But Hey, It Sells Papes- A Podcast With Myself

how DISNEY’S TRUE INTENTIONS BEHIND seemingly-empowering messages in high school musical are nothing grander than a cash grab, featuring a portrayal of DAVEY FROM NEWSIES

Among my friends, there is no greater battle than that of podcasts. Any time that the topic of the long-form audio medium arises my typically extremely tight-knit group of childhood companions fiercely and instantaneously becomes divided along pro-podcast and anti-podcast lines. Indeed, it was actually this rather trivial recurring argument among my friends that sparked the idea for this project, as I connected the vitriol of the fringe group of extremely loyal Disney fans any time they see a contentious opinion regarding the megabrand to my friend group’s debates over podcasts. As such, I decided to step over “party lines” and take on a podcast for my final assignment, which felt especially relevant during the distanced learning era of the COVID-19 pandemic.

My podcast consists of a mock interview between myself and Davey, the deuteragonist of Disney’s Newsies. Throughout the course of the conversation, Davey and I critique Disney’s motivations behind High School Musical, particularly from a Marxist and Frankfurtian perspective. With this influence guiding the discourse, much of our conversation revolved around the true intentions of Disney’s seemingly-positive message as well as its intended and unintended consequences. From the original hour-long interview, I meticulously edited three versions: a thirty-minute “extended interview” (linked via Youtube because of WordPress’s video limitations), a fifteen-minute “concise interview”, and the seven-minute “summary” video, which does not include much of the interview but concisely summarizes a fair portion of the content. It is my personal recommendation that most listeners begin with the fifteen-minute edit and then move to the thirty-minute extended interview if they are seeking more context.

The order of the links is as follows: First, below is the concise interview.

Next, the summary/recap is posted below.

Finally, the full interview is posted on Youtube below.

You’re Probably Wrong and It’s Not Your Fault

How the Nuances of Jewry, Modernity, and Gender Intersect in the Ensemble of Fiddler on the Roof
by Schuyler Kresge

20,261 performances. That stunningly large integer is the estimated number of times that Jerry Brock, Sheldon Harnick, and Joseph Stein’s 1964 work Fiddler on the Roof has been performed since its initial Broadway run (Silver et al). Known internationally as one of the most prolific musicals in history, the show captures life in a shtetl (small Jewish villages that were predominantly located in Eastern Europe) during the early twentieth century. 

While 20,261 consecutive performances of any work is jaw-dropping regardless of context, what underscores the triumph of Fiddler is that it is uniquely Jewish in a way that few other musicals in the popular canon are. More than simply having elements or tropes of Judaism as seen in other musicals featuring Jewish characters, Fiddler on the Roof is steeped in Judaism in a way that threatens to make it inaccessible. In order to combat this and fully engage unfamiliar audiences in the shtetl of Anatevka, Brock, Harnick, and Stein deftly employ the Jewish subgroup of Fiddler’s ensemble. By presenting audiences with the issues of belonging and modernity directly through the ensemble’s Jewry (collective Jewish identity), Fiddler allows audiences to understand the core themes of generational conflict regardless of their background. In doing so, Fiddler adaptations, specifically Norman Jewison’s 1971 film adaptation for this analysis, open themselves up to critiques regarding the roles of gender in Orthodox Jewry. However well-meaning these critiques are, they remain founded upon audiences’ flawed understandings of the nuances of Jewry. While the Jewish portion of Fiddler’s ensemble serves a crucial role in a gentile audience’s accessibility to Fiddler’s Jewry, the ensemble also provides an easy target for accusations of problematic gender roles despite the reality that the rigid gender structure represents Anatevka and Judaism writ large‘s fervent attempt at defending from increasing antisemitism. 

