|Hopeful Brendan:||Hello! Today we’re here to talk about the representation of race and ethnicity in the musical Newsies, specifically in the 2017 recording. Cynical Brendan, I believe you came prepared with an assertion you’d like to make?|
|Cynical Brendan:||Thank you Hopeful Brendan, I did indeed. I believe that a frank analysis of the choices made in this production — including but not limited to casting, lyrics, dialogue, and character portrayals — shows severe undertones of White supremacy, specifically in the form of American imperialism.|
|Hopeful Brendan:||Well, that’s quite a claim. I’m not sure I agree, but let’s get into it: you mentioned casting, we can start there. What about the casting do you think contributed to White supremacy? It cast a lot of White people, sure, but that’s clearly not the same thing.|
|Cynical Brendan:||You’re right, in itself it’s not. It becomes a problem when White actors are systematically cast to play almost all of the unionizing newsies in a story about the American labor movement, when that same movement has had serious issues throughout its history with being exclusionary toward people of color. And we’ve got to remember that this performance was cast relatively recently; methods of race-conscious casting were clearly viable and in use in other historical fiction theatre. Even fully “race-blind” casting would have provided more diversity that we saw — but the creators of this show chose to use neither, instead just casting almost exclusively White newsies in what’s hard to see as something other than an attempt to sweep race issues under the rug.|
|Hopeful Brendan:||Alternatively, we could see it as an attempt to portray a class struggle rooted in historical reality without adding in some illusion of racial unity that wasn’t really present. Sure, I don’t think the casting was actively anti-racist, but I don’t think it was particularly racist either, just giving a reasonably accurate portrayal of the world of the show. In support of this view, look at the character of Medda Larkin.|
|Cynical Brendan:||Oh? What about her?|
|Hopeful Brendan:||I think she’s a good example of incorporating a Black character into a predominantly White setting without tokenism, revisionism, or reliance on stereotypes. The writers have discussed how Medda was based on a real-life Black vaudeville performer, Aida Overton Walker, and the actor Aisha De Haas builds on that foundation, bringing the character to life onstage in a very dynamic way. And it’s not only the acting: just look at the way Medda is introduced. Every piece of the production, from the glamorous costume to the set backdrops to the attention-grabbing lyrics and music of “That’s Rich,” demonstrates Medda to be a confident and self-possessed Black woman exercising control over space. In a show that has a lot of victimization, she isn’t portrayed as just a victim — we see her wielding real power in the plot.|
|Cynical Brendan:||I’d argue that your analysis overlooks the fact that she’s only able to access that power through proximity to wealth and imperialism. But I’ll concede your basic point: the character of Medda Larkin does show that the writers and director put some thought into their portrayal of minoritized bodies onstage. The casting is only a preliminary warning sign anyway. My main concern is the unacknowledged subtext of White American imperialism and manifest destiny, for instance in the recurring “Santa Fe” songs.|
|Hopeful Brendan:||Okay, I’m fine shifting to that point. Do you really see those songs as conveying a message of imperialism?|
|Cynical Brendan:||Certainly a message that buys into imperialism. It’s all there in the lyrics: that whole 19th-century fantasy of manifest destiny, the idea of a vast untouched wilderness just waiting for White people to come along and claim their new homeland with a palomino-riding cowboy lifestyle — ignoring the fact that the whole region had been more or less an active war zone for the better part of the century, feature systematic violence against indigenous people. And “Santa Fe” presents this expansionist myth as aspirational, through musical devices that express more raw yearning than anything else in the show.|
|Hopeful Brendan:||But hold on, let’s talk about that yearning. Because I agree that it’s there, but I also think it’s pretty clearly presented as an unrealistic fantasy that doesn’t actually exist anywhere but Jack’s head. Katherine remarks on how he “paints places he’s never seen,” and eventually even he refers to his image of Santa Fe as a “made-up world.” It barely has anything to do with the literal place Santa Fe; he might as well be talking about Elysium. What’s important is the role it plays in the story, and that much is made clear by Jeremy Jordan’s acting and singing choices at the end of Act I: it’s an imagined escape from the horrors inflicted on him and his loved ones by capitalism and state violence.|
|Cynical Brendan:||Does that actually make it better though? Yes, the show definitely portrays his fantasy as unobtainable, but never really as undesirable. And from the lyrics in the final scene we see that when Jack realizes his idea of Santa Fe doesn’t have much substance behind it, he turns instead to a rosier image of life in New York City. Is he just swapping out one exclusionary fantasy for another? Another paradise for the White working class that doesn’t spare a shred of thought for who else might have occupied that space? If anything, the fact that it’s framed as a refuge from capitalists and cops just makes it more dangerous, because it plays right into the sort of imagery that racist economic populists depend on to make themselves appealing.|
|Hopeful Brendan:||Okay, I vaguely see where you’re coming from but this is all getting a bit abstract. Can you point to anything specific within the show that actually ties it to manifest destiny, beyond the use of New Mexico as a hypothetical destination?|
|Cynical Brendan:||Sure. Teddy Roosevelt. The concept of manifest destiny made manifest.|
|Cynical Brendan:||Yeah, in our big climactic moment who else comes in to save the day but Medda’s good friend Theodore Roosevelt. Theodore “The Winning of the West” Roosevelt. Theodore “nine times out of ten a good Indian means a dead Indian” Roosevelt. And every single piece of theatrical text and subtext presents him as nothing but a heroic leader and a father figure. Listen to his endearing bluster, look at his stately costume, look at the blocking as people position themselves around him in the scene. Above all look at the role he plays in the plot, carrying Jack as close as he gets to his westbound dreams — a ride in his carriage, if you will. And sure, you can be a massive racist and still do things that help White unions, but they don’t get to hide behind history here because the real-life Roosevelt didn’t do anything to resolve the 1899 strike. This one’s all on the musical’s creators. And if they can expect viewers to just ignore the reality of Theodore Roosevelt then they’re expecting us to ignore substantive race issues altogether, to live in this fantasy world they’ve created where Santa Fe is Camelot and any White politician who’s good enough for Rushmore should be good enough for us.|
|Hopeful Brendan:||Wow. Okay. I don’t know. I think there’s a sense in which it’s impossible to tell stories about White American history without glossing over hugely important bits to turn things into a cohesive two-hour narrative; there will always be another set of horrors to unpack. But maybe that’s just me being cynical.|
|Cynical Brendan:||Yeah. I don’t know. I think there’s a way to avoid giving those horrors positions of prominence in your work if you’re not prepared to at least gesture at the existence of a bigger and darker picture, a way to tell the story you want to tell without playing into dangerous romanticizations. But maybe that’s just me being hopeful.|
Jack Kelly is a guys’ guy.
