I try to keep myself calm and well-collected in these articles, but as I write this particular piece I am currently lying in bed, limbs positioned like the subject of a Picasso portrait, and typing through tears of pain. I’ve just come back from classes. To get to them, I have to go up a massive hill and a few flights of stairs. And I have to do so with a cane.
In musical theatre, canes mean two things. Either a classic tap number is about to break out or the rare yet somehow still token disabled character is here. The most well-known of these? Crutchie. Yes, that’s his name. That’s it. That is all he gets. He is literally defined by his disability. And yes, I am fully aware that Crutchie is the fictional counterpart to the real-life “Crutch” Morris, member of the Committee of Arrangements. And I understand that dumb nicknames are common among kids; beyond that, I know for a fact that many newsies had several aliases.
If that is the reasoning behind defining this character by his mobility aid, then why not accurately reflect the demographic of poor teenage boys? That large a group of impoverished children in that era would be full of disabled characters. But theatre tends not to care about representing us especially since disabled people tend to be seen as downers and Newsies, so I’m told, is supposed to be a light and fun show. Somehow that’s a response to the complaint that there isn’t enough disabled representation in this show. Yes, it’s a light show. But it’s still a show about poor children in late 19th-century New York. There should be more people of color and more disabled people. No, instead an able-bodied actor is cast and if they actually do their job, like Andrew Keenan-Bolger, the actor might do some research to better emulate a disabled character (though this research tends to only be on visible symptoms).
This is the part of the article where I have to remind you that I love Newsies (because apparently having a problem with a show means that you aren’t allowed to also enjoy it). I honestly and truly adore the music and the dancing and the story. But the show fills me with rage. It’s not just the fact that his name is Crutchie; it’s not just the fact that the only instance I can find of a disabled actor playing this disabled character is about six years after the show premiered (shout-out to Patrick Tombs); it is the fact that Crutchie is the cat.
Saving the cat is a trope popularized by Blake Snyder who explains it this way, “Heroes should be introduced by a selflessly heroic moment in which they ‘save a cat’ or similar, to show they’re a good person.” We instantly sympathize with a character who helps the cute little helpless creature. And that’s the purpose of Crutchie. Act one scene one, we see Jack Kelly caring for Crutchie. The most emotional part of the show is when Crutchie is captured and taken to the Refuge; Jack has let down the person that epitomizes the helpless — the cat.
Perhaps it is the fact that Crutchie is gone for most of the show, but it feels like he is more device than an actual character. Not only does it just hurt to feel like disabled characters are only useful when they progress the main character’s storyline, but it is also truly detrimental. The fact that yet again I have come to a point in an article where I feel the need to explain the importance of representation is worrisome. I will not pretend that any of these articles are reaching the creators which I mention. Merely as an audience member, it seems painfully clear to me that there are two likely descriptors of the people we look up to; these creators either do not understand the need for representation or do not care.
We are at a point where information has never been more accessible and communication has never been easier. There is no excuse for creators, especially those privileged enough to have a platform as large as a Broadway stage, not to know any better. To know better and to not care is more heartless than I can honestly believe an artist to be. If art is about expressing aspects of humanity, then not representing disabled people is saying that disabled people are not human.
(Photo by Rich Kowalski of Patrick Tombs as Crutchie.)