Children, Choices, and Culture… Oh My!: When Cultural Tradition meets American Ideals in the American Musical

By Alyssa O’Connell

Admit it, we’ve all had those choices that involve convincing our parents that we, the 13-year-old brace-faced show choir kid with a YouTube channel, know more about the world than they do. As a kid, we always think we know best. (Frankly, I haven’t grown out of that.) However, when I got back from college, I somehow hoodwinked my parents into believing this very same thing. Maybe it was my college-educated brain, maybe they realized their own faults, or, most likely, they realized how sick and tired they were of arguing with me. Whatever the case may be, choices became less of a battle. 

While I thought, and still think, that the decisions I make, like how many inches of hair to get cut or which coffee shop I should “study” at, are life-changing choices that can bring about the end of the world, I’ve seen first hand how choices influenced by culture really can have life-altering effects. My nonna moved here from Italy when she was 18 years old, more like, was moved here. Scooped up by an Italian man she had never met to become a wife, she had no choice and left everything she knew to move to America. Though my nonna’s life was hard, she wouldn’t trade it for the world because it brought her me… and my brother and cousins. (But mostly me.) In her adolescence, this was pretty common in Italian culture. Women didn’t have much choice in the matter of marriage and when it came to starting a better life in America, it was always a no-brainer. We get to witness a similar event in the musical Fiddler on the Roof

While Fiddler on the Roof created space for a presentation of Jewish culture and is often considered a celebration of said culture, when it comes to making choices that defy cultural tradition, it is often the progressive or “American” values that are viewed as “right” or heroic. Today, I’ll be walking us through the streets of Anatevka as we examine both the 1971 film production of Fiddler on the Roof and the 2015 Broadway revival, to uncover the culture behind choices, specifically when looking at those of children. Then we will take a sharp right, down the yellow brick road of the American stage, where we will see how this theme resurfaces in the musical, Once on this Island. By then, we should have arrived at our destination, a theatre stage at the intersection of Choice street and Culture avenue. 

First, in defining the idea of American values concerning choice, I look to a quote from the Brown Political Review, which states “The United States has one of the most individualistic cultures in the world. Americans are more likely to prioritize themselves over a group and they value independence and autonomy.” In direct contrast to this, Tevye, as the father in Fiddler on the Roof and carrier of culture (and a dense beard), plays a role that emphasizes the culture of Anatevka and the Jewish community at large. He seeks out following tradition, especially when considering the prospect of marriage for his daughters. His daughters Tzeitel and Hodel, on the other hand, have other ideas for their future. Both have fallen for men that have not been selected by their father and in doing so must stand up to him and the Jewish community to fight for their own autonomy. In “Tevye’s Monologue”, a song with an extremely creative title, Tevye must weigh these two choices and discern what he believes to be best. Tevye begins by singing “Where do they think they are? America?”, comparing their marriage pledge to an American way of thinking. As Tevye struggles to decide between this progressive, “American” belief and tradition, he is taken aback by the look on his daughter’s face. In the 1971 filed version of Fiddler on the Roof, director Norman Jewison uses these lines to focus on Tzeitel’s eyes, the windows to the soul. Through artistic editing choices, it’s clear that her emotions are too strong and it would be “wrong” of Tevye to betray his daughter’s heart in choosing tradition. In the film, the idea of Tevye inching closing to a more progressive means of thought is demonstrated physically, with Tevye starting distant from the couple and slowing inching closer as the song continues. It would be unrealistic to portray Tevye’s shift as an immediate one but ultimately, he does allow his daughter to express her individualism by giving her autonomy in choosing who she would like to marry, even though it goes against tradition. In doing so, Tevye is beloved by the audience and even viewed as a heroic protagonist, as he fights tradition for a more progressive, American approach for the sake of his daughter’s heart. In the aptly named song “Tevye’s Monologue (Reprise)”, we see the exact same title reflect the exact same scene replaying itself, except this time with Teyve’s other daughter, Hodel. 

