How to Balance Culture and Other Themes in Fiddler on the Roof

Fiddler on the Roof (1971) examines the shifting nature of culture and tradition seen through Jewish heritage.  The musical focuses on Tevye, a milkman, and his family as they try to maintain their traditions as outside influences disrupt customs related to marriage. At the same time, their community grapples with ongoing threats of religious, ethnic, and social persecution at the hands of the Czar.

We’ve chosen to approach these topics in the form of an interview. Each paragraph centers around a thematic question stated at the beginning in bold. 

What role does dance play in portraying Jewish culture during the wedding party scene? What makes the bottle dance uniquely engaging and representative of this?

Weddings are a display of culture and the marriage between Tzeitel and Motel is a beautiful portrayal of Jewish traditions coexisting with inevitable generational change during a moment of celebration.  The wedding party scene is full of dancing and joyful, but also traditional, music with the bottle dance catching the attention of both the audience and other characters in the scene. Dancing is an important characteristic of wedding parties but as this scene in Fiddler on the Roof showcases Jewish weddings involve dancing that is collective and an ensemble performance. Traditionally men and women dance separately in lines and holding hands and moving their arms and legs in sync. The invitation of Tzeitel’s sister’s boyfriend to have the women dance with the men prompted another case of breaking with tradition. This was very symbolic because a wedding ceremony symbolizes a connection to one’s cultural heritage and a following of tradition but adapting that tradition to fit with the nuanced evolution of modern generations. 

The bottle dance is a favorite among fans of the show and this can only be described by the adrenaline rush of watching the dynamic moves of the dancer while balancing a wine bottle on top of their head. The dance begins with one man but slowly more men join into the festive dance that must be a distinct and special dance, characteristic of a Jewish wedding or moments of enormous celebration. The dance requires high amounts of skill especially when the dancers are squatting up and down while moving forward in a line.  This dance is seen as a representation of Jewish culture because traditional ensemble dances performed at weddings can signify Jewish culture and resemble an appreciation for cultural practices.        

How does the musical’s first number, “Tradition,” serve to ground the reader in the world and the culture of the musical?

Fiddler on the Roof opens with the musical number “Tradition” and the beginning words of Tevye serve to ground the audience in both the themes of the musical and also the issues that threaten those themes, “How do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one word: Tradition.” Tevye explains the social roles of the family unit and the other members of the community and how adhering to these traditional roles maintains balance and a continuation of their Jewish heritage. Tevye goes on to explain the daily habits and customs which are unique to Judaism and the cultural traditions that have kept balance for their community over many generations. It is also during this number that the audience is introduced to the setting of Anatevka, their small village in Russia. As the song goes on the camera moves through the village to different jobs being done by the other village members, there’s a nature of the collective entity and a society where the commitment of each member to their specific role is what makes the village successful. It shows only men working in town and then switches to the women singing “how to make a proper home” while bathing their young children. It is clear that the established traditions in Anatevka are rooted in the expected roles of individuals that help support the collective society.  These roles expand across gender, age, and religious commitment.       

How does Topol’s portrayal of Tevye embody the theme of the importance of both maintaining and adapting culture?

Topol’s portrayal of Tevye as a leader both within his family and his community and is highly respected. He is the embodiment of wanting to maintain balance through the tradition of Jewish culture. He is a poor man but generous and full of wisdom, it is through his character that the audience is introduced to how important the many cultural practices are to supporting their village and the people that make it up.  His struggle during the musical is to find matches for his daughters to marry and during these scenes, Tevye both upholds Jewish tradition and also adapts to generational gaps that are affecting culture.  He is hesitant when the butcher wants to marry his daughter Tzeitel because he is uneducated but Tevye agrees because he believes Tzeitel will be well fed and cared for. Tevye and his wife Golde had an arranged marriage just like many others before them, It was a way to guarantee a match that would provide financial support and security. The people of Anatevka respect the matchmaker but younger generations are being influenced by love and emotions rather than agreement-based marriages. Tevye’s love for his daughters runs just as deep as wanting to maintain his old way of life and when Tzeitel is sure that a miserable life would follow if she were to marry the butcher Tevye does not force her to. At the beginning of the musical, the audience would be quick to assume that Tevye is stubborn in his views but as much as he can pass on the significance of Jewish traditions to his children they can also teach him that change is inevitable and doesn’t constitute a loss of culture.  

How does Yente’s role in the community both keep tradition and also push younger generations to adopt new attitudes and views on their Jewish culture? 

