The Reason I Still Love Jack Kelly & Newsies

Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures.
Some of you have Mean Girls. Some have Clueless. I have the 1992 Disney live-action musical Newsies. It is a little pop culture nugget that includes beautiful young men doing a lot of gymnastics and singing, old-timey garb and colloquialisms, and a musical performance by Bill Pullman. It lands solidly on my list of top five favorite films and musicals, and it carries more sense-memory triggers and inspired longing than its creators likely meant for it to.

The film was released 23 years ago, on April 10, 1992 — the day before I was born. I discovered an old VHS copy at a local, run-down library during my sophomore year of high school. The fall of that year was perhaps the most emotionally charged time of my life, as I was finding first love, wondering if my obsession with theater could turn into a career, and discovering true sorrow as it became clear that both of those things are, in fact, quite difficult to successfully achieve.

Going to high school in coastal Florida, I was exposed to very few types of men. There were the surfers, the skaters, the soccer players, the intellectuals, and the burnouts. Crossovers were not unusual — skater-burnout, soccer-intellectual, surfer-skater. You get the picture. As a musical theater-loving, no-boyfriend-having 15-year-old girl who wore a Late Night with Conan O'Brien T-shirt to school, it felt that there were few opportunities to find true passion.

Thankfully, there was the theater department — and within it, the few straight men who had a huge impact on my adolescence.

***

Christian Bale holds a newspaper and leaps and spins. It is 1899 in New York City, he has a thick New Yawk accent, and he's passionately singing and dancing for the newsboys' right to be treated fairly and form a union. A flock of equally enthusiastic and handsome young men dance behind him to an Alan Menken score. What repressed, hopeful lass who also happens to fetishize turn-of-the-century aesthetics wouldn't be losing her shit right now?

I happened to find a lack of apathy in performance very, very sexy. There is no way that a 17-year-old, award-winning Bale was into what he was doing in those vests and neckties. I don't believe he thought all that dancing and singing about justice was cool. He said he actively told Newsies director Kenny Ortega that he didn't want to be "a bloody Artful Dodger" onscreen before he signed on to the film. But, he digs in, commits, and nails it. His Jack Kelly is a totally enrapturing character — you 100% believe in the performance. There's no irony there. Watch a clip of the film's top ballad, "Santa Fe." Swoon.

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***

Adam* was a senior when I was a sophomore. We didn't become friends right away, like a lot of these stories start. But, then, everything is a slow burn with me. Even the most passionate, breathy, thoughtless encounter requires about a three-week cook time with a lot of nervous, suggestive, emoticon-saturated Facebook messaging. We had been thrown together in a production of Our Town the previous spring, but we didn't interact much. I certainly noticed him, though. The glasses. The flannel. The bullshit-calling on authority. By fall, we were full-time theater-department kids, and I was full-time obsessed with him.

This was a time in my life when I was reading The Catcher in the Rye for the first time, staying late at the auditorium every night to work on our productions, and watching Newsies on VHS about once a day. I kept renewing it at the library until I convinced my mother to order me a DVD copy from Amazon via next-day shipping.

Adam made me feel like one of those cool girls who hangs out with boys and is hardcore and swears and does not wear makeup but is still pretty and still a girl. Like the girl who plays guitar in Say Anything..

***

It was while watching Jack Kelly and Racetrack (played by the adorable and theater-kid-hammy Max Casella) tap dance while giving each other shit (in hilariously over-the-top accents) about wanting to get laid (in a veiled Disney style), that I realized I am allowed to find things funny and good before people give me permission to find them funny or good. Nobody I knew had seen this unintentionally campy movie, which was so strange and wonderful and earnest, and I decided that it was going to be the only thing that I talked about for weeks. I loved that Jack was an independent dude who could also sing with masculinity. I loved the juxtaposition of scenes, like when a serious Robert Duvall monologued about labor rights while attractive young men pliéd outside his window. And, I loved how ridiculous the movie was — yet it still had a genuine fire underneath it. The people who made this really, really wanted to make it. 

***

Adam had a girlfriend. A normal, popular girl on the dance team. He complained about her to me and told me about his dreams of being a writer and moving to New York. My Say Anything... radar was spinning out of control. He and I were both intense comedy fans and spent a lot of our time laughing at Louis C.K. specials and quoting lines from a late '90s clip of Conan O'Brien visiting Hunter S. Thompson on his ranch. We got bagels before school, and he drove me to theater festivals before I had my permit. That fall semester, we were in a traumatizing car accident and we talked on the phone every night for three weeks to check on each other. We talked about how everyone else was so terribly lame in their state of ordinary, and how we had to get out of there. I had finally found my Jack Kelly. A true anarchist — or at least as close as I could get in a suburban Florida public high school. I mean, the popular kids in my classes were trading Dane Cook CDs. I was gasping for air. Adam lent me the DVD of Boogie Nights and in turn borrowed Newsies. He hopped on board with me about the amazing sincerity in its weirdness.

I watched Adam go through a breakup, and I waited patiently as the calendar flipped to November and we had yet to become anything more than friends. I had so many visions of that ever-possible "point of no return" moment. Maybe he would be driving me to an independent film, and we would confess our feelings to each other in the parking lot, cheekily never making it into the movie. Maybe one day after rehearsal I would be frazzled because my ride didn't show up, and he would humbly offer his chariot. Basically, there were a lot of automotive scenarios.

In the end, though, nothing ever happened between us. This became my predictable pattern: I picked a guy who was smart and funny and, most importantly, physically near me on a regular basis. I imagined an entire life with him, down to the kind of fights we would have when we were 60, and I aimed to spend as much time with him as possible until he woke up — third-act rom-com style — to what was right in front of him.

Adam graduated and lived at home for a while. Communication ceased. In case you forgot, the girl who plays the guitar in Say Anything... does not, in fact, end up with John Cusack.

***

I returned to Florida two winters ago and met up with Adam. He had been the center of both my real and fantasy life when I was 15. He could sing in the musical and convincingly fake-slap you in The Taming of the Shrew, and he was straight and was therefore a perfect man to try to marry. Seeing him at age 21 was overwhelming and eye-opening.

I now live in New York City and perform stand-up and improv comedy — something I never thought would have been possible during my Adam era. At this point, I'm suffering from a serious over-saturation of artistic dudes. I'm tired of hearing about their spec script, or listening as they ignorantly describe why they believe the last season of Parks & Recreation had less comedic integrity than the others, or drunkenly mansplaining how they are "addicted to Europe." The guys from my high school days, who all still live in our hometown and work regular jobs and don't do any performing anymore, just wanted to drink beer on the dock and talk about day-to-day life.

***

I often listen to the Newsies soundtrack on Spotify during my day job and think about Adam and about Jack's hope of going out west and forgetting the stresses of city life.

And, I am infatuated all over again. Old habits die hard.



*Names have been changed.
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