Like many “Fansies,” I was excited to find out that Disney Theatrical Productions was screening the national tour of Newsies in movie theaters nationwide. This version included the return of many of the original cast I saw on Broadway including Jeremy Jordan, Kara Lindsay, Andrew Keenan-Bolger, and Ben Fankhauser. However, seeing Newsies five years later brought up a lot of emotions I had the first time, put now in a different context.
While I don’t want to get too much into politics here, we do live in a recent post-election society that created a serious divide within our country. An observation I had was a sense of activism among members of my generation specifically. In Newsies, Katherine Plumber tells Jack Kelly, that in leading the paper boys strike, “you challenged our whole generation to stand up and demand a place at the table.” As theatre is becoming more political, new voices are taking their seat at the table to discuss how these stories should be presented. Newsboys like Jack Kelly used their voices similarly at the table over fair wage, up against giants in the newspaper industry.
Newsies reflected a much larger discussion over child labor laws in New York City during the late 1890s. There were many protests, the most recognizable in 1898 when the cost of 100 newspapers for newsboys rose from 50 to 60 cents. With the lack of headlines after the Spanish-American War, many newspapers rolled the price back to 50 cents, except for The Morning World (published by Joseph Pulitzer) and The New York Evening Journal (published by William Randolph Hearst.) Newsboys refused to distribute papers and even demonstrated on the Brooklyn Bridge stopping traffic. Rallies attracted over 5,000 newsboys across the city, led by a Jack Kelly-like boy named Louis Ballatt or Kid Blink, nicknamed due to his blindness in one eye. While the prices for newspapers were never lowered after the two-week strike, both agreed to buy back unsold papers from the newsboys in 1899.
Newsies motivates us to become more politically active within our community, no matter our age. Everyone is allowed a seat at the table. It’s hard to have these discussions, but historically theatre has always been politically charged. This is more transparent than ever as the line between theatre and politics has blurred.
As artists, we get to choose how we want to enact this social and political change. The characters in Newsies teach us that activism can come from various artistic outlets. Jack Kelly is a boisterous leader, but also expresses his opinions on the strike through political cartoons. Katherine and Davey are both very articulate in their work, but while Davey is better at public speaking, Katherine is stronger through her writing for The Sun. Activism exists in many forms, there is no one way of communicating your message when invoking change.
After the strike, the character of Governor Roosevelt said, “each generation must, at the height of its power, step aside and invite the young to share the day.” It’s important for your generation to step up, but we must also inspire the next generation with that same power. The seat at the table is a rotating one, as are the ones given the power to represent, which is why we must continue to keep that seat open for the next in line.
So, what can our community do? Continue creating art that is as entertaining and fulfilling, as it is important for inspiring change and starting a conversation. Give back to those organizations that helped you get to where you are in your theatrical career. Funding for the arts has always been an issue, and giving back is vital now more than ever with the recent news of potential cuts to the National Endowment of the Arts in the future. This support can be as simple as seeing live entertainment or volunteering at your local theater companies.
Art is the basis of which our society’s culture is reflected by, and Newsies couldn’t have returned at a better time. While it’s an enjoyable musical, it’s one of Disney’s most daring, through its message of social justice when younger generations seize the day. “Courage cannot erase our fear, courage is when we face our fear.” Adversity in our society is best-met head on, and what greater tool is there in facing it than theatre?
Jordan Nickels is a playwright and dramaturg originally from the Midwest, with a Bachelor of Science in Theatrical Studies from Ball State University. He previously worked with Nashville Children’s Theatre, Goodspeed Opera House, Florida Studio Theatre, and The Walt Disney Company. He also served as a Blog Contributor and Managing Editor for two years at Camp Broadway in New York City. Jordan currently resides in San Francisco, CA and works as a Development Assistant at American Conservatory Theater. Website: http://www.jordannickels.com, Twitter and Instagram: @jnickels8