Before home delivery and way before the Internet, newspapers were distributed on the streets of New York City by “newsies,” young boys who made their living, meager as it was, by hawking Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World and William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal, to citizens eager to read the day’s headlines. In 1899, the newsboys staged a strike, a real life David vs. Goliath battle, which inspired a 1992 Disney film and then a Broadway musical. With book by Harvey Fierstein and music by Alan Menken, the musical won awards and has exhibited remarkable staying power. Perhaps that’s because the show’s messages never fail to resonate with audiences.
Erin Weaver stars in a production that will play from November 1 through December 22 at Arena Stage directed by Artistic Director Molly Smith with choreography by Parker Esse. Weaver, who plays journalist Katherine Plumber, has an impressive resume, having won a Helen Hayes Award for her performance as Katrin in Arena’s Mother Courage. She took time from rehearsals to answer questions about performing in Newsies in what has become a news-hungry Washington, D.C.
In 1899, two men – Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst – had the power through their newspapers to sway public opinion. We now have many sources for news including radio, TV, Facebook, Twitter, and many online news outlets. Have more sources for news led to clarity or more confusion?
I’m sure it’s a bit a both. For me though, the question is how do we discipline ourselves to sift through the news that’s catered to our political and/or personal beliefs and find news sources that are dedicated to relaying the facts and engaging people with multiple perspectives to reflect on those facts. It’s extremely hard to find news sources like this these days. I’m not on Twitter and I have stopped getting my news from Facebook. I also no longer watch MSNBC, as I felt they were telling me exactly what I wanted to hear. While many would argue that NPR is left leaning, I find it to be a more engaging news source where I’m not being fed one perspective. I also listen to podcasts and I’m more selective about the articles I read on line.
Creating sensational and many times inaccurate reporting to sell more newspapers goes back to the times depicted in Newsies when those stories were dubbed “yellow journalism.” Media literacy was not something talked about back then. But we don’t hear much about it now, either. Is that something people can come away with after seeing Newsies? That we all need to think more critically about what we read and hear before we form an opinion?
It was fascinating to learn about “yellow journalism” and how Pulitzer and Hearst used this method to sell more papers – a deeply amoral method which is widely believed to have exacerbated the start of the Spanish-American war. While we never hear the phrase “yellow journalism” referred to in the show, we still get a sense from the character Pulitzer about his willingness to stop at nothing to sell his papers. I chose to believe my character, Katherine, who is a reporter for the New York Sun, finds “yellow journalism” to be despicable. While Katherine is a fictional character, Charles Dana, the actual editor of the Sun in the late 1800’s, was an outspoken critic of Pulitzer and Hearst and all yellow press.
I think the heart of this play really revolves around speaking truth to power and how young people are our future and their voices need to be heard. However, the story of Newsies definitely reminds us of the power of the press, for better and for worse… as well as our need to avoid click bait and to pay extra attention to what’s happening in the world, especially when there are Twitter accounts actively trying to distract us from more important issues. Newsies has certainly had an impact on me and my own personal desire for more media literacy education.
The newsboys were critical to the distribution of news, but had little power. Striking was a big risk, but one that paid off. We are witnessing a weakness in the power of unions. Could this David vs. Goliath message in Newsies emboldened others who are marginalized in our society?
I certainly hope so. There is safety in numbers and so much can be done to effect change when people come together and organize. At one point my character says to Jack, the leader of the Newsies strike, “You have challenged an entire generation to stand up and demand a place at the table.” This musical certainly reminds me not to take unions for granted and to be grateful for the sacrifices people made to create them in order to keep employees safe and to give them a voice.
Child labor laws passed in 1938 prohibited the employment of kids younger than 16. According to UNICEF, more than 168 million children aged 5 to 17 are child laborers. Could Newsies be a call to action for Americans to work for change through organizations like UNICEF and the World Bank?
When I was a kid I LOVED the movie Newsies. I watched it over and over and over again on a VHS tape. However, working on this show as an adult has opened my eyes to so many dark realities when it comes to child labor and exploitation, both past and present. While I believe this production of Newsies is wildly entertaining, it also serves as a painful reminder of the work we still need to do to ensure children are not being exploited and their human rights are protected. Please consider making a donation to UNICEF and/or the World Bank as they continue to bring awareness and take action towards change on this issue.
Katherine Plumber covered the strike and helped to raise awareness of the newsboys’ cause. The character might have been modeled after Nellie Bly (Elizabeth Cochran Seaman) who was a pioneer in investigative journalism. Although women journalists have made great strides what more needs to be done to create a level playing field?
I had an amazing opportunity when I was a senior in high school to ask Edward Albee how he would define the word “art.” While I don’t remember his answer verbatim, I remember him explaining that he felt it should be a reflection of ourselves or of humanity. I’m not a reporter so I won’t pretend to know what is needed in the field of journalism to create a more level playing field for women. But I am a mother to my eight year old daughter and it’s thrilling to be able to play a character that is an incredibly smart and strong reporter filled with moral integrity. If young girls see more female reporters like Katherine in the stories we tell, they might be inspired to become one one day.
The United States is one of the only countries in the world, and the only member of the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) that has not passed laws requiring businesses and corporations to offer paid maternity leave to their employees. As a working actress, how have you managed to devote time to raising children and your career?
To be honest, when I’m in rehearsals for a show it’s tough. The best time for me as a mom is between shows when I’m all hers. Once rehearsals start up there is a definite shift at home. I’m so lucky to have an amazing husband who co-parents with me as well as a number of awesome friends we affectionately refer to as “Team Maisie” who help take care of Maisie when we are both in rehearsal (my husband, Aaron Posner, is a writer and director). I often don’t do shows in September as it’s important for me to be present as Maisie starts school.
While in some ways it can be tough not getting to tuck her in at night while I’m in performances, there are so many advantages to being a mother and an actress.
Maisie is a theater kid. She loves what we do. She loves coming to our rehearsals from time to time and, as she is getting older, she is able to see more of our shows as well. (I’m sure she will see Newsies many, MANY times!) Somehow I have been lucky enough to live my dream of being an actress and a mother, however I believe this is in large part due to how supportive theaters in this area are of theater artists with kids.
That’s not to say we don’t need to continue to look at more ways through our employers and our union to make being a parent and a theater artist more possible, especially financially! But there is no way I could do what I do without the individual support of theaters like Arena Stage and I would hope that every employer, no matter what the job, can be supportive of parents and the additional needs that come with balancing parenting and our careers. If this is not done freely, I absolutely believe it should be enforced by law.
Newsies is a musical filled with history lessons. What do you hope audiences will come away with after seeing the production?
I hope people will be inspired to see how far we have come and yet how much further we still have to go. When you see this show and you are immersed by Molly Smith’s brilliant direction, as well as Parker Esse’s explosive choreography and Laura Bergquist’s powerful music direction, I believe you will not just hear the news boys and girls of New York City in 1899 but the voices of the children leading “March For Our Lives” and action towards Climate Change today. This is a musical about our past AND our future and how our younger generations are “demanding a place at the table.”
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