Here's my favorite thing about capitalism: Whenever the rich and powerful oppress the people, Disney (DIS) can turn it into a smash Broadway musical and people will pay hundreds of dollars for tickets.
At this point in the economic cycle, there are few spectacles more entertaining than poor, starving youths breaking into song and dance as they scrap for basic sustenance.
This is why Disney's "Newsies" is such a hit. This theatrical celebration of an 1899 strike by newspaper boys is like an Occupy Wall Street rally with enthusiastic tap dancers, a mushy love story, and a teary-eyed Disney ending. Reviewers have been quick to compare it to "Annie" and "Oliver!" (as in Twist). But the review by New Jersey's Star-Ledger, featured on the play's billboards, called it "the perfect musical for our times!"
You know the story line already: Cut costs, find a sneaky way to raise prices, and let the 8.2% unemployment rate take care of itself.
My wife dragged me to the Nederlander Theatre to see "Newsies," figuring I would like it since I used to be a newspaper boy, getting to work at 3 a.m. to deliver the Chicago Daily News in the 1970s. Otherwise, she knows I hate musicals. She knows I get hives when people start singing in the middle of conversation as if this is how normal folks are supposed to communicate.
It would be difficult to publish what I thought of "Rock of Ages," "Spider-Man" or almost any other production I've seen over the years. In 2010, I went to a Broadway show called "Enron" and concluded that the actual trial was better scripted and choreographed.
To be fair, I am not a theater critic. It's difficult for me to understand why I should see "Ghost the Musical," when the 1990 "Ghost" movie, starring the late Patrick Swayze and Whoopi Goldberg, made me want to burn a Ouija board.
Broadway, which rarely has an original thought, has long relied upon dated schlock for its story lines. "Newsies" began as a 1992 movie starring Christian Bale. It bombed at the box office but, somehow, over the years, it developed a cult following. And now, four years into a jobless recovery, it's become the hit Broadway musical that won Tony awards for best original score and choreography.
This extravaganza of capitalist oppression has something for everyone. If you like progressive thoughts about unions, and sticking it to the man, this is your musical. If you like entrepreneurship, hate big government, and think the poor should get some bootstraps, this is your musical, too.
"Tell those with power, safe in their tower, we will not obey!"
See, the lyrics work both ways, depending on who you imagine to be in the towers, and Disney is there to rake it all in.
The play portrays turn-of-the-century media moguls Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst as being bent on squeezing every penny out of the pauper children who hawk their papers. When the newsies strike, newspaper profits tumble, proving that greed is indeed a short-term strategy with long-term consequences. Soon the newspaper barons realize their folly and come together with their unionized carriers.
That Mr. Pulitzer or Mr. Hearst would actually meet with a rebellious newspaper boy is a nice bit of fantasy--on par with any hopes of Republicans and Democrats getting together and doing something useful between now and our next economic collapse.
That Mr. Pulitzer's beautiful daughter would fall headlong in love with a transient newspaper strike leader is a also nice piece of American mythology: Don't bash the rich, because some day you may get to marry one.
Most newspaper owners I have worked for have gone bankrupt or out of business. Before I joined Dow Jones Newswires, I became quite familiar with the concept of squeezing every penny out of newspaper people. When the newspaper owners finally lost their monopolies, they hadn't made the kind of investments required to compete in a technological society. They simply shooed off their most creative employees and rendered themselves clueless. And now they're desperately scrambling to reinvent themselves.
A friend of mine recently sent me an article headlined "New Reporter? Call Him Al." I thought it was going to be about me, but it was about the algorithm. The article said computers can now assimilate vast amounts of data and turn it into something that reads just like news. A handful of companies are now writing programs that would mimic the voice of hometown newspapers.
Someday, they will run all my columns through one of these boxes and it will sound just like me.
I am one step ahead of this game, though. I will leverage this experience to write and produce "Newsies II." I won't even need to hire a tap dancer to portray myself. I'll just use a robot.
(Al's Emporium, written by Dow Jones Newswires columnist Al Lewis, offers commentary and analysis on a wide range of business subjects through an unconventional perspective. The column is published each Tuesday and Thursday at 9 a.m. ET. Contact Al at email@example.com or tellittoal.com)