Behind the White Curtain: A Look into Racial Representation in Miss Saigon.

Dialogue between Gabe Robles-Nieles and George Zhu.

GZ: Today Gabe and I are going to be talking about one of the musicals that we watched in class titled Miss Saigon. The rendition that we watched was the 2014 West End Revival version which featured a more demographically appropriate casting of characters, addressing a few racist aspects of the original. In this discussion, we’re going to try and center our conversation around Miss Saigon’s depictions of how the framework of whiteness impacted the non-white characters in this musical. Before we begin, let’s both tell everybody a little bit about ourselves just so they can better understand the perspectives that we’ll be speaking from. To start, I am a Chinese American male who grew up in the States. So culturally, I’ve grown up in an environment shaped by American mass media which is predominantly shaped by white America. Having been indoctrinated into white society, there was definitely a disconnect in my mind when watching this musical. I saw and identified with certain tropes that Chris displayed but found it difficult to reconcile the other parts that painted Asians in a lesser light.

GRN: As for me, I am Latino, and I grew up here in the States, just a little out of Nashville, so I’ve got a pretty similar media upbringing in terms of a white standard with minorities set as others.

GZ: Now that we’ve taken a second to understand where we as individuals stand, let’s begin to explore some of racial tension within this musical. First and foremost, there is the relationship between American soldiers, representing a white society, and the native Vietnamese population. Immediately from the beginning of the musical, a sharp distinction is drawn between the portrayal of the American soldiers versus the Vietnamese “bar girls”. If we break down this opening scene a little, what we find is that the American soldiers are characterized as better than the overtly sexualized Vietnamese women working in Dreamland. Seemingly desperate for a way to get to America, these Vietnamese characters were never given a chance to be equally respected. Beyond this, while John, an African American soldier, wanted to engage sexually with these bar girls, Chris, the White American Soldier, seizes the moral high ground and refuses to get with Kim, a young innocent bar girl, perpetuating the idea that white morality is superior.

GRN: Yeah, exactly.  They’re treating them as though that’s what their purpose was in being there.  They’ve basically gone in and set themselves as the standard, and even though this is their country and their home, the soldiers treat the locals as though they are there to serve their desires and their wishes.

GZ: This really seems like the classic colonialist vision where white individuals go to a foreign space, do what they deem is right, and take what they feel like they deserve. Oftentimes like this musical portrays, after these individuals take action, they fail to take responsibility for those actions. We see in the Fall of Saigon, many Vietnamese people who were relying on American protection from the Vietcong get inhumanely left as US soldiers quickly retreated in the face of a defeat. Kim is also abandoned by Chris during this time but of course Chris does not leave without first placing a huge burden on Kim. Chris and Kim’s son, Tam, offers an avenue to continued explication of their relationship. Even though Chris left, Tam serves as a continual reminder of the impacts that one individual can make on another’s life.  

GRN: It’s almost as though, in writing this, they were trying to embody these consequences that we see after Chris leaving.  In the grander scheme of things, it’s as though Tam were personifying the foreign impact in Vietnam. Yeah, because Kim is there, and she raises Tam and is dealing with this every day.  On the other hand, Chris goes home and has no clue: it doesn’t cross his mind, and it doesn’t bother or matter to him.  And I think that this is very reminiscent of the position that we take as a foreign power—and when I say “we,” I mean the United States.  We go in, and we do what we decide is best, and then when the situation is not as beneficial for us, we pull out and leave the people that were already there to deal with whatever situation that we’ve just left them in. 

GZ: Yeah I think in positions like this, it’s especially interesting to consider the burden that’s placed on different races. I’m not saying Chris didn’t go through any hardships while fighting the Vietnam War. Chris definitely experienced trauma to a certain degree but it’s a stark contrast from the physical representations of burden that had been left to Kim. And because she had a child with Chris, her well-being became challenged by Thuy who wanted to kill her son and get with her, and also the Engineer who wanted to turn her over to Thuy.  While I’m unsure if I can say that Chris is responsible for all these bad things happening to Kim, the framework of whiteness allows for Chris to leave Kim in Vietnam with all these burdens. This kind of plot paints an image where white people are able to be detached from the consequences of their actions, but even when they attempt to remedy those consequences, this musical doesn’t distribute the repercussion in an equitable way. The musical was scripted in a way where Kim had to die at the end even though she didn’t do anything too wrong throughout the entire musical. She risked her life to save her son, she saw her parents get massacred, the tragedies and hardships that Kim had to endure were arguably greater than what Chris had to go through.

GRN: Even then, having gone through all of that, Kim doesn’t deflect her responsibility with Tam and with what we’ve sort of personified as the consequences of the situation; she remains a devoted mother all the way until the end.  On the other hand, we have Chris and Ellen, who are initially very interested in doing what’s best for Tam, until suddenly they realize that what’s best for Tam would require some sacrifice on their part, and so they slowly start to distance themselves from their responsibility to Tam.  Especially on Chris’s part, as he realizes what bringing Tam to the United States would entail and how it would involve Kim and the strain that this would put on their relationship; he creates all of these reasons why he can’t step up and accept his responsibility when in reality, it’s fully within his power to give them his support.