Mama Rose is a guys’ girl.
How can a girl be “one of the guys”?
And how could I include such a nasty patriarchal phrase in the first three sentences of my post?!?!?!
But really, Jack (played by Jeremy Jordan in Disney’s 2017 production of Newsies!: The Broadway Musical, directed by Brett Sullivan and Alex Calhoun) and Mama Rose (played by Bette Midler in the 1993 production of Gypsy, directed by Emile Ardolino) have a lot more in common than what meets the eye. Jack is different from the other “newsies,” and Mama Rose is different from the other women- and men. Why? Because they both exude masculinity like their lives depend on it. And not just the boy- being-boys- type of masculinity. But real power, control, leadership, confidence: what it takes to be a man of the men- a true, by-book alpha (*tips hat to society*). They know exactly what they want to accomplish, and they accomplish it by all means necessary- and unnecessary.
This is what I mean:
Girls like him.
And the guys do too- just look at the way they look at him. Jack could be reading a grocery list or giving a social movement speech, and those boys WOULD NOT CARE either way.
Oh, and he man spreads while standing AND sitting.
Here you have it: a dude shrugging at being a dude.
But seriously, Jack is charismatic, independent but loyal, bold, and ready to rally. He’s a leader. He’s got a big heart, but he’s ~ guarded ~ and tough. And it shows in the dance numbers. Notice how Jack isn’t hopping in and flipping around with the other guys? Yeah, that’s for a reason. Instead, he is strong in his step and what they call “stage combat”- not quite dancing or acrobatics- and the effect of the tap shoes (attention-demanding, louder and ‘manlier’ than ballet, etc.) only adds to the emphasis on his confidence in word and act. His steps follow his words which follow his practically inflated chest, emphasizing the importance of his words and giving them a bit of a pump-up background beat with the tap shoes. (I’m sure if you were in the audience, you’d feel the energy of his steps.) Sometimes we see Jack wearing a muscle-exposing tank top with suspenders and dirt smothered all over because guys do physical work, duh, but most times we see him all cleaned up, ready to serve his crew’s union a plate of justice.
We know from his backstory that Jack has had a rough upbringing. He wants to bring a sense of good and accomplishment to his newsboys, so by staying angry, he stays focused. Physically and emotionally, he’s pretty stiff, but if he wants to lead a group of young males into the fight for justice AND be victorious AND be an icon, he needs to. Jack knows he needs to “be a man” to fight for himself and for others. It’s dangerous work, certainly not for the faint-of-heart.
Mama Rose, like Jack, fights for what she wants. The only difference is that her “crew” doesn’t want her to, so she’s more of a self-elected leader than a group-wide-respected one like Jack is. Instead of having her dreams and desires amplified by that of the group, Mama Rose projects hers onto the group (aka her two daughters).
Mama Rose is a woman in charge; she is a not-to-be-messed-with, absolute queen of a character.
She’s accomplishing and doing.
She is… being masculine.
Being masculine is exactly that- being it, not having it. We talk a lot about how gender is performative, but that’s because it is, or at least the stereotypical characteristics of masculinity are. Do these characteristics “belong” to males? Yes? No? The boys were confident first? I don’t know.
But regardless, Mama Rose is the perfect example of gender as a performance. Why is she “crazy”? Because she’s relentless, unsilenced, strong, wild-eyed, and ambitious. She’s an absolute hellbender. In a masculine lens, Mama Rose is unwavering, praiseworthy, and hungry to achieve. In a feminine lens, she is desperate, manipulative, threatening, and selfish. Why? Because gender norms. Where a female Rose “forced” Louise into the burlesque number, a male Rose would have “volunteered.”
This is a character that would do anything for her daughters (compared to Jack and his newsies) to have the success she did not. Mama Rose is incredibly desperate to be heard, seen, and appreciated. But she doesn’t get the “thank you for sacrificing everything (including your sanity) for me.” We know how it ends…
In this plot, we see masculinity playing out differently in male and female bodies again: A female wanting appreciation is needy, but a male wanting the same is not respected enough. Jack didn’t need what Mama Rose needed because he had it; he was respected and looked up to and appreciated, but Mama Rose was not. Would she have been if she was more than “being masculine” (like physically a male)? I don’t know. But what I do know is Mama Rose is an atypical woman because of her masculine tendencies and characteristics, and because of her biology, “being masculine” makes her less of a woman. So she’s a successful guy’s girl but appears unsuccessful because she is cRaZy for acting out male characteristics in a female body, and Jack’s a successful guy’s guy who appears successful because he exists in a male body with strong male traits, and this is not the Titanic. Oh, and you can “be masculine” without being a man.
