A historical exploration of “Newsies” the musical

   Those of you who know me know I care ardently about a few things: journalism, history, and dancing boys with little hats on. You can imagine my extreme excitement when I got the opportunity to watch Newsies at the Orpheum Theatre in early March. It was a matinee show and someone had given up their third row tickets; thus allowing me and my friend Riley to sit so close that we could see the copious amounts of spit flying out of the mouths of aforementioned dancing boys with little hats on. Truly great.

Here’s my opinion on the production I saw: it was fantastic. It had an excellent musical score, an appropriate amount of one-liners, a stellar cast of actors who all looked like they were in the middle of the best gap year ever, and you should go see it if you can. OK, that was it. That was my review. The following is not a review, but the results of a historical investigation I chose to pursue in order to figure out how historically accurate Newsies’ plot really was.

Newsies was originally a live-action Disney-movie musical released in 1992, starring a very, very young Christian Bale. (Wait—did she just say Christian Bale? I DID. It’s available on Amazon.) In my expert opinion, Newsies the movie is similar to most live-action Disney movies in that you enjoy yourself while watching it, but the whole time you’re kind of wishing it was a cartoon. But I’m getting ahead of myself. The true fact is that Newsies is based on the 1899 Newsboys’ Revolution, which was triggered by Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst’s decision to raise the prices of their papers, The Evening World and the New York Evening Journal (which the newsies had to buy in order to sell). The protest was semi-violent, brief, and openly mocked by the New York Times, which delighted in poking fun at the the newsies’ uncouth manner of speaking. It was also completely successful.

In Newsies the movie, one of the ensemble boys with an eye patch is referred to as “Blink.” This is Kid Blink, who led the actual Newsboys’ Revolution, and did most of the talking ridiculed by the Times. Kid Blink plays no part in the dance-heavy musical, probably because quadruple-pirouetting with an eyepatch on is a good way to find yourself face down in the orchestra pit.

In both the movie and the musical, the protagonist and leader of the revolution is seventeen-year-old Jack Kelly, a handsome, fast-talking no-good do-gooder. Jack Kelly is easy to love for many reasons, including those listed in the previous sentence. But in a historical context, the character is problematic: why couldn’t Kid Blink be the leading man? (The dancing thing is kind of irrelevant in this case because the leads dance on a much calmer level than the members of the ensemble.) In my opinion, the unfortunate truth is that Disney is reluctant to use the disabled as heroes. You can be disabled and be the best friend of a Disney hero, but Kid Blink could never have been a leading man. Ken Cerniglia, a dramaturg for Disney Theatrical, who I randomly met in New York City, explained that the character of Jack Kelly is actually a combination of many leaders of the strike, including Kid Blink. Which is actually, if I may say, really cool.

But Jack Kelly definitely isn’t perfect. For one thing, 17 would have been pretty old for an actual newsie. If it’s 1899 and you’re a reasonably healthy 17-year-old guy, you’re likely doing something that requires a lot more effort than selling papers; you’re working in the NYC equivalent of a coal mine. Also, not all newsies were boys, as the movie would have you believe. The musical has one girl in the ensemble of about 20 boys, but there are also some nuns and a couple of love interests, so musical theatre ladies, you’re not out of luck.

The cast of Newsies on broadway! Taken from the Newsies Instagram account.

Historical accuracy is not the point of musical theatre. Its purpose is to make you feel good. (Well, with a few exceptions. Note particularly Les Misérables, which is both extremely sad and fairly historically accurate, but given that it’s based on a book written by a guy who was actually present while the history was happening and the fact that it’s about 12 hours long, I’m sticking with my thesis.) Go see Newsies if you can. If not, watch the movie, which is truly an eye-opening experience.