Without the cinematic liberties of film, these scenes look a lot different on the stage yet are still able to portray this juxtaposition between old ways and new ways, cultural tradition and individual autonomy. In the 2015 Broadway revival, director Bartlett Sher situates Tevye a ways away from his daughter, Tzeitel, and lover, Motel. Instead of using editing techniques to emphasize Tevye’s soliloquy (maybe the song isn’t so aptly named), a spotlight is shined on him as the rest of the stage goes dark and the characters are frozen. Again, this creates a divide between Tevye and his daughter and what they stand for until Tevye gives in and they unite their beliefs with a physical sign of unity, a hug. While these scenes mold Tevye into a heroic protagonist, his heroism and humanity are put into question when his third daughter also decides to make this choice for herself. Chava, like her sisters, wants to pursue a man of her choice to marry. However, she falls in love with Fyedka, a Russian, which her father will not accept. Like her sisters, she begins by asking for her father’s blessing. Ultimately, when he refuses to give it, she carries on without his blessing and is disowned by her father, and loses her family. In this situation, Tevye is not necessarily seen as the villain, but his heroism is put into question because he clings to tradition over individualism, even though it will cost him his daughter. Ultimately though, he caves as well, addressing Chava and Fedyka as they leave for Poland. In this momentary acknowledgment, Tevye is accepting his daughter’s choice, even if it hasn’t received his full approval. In other words, individualism and autonomy triumph because its hardest fight against tradition (in the form of Tevye and Chava) is broken down before the movie comes to an inconclusive conclusion. 

All three daughters in Fiddler on the Roof are celebrated as heroines as they fight for love and their autonomy to choose their future. However, it is important to note how all three girls go about doing this. In keeping with American standards of feminine beauty (as according to men), women are supposed to be docile, that’s why we see all three girls begin by carefully asking their father for his blessing. While the girls further the notions of progressive American values of individualism over culture, they are also furthering the notions of American femininity. Chava is the only one who does not keep to this ideal; however, this is due to her father’s lack of progressionist thinking. Chava is perhaps the most heroic of them all, the Superwoman in a sea of Supergirls one might say, because in claiming her own identity, she sacrifices family, one of the most important things in Jewish culture. 

Now that we’ve made it through Anatevka, we’re off to see a little girl in a tree. Down the yellow brick road, there is an island. Once on this island, we will see a very similar story unfold. Like Tevye’s daughter, Ti Moune in Once on this Island dreams of marrying a man she’s never met before. To be fair, she does knows that he wears white, drives a car, and is going somewhere far. Nice. Anyway, Ti Moune is eventually separated from Daniel and asks for her parents blessing to search for him. Though they are reluctant, as any parents might be when you can’t even provide enough information to start a background check, they ultimately give her their blessing. Against their better judgment, against cultural and classist norms, and even in spite of the fact that Daniel’s people look at theirs with disdain, choice and individual autonomy prevail again. With that, Ti Moune is to take on a heroine’s journey to reunite with her true love and conquer social and cultural barriers, much like Tevye’s daughters. Both musicals also include an element of religion and diety, though Once on this Island is much more explicit. In the case of Ti Moune, the gods spur the crash that causes Ti Moune and Daniel to meet, with the goddess of love rooting for the couple to end up together. This brings into question a whole other layer of divine intervention when it comes to choice. Because both cultures the examined daughters come from are so rooted in religion, it would be interesting to examine how this belief (or even the gods) works in favor of or against tradition. Is arranged marriage really a question of faith or one of change? I’ll leave you with that because, as I said, it would be interesting but frankly, I’ve already taken up enough of your time. 

With that, we have arrived at our final destination. At the intersection of Choice street and Culture avenue, we see how culturally immersed American musicals, like Fiddler on the Roof and Once on this Island, ultimately serve to further progressive or “American” values as heroic while hiding under the veil of presenting and celebrating diverse cultures. Much like when Dorothy meets the wizard, only to discover he is but a common man, these American musicals hide under the veil of cultural appreciation. Though we made it to Oz, we ultimately found ourselves back in Kansas, though it looks a little more like Oklahoma to me. 