I’ve got to hand it to Disney– if they can do one thing correct it’s completely mischaracterize being a teenager, specifically in regards to romance. But in Newsies, we get to see teenagers devoid of dimension in a whole new century! Instead of a classic Disney Channel plot point such as dropping a science fair project the morning its due (gasp) or being rejected by your crush and also opposite-sex best friend to the big dance (aww), we see class consciousness, child labor, union formation and… the American Dream? Lofty undertaking, Walt. Don’t fret, though– it’s just as inaccurate of a depiction of the dynamics of adolescent relationships as we have come to love and accept of this particular company (monopoly?).
Newsies follows a group of, well, newsies, on their journey to fair treatment from the publisher of the paper they distribute. These boys live very difficult lives, having to steal food and clothes to survive and without families. These children, as young as eight, work for hours for unlivable wages from the greedy Joseph Pulitzer. This sounds like it could be the start of an inspiring case for ditching capitalism, but that’s a discussion for a different blog post. The newsies have essentially formed their own family, with unity being their glue. This show tackles not only this struggle for equality, but the relationships between these kids– all platonic of course (the Disney Corporation still maintains the official position that gays do not exist). These relationships all center around their leader, 17 year old Jack Kelly, who is the epitome of benevolent male leadership– a guy with integrity, charisma, power and empathy. While Newsies was definitely not made with the intention of being seen as a commentary on turn of the century gender relations and sexuality, I think that is exactly what makes it a good case study for analysis.
The depiction of Jack Kelly is very intentional– he is fit, attractive (heyyy Jermey Jordan), unassuming and looks like an overall good guy. He is meant, again, to be the best that masculine can be. He, along with his newsie counterparts, are deemed as overwhelmingly benevolent and masculine, with only good intentions– even during mess ups. What’s totally brushed over is the concept of toxic masculinity, which is very real, contrary to what Ben Shapiro may think. There are things that, for the most part, and looked down upon in male groups– one of these things being emotion. I would be lying if I said I don’t even slightly cringe when seeing a grown man crying or expressing his emotions in a less-than-masculine way, and I am a queer man in 2021. These notions of what a man can or can’t do or be are so ingrained in my subconscious, and I don’t spend much time at all in mascuiline groups. I bring these points up because, throughout the show, Jack has bursts of emotion and gives heartfelt monologues in rooms of his peers, and it’s just difficult for me to believe that a group of rough and tumble guys from 120 years ago would be so receptive to this, and it would not diminish his status. I am actually happy that Disney chose to do this– while I definitely don’t think it is realistic, they probably assumed their audience would be mostly children and young adults, so setting this example of acceptance of expression could begin to change the narrative.
Continuing this conversation about the portrayal of masculinity, I just thought it was interesting to note how the song that encapsulates the entire theme of the show, masculinity and all, is segmented by a ballet-like dance break. “Seize the Day” is an overtly masculine piece, paired with masculine vocal and acting choices. This being said, the group dancing is something more connotationally feminine, but it didn’t feel like an emasculated performance. They were able to successfully portray feelings of power and revolution through, again, a ballet-like dance number, which is just an oddly more progressive display, in comparison to my view on gender as a whole is displayed in Newsies.
In terms of the dynamic of a male group of adolescents, this show falls very short in portraying a realistic one, in my experience at least. The one main component missing is competition, and in turn, jealousy. Jack assumes leadership with no opposition at all– and for a group of guys with the sole intention of standing up for themselves and knowing their worth, it is just a little odd to me that there is no one else vying for leadership. This aids in my describing these characters as one dimensional. The reason why this large component of youth masculinity is missing is because it isn’t relevant to the plot. The newsies really just seem to be bodies, there to echo what Jack says and react to his decisions. This being said, Jack takes pride in this comradery and his ability to lead, and never takes advantage of this power he was awarded. He is the ultimate “nice guy”. This just ties back to my broader take on masculinity’s depiction in Newsies— it is a sugar coated rendering, void of an addressing of the pitfalls or norms that come with the territory of being a man.
At the end of the day, I understand that this is just a Disney work, so expecting a nuanced take on gender and sexuality is rather naive. This doesn’t have to be how it is however. I love Jack and the group of newsies and their immense fraternity, but Newsies is not an accurate representation of what being a man is in the way that I am a man. Seeing groups of male friends like this, in all different forms, be so accepting of each other and under the leadership of such a great guy, always subliminally alienates me even more from my male peers, and makes me honestly jealous of what they have. While this show is about fun and revolution, we should overall start a move towards more nuanced representation, especially in media aimed for kids. Jack and his friends are an idealistic dream (especially when played by Jeremy Jordan), and it’s time Disney and all production companies alike start giving realistic and attainable representation to their audiences.
Let’s get one thing straight: not a single heterosexual female would look at the cast of Newsies and think “Cute. Anyways, not a fan.” If you are one of the few who thinks like this, I applaud you and your self-control. I mean, we’re seeing the epitome of rag-tag New York newsboys showing off their muscles and showing the ladies that they’ll fight for every mistreated child in New York. Major swoon right there. But if any of these characters truly existed in the real world, which one would fit in the most with the present-day male stereotypes?
If you think like most Newsies fans, the obvious answer would be Jack Kelly (or, if you’re thinking of minor characters, the Brooklyn baddie Spot Conlon is the most accurate). This seems contradictory, since most people wouldn’t consider a bunch of singing and dancing male Broadway performers as manly. So, what is it, then? The muscles, the strong New York accents, the knowledge that this isn’t reality and so dancing men are perfectly capable of acting masculine? Are they even “real” men at all? If you think about it, every performer in Newsies represents some form of masculinity in their own way, and I would strongly argue that each newsie represents one aspect of masculinity that either breaks the boundary of masculinity or continues to define it.