In order to understand how the shtetl Jewry found in Fiddler’s Jewish ensemble is empowering rather than oppressive, it is important to first appreciate the significance of how the Jewish sub-ensemble engages tradition and belonging throughout Fiddler on the Roof. More than any other dominant surviving religion, the concept of belonging and codification is absolutely absolutely essential to Jewish community. Since Judaism’s founding over 3,500 years ago, dominant groups ranging from the Ancient Egyptians to Revolutionary-era Russians like those of Fiddler have incessantly persecuted both Judaism as a religion as well as Jews as an ethnic group. In response to these attacks, Jews leaned into the only thing they could carry with them as their oppressors destroyed their physical property and forcibly dispersed their communities— their traditions. To early twentieth-century shtetl Jews like Tevye and the characters of the Fiddler  ensemble, actively engaging in tradition is a mitzvah. While non-Jews may recognize the word mitzvah from attending celebrations like b’nai/b’not mitzvahs (the plurals of bar and bat mitzvah),  halachah (the cumulative Jewish law) defines mitzvot with the heavy weight of actions commanded of Jews by G-d. Put simply, engaging in tradition and defining belonging by faithfulness to halachah is simultaneously required by G-d and the historical geopolitical treatment of Jews. It is this perspective of the level of religious importance that many audiences lack when attempting to understand belonging and gender roles in Fiddler

As such, while the defined gender roles outlined in the beginning of Fiddler may appear problematically patriarchal, the ensemble willingly engages them, and freely leave (albeit with some controversy) if they choose to disengage with tradition. Yes, to Fiddler’s Jewish sub-ensemble, belonging is dictated by halachah. And yet, it is the willing consent and dialectical engagement of the ensemble that makes Jewry in Anatevka a safe space, not an oppressive one. This can be best seen in the opening number, “Prologue / ‘Tradition’”. In “Prologue / ‘Tradition’”, Tevye welcomes the audience to Anatevka by presenting the eponymous “fiddler on the roof”’s attempts to play while avoiding falling as analogous to the shtetl’s attempts to survive and be Jewish in a world of antisemitism. As the camera shows the sharply-defined gender rules in Anatevka, the Jewish population extols the value of tradition in song. The design elements of this scene deliberately support this idea of gendered belonging, as the audience sees the genders segregated throughout this montage. While these strict gender separations seen through Fiddler on the Roof’s ensemble during “Prologue / ‘Tradition'” seem to support a casual audience’s belief that shtetl Jewry is oppressive, a close reading of Tevye’s words once again provides a Judaism-aware audience the context to understand the flaws within this argument. As Tevye relates life in Anatevka to the roof fiddler, he answers his own question, stating “how do we keep our balance?…Tradition!” When placed in the context of mitzvot and halachah outlined above, it is evident that tradition is a matter of survival and necessity to Fiddler on the Roof’s Jewish ensemble, forming belonging and community, not oppression.

Just as “Prologue / ‘Tradition’” serves as an attempt to show a a community with immense trauma bound together through tradition, Tevye’s monologues act as check-ins on the extremely unique way in which halachah interacts with societal progression and modernity. While halachah is regarded as the law of G-d, there is also an understanding within Judaism that G-d’s will works out, even in the rare event that it appears to be in opposition with halachah. As such, there are critical moments in Jewish culture where tradition is overlooked in favor of what is considered an act of G-d. It is in this “grey zone” that much of the generational conflict of Fiddler occurs. By understanding that these conflicts are, essentially, scholarly textual debates, the role of belonging in Fiddler’s ensemble makes even more sense. 

