What a Man, What a Man… Wait, Which One Are You Talking About?

Sophie Cohen

Let’s get one thing straight: not a single heterosexual female would look at the cast of Newsies and think “Cute. Anyways, not a fan.” If you are one of the few who thinks like this, I applaud you and your self-control. I mean, we’re seeing the epitome of rag-tag New York newsboys showing off their muscles and showing the ladies that they’ll fight for every mistreated child in New York. Major swoon right there. But if any of these characters truly existed in the real world, which one would fit in the most with the present-day male stereotypes?

If you think like most Newsies fans, the obvious answer would be Jack Kelly (or, if you’re thinking of minor characters, the Brooklyn baddie Spot Conlon is the most accurate). This seems contradictory, since most people wouldn’t consider a bunch of singing and dancing male Broadway performers as manly. So, what is it, then? The muscles, the strong New York accents, the knowledge that this isn’t reality and so dancing men are perfectly capable of acting masculine? Are they even “real” men at all? If you think about it, every performer in Newsies represents some form of masculinity in their own way, and I would strongly argue that each newsie represents one aspect of masculinity that either breaks the boundary of masculinity or continues to define it.

Hear me out. The 2017 musical production of Newsies, directed by Jeff Calhoun and Brett Sullivan, and produced by Thomas Schumacher and Anne Quart, is a phenomenal viewing experience featuring actors that take on the persona of very different male characters. The musical takes the viewer on a journey through the streets of New York in 1899, when newsboys were tired of being treated unfairly on the job and advocated for their new union (and don’t forget the Romeo and Juliet romance on the side). The beloved Jack Kelly, played by Jeremy Jordan, and newcomer Davey, played by Ben Fankhauser, seem like polar oposites. As the musical continues into Act II, their personas seem to switch for a short time before both taking on similar masculine stereotypes.

Let’s start with the lovely Jack Kelly, shall we? He enters the Newsies stage singing about his hopes and dreams in Santa Fe with his friend, his brother, Crutchie. And wow, what an opening to the show. From the start, we know Jack values brotherhood. He embodies the idea that men stick together, which somehow makes me think of men playing golf or watching a football game together with beers in their hand. Okay, okay, Jack doesn’t seem like the guy to reach that extent, but you can see a resemblance. The newsies are a brotherhood that sticks together through thick and thin. We can’t forget about the love story, though, especially because it reveals so much about how a man should approach a beautiful woman. The second conversation between Kelly and Katherine, played by Kara Lindsay, is an interesting moment. We can hear Jack singing about love, and he even drew her a picture (anyone else thinking of Titanic? Just me?) while we hear “Don’t Come A-Knocking” in the background. Typical, the man keeps pushing for the girl, flirting to the best of his abilities, while the girl wants nothing to do with him, as implied with this song in the back. We see this representation all over the media today; so many movies and shows focus on the man who’s trying to get the girl. But there must be more to Jack’s masculinity than his romance and brotherhood, right? Of course there is… but we need to compare the rest of these qualities to another man in the show, Davey.

Ah Davey, the more passive of the newsies, at least at the start. He’s so different from Jack they might as well be the perfect example of “opposites attract”. I feel like I should start off with their clothes. As a side note, though, incredible work by Jess Goldstein as the costume designer. Jack and the newsies are wearing dirty clothes with open vests, and their sleeves are rolled up like they’re ready for a fight… which I guess they are. Davey, on the other hand, wears a clean outfit, a buttoned vest, long sleeves that are not rolled or wrinkled, and he’s got a tie. How proper. One man is scruffy and laid back, the other is a proper gentleman who stands up straight and doesn’t like lying. Jack moves with swagger and much more extravagance, while Davey is very timid with his movements and rarely makes grand gestures. Both men, though, represent two types of men who are equally masculine. Jack Kelly is the independent man that doesn’t like relying on others, goes for the girl, and acts incredibly tough, the embodiment of today’s man. Davey is the family man, which we know is true because he’s working to make money for his family, with proper mannerisms.

The turning point for Davey occurs when the ensemble sings “Seize the Day”. Davey shines in this song, transforming from the gentleman we know and love to a Jack Kelly type. He gets more excited about the idea of a union and acts as the brains behind the strike. Does his intellect still classify him as a gentle man? Yes. Is he a true man nonetheless? Absolutely. Davey breaks down the barrier of stereotypical masculinity by becoming both a tough guy and a brainiac (Who knew being tough and smart could coexist in a man?). Both are men, but different types of men.