Hear me out. The 2017 musical production of Newsies, directed by Jeff Calhoun and Brett Sullivan, and produced by Thomas Schumacher and Anne Quart, is a phenomenal viewing experience featuring actors that take on the persona of very different male characters. The musical takes the viewer on a journey through the streets of New York in 1899, when newsboys were tired of being treated unfairly on the job and advocated for their new union (and don’t forget the Romeo and Juliet romance on the side). The beloved Jack Kelly, played by Jeremy Jordan, and newcomer Davey, played by Ben Fankhauser, seem like polar oposites. As the musical continues into Act II, their personas seem to switch for a short time before both taking on similar masculine stereotypes.
Let’s start with the lovely Jack Kelly, shall we? He enters the Newsies stage singing about his hopes and dreams in Santa Fe with his friend, his brother, Crutchie. And wow, what an opening to the show. From the start, we know Jack values brotherhood. He embodies the idea that men stick together, which somehow makes me think of men playing golf or watching a football game together with beers in their hand. Okay, okay, Jack doesn’t seem like the guy to reach that extent, but you can see a resemblance. The newsies are a brotherhood that sticks together through thick and thin. We can’t forget about the love story, though, especially because it reveals so much about how a man should approach a beautiful woman. The second conversation between Kelly and Katherine, played by Kara Lindsay, is an interesting moment. We can hear Jack singing about love, and he even drew her a picture (anyone else thinking of Titanic? Just me?) while we hear “Don’t Come A-Knocking” in the background. Typical, the man keeps pushing for the girl, flirting to the best of his abilities, while the girl wants nothing to do with him, as implied with this song in the back. We see this representation all over the media today; so many movies and shows focus on the man who’s trying to get the girl. But there must be more to Jack’s masculinity than his romance and brotherhood, right? Of course there is… but we need to compare the rest of these qualities to another man in the show, Davey.
Ah Davey, the more passive of the newsies, at least at the start. He’s so different from Jack they might as well be the perfect example of “opposites attract”. I feel like I should start off with their clothes. As a side note, though, incredible work by Jess Goldstein as the costume designer. Jack and the newsies are wearing dirty clothes with open vests, and their sleeves are rolled up like they’re ready for a fight… which I guess they are. Davey, on the other hand, wears a clean outfit, a buttoned vest, long sleeves that are not rolled or wrinkled, and he’s got a tie. How proper. One man is scruffy and laid back, the other is a proper gentleman who stands up straight and doesn’t like lying. Jack moves with swagger and much more extravagance, while Davey is very timid with his movements and rarely makes grand gestures. Both men, though, represent two types of men who are equally masculine. Jack Kelly is the independent man that doesn’t like relying on others, goes for the girl, and acts incredibly tough, the embodiment of today’s man. Davey is the family man, which we know is true because he’s working to make money for his family, with proper mannerisms.
The turning point for Davey occurs when the ensemble sings “Seize the Day”. Davey shines in this song, transforming from the gentleman we know and love to a Jack Kelly type. He gets more excited about the idea of a union and acts as the brains behind the strike. Does his intellect still classify him as a gentle man? Yes. Is he a true man nonetheless? Absolutely. Davey breaks down the barrier of stereotypical masculinity by becoming both a tough guy and a brainiac (Who knew being tough and smart could coexist in a man?). Both are men, but different types of men.
Now, Jack takes on a more complicated definition in the second act, when he is more conflicted with his emotions and we get to see more of his art (where painting is also manly). He cries in “Santa Fe”, as a man should if he feels like it, and goes through a small crisis where he must decide to continue with the union or protect himself from the law and run away to Santa Fe. And sweet Davey changes his costume and has no tie or a buttoned vest. Is this the character progression I was waiting for? Jack acts more passive and unsure of his decision, while Davey starts to toughen up and take charge of the union. They switch roles but both remain men. At the end of the musical, Jack is back to his old self and Davey assimilates into the newsie friend group for a happily ever after Oh, and Jack gets the girl, of course.
What’s the point of all of this, then? Why am I describing all these changes that Davey and Jack go through? Well, these changes represent a spectrum of masculinity that all fall under the umbrella of being a man. Whether one is a family man with values of loyalty, or a tough guy that also knows how to flirt, all can be described as men. Newsies emphasizes the idea that not all men are the same, but they’re still masculine. Even disregarding the fact that they’re singing and dancing all the time, the personalities of each character shows how varied masculinity can be. Being masculine is not defined by current stereotypes. The contrasts between values and attitudes are what break stereotypical barriers and reconstruct them everyday. Jack Kelly and Davey move along this divide, shape it, tear it down, and rebuild it throughout the musical. In short, the definition of a man is constantly evolving and Newsies helps to emphasize this.
Well, I think I’ve dumped enough information out here for now. Major takeaways: Masculinity is constantly redefining, Jack and Davey represent different types of men on a spectrum, and I might watch Newsies again as soon as I’m done with this post.
A real American man– he is driven, strong, demands respect, and is not interested in frivolous behavior… or at least that’s what has always been represented in the white American male. And because white has been presented as the “norm” in the United States, that is what we expect from “real men” in general. As the lovely Candace Owens would state, “bring back manly men”, and Joseph Pulitzer from Disney’s Newsies the Broadway Musical is a prime example of such an American man. Meanwhile, Rose as played by Bette Midler in the 1993 Gypsy, possesses surprising similarities to Pulitzer’s character despite being a woman. Rose owns the same ambition and authority that Pulitzer displays while still maintaining her feminine characteristics, showing that the attributes of “real manly men” can belong to women too without sacrificing femininity.
