If Anatevka were a Bridge, Tradition would be the Keystone

by: Kira Hinchey

Imagine a community as a stone bridge. Each stone represents a different building block, each essential to the community’s identity. At the center lies the most important part that ties everyone together: the keystone. For many communities, tradition stands as that keystone. Shared traditions connect people to each other and to the past. Some examples include holidays, birthdays, religious traditions, and group ceremonies. But tradition doesn’t just show up, out of the blue, on special occasions. Tradition includes how we interact with each other on a daily basis. Who can talk to whom and who can marry whom. For example, when you address someone older or of higher prestige, you typically address them using “Mr.” or “Mrs.” to acknowledge the traditional social boundaries between you (though, for good reason, our society has begun to phase out gender-specific language like this). When combined, these traditions create a blueprint to help us navigate life in society. Sometimes traditions become outdated; specifically, as we have seen recently in America, those intent on excluding individuals or limiting their life choices based on race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and other core identities. Some traditions stay, some disappear, others evolve. Change serves as the only constant in our lives. And when that change comes, we have to evaluate for ourselves which traditions remain a strong, connecting force that promotes belonging, and which traditions no longer prove useful to us and our loved ones’ happiness.

Fiddler on the Roof, written and revised for the big screen by Joseph Stein and produced by Norman Jewison, explores this internal struggle. Instead of a close-up view of one individual, Fiddler pans out its focus to encompass a small village called Anatevka. In Anatevka, everyone finds their sense of belonging by adhering to religious and traditional roles in society, rooted in Orthodox Judaism. The show utilizes its scenic design, interactions between individuals, and large ensemble performances to establish a sense of community and showcase Anatevka’s cherished traditions. Along the way, Tevye, the town’s milkman, finds himself, as we all do, questioning his community’s traditions when they inhibit his daughters’ happiness. At the same time, he desperately tries to adhere to his community’s standards for belonging.

“Here, in our little village of Anatevka, you might say every one of us is a fiddler on the roof… You may ask, ‘Why do we stay up there if it’s so dangerous?’ Well, we stay because Anatevka is our home. And how do we keep our balance? That I can you in one word: TRADITION!” With this opening line, Tevye divulges his community’s top priority. Upholding tradition. At this point, audience members may wonder several things: Well, which traditions? Where do these traditions come from? Suddenly, the show presents the answers to these questions and whisks the audience away to Anatevka through a combination of scenic elements and an ensemble number. Culturally relevant images flash across the screen. Aerial shots switch between horses, carts, and dirt roads and views from inside the synagogue of Yiddish words on Jewish paintings lining the walls, menorah candles, the star of David. Images of a rural village and Jewish symbols intermingle, helping us see that Orthodox Judaism permeates all aspects of their community.

The scene shifts towards the ensemble. Each person in the bustling town performs a designated task. Tevye pours milk for a neighbor, men work on animal skins and weld metal, and women wash clothes and pick feathers off of chickens. All the while, the women sing lines about their societal role as the “Mama” and “Daughter,” and the men sing about their role as the “Papa” and “Son.”  What originally looks like mass chaos gets dissected and labeled through the song. An older woman talks to a young girl and her mother. She fulfills the community’s need for a matchmaker. This seems odd to a twenty-first century audience. I, personally, would not want my father to be the sole decider of with whom I spend the rest of my life. But Anatevka exists during a different time. The matchmaker role must provide some type of social cohesion. Otherwise, the role would not exist. Even a hunched-over man dressed in tarnished clothes has an established role as a beggar to play in the village. Right off the bat, the show demonstrates the importance of religion and social role to belonging in their society. For society to accept you, you must accept your role based on your gender and economic status. Oh, and you must be Jewish. As Tevye says, “Without our traditions, our lives would be as shaky as a fiddler on the roof.”

As the show progresses, Tevye comes to see just how “shaky” life can become. For example, when Tevye’s oldest daughter, Tzeitel, and her childhood love, Motel, tell Tevye they wish to get married, Tevye reacts with outrage and disbelief. His outburst reflects the rigid social structure of their village. He flails his arms and the lovers cringe as he yells, “Arranging a match for yourself? Tell me. What are you? Everything? The bridegroom, the matchmaker, the guests all rolled into one?” This man’s anger comes from a place of fear and outright confusion. Tzeitel and Motel ask Tevye to forgo the traditional use of a matchmaker and allow them to take agency in a way that their societal roles do not allow. It’s crazy. At least to Tevye. However, after a moment, Tevye deliberates on the concept, and for the first time, he realizes that the traditional way of marriage in their village views women as property and would prevent his daughter from finding happiness. So, he chooses to depart from the norm. The tight-knit nature of the village means that his decision has societal consequences. Before this moment, Tevye already verbally promised his daughter, (like a piece of property!), to the town butcher. Because of this decision, his relationship with the butcher grows tense.  

