Thinking

Things I Learned From Newsies

One of my most treasured possessions growing up was a cassette tape of songs from Newsies, obtained the old fashioned way: by setting my hand held recorder next to the television speaker and begging my parents for absolute silence. By the time I got to college, the movie was a cult classic. More than a few Saturday nights were spent with my roommates, leaving a party in the early AM, picking up another case of Barcardi spritzers, and singing along with Christian Bale til dawn. In law school, I’m sure my Labor Law professor was baffled by the smile I couldn’t quite suppress as she lectured about “scabs” crossing the picket line. It may have been set pre-NLRA, but I still credit Newsies for my passing grade in that class.

Yes, Newsies and I go back. And since the Broadway musical was nominated last week for a Tony Award, now seems like as good a time as any to share the many true and false things it has taught me over the years.

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Labor strikes are all singing, all dancing extravaganzas.

My first viewing of Newsies left me a full fledged union sympathizer. With the promise of cute boys and musical rallies, I was chomping at the bit to join the ranks of organized labor. I spent weeks of grade school decrying the plight of the working class and writing STRIKE in block letters on my play chalkboard. It was all so inspiring- the anthemic ballads and the copious hip thrusting and the impassioned fight for justice. Imagine my disappointment the first time I saw a real labor strike where rousing speeches were replaced with muted chants and break-dancing with lackluster marching. The last vestiges of my union fantasies were dispelled by an internship with a textile union my third year of law school, during which my job consisted of mind-numbing paperwork and unsavory fundraising. Thus my career as a strike leader ended before it began.

But I still get goosebumps every time I hear the steel drums kick in to the chorus of “Seize the Day.”

newsies6

Agreements are non-binding until both parties spit-shake.

Just in case 1890′s New York wasn’t already unsanitary enough, the newsies feel the need to seal their agreements with the exchange of bodily fluids. I suppose this external co-mingling of saliva is preferable to cutting wrists and becoming “blood brothers” – but not by a whole lot. I’m inclined to agree with David’s initial assessment of the ritual: ”That’s disgusting.”

newsies2

Girls should be kissed and not heard.

Possibly the most useless character ever created, I maintain that Sarah exists solely to give Jack a make out partner at the end of the movie. Her other tasks include cooking, doing laundry, and getting rescued. She can occasionally be seen sitting pretty and tagging along. Some of her most memorable lines include “I’ll get the plates.” and “I made you breakfast.” Still, when she finally locks lips with Jack, the music swells and it somehow feels epic. Her purpose has been fulfilled. Oh, feminism.

newsies3

Brooklyn is the baddest borough in NYC.

Harlem? Midtown? The Bronx? No problem. But Brooklyn? When Jack asks for volunteers to help rally support in Brooklyn, the silence is deafening. Brooklyn makes them “a little nervous.” These nerves are more than explained when we follow Jack and David across the East River. According to Newsies, Brooklyn is a dangerous land haunted by Irish folk music and tough-guy adolescents showing off their muscles in long underwear. Their leader, Spot Conlon, is a cane carrying, sling-shot wielding godfather-in-the-making. His scenes feel like something out of a Gangs of New York prequel. But, like all the great mob bosses, Spot understands the meaning of loyalty. He and his boys always come through in a pinch: ”Never fear, Brooklyn is here!”

newsies4

Joseph Pulitzer was pure evil.

For all I know, the real Joseph Pulitzer was a perfectly lovely gentleman. But thanks to Newsies, I can’t even hear about the Pulitzer Prize without picturing a narcissistic villain, twirling his beard and smoking a Cuban while rambling on about how he created the world. Single-minded in his pursuit of market dominance, the Pulitzer of Newsies opts for worker oppression over executive salary cuts: “Three satin pillows are under his head while we’re begging for bread to survive.” Talk about your one-percenters.

newsies5

Santa Fe is the happiest place on earth.

I understand that the quickest way to reinvent yourself might be to buy a bandana and make everyone call you “cowboy”. But who in the Sante Fe bureau of tourism paid off who in the entertainment industry to make Santa Fe the Wild West archetype of 90′s musicals? It’s where Jack believes “dreams come true.” It’s where Collins from RENT wants to “open up a restaurant.” I get the appeal of wide open spaces, but why New Mexico in particular as fodder for inner city aspiration? Granted, I’ve never been, but I can’t imagine what would make New Mexico so vastly superior to say, California. And yet, Jack doesn’t harbor a brochure advertising Santa Monica. He doesn’t fabricate a story about his parents buying a ranch in San Diego. It’s Santa Fe or bust, apparently. New York has spoken.

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