Let’s first begin by examining how Pulitzer is the epitome of unsympathetic, career-driven, “all business” masculinity, the perfect man of the patriarchy. Below is a compilation of scenes of Steve Blanchard playing Pulitzer in Disney’s Newsies, successfully portraying the hardened businessman. You can watch just the beginning to get a sense of the character since he stays relatively the same throughout the entire production.
The first time we see Pulitzer is with his feet up on a table as his hair is getting trimmed. His first line opens with “gentlemen”, not only addressing a handful of men, but a woman as well. Clearly, we can see who’s presence he’s feels is necessary to acknowledge. His posture does not claim grace, as a woman would be expected to exude, but rather an authority to sit and to do as he pleases. He then proceeds to vent about how Teddy Roosevelt wants to ban football for being too violent, showing how he values some “rough competition”, as a man should. Pulitzer dresses in a suit, which is generally associated with business, in a masculine way. (Thank goodness. Could you imagine if he wore a dress instead??) During the first song he sings, the choreography designed for Pulitzer is stiff and in many ways is not dancing at all. He walks around his office with authority and stands tall, putting his hand on his hip at the end. He is a serious man whose words are more important than dancing around the stage.
Pulitzer’s lack of vulnerability in his business and his emotions (besides anger) is maintained throughout the majority of the musical by a generally serious expression by the actor, Blanchard, even in response to an attempted joke by another character. Any such vulnerability would reveal weakness, which would be unacceptable as an important businessman. The only vulnerability we catch a glimpse of is at the very end of the musical when Pulitzer implies that he cannot afford to lower the costs of the papers back to their original price. He doesn’t actually say this, however, but simply tells Jack that there are “other considerations”, therefore admitting weakness without truly admitting any weakness, which would be devastating to his strong, manly reputation.
Then we have Rose, the mother desperate for her daughter’s success, clinging to her role in bringing Louise fame. At first glance (see her picture below), she may not seem like she’d have the stoic personality that Pulitzer has, and honestly this assumption would be true. She does not hold the same reign on her emotions, but she is, however, more alike than one might think.
Rose is a woman in charge. From the beginning of the 1993 production, we see that she would do just about anything for the success of her daughters when she threatens the theater producer into letting her daughters perform their act. Sure, Rose may not seem career-driven in the same way that Pulizter is with his business, but it is her own ambition that drives her to make up for her own unsuccessful performing career through one of her children. Later in the musical, Rose is volunteering Louise to do the burlesque performance. Rose holds her chin high as she speaks to the men to show that she’s not afraid of them and that she believes she knows best. She even points her finger at the two men, conveying power and showing them “who’s boss”.
Where Rose starts to veer from her similarities with Pulitzer is how she reveals her own desperation, especially through the acting of Bette Midler. After making a deal so that Louise will perform the burlesque act, she enters the dressing room breathlessly and reaches up to grab some fabric, turning around and raising her eyebrows in excitement. It’s like a giddy child, so excited to have a glimmer of hope of stardom again for her daughter. Going into the number “Rose’s Turn”, Rose yells and screams about how she made Louise a star because she couldn’t be one herself. Bette Midler flails her arms showing her characters outrage. Finally bursting into her own show-stopping solo, Rose shows the world she really is a star. Previous actors playing Rose had given the character a bit of a “crazy” look in this moment, as though she had really finally lost it. Bette, though, shows the audience that rather than having lost her mind, Rose is finally releasing her disappointment and anger from her past. For once, the bold and ambitious (and slightly power-hungry) woman doesn’t need to sacrifice something else- her brain.
In this number, we get to see Rose not only shine as a star, but she loosens her ruby red dress to give the audience a little cleavage, showing she’s embracing her womanhood in her most climactic moment. Steve Blanchard as Pulitzer very clearly never strayed from his masculine identity and yet somehow we see two quite similar characters here. Bette Midler as Rose steps into the musical scene and demonstrates that a person can be both “manly” in the sense of being commanding and driven while also embracing a feminine identity. The two need not be mutually exclusive. Maybe the manly men we really need are actually present within women right now. So yes, we’ll give you manly men, but it just might come from women instead.
By Chloe Hodge
While no man stacks up to my love Tommy Shelby of Netflix’s Peaky Blinders, two have come dangerously close recently, and they are none other than Davey Jacobs from Disney’s filmed version of Newsies (2017) directed by Brett Sullivan and a young Hugh Jackman as Curly from Oklahoma! directed by Trevor Nunn. Okay. What? These two fools are nothing alike. One wears assless chaps and the other a sweater vest—what’s going on here? Well I’ll tell ya. They’re both stereotypical manly men, which I occasionally fall prey to (see: Tommy Shelby). But if they’re so different, how do they both portray a stereotypical version of masculinity? Follow me down this dusty path (think Oregon trail type dirt road or a New York City back alley, your preference) and I’ll walk you through it.
Let’s examine how both Davey and Curly perpetuate the stereotype of masculinity first, I think that’s a great place to start. Both Davey and Curly make their respective entrances with a bang. Curly comes in singing, and Davey comes in basically fighting. (Not really, but he’s got some serious sass for him to clearly not know what he’s doing). Both entrances demand your attention; they create the immediate impression that these two men are going to stand out in their respective shows. Davey starts off as a hard-headed know-it-all. Curly? Well…same. Davey refuses help and claims he can figure out how to sell “papes” all by himself, while Curly does…whatever he’s doing.
Attempts to woo Laurey even though she’s said she’s not interested like 10 times already yet he refuses to back down?
I don’t know. He supposedly has a job, but he always seems to be hovering around Aunt Eller’s house to me.
