Interesting Times

As I posted over at my place this morning, Mr. Beale and I have just returned from a long weekend in New York City.

New York is both America’s cultural and financial center, so the stuff I see there always resonates on a bigger level with me. It’s a place that always makes me think about where this country is and where it’s going. And sometimes what I think is, WTF? For instance, this, seen somewhere around West 53rd and 7th Avenue:


I couldn’t see that and not think of Andrew Breitbart ranting, “stop raaaping people … stop raaaping people …” at Occupy Wall Street protestors before his death.

These are strange times we live in and mostly when I write it’s my way of trying to understand What It All Means, which is a very unsatisfying exercise. I just don’t feel like I have the knowledge base required to make sense of this strange world we live in.

For instance, in this era of Scott Walker-style union busting rolling out nationally, corporate media flogging astroturf as populism, and Newt Gingrich waxing nostalgic about child labor, I never thought we’d see a highly commercial hit Broadway musical about … a union organizer. One who organized child laborers to strike against Joseph Pullitzer, the Rupert Murdoch of his day. And did I add it’s produced byDisney, no less?

And yet, “Newsies” isa box office hit, has been nominated for eight Tony Awards, and my theater-industry friends tell me it’s a shoe-in to win Best Musical. Furthermore, while Mr. Beale and I prefer edgier fare, the audience was thoroughly into the show. I’m not talking snooty theater critics, these were families and a large contingent of teenage girls, bused in from the suburbs, cheering and clapping and whistling and wolf-calling all through the show. They loved it.

As a pop culture observer I find this very bizarre. On the one hand we have the ownership class telling us unions kill jobs, taxes hurt job creators, greed is good, and focusing on profits at the expense of workers lower down on the food chain is all part of our free enterprise system. Sure it sucks if hundreds of people lost their jobs so Bain Capital could make a profit but“the free enterprise system can be cruel.” Suck it up and stop whining. The alternative is Socialism and while no one is entirely sure what that is, everyone agrees that it’s Very Bad.

That was not the messge of “Newsies.” The message we heard was, maybe if your dad was in a union the kids wouldn’t have to support the family when he got hurt on the job. Maybe if everyone pulls together and sticks together the ownership class as embodied in the character of Joseph Pullitzer can no longer “treat us like we don’t exist.”

Of course, populist messages have been literary mainstays since forever. I’m just surprised that in this age of the Tea Party and Citizens United and right-wing smearing of Occupy Wall Street that a blatant pro-union message was not just presented from the Broadway stage but so thoroughly embraced. Of course, this fall when they revive “Annie” we’ll see the other side of the 1%, the benevolent Daddy Warbucks. I’m sure that will be a big hit, too. Still, I couldn’t witness the enthusiastic applause and cheers for a successful union strike and not think someone is a little out of touch with the zeitgeist.

5 thoughts on “Interesting Times

  1. New York is still very much a pro-union city. The fact that people will pay to see a pro-union show shouldn’t be very surprising. Also, the people who nominate for Tony awards are union members themselves. So.
    While Annie might have found a benevolent rich man, remember the overarching theme of the show is the poverty of the Depression. Remember the rousing number “We’d Like to Thank You, Herbert Hoover?” Also, the last number in the whole damn show is “A New Deal for Christmas.”

  2. I should add that the other stuff we saw included “The Best Man,” Gore Vidal’s mid-60s era political drama about what what it takes to get elected, and Arthur Miller’s 1949 classic, “Death Of A Salesman.” Both productions are Tony-nominated and critically-acclaimed, as well as box office hits. It’s interesting to me that these are classics yet they remain as topical and relevant today as when they were first staged. We think we’ve made progress and yet we’re still grappling with the same ol’ shit.

  3. Unfortunately, people don’t tend to think of messages. I remember when Les Miz was popular and many people who loved it were still calling for more draconian laws.

  4. I disagree, MapleStreet. I think messages in the arts are extremely powerful. That is precisely why conservatives are always railing against “liberal Hollywood” and trying to create their own “conservative” arts programming because they are the most effective avenue for change there is. More effective than politics because it’s lasting. Stories and images make a profound impact on people and can actually change minds in a way that think tanks and political campaigns do not.

  5. Hey southern Beale! Mr aimai and I just had a killer weekend in new York too: death of a salesman, book of Mormon, tribes, gatz (eight hours worth) . We didn’t even try for newsies because we had the movie and cd version when the kids were little and we watched it nonstop. If I’m ever feeling down I just put on “I’m the king of new York” and everything is jake. Of course , though I’m not a red diaper baby, I do live in Cambridge, so it’s not surprising that all the kids I know watched newsies growing up.

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