Where There is Community, There is Unity

By Alyssa O’Connell

Lin Manuel Miranda is probably a name you’ve heard by now. With the overwhelming success of his latest musical Hamilton, Miranda’s reports of fame are not an exaggeration (but are due to “the fact that [his] syntax is highly complicated.”) However, this isn’t the first time Miranda has engaged audiences through sharp sentences and move-bustin’ beats. Years prior, in the Richard Rodgers Theatre, a young immigrant took center stage to share a story of growing up in Washington Heights, lovingly referred to as The Heights. The main character, Usnavi, bounces beats in his bodega, a playful rendition of Miranda’s own upbringing as an immigrant. While In the Heights is an American musical, in the sense that it is set in an American neighborhood on the streets of New York and performed in a Broadway theatre also on the streets of New York, it is far from your typical American musical. As a Latinx musical crafted by Latinx writers, In the Heights celebrates an honest representation of immigrant culture through an emphasis on community within the plot, the characters, and the staging choices that juxtapose performances that electrified the American musical stage for years prior.

Skimming the intricate set, a cluster or two of bright colors are meant to catch the audience’s eyes. “I hang my flag up on display / it reminds me that I came from miles away” the ensemble dictates. In the musical’s setting, a barrio in Washington Heights, the individuals use flags to celebrate where they came from and the cultures that shaped them; however, the ensemble doesn’t dwell on which flags are on display. It isn’t about where exactly they are from but what they brought with them; the cultures of their home countries don’t divide these people but instead forge them into a community of immigrants with a shared experience. Without any other context, it might be assumed that the immigrants share the same flag but, in typically fast-talking Usnavi fashion, he casually drops a few countries you might find represented in the barrio “D.R., P.R., we are not stoppin’.” If you so much as adjust yourself in your seat, you might miss it. That’s because to build community, these people lean on what they have in common instead of fixating on their differences. In terms of physical location, they all came from far away to start lives different than the one they had; they all left places they knew and comforting communities of familiar cultures to pursue a different and, hopefully, more fruitful future. As Usnavi puts it “We came to work and to live and we got a lot in common.” The community created in the Heights wasn’t a coincidence but it was actively sought-after in hopes of easing anxiety while navigating an unfamiliar world. While it may not change the world outside the barrio, the fostered community brings comfort and understanding, as the people all attempt to support each other in their current experience as an immigrant. While the community is referred to based on physical location, it is compromised of so much more than a shared space: it’s the shared foundation of ideas, beliefs, experience, and culture from which life is built on. There may be many flags up on display, but the general community isn’t meant to invalidate the individuals and the personal narratives they bring to the table but instead strengthen it. It is in the variation that this idea of community is made even stronger, besides, without any differentiation, life in the Heights would be so boring, but more on that later. With shared experiences and cultural appreciation, this community doesn’t have to derive from the same country of origin but instead finds commonality in their social, mental, and emotional spaces, as well as their current physical space. 

Within the hustle and bustle of big dance numbers and sessions of “hot goss,” the characters and relationships highlighted within this community challenge the patriarchal and heteronormative relationships of its musical predecessors. First, with her wisdom and loving-kindness, Abula is the heart and start of the community. Not only is she nothing short of an angel throughout the entire play (too soon?) her presence as the matriarch of the neighborhood receives a jaw-dropping glare from the patriarchal American society outside the barrio walls. She a commanding figure within the play, giving power and guidance to the other characters and curating quite a bit of the musical. In this way, she combats the norms of a male-led society in a way that is subtle and motivated by love instead of a grasp for power. In addition to Abula’s challenging of gender norms, as Usnavi and Benny work a 9 to 5 in the barrio, the ladies are off receiving an education and hopping on elevated trains. Nina and Vanessa both challenge typical feminine roles as the carriers of culture by carrying themselves out of the barrio. While these roles in and of themselves challenge what is typically presented on stage, especially for BIPOC women, they also help cultivate a community that is more accepting of difference as a whole. Outside, but connected to the role of gender, sexuality was intended to have space on the stage. Though it never made it to the final cut of the show, Sonny and Graffiti Pete were supposed to have an intimate moment on stage. Shining a spotlight on a range of identities and the acceptance of those identities furthered the importance and strength of the community as not only an object of comfort and understanding but as a place where everyone can come as they are and feel like they belong. 