When Tevye monologues, briefly reprises the “Tradition” leitmotif, or talks directly to G-d after his daughters rebel against tradition, Tevye is attempting to work out whether or not his daughters’ actions are G-d’s will or a pure violation of halachah. Jewison, Brock, Harnick, and Stein underscore the importance of tradition in belonging to Jewry in Anatevka through the contrast between how Tevye copes with Hodel and Chava’s different choices in marriage. The key difference between the Hodel-Perchik and the Chava-Fyedka marriages is that despite his radical nature, Perchik is a Jew whereas Fyedka is a Gentile. As such, when Hodel and Perchik announce their marriage plans regardless of Tevye’s permission, while there is controversy, they are permitted to remain in the ensemble community because they have not violated any of the “requirements” for belonging. While Tevye initially states “I’ll lock her up in her room” (2:03), he quickly comes to the understanding that the halachic tradition of patriarchally-arranged marriages is being overwritten by the will of G-d and vocalizes this recognition when he compares G-d’s matchmaking of Adam and Eve to Hodel and Perchik in the very same sentence. In stark distinction to Tevye’s reaction to Hodel’s engagement, Tevye simply cannot abide by Chava’s choice of partner. In abandoning halachah entirely, no moral grey zone of debate between halachah and G-d’s will exists. To Tevye, Chava has made the conscious choice to abandon the traditions that comprise the identity of Fiddler’s Jewish ensemble. Any potential for misconceptions regarding whether or not Tevye still cares for Chava are settled when he asks Tzeitel to pass on a final goodbye at the end of Act II. Once again, a close reading of the words Tevye employs is helpful in understanding the importance of belonging in the ensemble of Jewry in Anatevka. When Tevye says “and God be with you” (2:54), he is opening up beyond the halachic traditions that have protected Anatevka’s Jewish community at a time they are under direct attack. This incredibly touching moment shows how Jewison, Brock, Harnick, and Stein employ Jewry and Judaism to represent belonging and community in such nuanced ways that non-Jewish audiences might perceive them as toxic or problematic. 

Undeniably, the Jewry expressed in Fiddler on the Roof is antiquated in contrast to the hypermodern Judaism that most Westerners are familiar with. The roles of gender within the community of Fiddler’s Jewish ensemble are codified and firm. However, a strong reliance on tradition and rigid gender boundaries does not make a system inherently toxic, especially considering the intricate nuances of the ensemble’s Jewry. Jewison, Brock, Harnick, and Stein consistently go out of their way to signal that Anatevka’s Jewish ensemble is insular and homogenous in community as a protective measure, a measure the Russian ensemble proves necessary with attacks via pogroms. Furthermore, Tevye (representative of the patriarchs of the ensemble) shows the ability to modernize contingent upon a belief that G-d permitted the advancement. For a deeply Jewish community, this is a powerful display of trust that non-Jewish audiences can under-appreciate. Finally, it is helpful to take a moment to acknowledge that the nuances of Judaism’s role in Fiddler on the Roof can be incredibly challenging to understand. There are many moments within Fiddler where I struggled to comprehend the halachic motivations behind seemingly regressive gender roles within the Anatevka shtetl, and I am a practicing and active Jew. However, a work as impactful as Fiddler deserves a good faith analysis of the intersection of Jewry, modernity, and gender within Fiddler to properly recognize how that intersection impacts community and belonging within Fiddler on the Roof.

CITED Sources

(JTA), Stephen Silver, et al. Some Say ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ Has Been Staged Daily since 1964. Covid-19 Ended It. 21 June 2020, jewishnews.timesofisrael.com/some-think-fiddler-on-the-roof-staged-every-day-since-1964-covid-19-ended-it/. (Used to calculate the number of performances, along with a calculator)

A Puzzlement – How America’s Brand of Toxic Masculinity Slithers Through Broadway

Schuyler Kresge

In the American empire, bigotry is serpentine in nature. It lies in wait in the tall grass, slithering closer to any unsuspecting individuals and eagerly strikes. While this representation is confined to metaphor, the truth is that the venom of bigotry has worked its way to the very core of America and the symptoms can be identified in the appendages of society, including musical theater. As a representation of the dominant identity of the United States at a given time, musicals can serve as a bellwether for the pervasiveness of sexism and racism in that particular era writ large. In the characters that emerge from Broadway, it is evident that America is the natural habitat of a specific subspecies of toxic masculinity. American toxic masculinity is packaged and branded as the quintessential white male socialite. Charming to a fault, American toxic masculinity prioritizes and emphasizes dominance over equality in a uniquely capitalistic way. Through examining the King of Siam and Anna from The King and I as well as Nick “Nicky” Arnstein from Funny Girl, it becomes clear that even in musicals with female leads, the venom of white American toxic masculinity still pervades the work. This issue taints the very core of The King and I and Funny Girl, making them incapable of non-problematic productions.

