Friday, March 2, 2012

1899 Youth Strike Hits Broadway

As all of you theater geeks know, Disney's Newsies opens on Broadway on March 15. The play is based on Disney's 1992 movie (starring young Christian Bale), which is based on the true story of an 1899 newsboys strike.
So here's the strike in a nutshell. In 1898, the Spanish-American war breaks out. Newspaper tycoons, including Joseph Pulitzer and William Hearst raise the price of papers just so slightly to take advantage of all the exciting news. A bundle of a hundred newspapers now cost 60 cents instead of 50.
The war fizzles out. Most newspapers lower the prices, but not Pulitzer and Hearst.
This doesn't mean much to anybody but the newsies, the hundreds to thousands of children who sell papers to survive. Many of them sleep on the streets. They earn around 30 cents a day, half of what they paid for the newspapers in the first place. They aren't employees of the papers and thus aren't allowed to cash in unsold surplus.
So they live on one of the bottom levels of poverty with no hope of a brighter future.

Then some of them decide to step up. Kid Blink, so called because he's blind in one eye, is one of the more prominent leaders. The newsies formed a union. Pamphlets were written and distributed in place of newspapers. They held a demonstration in front of the newspaper offices until police were sent to break it up and arrest them.
After two weeks, Pulitzer and Hearst's  circulation was cut in half. The Goliaths were forced to compromise. While they didn't lower the prices, they agreed to buy back unsold papers.
The union evaporated. The strike faded from memory like an old newspaper blowing down the streets of Manhattan. Everybody forgot about them.
Until Disney got this idea for a musical.

And now they're going back to New York-Broadway, that is. Significant details have been changed. The movie had a middle aged male reported named Denton covering the story. Laurie, a newsie's sister, was the love interest. But nowadays strong female characters are mandatory, so we get Katharine Pulitzer, girl reporter, instead.
And they added Teddy Roosevelt. Because you gotta have Teddy Roosevelt.
Teddy (left) shown with Teddy (right).
A play to satisfy theater geeks, Occupy's 99%, and anybody who loves a good David and Goliath story.
But don't forget that this was real, and it wasn't glamorous and colorful. It was dirty and hot and painful, like the lesser known Pullman and Lowell and Triangle Shirtwaist Factory strikes. All of which occured around the same time and fed off child laborers.
Still, it's inspiring to know that these activists have not been forgotten.
UPDATE: Just saw Newsies on Broadway after spending the past month listening to both soundtracks. I have to say, it. Is. Awesome. Sure, they tweaked history a little. The play has the newsies' strike spreading throughout the city in what the characters refer to as a  'Children's Crusade'. But they also stayed true to fact.  The Disney movie ends with Pulitzer lowering the price of the paper, giving into the children's demands. In the play, they make a deal with Pulitzer. The price stays the same, but the newsies can get refunds for unsold papers, which raises their income quite a bit.
But my favorite part was how they worked in Roosevelt. You'd think a mature, influential adult showing up at the climax and voicing his support of the newsies means the cavalry has come. He's saving the day. But no. Teddy proceeds to walk off the stage, leaving Jack, our seventeen year old hero, to argue it out with Pulitzer. Newsies isn't just about seizing the day-it's about standing up for yourself, no matter what kind of Goliaths stand in your way.   

1 comment:

  1. Beautiful post Eliza! So wonderful!!
    We still need to make our time machine!!