I digress. Both men are VERY sure of themselves and their rightness. Davey has to mention multiple times throughout the play that he and his brother are only taking this job because their dad lost his job, so they’ve become the primary breadwinners. Stereotypical gender role? I think so. The masculine figure is supposed to bring in the money for their family, no matter if that masculine figure is only a teen and also babysitting his little brother? What are his parents doing? They better be on a job search. Curly, though he has literally nothing to his name except the clothes on his back and a lunch basket at one point, is just known to be the breadwinner in he and Laurey’s relationship, no questions asked. He was prepping to be the masculine-type breadwinner for his future family even before his wife liked him back.From the beginning of the play, it was evident that he was saving up money working as a cowboy (see: assless chaps), but when poor Laurey finally gave into his pestering, he did note that he’d have to sell all his cowboy gear (he already sold it all to buy her lunch basket that had perishable items but was not in an icebox, but I guess he forgot this) to buy them stuff to settle down on a nice farm somewhere that he, of course, would tend to.
More traditionally masculine roles between these two, you ask? Say no more.
Davey takes care of his younger brother, he is the protector in this relationship (very manly), while Curly is Laurey and Aunt Eller’s protector from weirdly perverted and very creepy Jud Fry the farmhand. At one point Curly even takes his protective role on so hard that he attempts to talk Jud out of wanting to take Laurey to the barn dance by singing a song about how everyone would miss Jud and talk great about him if he were just dead…and follows that by pointing out that sturdy rope hanging from the ceiling. Like, come on Curly, that was just a little tone-deaf, even for a weirdo like Jud.
Curly and Davey’s respective stereotypes of masculinity didn’t always have such nice parallels throughout the two musicals, like Davey’s traditionally masculine leadership position in his organizing and rallying together of the newspaper strike and Curly’s general respect in the community just for being a manly man, but their traditional masculinity stereotype parallels will converge one last time in this post in the form of their front and center dance numbers!!!
What’s a musical without shutting the hell up sometimes and just dancing??
Boring. That’s what.
And in these musical dance numbers, it is pretty traditionally masculine to be in the lead. Davey’s big dance break was in the tap number “King of New York,” where he took on a masculine leadership position among the other newsies by dancing in the middle of them with Katherine, but also kept his position as “one of the boys” by dancing alongside everyone else.
Hugh’s, oops, I mean Curly’s dances were a few more in number, but my favorite example to watch was the dream ballet sequence, AKA a good fourth of the entire musical (really, why was that so long?) Curly comes in and immediately literally sweeps Laurey off her feet. He waltzes with her, leading of course, he spins her, he lifts her, he smiles that dreamy smile at her, he LEADS. Stereotypically masculine. Perpetuating gender roles. Curly leads, Laurey follows. Davey leads, the other newsies follow.
Okay, no sense in beating a dead horse. On to my next point, the breaking of these traditional gender roles through these characters! Whaatttt? Yeah, it needs to be addressed, my argument still holds, but these are good points as well.
Neither character does it frequently, but Curly only has one instance in which I felt like his actions or character didn’t just scream traditional masculine role at me through the TV, and that was near the beginning of the musical, before plot advancement, when he was clearly more interested in Laurey than she was him (or so it seemed). Stereotypically, the girl is the one who is crazy over the guy, and she has to convince him to settle for her (see: the beginning of Grease, Grace from Peaky Blinders, etc.) but Curly was putting his manliness aside for just a second to pine over a girl.
Davey had a few more instances of breaking the stereotypical masculinity mold; first and most obviously, he stuck out in appearance like a sore thumb amongst the other newsies. While they had this rough, gritty, work-hard type manly appearance, Davey rolled up with a crossbody satchel and a nicely fitted, totally buttoned up plaid vest (I was wrong earlier, it wasn’t a sweater, but pretty close and equally as nerdy).
Not that this isn’t totally rockin’, not to mention very practical for his first day on the job, but traditionally, the masculine stereotype is the dirty hands, sleeves rolled up, not caring about appearance deal, so Davey’s matching fit threw him off from the rest of the group. Another aspect of Davey’s character that didn’t quite fit the traditional masculinity role is, admittedly, also an example I used for his perpetuation of the traditional masculinity role; taking care of his little brother. While it is traditionally masculine to be the protector of the family, it is not stereotypical of a masculine role to care for younger siblings or act as a babysitter of sorts. Taking care of younger children is usually a feminine role. Davey taking on this role and looking after his little brother breaks the stereotypical representation of masculinity the rest of his character portrays.
Alright. Now to wrap this bad boy up. I have reached my last point: I thought it would be interesting to address what masculinity was considered to be at the time of these musicals being written and see how that reflected in these two characters. Oklahoma! was written in 1942. For those of us who are not good with historical dates (personal callout) this was smack dab in the middle of World War II. How do we think this affected the portrayal of what was masculine and not? Well, the hardy, muscular soldier (you can just go ahead and translate this directly to that scene where Hugh Jackman comes out shirtless with suspenders on and knife in hand) definitely became sought after, but according to nationalww2museum.org (thanks Google!), there was another group who wanted to be sought after just as much. The men who did not get drafted into the war created their own home-made version of what masculinity is through the muscley laborer man (i.e., same thing, minus the uniform) who did all the work the women couldn’t do back home, so no matter if you were actively in the war or not, you were perpetuating the same masculine stereotype as the ideal figure. Personally, I think this can be seen almost exactly in what Curly was written to be. He is a hardworking, good ole American muscle man who takes care of his women. Newsies, on the other hand, was written in 2009. Although the Iraq War was going on at this time, the wartime era was definitely not as prevalent throughout the nation as it was in 1942. Maybe this was reflected in Davey’s character being a little less stereotypically masculine. Maybe this tiny difference was because gender roles in 2009, though heavily present still and very stereotyped, were not quite as in your face as they were in 1942. Who knows. Either way, it was interesting to look at.