In direct contrast with this, it seems, is the overarching desire within the story to break out of the barrio and break away from the community it has fostered. However, the characters and audience soon realize, you can take a person out of the barrio, but you can never take the barrio out of them. Nina struggles to find herself within her community at school but revitalizes herself through being back in the barrio, specifically through her love interest Benny. Usnavi also desires to escape the life he’s always known in search of something greater. While Nina ultimately chooses to go back to school with her friends and family’s support, Usnavi realizes the home he has is in the barrio. While the community in the Heights supports the individuals within its walls, it also comforts those that are far away. For Usnavi, he relies on this support in a physical sense while Nina’s financial support and emotional support are harnessed from a distance. There is something safe about being in a group of people that have a shared experience but at some point, an individual also must find themselves throughout the musical, even if that means leaving some part of home behind and making their new definition of what home is. The community that is projected onstage not only looks different but feels different from other portrayals of community on the musical stage and that is due to the comfort and belonging it brings to the characters through their struggles with identity.  

Taking a step back and zooming out to the full picture, the characters come together to create a picture of life that allows for an expression of individuality while reinforcing the idea that these people have come together to create something bigger than themselves, a cultural community. The easiest way to see the community is through dance, in which the full ensemble fills the stage and becomes one in the motion of the music (for the most part). Remember that part about variation? Well, that same differentiation in which flags are displayed also takes shape in the bodies on stage. While the individuals may walk differently, pose differently, or activate their hips differently (I mean, come on, we were all looking at the hip action), they all move with the same intentions, with their cultures hitting out their hips and pulling at their feet, fighting the American mold. Much like West Side Story, the dance within the show is meant to be a distinct variation from a typical musical theatre approach to dance and instead focus more heavily on the movement that is common within the cultures of the characters. In addition to the dancing, the casting also lends itself to a visual of a diverse yet connected community on stage. Very intentionally, the cast is comprised of actors that relate to the story being told, either as immigrants themselves or close descendants. While the hair, skin, eyes, and other physical features of the characters may differ from person to person, the community of similarity is still cultivated, especially when compared to the facial features and bodies of those outside the barrio. In this way, the characters in the barrio stand out from the backdrop of New York just as the actors that embody them do. On the stage, the visualization of difference coming together to form a connection represents the community within the show in its most fundamental sense. 

In the Heights is not only set in Washington Heights, a neighborhood in New York, the stage it was being performed on (also in New York) meant it was situated within the American musical context. With its emphasis on cultural community and its take on gender norms and the musical elements of casting and dance, In the Heights gained immense success as a musical that sought to celebrate a story of immigration and culture performed by people who shared that experience. However, just because Lin Manuel Miranda wanted to create a piece that accurately presented what it was like to be an immigrant in New York, he never intended to create a piece that was only for the community he was representing; it was the opposite. In a conversation with the Swathmore Departments of Theatre and Spanish, Miranda said “We knew our goal in this show … There are certainly plays that seek to provoke and there are certainly plays that seek to alienate. This is a show that I wanted everyone to feel as welcome as possible in this neighborhood, the same way I felt welcomed in Anatevka, when I saw Fiddler on the Roof, even though that’s totally outside my experience.” The community cultivated onstage even goes further to extend a hand toward the audience and welcome them into the world of Washington Heights. The end goal was to create a story that was as real and raw as it was relatable. Even if the cultural context was something spectators couldn’t relate to, they could relate to the characters, because they weren’t exaggerated stereotypes of Latinx characters crafted through a white lens. Instead, they were real three-dimensional people. If we go back far enough, most of us can probably relate to the themes of immigration in this story. Though Abula is not really his Abula, I relate to the way Usnavi was raised in the culture and speaks with this grandma figure. From the time I could talk I’ve been uttering grammatically incorrect and ill-pronounced phrases in Italian at my Nonno and Nonna around the dining room table piled high with focaccia, sugo di pomodoro, and boxes of scopa cards. While outside the walls of my Nonna’s house, my life is not as immersed in culture as the lives in this play, I can relate to the bilingualism and connection to culture. Beyond that, I can make a first-level connection to Nina. As a college student at a prestigious university, I understand feeling like a fraud and another connection to the story is forged.