Aside from personal relationships between characters, the society’s emphasis on gender roles appears through the choreography of the ensemble during Tzeitel and Motel’s wedding. This scene introduces a traditional Jewish wedding. Yellow rope candles held by the crowd burn as Tzietiel and Motel sip from a chalice. As soon as Motel’s foot meets the glass (“Mazel Tov!”) the crowd absorbs the couple and hoists them on chair to their respective sides of the reception. The women perform small, meak group dances while the men shout, cheer, and push each other around in a circle. The men’s costumes consist of identical black suits, making the individual disappear into the mass. The community welcomes Motel into his role as a husband and Tzietiel to her role as a wife. A rope in the center of the room draws a literal line between the genders. Then, Perchik appears. Perchik, an academic living with Tevye’s family, proposes the two groups dance together. To us Americans, wanting to dance does not seem radical. But members on both sides resist. They even ask the Rabbi if dancing can be considered a sin. He racks his brain and reports that the Torah does not prohibit dancing. Tevye views this decree as permission and decides that he can safely break the separated-dancing tradition. This scene serves as an example of challenging tradition while also respecting it. The rabbi joins the circle and touches hands with one of Tevye’s daughters. Disclaimer: I definitely do not claim to be an expert on Judaism, but I believe the religion prohibits Rabbis from close contact with women. The Rabbi retracts his hand, but instead of shutting down the party, he adapts by extending a cloth to the daughter so that they may dance without physical contact.

Over the course of the production, Tevye grapples with several challenges towards established tradition. By doing so, he discovers the traditions that matter the most to his community. Up to this point, members of his community have mocked and questioned his scandalous decisions, yet they do not oust him and his family from the group. The society retains its unity. Which raises the question: what are the boundaries for questioning social norms? Which element of their shared belonging, if lost, would result in the unraveling of the community? Well, the answer can range depending on the core values of the community. For Anatevka, the core of their community, their keystone, lies in Judaism. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Other religions have persecuted Jewish people throughout history, a specific example being the Christian Russians in Fiddler. In this community, Judaism trumps all other relationships; it provides the strength and unity they need so that other communities don’t run they over.

That is why when Chava, Tevye’s third daughter, elopes with Fyedka, a Russian, Tevye abandons his role as a father and ostracizes her. He permits Tzeitel to choose her husband, but only because Motel is also Jewish. He breaks social norms and dances with his wife at the wedding, but only after the Rabbi confirms that the Torah does not consider dancing a sin. For a group so long persecuted by other religions, their religion means everything. Tevye realizes that if he does not denounce his daughter, his entire family would no longer belong to their community. Without the support of the village, his family would literally starve, especially in such an isolated area such as Anatevka. So, he draws the line at religion.

At this point, we know just how important the community of Anatevka views tradition and religion. The cohesion created by these elements generate so much power, they can force families apart. Using the bridge analogy, the community has sealed its cultural element stones together firmly to religion, if you deviate from Judaism, you will find yourself pushed off into the water below. All the families in the village walk along this metaphorical bridge. And then comes the inescapable change. Near the end of the production, the Russians appear and force Jewish residents to vacate, with threats of violence. It is like the Russians marched up to the Anatevka bridge and said, “This river is ours now,” and bombed the bridge.

The families disperse. Snow covers the homes, now physically and metaphorically empty. Over the course of the production, Tevye fights between his family’s happiness and societal belonging. But once the dust settles, he finds that his cherished community no longer exists. Chava and her husband stop by Tevye’s house to say goodbye. He shuns his daughter until the last moment when he utters, “God be with you.” His previous reasons for ignoring his daughter stemmed from his religious beliefs, but also, arguably more strongly, from his need to belong in his community. Don’t get me wrong, being forced out of your community is horrible, without a doubt. But in this specific instance, it frees Tevye from the social standards. His prescribed role in the community no longer applies. His family alone defines his belonging now. Tevye’s belief transformation in Fiddler speaks to a universal struggle to respect past traditions but also question their worth. All communities have tradition, both spoken and unspoken. But if the community disappears or evolves, or you change, it only makes sense that your notions of tradition and belonging change as well. For Tevye, the community of Anatevka dictated the rules of having Jewish family. But without these imposed standards, he can finally decide for himself how to respect his religion and maintain a happy family. And through this change, Tevye finds the strength to connect with his daughter before heading to America.

