As I mentioned in a recent post, my parents came to visit last weekend, and as part of their visit, we stopped by TKTS and picked up some half-price tickets to see Newsies. For those who don’t follow Broadway, Newsies is a Disney musical that opened in 2012 as a limited engagement, but which recouped its production costs more quickly than any other Disney musical, and has since become an open-ended production. In its first year, it was nominated for seven Tony awards and won two (Best Choreography and Best Original Score). The show is based on the 1992 Disney movie of the same name, and both are based on the real-life Newsboys Strike of 1899.
That’s right. Under all of the musical numbers and a thick layer of artistic license, there is an essentially true piece of New York City history here…which is actually something that makes me uncomfortable about it. But I’ll get to that.
As you can probably guess from the Tonies, Newsies’s greatest strength is in its dancing. My Brooklynite sister, far more knowledgeable in the ways of the theatre than I am, tells me that this is because they take advantage of having a largely male cast. Her scripture is that women may be more flexible, but men have more power, allowing for higher leaps and the like. Regardless, the results are unquestionable. The dancing in Newsies is glorious:
When it comes to its musical numbers and dancing, Newsies is a bit of old school Broadway come again. Where a more modern-style musical will try to keep things moving, using songs in place of dialogues or monologues, Newsies will stop the plot for minutes at a time while the actors show off their dancing chops.
And speaking of the plot, this is the part of the review where usually I start talking about it – and even if it wasn’t, I would need to, to explain my remark about being uncomfortable with the show’s historical aspect. Beware: spoilers – to the extent that there can be spoilers in a show based on history – begin now.
The show begins before dawn on a summer day in Manhattan, 1899. Jack Kelly and his best friend Crutchie – so called because of his bad leg – are sleeping on the roof of the Newsboys’ Lodging House. Can’t blame them. It’s summer in the City and air conditioning doesn’t exist yet. Sleeping outside would be tempting indeed.
Anyway, they wake up a bit early, and they take the opportunity to discuss their dreams. Jack yearns for the wide open spaces of the West. His personal El Dorado is Santa Fe, where he imagines he can have all the good things that are out of his reach in New York. As he waxes on about this paradise, it breaks your heart a bit just how little he wants: fresh air. Space. To work without being exploited. He promises to take Crutchie with him when he goes: in a healthier environment, Crutchie may actually heal.
Crutchie’s desires are much simpler: to get down off the roof without breaking his other leg. This is less funny than it might sound. Crutchie is absolutely terrified that people might think he can’t take care of himself, which would get him sent to “the Refuge”.
Then the wake-up bell rings, and the time for dreaming is done. The work day has begun.
Now, if you followed that link to the Wikipedia article about the Newsboys’ Strike, you saw that the Newsboys involved were mostly, well, boys. Children. The newsboys we see on stage are mostly teenagers, because of course, they’re played by grown men. Small grown men in some cases, but grown men all the same.
We watch the newsboys’ morning routine – getting breakfast at a church-run bread line; making unsuccessful passes at a strolling young lady who will soon become familiar; scrapping with the Delancey Brothers, a pair of local thugs who act as security at the job site and anti-union skull crackers on the side; waiting for the headline to be posted – and we see just how close to the edge these boys live. Each is constantly seeking new strategies and territories in the hopes of selling just one more paper; each hopes for a good headline.
Today, they are disappointed. The headline is that the streetcar strike is entering another week.
(Well done. Between this and the discussion of the Delanceys’ thuggish sideline, the labor issues at the heart of the plot are introduced without using a sledgehammer.)
The next half hour or so is spent putting the pieces in place. First, we meet Davey Baum and his little brother Les, new-on-the-job newsies who are only on the job, they hope, until their father recovers from injuries suffered in an industrial accident. Dad was laid off when he became unable to work, and the family desperately needs a source of income. Jack takes the Baum brothers under his wing, not out of any altruism (no, no, of course not!), but because a cute kid like Les can make some serious bank. We also meet Snyder, warden of “The Refuge” (which, as Jack explains to the Baum brothers and, not coincidentally, us, is a “jail for kids”), who chases the three of them (really just Jack, but the Baum brothers are caught up in the moment) into the vaudeville theatre owned by Jack’s friend Medda Larkin. Jack paints sets and backdrops for Medda, good ones, but he has never accepted payment for it. This becomes important later. Even more important, Medda’s theatre is where we run into the girl from earlier again.
In the movie, the Baum brothers had a sister named Sarah who was probably included as a romantic foil for Jack, but didn’t get enough screen time to serve the purpose properly. There was also a crusading reporter, played by Bill Pullman, who was responsible for publicizing the strike when the newspaper magnates ordered a news blackout. In the musical, those two characters are combined in the person of this girl, who gives her name as Katherine Plumber. She’s at the theatre writing a review, which is about what a “crusading reporter” could expect in 1899 if she was a woman, the example of Nellie Bly notwithstanding. Jack tries to hit on her again, but she brushes him off again. He goes, but not before making a quick sketch of her face, which finally catches her attention.
While all of this is going on, there’s a business meeting in progress at the offices of Joseph Pulitzer’s newspaper, The World. They want to improve their corporate bottom line, but such strategies as cutting the price or executive salaries are quickly rejected. Finally, they hit upon a plan: the newsies must buy their papers for fifty cents per hundred before selling them for a penny. If they raise the price to sixty cents per hundred for the newsies, that not only increases the bottom line directly, it forces the newsies to sell more papers just to stay even, thus increasing circulation! Brilliant!
When asked if this all might be too hard on a group of boys who are, after all, penniless orphans, Pulizer isn’t worried. No doubt they’ll take it as a challenge. In fact, they’ll be grateful to him for forcing them to learn enterprise!
