There’s No Business Like Show Business
Last week the family went to see the strenuously winning Disney musical, Newsies. Our nine-year-old son loved it. From his perspective, what’s not to love? It’s a kid-centered story, the tunes are easy to sing, it’s got dancing that’s more athletic than aesthetic (lots of backflips), the love story is pro-forma, the wise-cracks are plentiful and easy to follow. It’s a formula show, but there’s a reason they follow that formula: because it works.
Myself, I found it a little dull. The main reason is that the characters are so shallow, and all conflicts are resolved so easily, and are so obviously going to be resolved, that there isn’t any dramatic tension. So, in the absence of any character conflict driving the story, I came to focus on the labor-management dispute that is the cause of the strike. And the funny thing is, I got the feeling that this is what the writers found most interesting as well.
The strike plot goes as follows. Pulitzer (John Dossett) has a problem: he’s not selling enough papers. So he decides to raise the price of a bundle of newspapers from 50 cents/100 to 60 cents. Pulitzer figures the higher price will motivate the newsies to sell more papers – to make up in volume what they lose in per-paper margin. The newsies strike, inspired by natural boy leader Jack Kelly (Jeremy Jordan), and demand that Pulitzer roll back the price increase and, moreover, commit not to raise it unilaterally in the future. At the end of the show, when Jack has achieved the right to negotiate one-on-one with Pulitzer, the labor dispute is resolved partly by compromising on price (55 cents per bundle) and, more importantly, by Pulitzer agreeing to change the terms of his relationship with the newsies to buy back any unsold papers.
Now this is kind of interesting. Previously, the newsies were independent contractors. They purchased the papers up front, and consequently bore all the risk with respect to sales of said papers. They could actually lose money on a day if they failed to sell enough to cover their cost of goods. When Jack proposes that Pulitzer buy back unsold papers, he scoffs: then newsies will take too many papers, and his costs will go through the roof. Jack reasons that because the newsies have to physically carry the papers around, they already have enough incentive not to take too many papers, but by reducing their risk Pulitzer would incentivize them to err on the side of trying to sell more, and thereby increase his circulation. In effect, the newsies go from independent contractors to being commissioned salesmen.
This plot is fairly faithful to the issues in the actual newsboy strike that inspired the movie on which the stage musical is based. But that in itself is interesting. The love interest character, Katherine (Kara Lindsay), who turns out to be Pulitzer’s daughter (a betrayal that is resolved shockingly easily, as all the betrayals are in this show), is a collection of anachronistic cliches familiar from a dozen plucky heroines of recent Disney movies. (If this were a Warner Brothers production, no doubt she’d have spent much of the musical traipsing around in her underwear, like Natalie Wood in “The Great Race.”) The urchins are similarly generic, as is the inevitable African-American earth mother figure who takes our hero in. In all of this, we’re dealing purely with formula. But the terms of the contract dispute are something the writers cared about enough to retain, and make central to the plot.
I’ve had this experience before at a Disney musical. The stage adaptation of the classic movie, “Mary Poppins,” is practically putrid in every way – bad choreography, bad songs, boring effects, endless mugging, and the mutilation of the characters of the children (who are no longer at all central to the story) – but what was most notable to me was the way that the stage musical cared more than the movie did about the father’s banking business. In the movie, if you recall, Mr. Banks is the youngest partner at the bank where he works, and there is a wonderful song describing what the bank does, and how it does it:
But the kids – who are the center of attention in the movie – have no idea what the old banker is talking about. And the resolution of the Mr. Banks plot doesn’t resolve around him learning something about how to do business – it revolves around him learning something about how to live life, about what’s really important, on the assumption that business will, one way or another, take care of itself. (Indeed, the way he gets back into the firm is morbidly hilarious – he tells a joke that causes the elder Mr. Dawes to literally die laughing, and the younger Mr. Dawes is so grateful to finally have the old fart out of the way that he reinstates Banks.)
In the stage show, though, Banks doesn’t lose his job because of his kids’ misbehavior. Rather, he’s got his own conflict – about whether to invest in a transparently fraudulent scheme that looks like a can’t-lose proposition, or in a risky but legitimate business enterprise. And when he gets his soul back, he knows what he must do – and makes the legitimate investment. Bizarrely, this question – will Mr. Banks pursue his business in an ethically enlightened manner – is the emotional center of Mary Poppins the stage musical.
And so again with Newsies. There’s no real question about whether the lovers will get together, or whether the newsies will hang together. The only real question is: how will the strike be resolved? And the answer to that relates to the details of Jack’s contract proposals.
I have a sinking feeling that this interest in the details of business negotiations is not entirely about modern writers writing what they know (though one of the best songs in Newsies is Katherine’s song about writer’s block, and that’s definitely a writing-what-you-know moment since it has nothing to do with moving the plot forward) but actually has an audience, both adult and juvenile. It’s just getting too pervasive. Hit shows like “iCarly” and “Hannah Montana” aren’t just about the fantasy of being famous – they have plots that frequently revolve around the business of show business. Kids are far more aware of the contractual nature of many relationships than they were a generation ago – for better or for worse.
And the vision of labor-management relations that comes across from Newsies is very corporate. The newsies aren’t fighting the power in order to overthrow it. They just want to align incentives in a way that’s win-win. They don’t want to be independent contractors; they want to be part of the organization. Pulitzer, who pulls some pretty evil tricks over the course of the show, isn’t banished to the outer darkness at the end. Once he’s ready to negotiate in good faith, the newsies are happy to work for him again. This, again, I think reflects where kids – at least kids of the class who might go to a Broadway show – actually are, at least if David Brooks is to be believed.
It’s a peculiar mentality for this moment in our economic history, but that’s a point for another space. What I’m more sure about is that it doesn’t make for strong theatre, which requires conflict to have a kind of primal urgency. We want to see dragons slain, not tamed, to see heroes triumph, not negotiate a fair settlement.
Or perhaps we don’t. The quips and backflips seemed to do it for my son, anyway. Perhaps strenuous winningness is the future on the boards as well as in the boardroom.