Yente upholds the tradition of matchmaking, which is important because it matches people based on the safety and financial stability that men can provide for their wives amid constant poverty and anti-Semitic attacks. However, the dissatisfaction of young people such as Tzeitel, Hodel, and Chava with their pool of potential matches pushes them to become involved with other boys and men out of romance and love, even when they may not be as well off as far as finances or safety go as they could be with Yente’s choices for them. 

This shift to marrying for love has its fair share of negatives as well. It creates a divide between the daughters and the older people in the community, including their parents. For Tzeitel, it also creates tension between her father and Lazar Wolf, the man Tevye promised Tzeitel to before she said that she wanted to marry Motel instead. These rifts, particularly those within the family, are exemplified by Hodel having to decide whether to stay with her family or go to Siberia to be with Perchik. Her decision to leave the community and go to Perchik signals the shift from traditional values and ways of forming marriages to new attitudes that value love and romance.

How is the dream-like state Tevye goes into during his performance of “If I Were a Rich Man” along with lyrics emulate the influence poverty and class have on him and his family? 

Tevye’s fantasizing about life with “a small fortune” shows how much more security and freedom he and his family would have if they weren’t living in poverty. He focuses a lot on how he would treat Golde and how happy she would be if they were better off, doing things like “supervising meals to her heart’s delight.” One of the moments in the song that I found most touching was when Tevye is reflecting on how, if he didn’t have to work all the time, he could join the wealthier men and spend his days praying and studying scripture, strengthening his relationship with God.

However, it’s also a great sign of strength that he is able to get so fully immersed in this fantasy he’s imagining for himself and be so happy with it, even for just a little while. Even while living in such difficult circumstances and having to constantly toil just to make ends meet, he isn’t defeated. He still has an incredibly vivid imagination and optimism, and his faith and his conversations with God are a big part of that, so it’s no coincidence that it’s one of those conversations that leads into the song.

In what musical numbers do we see Tevye’s daughter’s feeling trapped by traditions and how does the experience and sound of the songs feel different from the numbers performed by the older members in the community, or even their father? 

“Matchmaker, Matchmaker” is the first number that comes to mind here. At first, Tzeitel is complaining about matches being made for her, while her younger sisters, Hodel and Chava, are dreaming about getting married to the man of their (and their parents’) dreams. However, as Tzeitel points out the realities of less-than-picture-perfect matches, they become as afraid as she is and beg not to be married to someone chosen for them by someone else. The song has a waltz feel and is a very light, carefree melody that fits the choreography and scenery of singing it as they go about their household chores (which prepare them for being a good wife and homemaker). It’s very Americanized and modern, using a full orchestra with strings, brass, and woodwinds rather than instrumentation, harmonies, and melodic structures that are more traditional to Jewish culture, as in songs such as “Tradition” or “If I Were A Rich Man,” which are sung by older members of the community, and especially Tevye.

by: Meredith Salmon & Courtney Ellis

“GET YOUR PAPES RIGHT HERE”

After watching Disney’s Newsies I realized how lucky I am to access my news and information online. No screaming newsboys, no children using pity as a means for more sales; I mean to decline a seven-year-old on the street selling papers would be a bit harsh.  Or you might take another stance, that to live during this era and all that came with it like getting your real brick and mortar papers from some underpaid newsie would be to witness the life on the streets of New York Cities that has since been dominated by wide-eyed tourists. Debating over the pros and cons of then and now is getting me off topic but maybe that’s what happens when I rewatch Newsies 3-ish times for this blog post.     

Disney’s Broadway production of Newsies (2017) directed by Brett Sullivan is a filmed version that showcases the performance of the 1899 newsboys strike in New York City. Young city dwellers, usually without a home and especially male, find themselves at the hand of newspaper companies selling papers as a primary source for their very, and I mean VERY insignificant incomes. I understand it was a long time ago and prices have thus changed a lot but I have never seen that much excitement over a dime. The opening scene of Jack Kelly, the hero of the film and is actually the hero of this post (so get used to that name), and his friend/work-buddy/fictitious family member Crutchie are waking up early in the morning talking about their lives and aspirations. I thought this was a clever opening as it told the audience members the setting, situation, and where the story will go all from the dialogue between the two boys. Now onto business, speaking of the opening scene I left out one important aspect this scene told us about the musical… boys. OH, IT’S RAINING MEN. This heavy male cast is a defining characteristic of the musical and the cultural conventions surrounding the representation of masculinity can not be undermined. 

