Disney’s “Newsies”: Meta or Not, the Live Production Movie Teaches Important Lessons

 

Newsies

Disney’s Newsies has long been one of my favorite movies. The 1992 production has a special place in my little geek heart. As a college senior, my independent study project focused on the Horatio Alger notions of the American Dream as ideated in the movie. Back in 1992, this meant going to the local Blockbuster (yes, BLOCKBUSTER) and renting the VHS tape (yes, I know). I can remember the pain whoosh click whoosh click of rewinding to the spot needed to catch all the lyrics for “Santa Fe” so I could quote them. The irony is that I’ve never seen the live action musical.

Until this weekend.

You know what? It totally holds up and in today’s age, has added value for our kids.

When Disney Movies Anywhere offered the Newsies viewing party pack, I only saw the word Newsies and not the other party items (which included some pretty sweet newsboy hats, drawing pads, pencils, a post, CD, Google Chromecast, and a newsboy bag). Sure, those items were pretty sweet. For me, though, it was about introducing the kid to one of my favorite stories.

I admit, when I saw the theatrical release poster, I mocked the idea of a movie based on a musical based on a movie. Let’s be honest, that’s a bit meta even for my tastes. With the show on tour, it would be easy to go see it in a local theater. It’s come to Hartford, CT, enough times now that I’d be able to go see the production if I thought anyone would go with me. Then again, even those ticket prices are kind of high (easily $50-100/ticket). Not everyone lives in a city with a theater. For a lot of people, this means that a movie release of live Broadway gives them an opportunity to see something they might otherwise miss.

As someone who’s loved musical theater from a young age, the influx of live musical theater movie productions offers something my generation didn’t have. While there’s nothing more amazing than seeing a play live on stage, sometimes that’s just not possible. Musical theater is one of the most American of genres. Its cultural importance often gets understated because it tends to seem silly or hyperbolic. The irony is that over grand spectacles like The Lion King, Cats, Les Miserables, or Newsies through their very huge size bring audiences into their worlds in ways that minimalistic plays can’t always. There’s a huge distinction between being encompassed by a huge theatrical performance with enormous moving stage pieces and a performance of Waiting for Godot. Both have their places, yet musical theater often gets culturally penalized for its sparkle. As someone who loves that sparkle, I adore having a movie that can enhance the grand style of musical theater and provide it to those who may not be able to attend in person.

As someone who has been to the Nederlander (to see Rent while it was still there), I chuckled internally at how the camera angles make the theater seem immense. A smallish, intimate theater, the Newsies audience seems to be unending when viewing them in the production. That said, I love the fact that the angles give a sense of ginormity to the staging of the scaffolds that allows the viewer to feel as overwhelmed as an actual audience member might feel.

While watching the staccato dancing of a young Christian Bale may seem like a mesmerizing experience, the original Newsies movie incorporates a lot of outdated story lines. The single girl in the movie has no agency other than as a mother figure to all the boys. Jack Kelly lacks depth. David acts as a cautionary tale of intellectual snootiness who gets his comeuppance from the street smart Jack.

Sure, the musical incorporates some of this; however, watching it as an adult and parent, it brings a lot more to the table for kids.

First, I have to start with the choreography. Look, anyone, even a passionate fan of the original Newsies movie, needs to admit that those dancing newsboy routines were a tough sell. The choreography in the live production alters this in just the right manner. The need for military marching to show how the kids come together as an “army” is done through tap as opposed to through some awkward literal marching. The boys’ youthful exuberance jumps off the stage onto the screen through increased acrobatics. Coming from someone with a kid who focuses on athletic ability, this makes it a great gateway musical for kids who may otherwise seem disinterested in musicals.

Second, the Newsies story changes in several key ways that make this more palatable for a more modern audience. First, while the original movie was a rather white, male spectacle, two major changes come from the live production. Aisha de Haas plays Miss Medda Larkin, the owner of the burlesque theater at which Jack spends a great deal of time. Ms. de Haas, an actress of color, brings with her not only a wonderful voice that I’d love to hear more, but also an excellent representation of a powerful business woman of color who also has a heart of gold. In the original movie, the amazing Ann-Margaret played Miss Medda, but the character was a typically situated white female with a typical body type. Adding in racial and body diversity to the live production movie makes a real difference.

Continuing with the addition of diversity, for those not familiar with the musical production, Bill Pullman’s newspaper writer is replaced with Catherine, performed by Kara Lindsay. Although the live production Newsies character is a bit tropey, Catherine is a great addition to add in a strong female character. Catherine’s solo “Watch What Happens” includes equal parts strength and vulnerability as the character tries to write the article she hopes will launch her career in a male-dominated space. The messages within the song also provide relevant modern day touchstones that the original movie did not have. “Give life’s little guys a little ink and see what happens” is followed by “Look around at the world we’re inheriting and think about the world we’ll make.” These lines are particularly important to those parents who love using media to help teach their children. Catherine’s romantic relationship with Jack hits all the “I hate you, I love you” buttons of a typical Gone with the Wind-style romance.

By changing Jack from rogue to “tough kid with an artistic side,” the live theater production manages to give the character more depth. We see a kinder, gentler Jack, most often viewed through the lens of his relationship with Medda. This change makes the character far more approachable and far more enjoyable than the original tough street kid. However, the one difference is that Jack is portrayed as much older in the musical play than in the original Newsies musical.

newsies

More importantly. Newsies uses all of these changes while incorporating the original theme of the story. In our modern day world, the David and Goliath theme of social justice rings truer than in 1992. Sitting and watching the Newsies live production with my child, I wanted to take the time to point out the importance of standing up for oneself. As the world changes and evolves, these messages stay the same. The importance and relevance of something like Newsies is that it gives parents a really great way to approach the topics in nonpolitical ways that allow our kids to think for themselves while analyzing what’s right and wrong in the world. It’s sort of horrible to be my kid. As a teacher and parent, I rarely let them just sit and watch something without thinking through it. In this case, however, as I raise them to be a better person than I am, I felt it even more important to bring home the lessons that Newsies can teach.

Me: Do you think raising the price is fair?
L: No.
Me: Who’s going to make money?
L: They are. (Pulitzer, etc.)
Me: Is that fair?
L: No.
Me: Who already has money?
L.: They do.
Me: So what do you think the lesson here is?
L: You can’t just change the rules because you want to. They have to go on strike. It gives them power. Because they work together.

One of the reasons I’ve always loved Newsies was its historical representation of something few people know about. In the modern day, I can think of no better way to continue teaching the lessons of power through teamwork than through hit musical tunes and dancing newsboys.