When we try to tell stories that aren’t our own or try to put ourselves in communities we don’t understand, it’s not inherently evil but a disconnect between what you want to portray and what makes it to the stage arises. That is why In the Heights can create a community that celebrates Latinx culture for what it is, because it is written through a Latinx lens, not a white one, and therefore attempts to tell an honest story instead of a story that the audiences expect from these characters. 

The Choosy Challenger: Gender and Racial Tensions within the King and I

In a college of education, you learn a thing or two about how to educate. For instance, the importance of getting to know your students and the culture that they come from. However, studying education also exposes the power that’s inherent with teaching and the necessity of creating a classroom environment where everyone is learning and no one ever knows enough, not even the teacher. Oh, how I wish Anna Leonowens would have stepped in a Peabody classroom before stepping into the Siamese palace classroom in The King and I. Anna, the white schoolteacher from England, makes an effort to make her pupils feel known and loved, which paints her as a compassionate teacher, and actively challenges the sexist views of the King, hence “hero” of the story. However, she also perpetuates white savior stereotypes and degrades a “barbaric” Siamese culture, furthering the ideas of whiteness as superior in her classroom and on the stage. Through looking at Anna’s physicality, demeanor, and ideals, especially in juxtaposition with those of the King, the notions of whiteness and masculinity as Broadway norms are thrust into the spotlight, exposing how white saviorism is used within the plot and by means of the stage to advance white supremacy.

From the moment she glides through the palace doors, Anna is physically set apart from the female backdrop of Siam. Kelli O’Hara, who plays Anna, is fair, beautiful, and drowning in a hoop skirt; however, even a hoop skirt can’t hide her height and stature. She does not only stand taller than the women of Siam but she’s also able to stand up to the King. Ken Watanabe, as the King, possesses a king-like stature that is tall and firm yet one O’Hara can physically compete with as they stand eye to eye, which works to increase Anna’s physical power on the stage. Physical awareness is acknowledged from the beginning of the musical, as the King actively insists that Anna’s head must always be below his as a sign of respect. Even though she complies, the King’s infatuation with this rule shows how her physical presence challenges his authority. Anna’s height, while setting her apart from Siam, also conforms to a standard of white stage beauty as dictated by men. The casting of O’Hara, with her long legs atop a slim figure, is a nod to the ideal representation of feminine beauty, originated by a man, Florenz Ziegfield. There is a reason Anna doesn’t look like, say, Fanny Brice. In casting a woman that is the epitome of white beauty, O’Hara demands the attention of men and admiration of women while the producers have created a greater physical distinction between Anna and the people of Siam.

Anna was also likely set apart from English women, in terms of experience, as she is a widow. Within the first moments of the musical, the plot has given Anna the ideal situation in which to be a “non-conformist” female character; without a husband, she has complete autonomy over her life and the life of her child. The King, on the other hand, symbolizes the old and outdated sexism residing “outside” of white culture. The most overt example is in the King’s treatment of his wives, specifically his new “gift” Tuptim. When she is first presented to him, Anna is appalled by the backward views of the palace. As Anna’s facial reactions scorn the King’s motives or she outright disdains him, the othering of an uncivilized Siamese culture is set up, without question for how it might have mirrored the sexism residing in English culture at the time. Lacking a male counterpart, Anna’s character never has to directly address the patriarchy that was surely present in England, allowing her to heroically criticize the sexist actions of the King without the hypocrisy in her home culture being exposed. Though the character of Anna is given a special circumstance that allows her to express unchallenged criticism of a sexist Siamese society, the actress’s power on the stage comes not only through her words but her physical presence, one that was cast with a masculine ideal of feminine beauty in mind.

