Newsies and Sexual Awakenings

As the lights began to dim and the orchestra started to play at the Orpheum Theatre this month, someone a few rows behind me let out what sounded like an involuntary yelp of excitement. I squeezed my boyfriend's hand and drew in my breath as the curtain rose on the skyline of turn-of-the-last-century New York City and two strapping young men in newsboy caps sang to each other in the moonlight.

There is something magical about the opening night of a musical, and the San Francisco leg of the Newsies national tour was no exception. By the end of the opening number, people were screaming from the balcony, and by the curtain call, the audience was on its feet in wild applause. Later, on Market Street, young girls rushed the stage door waving Playbills and Sharpies, each vying for an autograph or, better yet, a selfie with one of the Broadway Biebers.

The original Disney film, starring a pre-Dark Knight Christian Bale as the charismatic leader of the newsboys' strike of 1899, flopped when it came out in 1992. It found enormous success on VHS, however, eventually becoming a cult classic.

The feel-good family musical could be written off as fluff, but the content is surprisingly subversive, including a pro-union plotline and references to the prison-industrial complex and police corruption. There's even a humanizing portrayal of a sex worker — it's everything I have ever wanted in a musical.

Not everyone sees what the big deal is about a Disney musical about a newsboys' strike, but for me, seeing Newsies for the first time was a turning point in the formation of my sexual identity.

It was during the 1990s boy-band era, when the brand of masculinity marketed to my demographic depended heavily on boyish good looks as well as superb singing and dancing ability.

As a young theater nerd, I dreamed of moving to New York. I spent my afterschool hours in rehearsals, my weekends at dance class, and my summer breaks doing musicals and falling in love with chorus boys who could sing and tap dance better than I could.

So this film, which featured Mickey Mouse Club types pirouetting shirtless on the streets of a fairy tale New York City, was a lot for my little preteen heart to handle, and I wasn't alone.

Newsies was a must-see at every slumber party throughout my adolescence; watching it was like a rite of passage, an induction into a secret society of the girl gaze. Did my girlfriends and I identify with the pro-union message? Were we inspired by the possibilities of the power of the press as a tool of social justice? Sure, but we were mostly there for the boys.

A living-room screening of Newsies would whip me and my friends into a lustful stupor well into the wee hours of the morning as we openly objectified the dancing boys on the screen, and spun fantasies of one day capturing the heart of a scrappy newsboy with perfect pitch.

Over the years, Newsies only grew in underground popularity; it had a timeless quality that seemed to tap into the dynamic force of teen dreams for generations of women. When Disney executives caught wind that fans were doing bootleg versions of the show in cafeterias and youth centers across the country, they were keen to capitalize on the phenomenon by releasing a stage adaptation that could be licensed to schools and regional theaters. But, like the film version that had generated such indie mania, “The show took on a life of its own,” says director Jeff Calhoun. After a wildly successful regional run in New Jersey, the Newsies stage musical made it to Broadway, where it won two Tony Awards and ran for over 1,000 performances before launching a national tour in October.

Newsies was not expected to become a classic, but its success has been fueled by a rabid and loyal fanbase. Though the plot is about the power of the press, the story of the Newsies phenomenon is more about the power of pubescent imprinting, and the magic that happens when men sing and dance in unison.

It plays in San Francisco at the Orpheum Theatre until March 15. Don't miss it.

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