[More from our trip to NYC back in March. Composed on the train ride back to Pennsylvania] Sunday John and I played typical New York tourists. We were staying at a new Marriott Courtyard near Times Square. Formerly a newspaper distribution center, the hotel made for easy walking as we spent our day dodging puddles and pedestrians on Broadway. On a whim we went to Madame Tussaud’s on 42nd Street, where we hobnobbed with the likes of James Bond, Dorothy Parker, the Dalai Lama and P. Diddy. (You’ll always remain Puff Daddy to me, Mr. Diddy). Marvel Comics characters had invaded the museum, making Bela Lugosi’s Dracula and Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein seem like nostalgic relics. I barely survived a smash-em-up with the Incredible Hulk. I wore out John making him take pictures of me with all the people I’m certain would by my BFFs if only they were lucky enough to know me. Over drinks, say, with F. Scott Fitzgerald and Dorothy Parker (both of who are there). We can put them on Leo DiCaprio’s tab.
Afterwards, we caught the matinee show of the musical Newsies. I really must commend the performance of recent Carnegie Mellon University grad Corey Cott in the male lead, Jack Kelly. Imagine a slimmed down, younger version of Hugh Jackman. Easy on the eyes, and with a tenor that is also easy on the ears. The musical debuted on Broadway in 2012 at the Nederlander Theatre and is based on the 1992 Disney film that helped launch Christian Bale’s career. It is but a tiny piece of Disney’s growing nine-billion dollar international musical theater portfolio. Alan Menken’s score was no shock, but I was surprised to find the book had been written by brass-throated Broadway vet Harvey Fierstein, an old favorite of mine, perhaps best known for playing Edna Turnblad in the movie-musical version of Hairspray (though to me it will always be his moving Torchsong Trilogy that anchors him to my memory).
The story of Newsies centers on an 1899 strike by newsboys who hawked papers for the media magnates of the era, bigwigs like Hearst and Pulitzer, and their actions helped shine a spotlight on unfair child labor practices, though significant reform would be slow to come. The newsboys have inspired fictional works before, like DC Comics’ Newsboy Legion in Star-Spangled Comics (1942), and they share a kinship with the likes of the Bowery Boys and the Our Gang serials in other media.
On one level, Newsies is the kind of feel-good do-it-by-the-numbers musical that Disney has become known for. On another level, it’s an unintentional ironic critique of today’s shifting media landscape. As I watched each song and dance number about the injustice of child labor practices, it wasn’t lost on me that today’s newspapers are, if not disappearing, evolving into hybrids that morph social media into their folds and redesign the means of distribution. It also wasn’t lost on me that a hundred years after the newsboys’ strike the kind of child labor practices they railed against may no longer occur here, but they have most definitely been outsourced overseas. Somewhere I’ll bet children are sitting in sweatshops so I can type on my iPad or the teenager sitting behind me at the show could talk on her phone during the final act.
Disney films and musicals don’t scratch very deep when it comes to their messages. With its theme of solidarity through brotherhood, Newsies is a pleasure to behold if you don’t mine it too hard. And the performances are top notch, especially the ensemble numbers that showcase the amazing acrobatic skills of its young cast, who tumble and dance and flip around with great zeal.
At times during the show, I wanted to flip something, too: namely the bird at the girl next to me who picked at her blond hair with all the fervor of an OCD spider monkey grooming its fur. At least she didn’t eat any nits. I also wanted to swat the young men in the a row behind me with a rolled up newspaper in hopes it would put an end to the loud conversation they were having in Farsi. Maybe if today’s kids had to sell newspapers for a dime they’d learn the value of the theater tickets their parents bought them. I may have left Madame Tussaud’s behind, but Hulk still wanted to smash.