Our precious Jack Kelly, the Troy Bolton of the newsies if you will. Of course, he is the golden boy, anyone who has seen the musical knows this right from the start but what exactly makes him such a charismatic leader and how his character portrays masculinity and its permeation into cultural standards is the focus.  Traditional might seem a good place to start when analyzing Jack. Back to Troy, yes everyone is on the same page? Troy Mr. Captain of the basketball team falls in love with a girl who shows him that breaking the status quo is cool and soon becomes Mr. Soaring and Flying.  And yes Kenny Ortega the director of the High School Musical trilogy was in fact the director of Newsies (1992) that originally started young Christian Bale as Jack Kelly. In the number “Carrying the Banner” Jack’s face and dance moves are so similar to Troy’s infamous golf course musical number in High School Musical 2.  The anger, the passion, the stomping and pounding of a fist in the air, it was uncanny.  In many scenes Jack is shown putting his chest out, standing wide-legged, and during musical numbers, his choreography is strong, demanding attention, but also smooth and effortless.  Jack doesn’t dance like the other newsies during musical numbers, he walks around them with gusto and confidence.  Is dancing not masculine enough for Jack?

Jack is a natural-born leader, the other newsies look to him because there’s so little fault, yes he is just a lowly newsboy like the rest of them but he’s Jack, he is THE newsie. He’s got talent and he’s been through things the other boys are fascinated by, he’s really lived! He dresses a bit nicer than some of the other newsies making him stand out just enough to be admired. While he’s not exactly the brains of the strike he’s just as important.  Without a leader to follow many of the newsies wouldn’t have been able to fight against the publishing companies.  He has a strong presence on stage and his performance of masculinity is seen in his desire to be the strong, courageous, do-good hero he feels the newsies deserve.  Back to Troy Bolton, they both feel the weight of the team on their shoulders, keeping the group’s spirits alive is important to them and they’ll do what they need to do for it to happen.  

So now you’ve heard my little blurb about Jack Kelly and his traditional representation of masculinity. I now want to think about the cultural and personal implications Jack’s character has. There is no doubt that Jack Kelly is meant to be admired, he’s the heroic lead that any young children in the audience would think ‘hey until something else catches my attention I’m going to model my personality off Jack Kelly’. I know everyone’s been there ok, you watch a movie or read a book and end up loving a character so much that you want to be them.  However, since this is an intellectual cultural analysis, blah blah blah yes boring but we might discover something here so stay with me, how might looking at the Newsies and Jack Kelly’s character specifically tell us something about the cultural conventions about masculinity? Well, my take would be that this musical suggests that there are only a few types of men (all of whom can be seen in other newsies) but who’s the one you really want to be? Jack Kelly duh.  I watch this musical seeing the glorification of a manly man, whatever that even is.  

The scene I love to think back on and it is especially relevant for this discussion would be when Jack is outed for having painted a set for one of Medda Larkin’s shows.  For someone that exudes confidence in his job selling papers, and is praised for his talent when doing the job, he becomes very shy about his artistic abilities. Yes to be a good salesman can be a skill but I would argue that over time you learn the tricks but to be an artist under Jack’s circumstances well that’s no easy doing. Where would he have time to practice or have access to the necessary resources, no Jack Kelly is a natural. So why be embarrassed and downplay his Bob Ross type skill? I would guess that he compartmentalizes the different aspects of his life he doesn’t believe fit together. For him, his work selling paper and being the leader of the newsies must be kept separate from any other talents he possesses. This is where we see a negative aspect of the representation of masculinity on the Newsies stage. Jack Kelly shows the audience members and specifically men that praise for strong works of leadership or income-earning is the goal, you want to be the best for making money or leading a group of your fellow comrades but to be appreciated for something like artistic ability is rather weak and should be kept a secret. This awkwardness around the compliments from Les and Davey shows that Jack is not very proud of this work. The experience of Jack in this scene sends the message that artistic production is not what a man should be doing with this time.  

The undeniable tension of masculinity on the Newsies stage can not be missed and it’s an important piece to analyze because musicals are strong vessels for cultural conventions.  Understanding what is portrayed on stage affects our conceptions of the society we live in and these sometimes go unnoticed. The traditional depiction of masculinity seen in the character of Jack Kelly in Disney’s Newsies is building what I now suspect is fear of masculinity, don’t be toxic but CAN’t be feminine. This is a tight bond for young boys watching Jack Kelly and feeling that he is what society is telling me I must strive for.