In both Rent and Newsies there’s a song entitled “Santa Fe”. Despite my having seen both shows and listened to both soundtracks numerous times, I realized this only last night while watching Newsies again. Could be a coincidence. I mean, it’s not like Santa Fe is a teeny, tiny, podunk town. It’s the capital of New Mexico, a thriving city with over 80,000 people (according to a Google search). But still. Of all the cities out west to write a song about, it’s interesting that Santa Fe is used for two such different musicals. Which made me think- why Santa Fe?
In Rent, Collins sings about his dream of opening a restaurant and devoting himself to projects that sell out in Santa Fe. I always take those projects to mean art projects. Santa Fe certainly seems to have a thriving art scene. For a city with less than 100,000 people, there are around 300 art galleries (www.santafe.org) boasting everything from Native American to modern art. That’s astounding considering NYC’s population is around 10x higher than Santa Fe but they only have around 5x as many art galleries. Aspiring artists certainly should move to Santa Fe- there’s quite the art market out there!
Switching to Newsies, during that time period the railroads were opening up the American west and encouraging folks to take the train and move. The Atchinsen-Topeka-Santa Fe line featured glossy brochures full of photos. Menken capitalizes on this bit of history with his “Santa Fe” song. But looking deeper into the character of Jack we see someone yearning. He doesn’t necessarily want to create anything. He’s ready to work “plantin’ crops and splittin’ rails” all day (except Sundays). For a kid who’s worked for the man probably 15 or so of his approx. 20 years on earth, the idea of working for yourself must seem like heaven. And the wild west was billed as the epitome of the American dream in that you could make it big and make it yourself.
Both are living (Jack squatting, really) in tenement slums essentially. I think in Newsies time period they were actually called slums while by the time Rent is set it’s referred to as over-crowding. Either way, there’s nothing but people, noise and filth around them. Both shows paint Santa Fe as a bright and sunny, full of fresh air and wide open spaces. Who wouldn’t want that lifestyle?
Santa Fe stands for everything Collins and Jack want- to be their own man, their own boss, to follow their passions and be rid of the trappings of modern life. It’s interesting than that neither actually make it to Santa Fe. Both Jack and Collins remain tethered to their life in NYC. Katherine asks Jack, “what’s Santa Fe got that New York doesn’t?” I think the answer is Santa Fe doesn’t have friends and family. New York provides both Collins and Jack a comfort factor in knowing what’s expected of you and maybe, idealistically a sense of purpose. Sometimes the grass is greener on the other side and sometimes you only need to think about the other side to realize what you already have.
Photo: Joan Marucs, Deen Van Meer