A Singing, Dancing …


Once a critic complained against the musical Newsies, “[T]he dancing is all performed by teenage boys in vests and newsboy caps. You feel more than a little ridiculous just watching it.”

And he is, of course, right. Newsboys dancing and singing in the streets of New York is pretty ridiculous. And Newsies has plenty of company. Chimney sweeps singing and dancing on the rooftops of London is on the same wavelength of absurdity. And isn’t it silly to imagine an English schoolteacher crooning to the king of Siam about a girl’s first ball? What kind of a nut actually sings in the rain?

Robert G. Lee once remarked, “I have no respect for gangs today. None. They just drive by and shoot people. At least in the old days, like in West Side Story, the gangs used to dance with each other first.” All musicals – even the great classics – are, if you take a long look, ridiculous. Someone once said that in sensible situations people do not sing. That’s only half of it. Even in insensible situations people do not sing, and they never spontaneously perform complex dances together. Never.

But let’s not miss the art for the facts, or enjoyment for analysis. If you can silence your inner nitpicker, you can have a lot of fun with the crooning schoolteachers, and dancing chimney sweeps, and break-dancing newsboys.

Giants and Newsies

Years ago my siblings and I listened to a collection of Disney songs we rented from the library. There was one song I always liked – “Seize the Day”. I had no idea where the song came from, what story it belonged to, but it sounded like a fairytale. A man sang about opening the gates, raising up torches and leading the way, slaying the giant. He ended with a rousing call: “Neighbor to neighbor – father to son – one for all and all for one!”

I could see it in my mind: the brave villagers gathering in the night, lighting their torches, throwing open the gates, and marching out to slay the giant. Neighbors, fathers, sons – everyone, saving themselves and each other.

We rented that tape again and again. Eventually we couldn’t find it anymore. Years passed without hearing that song, and then a few months ago someone found it on YouTube. There was no video, just the music and a picture that said “Newsies”. Recently, though, I did see video with it – the video, clipped from the movie.

So I discovered that rather than villagers singing about killing a giant, it was really newsboys singing about going on strike. It was New York City rather than a village, 1899 rather than the elusive fairytale era, daytime rather than night. There were no torches, let alone an honest-to-goodness, I-smell-the-blood-of-an-Englishman giant.

And I loved it, I really did. The dancing was terrific stuff. I saw a couple other songs on YouTube and, curious about the movie, began looking for reviews. I found one that made this criticism:

Then there are the lively production numbers, which are among the best in any recent live-action musical. Sure, they’re over-amped and filled with anachronistic dance moves (break-dancing in 1899?), but the enthusiasm and energy are hard to deny.

I have so little familiarity with break-dancing I had to look it up. It doesn’t raise any distracting associations for me. For some – probably this author among them – it does. Still, if you can accept newsies spontaneously bursting into highly choreographed song-and-dance numbers, it seems to me you shouldn’t be worried about the historicity of break-dancing in 1899,