Now, Jack takes on a more complicated definition in the second act, when he is more conflicted with his emotions and we get to see more of his art (where painting is also manly). He cries in “Santa Fe”, as a man should if he feels like it, and goes through a small crisis where he must decide to continue with the union or protect himself from the law and run away to Santa Fe. And sweet Davey changes his costume and has no tie or a buttoned vest. Is this the character progression I was waiting for? Jack acts more passive and unsure of his decision, while Davey starts to toughen up and take charge of the union. They switch roles but both remain men. At the end of the musical, Jack is back to his old self and Davey assimilates into the newsie friend group for a happily ever after Oh, and Jack gets the girl, of course.

What’s the point of all of this, then? Why am I describing all these changes that Davey and Jack go through? Well, these changes represent a spectrum of masculinity that all fall under the umbrella of being a man. Whether one is a family man with values of loyalty, or a tough guy that also knows how to flirt, all can be described as men. Newsies emphasizes the idea that not all men are the same, but they’re still masculine. Even disregarding the fact that they’re singing and dancing all the time, the personalities of each character shows how varied masculinity can be. Being masculine is not defined by current stereotypes. The contrasts between values and attitudes are what break stereotypical barriers and reconstruct them everyday. Jack Kelly and Davey move along this divide, shape it, tear it down, and rebuild it throughout the musical. In short, the definition of a man is constantly evolving and Newsies helps to emphasize this.

Well, I think I’ve dumped enough information out here for now. Major takeaways: Masculinity is constantly redefining, Jack and Davey represent different types of men on a spectrum, and I might watch Newsies again as soon as I’m done with this post.

Musical characters

3 Comments Leave a comment

  1. Hi Sophie, I think your post is great, because it examines masculinity in an entertaining way! Also, from reading the whole thing, I was able to see masculinity on a scale, but not in terms of less masculine versus more masculine (whatever that means) but simply it being expressed differently by different men in the show depending on their situation and way of life. I thought your line “They switch roles but both remain men” was very simple in one way but pretty powerful in another, because you are saying that men can shift and change in their masculinity and how they express it but still remain masculine. I think people could see Jack as falling away from masculinity as he doubts himself and the movement and Davey increasing in masculinity as he finds confidence in himself, but this is because of society’s prominent idea of masculinity that is very linear and one-dimensional. I appreciate how you highlighted both Jack and Davey as masculine despite being opposites. Thanks again for your post!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hey Sophie!

    First off, wow. What an amazing essay to read. I found myself enjoying the way you wrote and content the entire time.

    Secondly, I just wanted to say as the reader, I specifically enjoyed the way you portrayed your own voice within the piece. In addition to the excellent analysis on the Newsies. Personally, I felt like we were having a conversation the entire time which kept me very engaged when reading your work.

    Lastly, I wanted to point out my favorite parts of your analysis. First, I love how you constantly looked at “both sides of the coin.” Specifically, in the opening paragraph you speak about how the play as a whole, regardless of what the play embodies, is cute for a heterosexual woman who enjoys the romance of it all. Secondly, your title was absolutely awesome.

    Overall what a wonderful analysis and closing of your paper giving the reader the key takeaways. Excellent.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. First of all, I loved reading your piece! Your voice is so engaging and I definitely relate to the… ahem… appeal of the Newsies cast. I really enjoyed your analysis of elements that we do not talk about as much, specifically the costume design of the show. This essay did leave me with a couple of questions to consider, largely prompted by statements like “I would strongly argue that each newsie represents one aspect of masculinity that either breaks the boundary of masculinity or continues to define it.” Is it possible to for something to be considered masculine and also break away from stereotypes of men? Is Newsies redefining traditional masculinity, falling in line with it, or, if it is doing both as you suggest, does that weaken the impact of those broken boundaries by relying on manly tropes or strengthen them by showing a spectrum of behavior? I fully acknowledge that I came into this paper with already-formed opinions, and so I am not trying to refute your argument! On the contrary, I find it very compelling and that is why I am posing all these questions for myself to ponder further. Thanks for a great post!

    Liked by 1 person

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