I left out one important aspect this scene told us about the musical… boys. OH, IT’S RAINING MEN. This heavy male cast is a defining characteristic of the musical and the cultural conventions surrounding the representation of masculinity can not be undermined. 

Our precious Jack Kelly, the Troy Bolton of the newsies if you will. Of course, he is the golden boy, anyone who has seen the musical knows this right from the start but what exactly makes him such a charismatic leader and how his character portrays masculinity and its permeation into cultural standards is the focus.  Traditional might seem a good place to start when analyzing Jack. Back to Troy, yes everyone is on the same page? Troy Mr. Captain of the basketball team falls in love with a girl who shows him that breaking the status quo is cool and soon becomes Mr. Soaring and Flying.  And yes Kenny Ortega the director of the High School Musical trilogy was in fact the director of Newsies (1992) that originally started young Christian Bale as Jack Kelly. In the number “Carrying the Banner” Jack’s face and dance moves are so similar to Troy’s infamous golf course musical number in High School Musical 2.  The anger, the passion, the stomping and pounding of a fist in the air, it was uncanny.  In many scenes Jack is shown putting his chest out, standing wide-legged, and during musical numbers, his choreography is strong, demanding attention, but also smooth and effortless.  Jack doesn’t dance like the other newsies during musical numbers, he walks around them with gusto and confidence.  Is dancing not masculine enough for Jack?

Jack is a natural-born leader, the other newsies look to him because there’s so little fault, yes he is just a lowly newsboy like the rest of them but he’s Jack, he is THE newsie. He’s got talent and he’s been through things the other boys are fascinated by, he’s really lived! He dresses a bit nicer than some of the other newsies making him stand out just enough to be admired. While he’s not exactly the brains of the strike he’s just as important.  Without a leader to follow many of the newsies wouldn’t have been able to fight against the publishing companies.  He has a strong presence on stage and his performance of masculinity is seen in his desire to be the strong, courageous, do-good hero he feels the newsies deserve.  Back to Troy Bolton, they both feel the weight of the team on their shoulders, keeping the group’s spirits alive is important to them and they’ll do what they need to do for it to happen.  

So now you’ve heard my little blurb about Jack Kelly and his traditional representation of masculinity. I now want to think about the cultural and personal implications Jack’s character has. There is no doubt that Jack Kelly is meant to be admired, he’s the heroic lead that any young children in the audience would think ‘hey until something else catches my attention I’m going to model my personality off Jack Kelly’. I know everyone’s been there ok, you watch a movie or read a book and end up loving a character so much that you want to be them.  However, since this is an intellectual cultural analysis, blah blah blah yes boring but we might discover something here so stay with me, how might looking at the Newsies and Jack Kelly’s character specifically tell us something about the cultural conventions about masculinity? Well, my take would be that this musical suggests that there are only a few types of men (all of whom can be seen in other newsies) but who’s the one you really want to be? Jack Kelly duh.  I watch this musical seeing the glorification of a manly man, whatever that even is.  

The scene I love to think back on and it is especially relevant for this discussion would be when Jack is outed for having painted a set for one of Medda Larkin’s shows.  For someone that exudes confidence in his job selling papers, and is praised for his talent when doing the job, he becomes very shy about his artistic abilities. Yes to be a good salesman can be a skill but I would argue that over time you learn the tricks but to be an artist under Jack’s circumstances well that’s no easy doing. Where would he have time to practice or have access to the necessary resources, no Jack Kelly is a natural. So why be embarrassed and downplay his Bob Ross type skill? I would guess that he compartmentalizes the different aspects of his life he doesn’t believe fit together. For him, his work selling paper and being the leader of the newsies must be kept separate from any other talents he possesses. This is where we see a negative aspect of the representation of masculinity on the Newsies stage. Jack Kelly shows the audience members and specifically men that praise for strong works of leadership or income-earning is the goal, you want to be the best for making money or leading a group of your fellow comrades but to be appreciated for something like artistic ability is rather weak and should be kept a secret. This awkwardness around the compliments from Les and Davey shows that Jack is not very proud of this work. The experience of Jack in this scene sends the message that artistic production is not what a man should be doing with this time.  

The undeniable tension of masculinity on the Newsies stage can not be missed and it’s an important piece to analyze because musicals are strong vessels for cultural conventions.  Understanding what is portrayed on stage affects our conceptions of the society we live in and these sometimes go unnoticed. The traditional depiction of masculinity seen in the character of Jack Kelly in Disney’s Newsies is building what I now suspect is fear of masculinity, don’t be toxic but CAN’t be feminine. This is a tight bond for young boys watching Jack Kelly and feeling that he is what society is telling me I must strive for.  

(The Expectation of ) How To Be Your Own Man

“Be a man. You must be swift as the coursing river. Be a man. With all the force of a great typhoon. Be a man. With all the strength of a raging f-.” Oh sorry. Wrong Disney film/musical. Or is it? I would not be surprised if somehow Newsies playwright Harvey Ferstein met with the creators of Mulan at some point in his life and bounced off ideas. It is not like he didn’t play a certain character called Yao…Sure, Mulan and Newsies are two completely different stories. I mean duh one is literally in China during a war with the Huns while the other is set in New York where the newsies are fighting for their labor rights. That said, both show the audience the expectation of what it means to be a man. The ones doing all the fighting are practically all males because well they are expected to be tougher and more capable fighters. In Mulan, they make it clear that there is no room to be soft because it is a killed or be killed world. Newsies offers a similar perspective but at the same time also challenges the audience to expand their perception of masculinity. 

