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.