Lessons from Disney’s Newsies

“In 1899, the streets of New York City echoed with the voices of Newsies, peddling the papers of Joseph Pulitzer, William Randolph Hearst, and other giants of the newspaper world. On every corner, you saw them carrying the banner, bringing you the news for a penny a pape. Poor orphans and runaways, the newsies were a ragged army without a leader, until one day – all that changed.”

So begins the prologue of Walt Disney’s Musical, Newsies, easily my favorite movie from my teen years. For my birthday this year, I received the original motion picture soundtrack, and I’ve been reminiscing about all the many reasons I liked the movie then and finding some new appreciation for it now (as I can hear more of the words in the songs as I listen to them over and over again). Before I became a wife and a mom, I was a social worker. I suppose a part of me always wanted to go into such a helping profession. One of the big themes throughout Newsies involves giving a voice to those in need. Like most Disney adaptations, this dramatized song and dance version changes some things, adds some characters, and makes everything fit into a Hollywood timeframe. Also in true Disney fashion, Newsies leaves the viewer inspired and challenged to make the world a better place for future generations. Instead of focusing on the history of the story, I want to focus on the lessons we can take from Disney’s adaptation.

  1. Approach life with a positive attitude, even in tough circumstances.
    In the opening number, “Carrying the Banner”, the Newsies sing “we goes where we wishes we’s as free as fishes sure beats washin dishes” and “boy ain’t nature fascinatin when yous gotta walk”. It’s all about perspective. Yes, their lives were hard, which they also sing about it the song, but they still look on the bright side when they can.
  2. Dream big and go for your dream (it’s okay if you realize along the way the dream has changed). Jack longs to go out west to Santa Fe and be a real Cowboy, partly because he has no family of his own. Along the way, he learns that he has a family in the Newsies.
  3. Fight injustice. Don’t be afraid to be the first to speak. The Newsies decide to strike. Dave is afraid to speak, so Jack uses his words and gets everyone riled up to strike. In the song, “The World Will Know” the boys sing “When you’ve got a hundred voices singing who can hear a lousy whistle blow?”
  4. Make friends with, or at least be willing to listen to the advice of, powerful people. The Newsies befriend reporter Brian Denton, who works for a competing paper. He tells Jack, “Sometimes, all it takes is a voice, one voice that becomes a hundred, then a thousand, unless it is silenced.” Pulitzer similarly offers Jack wisdom in speaking of the power of the press. “Power of the press is the greatest power of them all,” he says, “I tell this city how to think. I tell this city how to vote. I shape its future.” In the end, Jack and Denton use an old Pulitzer Press to print their newspaper, as the sweatshop kids are yelling “Strike!” in the street below. Jack turns the lessons back on the men in the room saying, “They have voices now… that’s the power of the press, Joe. Thanks for teaching me about it.”
  5. Seize the day, right wrongs, slay the giant, all with a united team. My favorite song in the entire movie is “Seize the Day”. From the lyrics to the energy to the harmonies, there isn’t a part of the song I don’t enjoy! This song demonstrates the ability to overcome anything with the right team.
  6. Celebrate victories. Whether you sing and dance to the King of New York, celebrate with family and friends, or just have a few quiet moments to yourself, celebrate the wins in your life.
  7. Finish what you start. Jack had been bought off by Pulitzer, only to realize he didn’t want that life and he had a job to finish. In the “Once and For All” sequence, the climax builds with the lyrics:
    This is for kids shinin’ shoes in the street
    With no shoes on their feet every day
    This is for guys sweatin’ blood in the shops
    While the bosses and cops look away
    This is to even the score
    This ain’t just Newsies no more
    This ain’t just kids with some pie in the sky
    This is do it or die, this is war
    Once and for all, we’ll be there to defend one another
    Once and for all, every kid is our friend, every friend a brother
    Five thousand fists in the sky, five thousand reasons to try
    We’re goin’ over the wall, better to die than to crawl
    Either we stand or we fall, for once, once and for all

The Newsies’ stakes were much higher than what we often face in our daily lives. Most of the time, seeing a task through to completion or taking a risk isn’t literally gambling on our life. I enjoy the music of this movie, the way it helps tell the story. Even if the movie “improves the truth a little”, it speaks to the part of my heart that longs for worldwide social justice. And the part that wants all of life to be a musical.

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