The Disney Musical on Stage and Screen: Critical Approaches from Snow White to Frozen

Chapter 9: Dancing toward Masculinity: Newsies, Gender and Desire

 

Opening Section

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As the story goes, the 1992 film Newsies, directed by Kenny Ortega and starring Christian Bale, was an attempt by Disney to revitalize the live-action movie-musical genre with a story based on real events from 1899. Impoverished orphan children selling newspapers in New York City went on strike when the price of the papers they were selling was raised by media moguls William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer during the Spanish–American War. The boys sing, dance and fight for organized labour, finally prevailing over the greed of their employers. Newsies was a resounding flop on the big screen – the New York Times’ Janet Maslin called it ‘joyless’, ‘pointless’ and ‘bungled’ – but the picture gained enormous popularity on the expanding Disney channel, which needed content it could air, and then later on home video, becoming a kind of cult classic. Nearly twenty years later, the movie was crafted into a stage musical by book writer Harvey Fierstein, original composer Alan Menken and original lyricist Jack Feldman. Directed by Jeff Calhoun, Newsies premiered at Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey. The production team claims that, fearing a repeat of the movie’s flop, they were not planning for the show to go to Broadway. But to Broadway it went: Newsies the Musical had its first preview on 15 March 2012 and ran until August 2014, clocking over 1,000 performances at the Nederlander Theatre on West 41st Street. The show was nominated for eight Tony awards and six Drama Desk awards, winning at both ceremonies in the categories of best choreography and best score.

A family-oriented show (almost all reviews of Newsies remark on this), perhaps the most notable thing about the cast of Newsies is the number of men it contains. There are two significant female characters in the show, young reporter Katherine Plumber and wise chanteuse Medda Larkin. The cast also includes two other women, and women play nuns and other ensemble roles. The entirety of the rest of the cast is male. But if its overwhelming maleness is what immediately strikes one about Newsies, what is most memorable about the show is its dancing.

The young men in the show – most spectacularly in the number ‘Seize the Day’ – outdo themselves, performing extraordinary feats of terpsichorean athleticism. In the first important review of Newsies at Paper Mill, the New York Times’ David Rooney was delighted by the company’s ‘spring-loaded backflips, airborne spins, rambunctious kicks and balletic pivots’, noting the ‘irrepressible physicality’ of ‘the athletic ensemble’. Just before the show opened on Broadway the New York Post reported that during previews ‘there were three midshow standing ovations, triggered in each case by Christopher Gattelli’s buoyant choreography’. In the Daily News, Joe Dziemianowicz praised the fact that ‘Gattelli’s awesome athletic choreography never quits. He keeps the young dancers flipping, tapping and twirling across the urban landscape’. More descriptively, perhaps, Wayman Wong described the ‘athletic and dynamic dances’ as ‘pay[ing] homage to [Kenny] Ortega, Michael Kidd and Gene Kelly’. …

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