Everybody has their nostalgia shows. For some, it’s New Kids on the Block. For others, it’s Donny & Marie. For me, it’s Disney’s Newsies.
As children, my cousin and I watched that 1992 musical so many times we probably wore out the VHS. We loved the plot of kids our age—more specifically, cute pubescent boys—doing something important. Free from the stifling protection of parents and child labor laws, the Lower Manhattan newsboys of 1899 got to have jobs and the freedom to dance and sing while taking on the robber-barons of the newspaper industry. Pulitzer and Hearst/They think we’re nothin’/Are we nothin’?/No!
Of course, I had to see the stage version when the touring production stopped at The Smith Center (through March 22). As the overture played, I rediscovered songs I’d loved as a child but hadn’t heard since then. As the show continued, I was transported to a state of theatrical-nostalgic bliss. The athletic, acrobatic dancing was more impressive onstage than onscreen. The songs contained those classic Disney-style hooks (caveat: One viewer who had not seen the movie commented in the hallway after the show that the songs all sounded the same). The set was a clever combination of moving metal scaffolding and video projections. The performers—mostly cute post-pubescent boys—were committed and energetic. All was as it should be.
Only one thing surprised: the message. I was blown away by Newsies’ unapologetic-bordering-on-propagandist promotion of working class rights (as a child viewer, I’d missed certain nuances of the story). In today’s economic climate, no topic is more maligned (but perhaps also more crucial) than unions. And here was a whole show promoting them. Literally, the entire plot is about a group of homeless kids forming a union in response to big, bad corporate chieftains. There are no kindly “job creators” on this stage, only villainous adults who kidnap newsies to help fill their for-profit children’s prison, the Refuge. Throughout the performance, I was terrified that the characters might all just give up, return to their shitty jobs and start voting Republican. But this being a Disney show with a cameo by “Governor Roosevelt” and a time period that’s set a full decade before the birth of Ronald Reagan, there was, instead, a happy ending.