One of the first characters that the audience gets introduced to is Jack Kelly. He would be considered the typical stereotypical standard of what it means to be a man. Whoever oversaw Jack’s costuming made a specific choice to introduce Jack with an outfit that showcased his big muscular arms when we first met him. In comparison to Crutchie, Jack obviously stood out as the physically superior character as they sing in the number Santa Fe. As the strongest, it only made sense that Jack would be the leader in this musical if we continued to follow our expectations of what a male should be; the strongest are the alpha in the pack. It’s no surprise that Jack was often occupying a huge part of center stage. Jack’s the one people listen to. I mean everyone instantly woke up when Jack yelled at them to get to work in the morning. In fact, he yelled quite often throughout the musical. Jack was also the one who was out here yelling at the top of his lungs these phrases when he had his brief solo moment during the number “The World Will Know.”:

Pulitzer may own the world, but he don’t own us!

Pulitizer may crack the whip, but he won’t whip us.

As if that was not enough, Jack came out during this number whipping around a bag and making a lot of fist and arm movements. I swear most of the time this musical was more of an arm muscle contest where Jack would always be the winner. Another similar powerful moment was when Jack was giving that passionate speech to convince Scabs and his crew to join the strike. It was here that I noticed the iconic power pose that many superior males in our modern army do. With his hands on his hips and smoldering look, Jack immediately told others through his body language that he was not someone to mess around or disagree with. He stayed true to that when he stood his ground and glared right back when people tried to get into his face. Other male leader qualities Jack exhibited was his eagerness and willingness to be aggressive when his leadership is being challenged especially when any of his boys are being bullied or threatened. For example, Jack immediately beat up the two boys they encountered as they headed to work that morning because one of them took away Crutchie’s crutch while the other threatened another newsie. 

Is being a male all about the brawn and aggression though? Should we expect males to meet the same kind of masculine image Jakes does? Absolutely not. Davey Jacob showed us that being a male can also have a tender and tactical touch. But I first got to admit it was a bit difficult to shake off my previous conception of a man. I was a bit underwhelmed by Davey’s character because I had gotten used to the toughness and wildness of Jack’s character. I had a specific expectation of masculinity and expected to see that reflected in all men. The first time we met Davey was when he ran in with his little brother Les. Unlike Jack, Davey’s appearance was more scholarly and civil looking with his buttoned-up vest and long-sleeved shirt. His speech pattern had an apologetic and unconfident tone which was quite a contrast to Jack’s dialogue which was rougher and more impulsive. In addition, sometimes I like to refer to Davey as the “Dad” figure or the family man because he always had this strong sense of responsibility to family (and was overly protective of his brother) like a father would. I mean he practically stated in the beginning that this newspaper job was only temporary because they were only there to help make some money for their struggling parents. 

So, what changed? Sometimes I wondered if Davey was pressured during his time with the newsies to be the same kind of male as everyone else. Considering that his little brother picked up Jack’s mannerisms real fast, it would not be a surprise if Davey felt the need to be more of a man. However, being this brawny, aggressive male just did not cut it for him. Instead, Davey found another way to be an assertive male. That began when he decided to join the newspaper strike despite expressing concern about the potential consequences during the number “The World Will Know.” Davey found his place as the strategic planner for the strike. To be quite honest, without Davey’s brains, I think the strike would have failed. Remember it was Davey who cut in saying that they needed officers, a secretary, and a statement of purpose for their union to be recognized. When the strike seemed like it was going to die, it was Davey who stated that “we can’t back down now” during the number “Seize the Day.” In fact, it was in this number that Davey showed that being a strong male leader was having the ability to empathize with their people. The number stood out from the rest because of its softer and motherly tone which you would normally not associate with a male-lead number. But I found this choice refreshing and soothing which served Davey well to renew hope in the newsies. He slowly and gently reminds the newsies that “courage cannot erase our fear.” Instead, “courage is when we face our fear.” Dang, Davey so poetic.  Also, is someone cutting onions? 

I would like to point out another moment where the ideas of masculinity are again being challenged. During the “Watch What Happens Reprise,” we see Davey attempting to bring up Jack’s spirits who remained shattered from the failed strike. It is a surprising turn around for Jack, who had always been so headstrong, confident, and aggressive during Act 1. That said, this moment showed that behind the macho man image was an individual who struggles to come to terms with their own personal fears. It is an important realization because our expectation of masculinity may be pressuring males to be someone they are not. We inadvertently erase the humanity that is behind them. Davey Jacobs again demonstrated that they are not obligated to approach a situation through brawn like someone would expect a male to. He encouraged Jake to look at the situation differently. Instead of thinking that the opposition had power for bringing the police, it would be helpful to consider that they brought the police because they were afraid of the power of the newsies. Mind blown! I did not think of it that way until Davey said that.

So again, what does it takes to be a man? Well, if we look back at the character development of both Jack and Davey, there is no set way of being a man. In fact, perhaps it is better to think about how a male can find their own definition of masculinity. With Jack, we saw this tough man who everyone looked up to. But I saw it more as a survival mechanism to cope with the tough job of being a newsie in New York. We know from the very beginning that Jack daydreamed of going to Santa Fe and leave behind this miserable lifestyle. So, it might be safe to say that for him to be “happy” in New York, he had to adapt to the rough lifestyle. This is only my interpretation though and there are for sure many others out there. On the other hand, Davey had a much easier time figuring out what kind of person he wanted to be. Although, Davey did have the advantage of coming from a stable household so that is a different topic to discuss another day. Regardless, Jack and Davey were two characters that demonstrated that masculinity has a wide range of interpretations. It is up to an individual to determine what kind they want to be.