Women on Broadway: Fetishized and Tokenized

Tall, thin, and white. The typical American standard for beauty is one we are all familiar with, and one that permeates our media and entertainment, including Broadway. Women who do not meet these standards have faced, and continue to face, prejudice, discrimination, and harmful stereotypes. Being such a creative and influential medium, one would assume that Broadway shows featuring non-white women would use this platform to empower these individuals. So, how do these, mainly white male, creators of Broadway shows choose to communicate the complex intersectionality between gender and race through these characters? They often do so by fetishizing or tokenizing them.

Funny Girl, written by Isobel Lennart in 1964 with music by Jule Styne and lyrics by Bob Merrill, follows Fanny Brice, a Jewish performer during the Ziegfeld era. In the show, Ziegfeld invites Brice to join the Ziegfeld Follies. However, instead of joining the ensemble, she stars as a comedian. In 1989, Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil premiered Miss Saigon, a musical set during the end Vietnam War. This production features a young, Vietnamese woman who falls in love with an American soldier. Based on these simplistic descriptions, these shows may not seem inherently problematic. After all, these female characters represent racial and ethnic identities which often do not reach the spotlight. However, the book, lyrics, dialogue and other theatrical elements in both of these musicals paint patriarchal narratives which either tokenize or fetishize these women which, in effect, furthers racial and ethnic stereotypes.

At the start of Michael Mayer’s revival of Funny Girl, Sheridan Smith, the actor who plays Brice,uses her clunky movements, wacky facial expressions, and at times, booming voice to create a stark contrast between her and the uniform Ziegfeld dancers. In addition to Smith’s acting choices, her character wears unflattering, baggy shorts, and a loose, collared shirt and tie. This costume’s masculine design creates a visual effect that accentuates the difference between Smith’s body type and height from the other dancers Additionally, earlier in the song, Brice’s mother sings, “Is a nose with deviation, Such a crime against the nation?” Though not explicitly stated in the show, the real Fanny Brice was Jewish, and one can assume the reference to her nose alludes to the association of Jewish people and large noses. To drive the point home, the supporting male characters tell Brice, “If a girl isn’t pretty, like a Miss Atlantic City, She’s a real Miss Nobody, U.S.A.” The song confirms for the audience that the performing world will reject Brice because she does not have the aforementioned Anglo-Saxon appearance. Luckily, Brice persists.

If not evident already, the oppressive patriarchal nature of the show appears in Brice’s first performance in Ziegfeld’s show in the song, “His Love Makes Me Beautiful.” Silently, Zeigfeld girls in sparking, white lingerie reminiscent of wedding dresses flood the stage while male performers dressed in white tuxedos sing about beautiful brides. In what can only be described as an uncomfortable waddle, Brice appears onstage with a blanket tucked under her dress to appear pregnant. Brice parodies the idea of a “justifiable bride” by implying the scene now represents a shotgun wedding. I highlight this scene because, although in the moment, Funny Girl seems to make a commentary on the ridiculously misogynist nature of these performances, Ziegfeld uses this as an opportunity to tokenize Brice. Instead of making a substantive statement on the unachievable standards of beauty, the show continuously singles out Brice for her differences in order to make the audience at Ziegfeld’s shows laugh. She becomes the “Funny Girl.” Not to be misconstrued, Smith’s interpretation of Brice engages the audience and demonstrates her range as an actor. Especially during scenes where Brice performs comedy for Ziegfeld’s show, Smith exudes confident and impeccable comedic time. However, no matter how strong and empowering Smith tries to make Brice, the plot binds her to her status as a woman who later gives up her power in order to satisfy society’s obsession with a subservient wife.

Later in the show, Brice marries Nick Arnstein, played by Darius Campbell. Arnstein enters the show as the classic white, male savior. His costumes consist almost exclusively of suits which complement Campbell’s shoulders-back, head-high posture, all the while exuding an air of unearned confidence. His character tokenizes Brice as well. During the song he and Brice share, “I Want To Be Seen With You,” he literally says, “I want to be seen, be seen with you, With you on my arm, To wear you like a charm, Your glitter decorating my arm… The gossips will press… Know what? So what!” The lyrics demonstrate that Arnstein views Brice like a charm, or token, to display. Nowhere does this song illustrate his respect for her talent or personality. Surprisingly, Smith makes the acting choice to coyly roll her eyes and flirt with him. Even though Brice becomes a self-made success, eventually she puts her own career on hold to be with Arnstein, just because he is willing to be seen with her. Near the end of the show, Arnstein participates in shady business, landing him in jail. Brice tells Ziegfeld she wants to quit show business, give up all her power, just to satisfy her husband. Just for male approval. In the end, the man she allowed to dominate her life and tokenize her identity, tells her he wants a divorce. Seated at her dressing room mirror, Brice looks at herself crying, and slowly pulls herself together. Smith makes a swift movement to pull off her robe revealing a sparkly dress, and ends the show belting, “Nobody is gonna rain on my parade,” standing triumphantly, arms strong in the air. Smith’s quick 180 turn from sad to resilient tries to take back the power Brice loses throughout the show. Honestly, it feels like a cop-out by the authors of the show as they attempt to end on an uplifting note, both literally and figuratively.