While the role of the female is explicitly acted upon within the musical, the covert implications of white supremacy play to the problematic nature of the musical. Anna’s sole purpose is to educate the people of Siam, immersing her identity in the role of the white savior. Anna, therefore, is suggesting some superiority over the people of Siam as they need her to come in and save them from themselves. In case you hadn’t made it to your seat in time to hear the backstory, don’t worry, you wouldn’t miss the “savior of Siam” mentality, as it permeates the storyline. The way Anna talks, for example, is meant to emphasize her formal knowledge in contrast to the King’s lack thereof. Her eloquent tongue surrounds her in a haughtiness that the short, simple, grammatically incorrect phrases the King dictates lack. Yet without uttering a word, the eminence of whiteness is blinding. As Anna glides around the stage suggesting levelheadedness and wisdom through maturity, the King bounces around with mannerisms that radiate youth, immaturity, and therefore simplemindedness, even more so than the children. As the show continues, so do the overt examples of white superiority within the performance. When the prince asks his father a question, to which he does not know the answer, the interaction shows that not even the smartest man in Siam can compete with the knowledge that comes with being white. Back in the classroom, Anna seems to know everything and highlights the backward way in which the Siamese are living, teaching concepts that contradict all that the King holds true.

At the end of Act 1, the King receives news that he is being called barbaric and the English are considering colonizing Siam. The British statements deeply trouble Anna so she devises a plan to defeat whiteness the only way she knows how, more whiteness. Anna suggests the Siamese show the British they are more civilized through adorning the people in familiar British clothing (i.e. making them look white). In stripping the women’s beautiful ornate dresses in exchange for ugly white hoop skirts and plastered faces, the British are quick to accept the people of Siam as English garb would be seen as good or right, not “other.” Anna has saved the people of Siam by educating them out of their uncivilized ways and into a civilized (or White) means of living. The good/bad binary that is set up within this scene and the preceding song “Western People Funny” continues to rise with the action in Act 2. Later on, as the prince contemplates his expectant role as king, he reflects on the good things Anna has taught him about the removal of slavery and adoption of western religion, two things Siam lacks, suggesting that the current state of Siam can’t be good and therefore must be bad. Yet, no mention of white saviorism is as blatant as the final scene in the King’s bedroom. First, the children fall at the feet of Anna, their savior, as their father dies on the bed beside them. As if that wasn’t a low enough blow, the prince, this time accepting his new role, decrees an end of bowing to the king “in the fashion of a lowly toad”; one of the main cultural practices in which the King has clung to throughout the piece is now explicitly criticized for being bad. Even the young princess declares how Ms. Anna “led them on the right road” as if Siam was somehow always on the wrong, the bad, the evil road but thanks to the white schoolteacher, Siam can finally be made right.  

Both Anna and the King come into the play with an assumed power. The King as, well, a king and Anna as a teacher. However, Anna’s power is ultimately seen as good while that of the King is reduced to being bad. Unlike a royal who is handed down power, whether they deserve it or not, it seems that Anna must earn it, making the absorption of power a well-deserved feat. While this may be true, on the musical stage, Anna is also handed down undeserving power because of her white, independent female status. Not only is she given power of her classroom, in which the children (problematically) receive all she says as fact, but her actions outside the classroom fare held in high esteem, even to the point of heroism, due to her whiteness. While both can command a room, Anna commands the stage, and her voice is ultimately the heroic one that saves Siam. 

Education in a white savior context works to further white supremacy, even if coupled with genuine care for the well-being of students, which Anna seems to possess. Paralleling this, we see how this entire play is used as a means to “educate” overwhelmingly white audiences about life outside an English bubble. It is important to acknowledge the risk Rodgers and Hammerstein took putting this show on and telling another culture’s story at the time it was created. However, when analyzing with a 21st-century lens, the musical is extremely flawed, embedded with the racial attitudes of those who wrote it (white men). We see today that while this show is being put on, that is all it’s doing. Equipped with the knowledge of the problematic areas in this show, directors are still putting it on so an audience can “get to know” another culture without significant attempts to change the theatrical landscape from the male-dominated, whitewashed state that it has maintained. In other words, the content of the musical promotes the prowess of the producers on gender and racial matters while allowing them to take a backseat in the actual promotion of minority populations on the stage. While seemingly combatting gender norms, The King and I also perpetuates a culture of white superiority. Anna claims “when two people are as different as we are, they are almost bound to hurt each other”. When contrasting the physicality, demeanor, and ideals of Anna and the King, it is evident that while the King may have hurt Anna within the context of the play, the character of Anna does more harm in the end, evoking a white supremacist mentality that the audience can’t just leave at the theatre door.