I don’t know if the actual Joseph Pulitzer ever said anything like this, or if the show is just putting the words of modern One-percenters in his mouth. But that’s the point, isn’t it? We’ve been dealing with these issues at least since the story of Jacob and Laban in the Old Testament, and we’re still dealing with it today. Tycoons have never given their employees a square deal if they can help it, and they always expect their employees to be grateful for the privilege of being allowed to work for them.
Pisses me right the fuck off.
The next day, we see how grateful the newsies are. Not very, as you might expect. Amidst the general grousing, we hear one of them say “I can eat two days on a dime!” This is an important line for us to hear. It establishes the money scale for us 21st-century folk, and reminds us forcefully of the stakes: Pulitzer is worried about his business. The newsies are worried about survival.
The strike begins there. Katherine is excited to cover it; this may be her chance to break out of the flower shows and write something meaningful! She’s also excited by the strike’s leader, but I discussed that in my other post.
Unfortunately, things don’t go well. Strikebreakers – including police – attack the newsies’ rally, and while all the boys are beaten, Crutchie suffers a terrible fate: he is captured and taken to the Refuge. When Jack sneaks in to see him, Crutchie has been beaten too badly to even come to the window.
You know, I hear an awful lot of people talk about “union thugs”. Those people never seem to talk about how the Bosses were the ones who employed thugs first.
Anyway, Jack is devastated at what his strike has wrought. He decides to paint one last backdrop for Medda, take his earnings, and flee for Santa Fe.
However, Katherine arrives the next morning while the other newsies are nursing their wounds, and gives them some much-needed good news: her report made it onto the front page of The Sun. The newsies are understandably, if naively, ecstatic:
(See what I mean about spending a significant amount of time showing off the cast’s dancing chops?)
Not seeing Jack there, Katherine and the Baum brothers find him in Medda’s theatre, and are able to convince him to rejoin the strike and arrange a rally at Medda’s theatre. The time is ripe:the powerful newsies of Brooklyn, led by the much-feared Spot Conlon, are coming across the bridge to join the fray, something the Manhattan newsies have been hoping for since the strike began.
Unfortunately, Jack’s first move is to confront Pulitzer…who has Snyder waiting in his office. Jack is an escaped thief. Not only can that information send Jack back to the refuge, it can be used to justify a police raid on the rally, sending all of the newsies thence. Or, Jack can use his speech at the rally to try and convince the newsies to stop striking, in which case there will be no police raid and Jack will be given enough money to move to Santa Fe.
Oh, what’s Katherine doing here? She’s my daughter.
This bit is the part that makes me uncomfortable. There has been a significant amount of artistic license taken, of course, but the facts that have been presented about Joseph Pulitzer have been essentially true: he did raise the prices on the papers from fifty to sixty cents per hundred (during the Spanish-American War, when the newsies were easily able to make up the difference by increased circulation; after the war ended and circulation dropped…); he did order strikebreakers to attack the newsboys during their strike while at the same time supporting other strikes; and he did in fact have three daughters – Constance, Edith and Lucille (Lucille, the eldest, sadly died at the age of 17 of typhoid fever). Now, as the man who gave Nellie Bly her shot, Pulitzer may well have been okay with having a daughter who was a Crusading Reporter. What’s more, since we never find out Katherine’s real name (she makes it clear from the beginning that “Katherine” is a pen name – no doubt taken from her mother’s), so she technically could have been either of Constance or Edith (Lucille died in 1897). Except that I’m pretty sure both were younger than Katherine is shown, and neither of them took a stand against their father during the strike, and neither of them ended up married to a striker. In other words, we are now in the territory of straight-up makin’ shit up about a real, historical person, one close enough to the present that they haven’t had time to melt into legend. This makes me uncomfortable.
Incidentally, another historical character who is ill-treated by the show is Kid Blink, the real-life leader of the strike who is reduced here to an eyepatch-wearing extra.
Anyway, Jack gives the speech as ordered and prepares to leave, but Katherine catches him on his rooftop and, after a few minutes of wrangling, Katherine manages to overcome his distrust by revealing her true feelings for him:
Once that’s taken care of, they talk strategy: she’s seen his drawings of life at the Refuge, and not only does she understand why he was stealing food and clothing, she believes they could be powerful tools to move public opinion. If only they could overcome her father’s news blackout. But Jack has a solution to that: there was an old printing press in the cellar where he was incarcerated before the rally.
The rest of the story turns out more or less like the real-life strike did, with happy endings thrown in for our good guys, and heartwarming ones, too. This is a Disney show after all. But there’s one last interesting detail:
When Jack and Pulitzer are bargaining, Pulitzer warns that he can’t put the price all the way back down. Jack acknowledges that “Joe” has to save face…so his condition is that the World buy back unsold papers at the end of the day. To Jack’s mind, this is actually to Pulitzer’s interest: knowing that there’s no risk, a newsboy will buy sixty papers instead of the fifty he knows he can sell, and may end up selling fifty-five. Pulitzer sees it differently: what if newsies buy hundreds of papers apiece? His expenses will skyrocket. Jack is almost insulted at the suggestion: no newsie will break his back buying hundreds of papers that he knows he can’t sell.
Interesting juxtaposition. The rich man is worried about the poor man cheating him…but it’s the rich man who really knows how to do it.
Produced by the Disney corporation, in one of the cities that probably has more billionaires per square mile than any other city in the world. Makes you wonder if any of them have actually watched it.
So. Bottom line: I recommend it highly, but then, I’m a sucker for live theatre. I even enjoyed the ridiculous Beach Boys jukebox musical Good Vibrations that ran for less than 3 months in 2005. Still, this one has rousing music, superlative dancing, and a story that’s simple and heartwarming and even mostly true.
It’s the “mostly true” part that’ll get ya. This one can make it hard to keep your brain turned off.