On the surface, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1951 musical The King and I appears as a sugar-sweet tale of the comedy and growth that occurs when white British schoolteacher and widowed mother Anna Leonowens becomes the official tutor of the children of the King of Siam, leading to a complex advisory relationship with the King. Unfortunately, both the original book and lyrics as well as Bartlett Sher’s 2018 production suffer from the unavoidable negative impacts of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s American male gaze. While Anna is British, the plot of a white woman coming to an Asian land and “educating” the backwards natives was intensely relatable to America’s collective culture during the The King and I’s first run in the immediate post-World War Two era. However, what truly stands out is that the King of Siam exists at the intersection of American exceptionalism, whiteness, and toxic masculinity even in today’s productions. In the 2018 production this analysis focuses on, the set design creates a powerful hierarchical effect from the very first scene. As Anna arrives in Siam on a stunning boat set piece, it is clear that she is “above” the subjects of Siam. Despite this initial moment of power, Anna is met by the King of Siam’s masculinity. It is in this moment where the interplay between race and gender becomes apparent. The only two characters with any significant power are Anna, representing whiteness, and the King, a beacon of masculinity. Throughout the remainder of The King and I, the audience becomes a spectator in the subtle dueling of the “class” that is codified in Whiteness and the “strength” of masculinity.

Although the harmful pervasiveness of bigotry in 20th century American theater is certainly nothing to write home about, it is the dialectical nature of Anna’s whiteness and the King’s masculinity that makes The King and I such a unique viewing into the harmful consequences of America’s obsession with white masculinity. Much like America’s role in disturbing peace in regions such as the Middle East, Anna’s whiteness is perhaps at its most harmful when it comes into contact with citizens of Siam, exemplified through Tuptim. Anna, allegorical of the West, sees herself as more civilized than the Siamese and attempts to help colonize Tuptim (incredibly brought to life by Na-Young Jeon). In turn, Rodgers and Hammerstein maroon Tuptim by killing off her love interest, permanently creating a rift between the “dream” of Western life and the Siamese “others”. Intersecting with Anna’s Whiteness, the King of Siam represents and embodies the toxic masculinity that captures America’s attention even in present day. The King rules with aggressive patriarchal norms that his subjects excuse as firmness. During one encounter, the King makes it clear that Tuptim was “gifted” to him, reinforcing his dominance over her on the basis of antiquated gender rules. The King’s overbearing masculinity can be seen in Ken Watanabe’s blocking, as he frequently prowls around or sits in a sprawled manner (also known as “manspreading”), best seen as he watches the presentation of “The Small House of Uncle Thomas”. As O’Hara’s Whiteness clashes with Watanabe’s masculinity throughout the musical, they soften to each other but cause damage to fodder like Tuptim. Through this analysis, it is evident that the interactions between Anna and the King in both original book material as well as the 2018 production clearly demonstrate a unique and unintentional view of the dialectical nature of White masculinity in America. 

