“Be a man. You must be swift as the coursing river. Be a man. With all the force of a great typhoon. Be a man. With all the strength of a raging f-.” Oh sorry. Wrong Disney film/musical. Or is it? I would not be surprised if somehow Newsies playwright Harvey Ferstein met with the creators of Mulan at some point in his life and bounced off ideas. It is not like he didn’t play a certain character called Yao…Sure, Mulan and Newsies are two completely different stories. I mean duh one is literally in China during a war with the Huns while the other is set in New York where the newsies are fighting for their labor rights. That said, both show the audience the expectation of what it means to be a man. The ones doing all the fighting are practically all males because well they are expected to be tougher and more capable fighters. In Mulan, they make it clear that there is no room to be soft because it is a killed or be killed world. Newsies offers a similar perspective but at the same time also challenges the audience to expand their perception of masculinity.
One of the first characters that the audience gets introduced to is Jack Kelly. He would be considered the typical stereotypical standard of what it means to be a man. Whoever oversaw Jack’s costuming made a specific choice to introduce Jack with an outfit that showcased his big muscular arms when we first met him. In comparison to Crutchie, Jack obviously stood out as the physically superior character as they sing in the number Santa Fe. As the strongest, it only made sense that Jack would be the leader in this musical if we continued to follow our expectations of what a male should be; the strongest are the alpha in the pack. It’s no surprise that Jack was often occupying a huge part of center stage. Jack’s the one people listen to. I mean everyone instantly woke up when Jack yelled at them to get to work in the morning. In fact, he yelled quite often throughout the musical. Jack was also the one who was out here yelling at the top of his lungs these phrases when he had his brief solo moment during the number “The World Will Know.”:
Pulitzer may own the world, but he don’t own us!
Pulitizer may crack the whip, but he won’t whip us.
As if that was not enough, Jack came out during this number whipping around a bag and making a lot of fist and arm movements. I swear most of the time this musical was more of an arm muscle contest where Jack would always be the winner. Another similar powerful moment was when Jack was giving that passionate speech to convince Scabs and his crew to join the strike. It was here that I noticed the iconic power pose that many superior males in our modern army do. With his hands on his hips and smoldering look, Jack immediately told others through his body language that he was not someone to mess around or disagree with. He stayed true to that when he stood his ground and glared right back when people tried to get into his face. Other male leader qualities Jack exhibited was his eagerness and willingness to be aggressive when his leadership is being challenged especially when any of his boys are being bullied or threatened. For example, Jack immediately beat up the two boys they encountered as they headed to work that morning because one of them took away Crutchie’s crutch while the other threatened another newsie.
Is being a male all about the brawn and aggression though? Should we expect males to meet the same kind of masculine image Jakes does? Absolutely not. Davey Jacob showed us that being a male can also have a tender and tactical touch. But I first got to admit it was a bit difficult to shake off my previous conception of a man. I was a bit underwhelmed by Davey’s character because I had gotten used to the toughness and wildness of Jack’s character. I had a specific expectation of masculinity and expected to see that reflected in all men. The first time we met Davey was when he ran in with his little brother Les. Unlike Jack, Davey’s appearance was more scholarly and civil looking with his buttoned-up vest and long-sleeved shirt. His speech pattern had an apologetic and unconfident tone which was quite a contrast to Jack’s dialogue which was rougher and more impulsive. In addition, sometimes I like to refer to Davey as the “Dad” figure or the family man because he always had this strong sense of responsibility to family (and was overly protective of his brother) like a father would. I mean he practically stated in the beginning that this newspaper job was only temporary because they were only there to help make some money for their struggling parents.
So, what changed? Sometimes I wondered if Davey was pressured during his time with the newsies to be the same kind of male as everyone else. Considering that his little brother picked up Jack’s mannerisms real fast, it would not be a surprise if Davey felt the need to be more of a man. However, being this brawny, aggressive male just did not cut it for him. Instead, Davey found another way to be an assertive male. That began when he decided to join the newspaper strike despite expressing concern about the potential consequences during the number “The World Will Know.” Davey found his place as the strategic planner for the strike. To be quite honest, without Davey’s brains, I think the strike would have failed. Remember it was Davey who cut in saying that they needed officers, a secretary, and a statement of purpose for their union to be recognized. When the strike seemed like it was going to die, it was Davey who stated that “we can’t back down now” during the number “Seize the Day.” In fact, it was in this number that Davey showed that being a strong male leader was having the ability to empathize with their people. The number stood out from the rest because of its softer and motherly tone which you would normally not associate with a male-lead number. But I found this choice refreshing and soothing which served Davey well to renew hope in the newsies. He slowly and gently reminds the newsies that “courage cannot erase our fear.” Instead, “courage is when we face our fear.” Dang, Davey so poetic. Also, is someone cutting onions?
I would like to point out another moment where the ideas of masculinity are again being challenged. During the “Watch What Happens Reprise,” we see Davey attempting to bring up Jack’s spirits who remained shattered from the failed strike. It is a surprising turn around for Jack, who had always been so headstrong, confident, and aggressive during Act 1. That said, this moment showed that behind the macho man image was an individual who struggles to come to terms with their own personal fears. It is an important realization because our expectation of masculinity may be pressuring males to be someone they are not. We inadvertently erase the humanity that is behind them. Davey Jacobs again demonstrated that they are not obligated to approach a situation through brawn like someone would expect a male to. He encouraged Jake to look at the situation differently. Instead of thinking that the opposition had power for bringing the police, it would be helpful to consider that they brought the police because they were afraid of the power of the newsies. Mind blown! I did not think of it that way until Davey said that.
So again, what does it takes to be a man? Well, if we look back at the character development of both Jack and Davey, there is no set way of being a man. In fact, perhaps it is better to think about how a male can find their own definition of masculinity. With Jack, we saw this tough man who everyone looked up to. But I saw it more as a survival mechanism to cope with the tough job of being a newsie in New York. We know from the very beginning that Jack daydreamed of going to Santa Fe and leave behind this miserable lifestyle. So, it might be safe to say that for him to be “happy” in New York, he had to adapt to the rough lifestyle. This is only my interpretation though and there are for sure many others out there. On the other hand, Davey had a much easier time figuring out what kind of person he wanted to be. Although, Davey did have the advantage of coming from a stable household so that is a different topic to discuss another day. Regardless, Jack and Davey were two characters that demonstrated that masculinity has a wide range of interpretations. It is up to an individual to determine what kind they want to be.