The 'Newsies' Revival We All Deserve
Carrying the banner without ableism or heteronormativity!
Anyone who know me knows that I love musicals. And specifically, I love Newsies the Musical. Now here’s the thing; Newsies is extremely problematic. It’s fraught with ableism, has almost no female characters, and doesn’t pass the Bechdel test, and is extremely white washed (at least in the 2017 filmed broadway version) and heteronormative. But it’s fun, and it’s full of energy, and it catches you on your darkest days and brings you back up. Or at least it does for me. But when I think of Newsies, I think less of the Newsies that is and more of the Newsies that could be. There is so much potential in this show to just... not be as problematic.
1) Actually cast a disabled actor in a disabled role .
One of the very cool things about this show is that one of the main characters has a disability! One of the very not cool things about this show is that traditionally, this character has not been cast with a disabled actor! Ableism in theater and media in general is rampant, so this isn’t really a surprise, but when we look at representation, it has been shown again and again that disabled people are getting little to no true representation on stage or screen. Able bodied actors taking away opportunities from disabled actors is a problem, and then they are often highly praised for their work, contributing to ableist ideas of pity and victimization. This is a huge problem, and Newsies is no exception. Sorry Andrew Keenan Bolger, you’re great, but you’re not a good fit for this role.
In our new, improved Newsies Revival of our dreams, Crutchie will be played by a disabled actor/actress!
2) Does ‘Crutchie’ have a name???
So, not only does Newsies perpetuate ableism with its casting, but the whole characterization of Crutchie is a little suspect. In the dialogue, it’s unclear whether his disability is chronic or temporary, and it seems like it hasn’t been this way his whole life. In the opening scene he says to Jack, “I don’t want anyone to see that I ain’t been walking too good." If that’s the case then, why do people only refer to him as Crutchie, and not his real name? If he’s only been using a crutch for a little while, why is it his whole persona (it shouldn’t be his whole persona anyway, but you know what I mean). So that’s... lazy writing.
Also, I don’t care that it took place in 1899, but the use of the c-word slur is completely unnecessary, and shouldn’t be there. So in our new version, ‘Crutchie’ will have a real name, or at least a different nickname, and will not be referred to with the c-word.
3) Jack Kelly… is a lesbian
It’s truly hard to believe that the writers of this show created such strong gay subtext, and then also wrote this part for a cis man. Jack Kelly is an emotionally unavailable yet extremely sensitive young person without a home, a man making himself on the streets, who is being persecuted simply for existing. He talks a big talk, but clearly has very limited experience with women or love, and has a fierce protection streak for his chosen family. Also, he’s an artist with a love for theater. Anyway, Jack Kelly as written could easily be the characterization of a butch lesbian or nonbinary person.
And then there is Katherine Plumber. Jack’s love interest is a spunky, independent femme young woman with high hopes for her career in a world dominated by men. She has an instant something with Jack that she can’t quite (or doesn’t want to) name, and in their inevitable love song she sings... the gayest lines of the entire show:
“Til the moment that I found you, I thought I knew what love was
Now I’m learning what is true, that love will do what it does”
This line, along with gems like “you snuck up on me Jack Kelly, I never even saw you coming” are very clear.
And the best line? Jack doesn’t want to take this on if it’s not serious, so he asks Katherine if it is, saying, “don’t just say that like it happens every day”. Nothing screams the butch experience like worrying that femme women are just experimenting, that they won’t be in it for the long haul. This is gay paranoia 101. And Jackie Kelly is right there with everyone else: “I don’t want you promisin’ nothing that you’re just gonna take back later.” It’s a done deal. Sorry.
So in our new and improved Newsies? Jack Kelly is a lesbian, and Katherine Plumber is also queer. It’s written right there all we have to do is cast accordingly, and change a few pronouns. Also, even though the groundwork is truly already there, making this shift would add so much power to this show, especially considering the extreme lack of representation for queer women, and specifically lesbians on the great white way.
4) Not everyone has to be white?
In the filmed cast version, there are like... four people of color in the show. Just, cast more POC and black people specifically. Not that hard.
5) Have all gender newsies!
Yes, in 1899 the new industry was very male-centred. But street workers, and specifically street child workers were all genders! Lower class women have always been expected to work, before the feminist movement demanded space in the workplace for middle class (white) women. So it just doesn’t make sense that not a single working kid is a girl, or any other gender. We could just have a cast of all gender newsies; it wouldn’t be hard and it would add a lot to the show.
And there you have it, suddenly a great show becomes an even better show with fewer moral dilemmas! Positive representation and fun music! An impeccable combination! And while we’re at it, let’s write new, progressive musicals going forward, and stop falling for the same problematic tropes (lookin’ at you, Tootsie).