While Anna and the King of Siam complete the American white-male dialectic in The King and I, the dialectic is synthesized into one character in Isobel Lennart, Jule Styne, and Bob Merrill’s 1964 work Funny Girl—namely Fanny Brice’s on-again, off-again husband Nick “Nicky” Arnstein. Set in World War I-era New York, Funny Girl is a biographical musical telling the story of famed the Ziegfeld Follie Fanny Brice. In addition to her comedic abilities, Brice also possessed an an incredible ability to connect to audiences, perhaps stirred from her own troubles with Arnstein, a notorious con and compulsive gambler. While the role of Brice in Funny Girl has traditionally been synonymous with Barbra Streisand’s original performance, Michael Mayer’s 2018 West End revival starring an excellent Sheridan Smith will be the focus for the purposes of this analysis. From the first time the audience sees Nicky, everything about him is absolutely drenched in the prototypical “alpha male” machismo found in boardrooms and ball courts across America. Especially within the first act, Arnstein is constantly impeccably dressed, dazzling Brice with suits and connections. This is one of the most distinctive identifiers of the American brand of toxic masculinity, as it pairs the physical domination common of all toxic masculinity with a capitalistic interdependence on money and power. While Arnstein’s gambling issue is introduced early into Act I as a possibility, both Brice and the audience shrug the creeping apprehension. This willful ignorance is on full display in numbers like “People” and “You Are Woman”. These songs, which are two of the most well-known songs from Funny Girl in popular culture, are deeply and inherently problematic due to Nicky’s presence. Turning first to “People”, the song begins as Brice and Arnstein flirt at a party celebrating Fanny’s opening night as a Follie. What is most striking about the impact of masculinity in “People” is how much Darius Campbell’s Arnstein drives the song’s plot, despite his blocking being pushed to the corner of the stage. For the first half of the song, Arnstein sits and observes as Brice rationalizes away his many flaws. While Lennart ostensibly wrote this scene as a ode to full-hearted romance (indeed, steadfast belief in love is arguably one of the biggest themes of Funny Girl), when stripped of the gendered language “People” is exposed as a validation and confirmation of the superiority and dominance of a White male with connections.

If “People” is as subtle as Funny Girl’s misogyny gets, “You Are Woman” is the blaring car horn of American White masculinity. The scene and song consist of Fanny Brice falling for Arnstein again during a run-in in Baltimore despite his prior history of ghosting Brice. The blocking of the scene is predatory and problematic, with Arnstein following Brice around the stage and attempting to woo her with food. Brice falls for this, saying “Well, at least he thinks I’m special/He ordered à la carte” (“You Are Woman”). It is in “You Are Woman” that the uniqueness of American bigotry is exposed— toxic American white masculinity, embodied by Nick Arnstein, is a beast found at the intersection of patriarchy, racial oppression, and unchecked capitalism. In this way, Arnstein and toxic white masculinity represent a repugnant and insatiable hunger. This hunger is all-encompassing and results in the financial ruin of Brice and the destruction of both Arnstein, Brice, and their relationship. By promoting this kind of relationship implicitly through Brice’s never-say-die attitude, it is evident that Funny Girl is an inherently problematic musical.

Understanding the addictive dangers of the venomous American White masculinity that courses through Funny Girl and The King and I not only partially explains why these musicals have such tremendous sticking power, but also helps identify similarly problematic characters in both entertainment and real life. As society incrementally inches towards progress on racial and gender equity, the snake of American bigotry will retreat deeper within the tall grass, creating a false sense of safety. It is here that we find characters such as Anna Leonowens, the King of Siam, and their “synthesis”, Nicky Arnstein. Despite both Leonowens and the King of Siam not being American, they are distinctively and pivotally Americanized characters. Put together, these characters are dominating and connected, suave and manipulative. More crucially, through intentional and unintentional blocking, casting, and writing choices, these Broadway characters are NOT properly vilified and are instead either partially or completely lionized as proud examples of whiteness and masculinity. In doing so, all involved in earlier productions laid the foundation for modern-era villains like Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jordan the “Wolf of Wall Street” Belfort to become the standard-bearing heroes for harmful American White masculinity. As such, it is evident that after retracing the toxicity found in Arnstein, Leonowens, and the King, it is impossible to ethically support productions of shows like Funny Girl and The King and I.