Seriously, I’m wrapping things up now, I promise.In conclusion, both these guys, though written in different times and set in different times, perpetuate stereotypical masculine gender through their characters even though they seem to be nothing alike. Are there some slight variants from this at times? Yes. Does that cancel out the rest of the perpetuation? Nah. Are these characters a product of their time? Yeah probably. Does that make it okay? No. It’s annoying and a bit bland. Do I still think they’re cute? Yes. I do. But not as cute as Tommy Shelby, and that’s the real takeaway. Hope I didn’t bore you to death.
Till next time
For most of my childhood I was an avid ice cream hater. Zero, and I mean zero, ice cream appealed to me. I met the discussion of an ice cream party with sighs, the presentation of ice cream cakes with a groan, and the sight of ice cream shops with confusion. (It is interesting that despite my being a relatively basic human being, it is typically the case that I do not like certain things that are widely discussed. It is a serious personality flaw, and I am currently in the process of recovery.) Simply stated, I considered ice cream overrated, frozen milk. I share this with you because I have always been an ardent supporter of honesty. By divulging this information, I offer the opportunity for you, as the reader, to stop reading this on account of my having poor taste. Through this act of transparency, you may consider this analysis and all further analyses inherently void. And that is okay. In fact, I welcome it.
It is with this same spirit that I retroactively charge Broadway (and, quite frankly, all forms of popular media into the present day) to simply admit that they hate women. It is important to note, however, that this hatred is undeniably confusing. On one level, women in Broadway musicals must be “different” in order to be both the protagonist and heterosexual object of desire. They must not be “easy,” “stupid,” or “simple.” They may be more of a tomboy or more willing to be “one of the guys.” Put colloquially, many of these girls would publicly claim that “they are not like other girls.” On another level, women in Broadway musicals must be exactly like other girls. They should be willing to answer the call to their marital duties when men come a-knockin’, they must not be interested in talking over men (or being too smart for their own good), and, most importantly, they need to look pretty doing all of these things. In assessing these inherently dichotomous expectations, I for one am thoroughly perplexed.
If musicals were not a form of media intended to be personalized, perhaps I would be more willing to accept this concept and move on with my life. Unfortunately for all women, this is not the case. Popular conceptions about the composition of a woman’s personality (atop popular conceptions about a woman’s appearance) infiltrate the very being of a woman from the second we are able to spell “boy.” In my own life, I am expected not to be like other girls, but yet fall squarely into the norms of femininity set before me by men. So which is it? What am I supposed to do? It seems as though whichever path I choose is wrong. Being myself? Wrong. Being one of the guys? Wrong. Being one of the girls? Wrong.
What is left? Who is left? Should I just quit now?
These are all questions I would be thinking if I were not given what I have entitled:
Broadway’s Guide to Extraordinarily Ordinary Womanhood: The Case Study of Katherine and Laurey.
Through characters such as Laurey of Oklahoma! and Katherine of Newsies, Broadway has spelled out a very specific order of operations for every woman’s success. First, something must differentiate a woman from the generally inferior female cohort. Second, this woman must play hard to get— but only long enough to retain a man’s interest. Third, a woman must inevitably fall straight into the arms of a man. Thus emerges a critical formula in Broadway math:
Differentiator + Playing Hard to Get + Immediate Marriage Readiness = SUCCESS!
Oklahoma! and Newsies‘s writers, directors, and cast took great pains to ensure that Laurey and Katherine were not like other girls. In fact, in differentiating Laurey, playwrights Rogers and Hammerstein provided a direct foil in Ado Annie. While the character Ado Annie was so infantilized that she could not muster up the wits to say no to any “feller who talked to her purty,” Laurey could not say yes. Laurey did not melt at the sight of a man; she did not need their validation. Laurey was not “stupid” like other girls. She didn’t cry over past lovers, she didn’t rave over her gooseberry pie— I mean the girl even wore overalls for crying out loud! In Newsies, without direct a foil to represent the remainder of women, Katherine’s differentiator is having a J.O.B. as a serious journalist. She’s dancing (quite literally) with the boys! Doubtful that this is an effective differentiator? Take it from the leading man himself: Jack Kelly admires smart girls for being beautiful, independent, smart… and probably some other stuff too!
Playing Hard to Get:
For their next step, both Laurey and Katherine needed to play hard to get. However, it is important for the success of the next step that these women did not become hard to want in the process. For example, Laurey could make it abundantly clear to Curly that she did not want him. But while singing a number in perfect harmony would Laurie break eye contact with Curly for longer than a second? Absolutely not. Interestingly, in order to retain her lovability, the typically confident and self-assured Laurey adopts fidgety mannerisms in her conversations with Curly. Strong women, she demonstrates, must not be too strong. In Newsies, Katherine employs witty quips to demonstrate her disinterest in Jack Kelly. She insinuates that he must have a criminal record, informs him that she is not interested in conversation, implies that she finds him stupid, and plainly instructs him to disappear. Yet, after witnessing evidence that Jack was (quite creepily) staring at her long enough to sketch a detailed portrait of her face, she melts. In fact, within a mere three interactions Katherine’s blocking places her closer and closer to Jack— a man who only three scenes earlier she had effectively deemed repulsive.