Laurence Connor’s revival of Miss Saigon, tells a very different story. From the start, Kim, played by Emily Bautista, has no power. After American soldiers burn down her village, she arrives at a brothel run by a man named the Engineer. Through the costume design, the scene establishes a clear dichotomy between Kim and the sex workers. She wears a plain, cream-colored dress which represents her virginity. The engineer immediately objectifies her, “Men pay the moon to get fresh meat.” The sex workers surrounding her wear brightly colored bras and underwear, which they changed into once they heard American soldiers were coming. From the first moment of the show, all the Vietnamese female characters are defined by their overt sex-appeal for the American men. During the song, “The Heat Is On In Saigon,” the lighting design includes flashing neon lights the scenic design choice of scattered chairs and bars creates as strip club environment. Suddenly, the sound cuts and focus turns to Kim who appears on a platform. The lights turn white, illuminating her dress. Bautista keeps her arms tight by her side and sings directly to the audience about her dreams. The movement choice by Bautista, or lack thereof, distinguishes Kim from the other dancers whose bodies move freely. Chris, played by Anthony Festa, the shows white male savior, looks to Kim with infatuated interest. From a hopeless romantic lens, it appears he has fallen in love at first sight. However, at this point in the show, all he knows about Kim is that she is Vietnamese and a virgin. So really, one has to assume her virginity peaks her interest, furthering her objectification by men. Even though Chris inadvertently tells Kim in “Sun and Moon,” that she is, “like a mystery, I’m from a different world that’s so different, From all that you are.” His interest in Kim stems from a fetishization of her as a Vietnamese woman.

Because Kim is both a woman and Vietnamese, she has little to no power to lead her out of her poverty. After spending the night together, Kim has a moment of dominance over Chris. She stands on the stairs, physically above him and belts the tragedy of her parents’ death that she witnessed, all the while drums and horns swell under her. For a moment, it seems as if Chris might recognize the ways in which others with his shared identity, American men, have hurt her. Instead, the show undermines the moment. Kim quickly sits, and Bautista chooses to lower her head and her voice to a whisper, retreating to a state of submission. The music turns soft, and Chris invites Kim to move to America with him.

The show portrays the elements of Kim’s identity, being a woman and Vietnamese, as inferior to being a man and/or American. By being a man, Chris gets to call all the shots. He goes back to America, a safe place compared to the Vietnam portrayed in the show, and loves not only Kim, but also his new wife. The authors write Kim’s character, on the other hand, to end up impoverished with a son to raise on her own, while simultaneously pining over her lost love. The show also explicitly shows that, at least to white males, being Vietnamese is inferior as well. An example of this appears when Kim meets Chris’ new wife. Kim walks in wearing a dress similar to that of the day they met. Chris’ wife immediately assumes she must be the maid come to “turn the sheets” because Kim is Vietnamese. Baustista face shifts from pure excitement to utter disbelief when Chris’ wife tells her he remarried. In that moment, told just by the expression on her face, Kim and the audience realize that Chris has chosen an American woman over her, a Vietnamese woman. Kim internalizes the inferiority imposed on her through the fetishization of her for her race and also the patriarchal conditions that leave her with no options. Chris and his new wife determine, “What is right, right for him, right for us, right for Kim,” without actually listening to Kim when she says what is right. The characters with more dominate identities have belittled her so much that she feels her life only has value if she kills herself to force Chris to take their son to America.

When creating characters who differ from conventional standards of beauty or who have foreign identities, oftentimes Broadway musicals simplify or undermine the characters by tokenizing them or fetishizing them. Instead of celebrating diversity, productions like Funny Girl and Miss Saigon use these identities as a convenient method of furthering the plot. Representation matters. Creating shows that incorporate identities that currently go unrepresented should be encouraged. At the same time, simply writing a non-white female character into a show does not undo the innate patriarchal and racist themes. Authors of new production should be mindful of finding ways to empower historically marginalized individuals, not perpetuate hurtful stereotypes.