Learn from Newsies
Warning: This article contains spoilers!
This article is about Newsies, the movie, although the points made her are valid and are in the stage musical version.
Who would have thought that one of today's most politically relevant shows would be a Disney Musical?
Newsies the Musical is based on a real-life campaign in 1899, when the newsboys of New York – often orphans and street kids who sold the papers – started a strike for better pay that is credited with precipitating wide-reaching child labour reform.
The musical – inspired by David Nasaw’s book Children of the City: At Work and at Play, and a revivification of the 1992 Disney flop but cult favourite film (starring a young Christian Bale) – follows Jack Kelly, Crutchie, Davey and a rag-tag group of children and teenagers hawking papers across New York City.
When Joseph Pulitzer raises the price of 50 papers from 50 to 60 cents per newsboy in a bid to lift profit without any sacrifice of his own, the gang – who already have to pay out-of-pocket for unsold papers and largely sleep on the streets – are pushed to a crisis point. Faced with the prospect of being unable to feed themselves or their families (if they have them), they hastily form a union and strike.
Newsies is a call to arms for the exploited and oppressed, urging grassroots action to organise, protest and agitate for change, and emphasising the importance of a fearless fourth estate to report injustice and stand as a watchdog for those without a platform.
All the newsboys want is fair recompense for hard work – and if boys selling “papes” on street corners are too difficult to relate to in 2017, there are plenty of examples of exploitation among the youth, new citizens and the broader working class to inspire empathy in contemporary audiences. Think of employees suffering in major fast food chains, afraid to speak out in case they lose their livelihoods, or prisoners whose labour yields them as little as 17 cents an hour.
Harvey Fierstein’s book is big-hearted and unabashedly political, a rallying cry from the working class writ large through Alan Menken’s anthemic, urgent score, and galvanised by Jack Feldman’s inspiring, angry and resolute lyrics about fists in the air and youth carrying the banner for freedom. “This is for kids shining shoes on the street / with no shoes on their feet every day,” the Newsies sing. “This is for guys sweating blood in the shops / while their bosses and cops look away.”
The revolution’s progress can be tracked via dance – because this is a dance musical, make no mistake. It’s balletic and athletic in that irresistibly American way. Choreographed by Christopher Gattelli, each member of the Newsies ensemble has a distinctive movement identity and character traits. It’s a boisterous, playful group, but as a collective they dance in joyous unison with sustained lines, their scrappiness evolving into strength.
The filmed staging of Jeff Calhoun’s national tour production comes close to replicating the rambunctious energy of the live show (the infectious Broadway staging received three standing ovations one night in 2013, which is a near-impossible task and great achievement. Its secret weapon is the technical direction of London-based Australian Brett Sullivan, who also shot the live versions of Billy Elliot, Love Never Dies and the Miss Saigon 25th anniversary event. It’s Sullivan’s refined skill in translating ensemble numbers that helps this film maintain storytelling clarity – ensuring we don’t miss key moments of stakes-raising police brutality, or plot developments in the midst of a crowded stage brawl.
The film production also introduces a brand new song, Letter From the Refuge, sung by Crutchie as he is locked in an orphanage. The threat of the prison-like refuge was always present in the Broadway staging but the addition of a song devoted entirely to it deepens the musical’s reach to the wider, more shocking reality lived by many impoverished children.
As the narrative tension builds, Pulitzer, Hearst and their mogul pals call for a media blackout on the strike, and only Katherine (Kara Lindsay), building a career as a reporter beyond the social pages, is willing to cover it. Her solo number Watch What Happens addresses her writer’s block, her battles against a sexist workforce, her attraction to Jack Kelly, her commitment to the newsboy cause and the cause of all exploited children, as well as the capacity for a writer to help affect change by demanding justice – in just three minutes and four seconds.
With nods to real-life newsboy Kid Blink, pioneering journalist Nellie Bly and social crusader Mother Jones in the show’s DNA, Newsies the Musical is an accessible, relatable, song-and-danceable blueprint to youth-led revolution. And when action against powerful governments and corporations seems impossible, an instruction guide urging the powerless to band together becomes more relevant than ever.