Immediate Marriage Readiness:
Finally, but most importantly, the successful woman’s story must end with her proclamation (whether explicit or insinuated) to spend the rest of her life with the very man she repeatedly rebuffed just a few acts prior. After all, you can’t spell “woman” without ending it with “man!” Laurey and Curly wed at the end of the musical as Oklahoma! achieves its statehood and Jud Fry is killed. Katherine and Jack insinuate their commitment to a long-term relationship through Jack’s decision to stay in New York as a cartoonist and a newsie. In this crucial step an important truth is revealed: all of a woman’s agency is a farce. In maintaining an unsustainable and intrinsically contradictory personality, the stories of these women elucidated the fact that none of their actions truly matter until they are validated by men. Without this the final step, which involves the direct contribution of men, none of the prior steps amount to any sort of victory. You can be as different as the stripes on a zebra and be as mean as bullfrog, but if a man does not want you and if you are not ready to marry that man, all of that work was for naught! After all, even dumb ol’ Ado Annie planned to get married at the end of Oklahoma!
In developing this formula, I wondered what our world would look like if Broadway simply published this framework. Perhaps life would be simpler for girls. Under a policy of transparency, it would be abundantly clear that the life designed for women by social forces such as Broadway is patently unbearable. In no uncertain terms, many women could declare their resignation from this game of dependency and choose to formulate their own rules on their own terms. Women, upon first seeing popular musicals such as Oklahoma! and Newsies, could decide that though they could enjoy the work for its entertainment value, they would not internalize its messaging that villanizes “other girls.” They (including me) could be free to recognize that “other girls” are not half bad. Our mothers are “other girls.” Our sisters are “other girls.” Our grandmothers are “other girls.” Our Aunt Eller’s are “other girls.” And somehow, by some miracle, we manage to love them anyway.
(Also, I do in fact like ice cream now. Feel free to allow yourself to consider my analysis valid. Or don’t. That’s your business.)
First and foremost, let’s get one thing clear. Jeremy Jordan should not be allowed to look that good climbing up a fire escape. What can I say, I’m a nineteen-year-old female who isn’t blind, sure I’m going to swipe right (on Tinder) for the one and only Jack Kelly. I mean I guess we should really be thanking Justin Huff, for casting this Disney’s Newsies production to feature eye candy for days as the stage fills the majority with male ensemble members. Would the production be less beloved and entertaining if some of the newsies were female? What do you think?
So, what would one expect from watching this high-energy show? This specific production directed by Jeff Calhoun and Brett Sullivan explores the journey and adventures of Newsies in New York trying to meet ends meet, led by a heroic Jack Kelly. Jack and his buddy Crutchie (don’t worry we will get to him later), along with the rest of the Newsies in Manhattan need to sell their “papes” in order to have food on the table, but when mean, old Pulitzer raises the prices of the newspapers, something had to be done. That’s where our heart-eyed Jack Kelly comes in.
Filmed in 2017, this rendition of Newsies is up to date and looking to appeal to the audience of well, us. Teenagers to young adults who love the high energy of jumps and kicks, with a little bit of adventure and of course a love interest. As a cherry on top, they cast Jeremy Jordan for our lead. From his physical appearance, Kelly is strong and fit, not to a point where he looks scary, but just enough that people will worship at his feet. He shows his masculinity in other ways besides his appearance. For example, it comes through in his chase for Katherine. Being masculine meant then, drawing pictures of her on papes and distracting her from her work. Sure, ladies love a man who is a strong alpha male lead, but more importantly, a man is someone who cares and protects his family. Like Jack does for Crutchie.
When Jack Kelly comes on stage, jaws drop at his physique. When Crutchie comes on stage, smiles and laughter come from every person to the audience. Does that make Crutchie less of a man than Jack? Definitely not.
We first see Crutchie with Jack on the fire escape where they live trying to leave early so that no one notices his limp. He is already at a physical disadvantage in the game of selling papes and he needs no pity from his buddies. And that is what makes him masculine. Crutchie’s character is independent even though he doesn’t need to be. He would and did, risk his life for the rest of the Newsies and never looked back in regret. In “Letter from the Refuge”, he can laugh off the fact that he was taken from Snyder and look towards the future, not the past. This internal masculinity is just as strong on the Broadway stage as Jack’s is physical. Both are leaders paving the way for others like them.
Now we can’t talk about Newsies without talking about the dance numbers. Growing up in the dance competition world maybe I’m a little crazy about analyzing every leap and kick. Also, being surrounded by that environment I noticed the lack of male dancers where I grew up. Sure, I’m from a little suburban town in New Jersey, but even competing with studios in New York, the male talent was rare. Even if a boy went on stage at a competition, cried, ran off, they would likely get “brownie points” and beat out half the girls. So, to my surprise when Newsies was a fully casted male, an ensemble performing elite dance numbers and tap productions, it was a dream come true.
Dance is traditionally not seen as a masculine sport. Some don’t say it’s a sport at all (We can talk about this controversial topic if you want). But when Newsies put 30 so men on stage in tap shoes, dancing on tabletops and on newspapers, I would say that was creating masculinity that simply avoided the toxicity. I did however notice that Jack Kelly was not in many of the large dance numbers like “King of New York”. Was it because it was more feminine, and they wanted Jack Kelly to be portrayed as the alpha male? Maybe Jeremey Jordan just didn’t have time to brush up on his flaps and shuffles.
Disney’s Newsies took masculinity defined as “qualities or attributed as characteristics of men” and showed how many different ways a man can be masculine. Although the musical never mentioned the sexuality of the other characters, many were assumed to be straight based on their dialogue and interactions. They were seen as masculine simply by their determination to fight the system. Even though not everyone was a leader, some even fell short (but we still love you Crutchie), they all brought out the characteristic of a strong man.
P.S there’s no way I could choose between Crutchie and Jack Kelly. Obviously, you have to swipe right on both of them and just hope it’s a match 🙂
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.