Newsies: the Marxist Musical
Newsies is by no means a fresh addition to the Broadway repertoire. In fact, it started last year and already won numerous prizes and accolades, which might make my review a tad superfluous. Fact is, I knew very little about it before I decided to go tonight. I had not a clue that it was based on a moderately-rated movie starring a young Christian Bale (of all people). I had no idea that it was a Disney production. So, because of my complete lack of information, I had no expectations whatsoever. Or very low ones. It’s rather difficult to say, in hindsight.
But go I did, and I am mighty glad of it. Not to spoil it for everyone, this is Disney at its best (or worst, as some would have it): the coming of age of a young man, the overcoming of obstacles, a fight of good versus evil, a spunky heroine, a love story, and a happy end. There are songs, and dancing, and jokes, and cheer, and a few weepy moments. Even better, it’s upgraded Disney, with a nod to disability and race. The first, represented by the heart-warming character of Crutchy (Andy Richardson), the second by the black bubbly theatre star Medda (LaVon Fisher-Wilson). Although in the latter case, points are substracted for not only pairing blackness / theatricality with the stereotype of promiscuity, but taking that a step too far (here’s looking at you, backseat joke!). One could argue that the only group lacking representation is the LGBT community, but I was personally satisfied by the beginning scene, where I felt the homosocial bordered strongly on the homoerotic. Plus, let’s face it, statistically speaking, among that many young boys, some are sort of bound to be gay.
Yet this, as interesting as it may be, is not what captivates the audience. There are two main reasons to see this show, and they are deeply interconnected: one is the brilliant, jaw-dropping choreography, and the other is its unashamedly marxist ideology. “Revolution” is the name of the game for Manhattan “papes” sellers who are forced to organize into a union by the unreasonable raising of prices by the media magnate Pulitzer (John Dossett). Led by charismatic Jack Kelley (Corey Cott), they go from coming up with a sketchy mission statement, to striking, fighting with the police, attracting new members, and receiving re-inforcements from Brooklyn and all other surrounding areas. The struggle against the patriarchal figure of Pulitzer is typical, and against all odds, this David wins against his Goliath.
A David who is unapologetically marxist – so much so that I swear you can hear old Karl happily humming “workers of the world unite” somewhere in the polyphony of it all. There are dance sequences almost conceived around the motif of the clenched fist, and the symbol’s poignancy is elevated to new levels by their uncontestable energy and grace. Yes, this is the underdog, but it is one who writes a manifesto – sorry, a “banner” – and bands together with all others of his kind, and beyond. It is the underdog with a raised fist who uses the capitalist’s tools and and gets his way.
It is perhaps significant that the villain of the piece turns not to be too bad after all. In the end, Pulitzer even offers a (better) job to Jack – who seems to accept and re-integrates himself in a sort of rat-race, firmly placed under the big boss’s thumb. And capitalism, while briefly challenged, is never in real danger as a system. Yes, the “refuge” where children are abused gets closed down, and the newsies get better working conditions – but what about all the boot polishers and elevator attendants who went on strike? They have served their purpose, and are invited to crawl right back in their holes, one assumes.
If the ending of the show is so Disney it would’ve made Walt proud, the rest of it struck me as a departure from what the house stands for, which are typical American, not-exactly-socialist values. But the show’s popularity must have to do with more than its technical aplomb. Perhaps its undercurrents speak to current disenchantment with the system brought on by the US economic crisis; perhaps it resonates with the Occupy Wall Street movement – originating in NYC in 2011 – and fighting for the 99%; or even more indirectly brings to mind media scandals exposing the corruption and lack of morals of the top figures of the industry (see the British “Hackgate” of recent years). In that sense, Newsies is hitting all the right (sore) spots. Its message and solution to the can of worms it cracks open is that of a social impetus blended with a good dose of “we’ll stand our ground no matter what” New Yorker spirit, a pinch of love and pride in one’s city and one’s job, and a solid sprinkling of “let’s all get along and make the system work”.
This is not necessarily a show for children, although they will enjoy the exhilarating singing and dancing as much as the adults. It’s also not a show that is too glamorous set-wise, although a lot of clever things are done with metal frames, and there’s a moment where drawing in real-time is made visible to the audience in an astonishing way. It is a show with a lot of talented young performers, and while Corey Cott as Jack dazzles, it is the cast working together that makes the whole thing work so well. Strength in numbers… pun intended.