GZ: A really interesting aspect here is that even though all these problems center around a white man’s decision, I really felt that the entire musical was still rooting for Chris. We saw that Kim wanted to get to America and find Chris throughout the entire musical, that John was a secondary character who was in support of Chris the entire time, and that Ellen was also supportive of Chris the entire time despite not knowing about Chris’ relationship with Kim. It seemed like whatever Chris did, regardless of the impact toward other people, the majority of the characters were always on the side of the main white character.

GRN: I think you have a really good point about how the avenue for the story is based around Chris’s decision and then ultimately his lack of follow through with the consequences.  Even the way that they portray him and Ellen, as opposed to Vietnamese majority that there is in the story: Chris and then Ellen are portrayed as the “saving grace.”  They approach these situations as though it’s their responsibility to make everything better.  Well, the way that I saw it, anyways, especially as we’re going through this last little bit of the musical where there is this meeting and this reckoning between Kim and Ellen, is that Americans and the white folk are meant to be seen as this “bastion of goodness,” as though they were sent into the world to do good and to save others and lift them up from their circumstances, and I thought this was really ironic, because if you look at the cast, Ellen and Chris are very much the minority in terms of race, and you would think that it would follow the standard for these majority versus minority situations, whereby within this binary we see the majority portrayed as the one to root for and as that bastion of goodness.  I thought it was really interesting to see that even with this role reversed, where Chris and Ellen are the minority, they’re still meant to be seen as better than or the purifying force.

GZ: Yeah I think that’s a really interesting observation. Despite the fact that white is the minority in this musical, white American culture is still definitely championed especially through the American Dream. Even among the Vietnamese characters, taking the Engineer as an example, the white way of life in America was his greatest dream.

GRN: Yes, and the whole song!  I, personally, thought it was a really funny song: it played to this idea of the “American Dream” and how great that it’s meant to be while at the same time satirizing the whole thing.  There was one line that really stuck with me as relates to this and I think it was “Cocaine, shotguns, and prayer: the American Dream!”  And he’s not wrong!

GZ: The aspect of having to pimp his own mother out definitely contributed to that satire-ization. While the song described the American dream perfectly, it also helped the audience to understand how twisted the outcome of the American Dream could turn out, you know? Not everything is as clean as glamorous as it appears and the things people have to do to achieve those dreams aren’t always the most wholesome either.

GRN: Also, I know that we discussed previously in the course, representation and the familiarity bias, and I thought that this was really important to discuss in terms of representations of race within Miss Saigon. If we think about it, the only two Vietnamese male characters that we see are the Engineer—who is clearly not meant to be a role model—and Thuy—who is the very traditional, very domineering male.  In terms of female representations, it consists almost entirely of the girls in the club—all competing for this spot of Miss Saigon, competing for the top spot.  They’re all meant to be objects of desire for the GIs, especially, and they are all meant to submit to the will of the men that surround them.  I thought that there was a major issue in terms of the fact that these are the only representations of the Vietnamese that we see, as opposed to a character like Chris, who is instantly meant to be viewed as the moral standpoint, especially in the beginning: he identifies an issue with what’s happening and their acceptance of the situation.  We later see a similar thing from Ellen, who claims that she wants the best for Tam, and, again, I thought it was very interesting to see this dynamic whereby this idea of majority/minority are flip-flopped to still fit the context of the American standpoint.

GZ: I definitely agree with that analysis. From what I saw, the white perspective was the right perspective. Despite having been put on this moral pedestal, ironically enough, Chris still gets with 17 year old Kim and actually impregnates her despite his “moral superiority.” Chris has sex with an underage girl and the entire remainder of the musical romanticizes this relationship. Ultimately, I think this musical can only serve as an artifact of a contribution to the dialogue of race. It really offers no comprehensive picture of how race should be understood and addressed. Because of this, it can only offer a glimpse of what past ideologies on race looked like and what decisions were made. It’s nice that producers aren’t using slant eye prosthetics anymore to depict Asian characters but this musical inherently contains a lot of themes and overall plot lines are racially problematic. I don’t think any amount of superficial change in costume or performer can rectify the backwards aspects of this musical.

GRN: 100%.  This storyline is just inherently problematic, like you said.  It’s good to be appreciated within the context of it being a product of its time and its viewpoints being antiquated, and definitely as a conversation-starter and as a means for discussing and learning and getting people to think about the way that their thought processes can harm and be harmful. 

GZ: That’s a really good point, I think if anything, this musical can serve as a good start point for dialogue and conversation is a tremendously important aspect for understanding each other.  

GRN: Exactly. It’s really important to have these conversations and to ask ourselves why we accepted this as the standard and why, even today, we allow this standard to pervade our media and our own views.  As a global community, we are definitely in the midst of sea change among public perception toward race. It’s because of these conversations that topics of race can be continually challenged and be made more just. Will Miss Saigon ever be revised again? And more importantly, can there be enough change in the musical to uphold contemporary ideals? 

It Ain’t Over Till The Fat Lady Sings: An Opera Singer’s Take on Phantom of the Opera

by Olivia H.

It seems like almost every trained singer or performer has heard, at one time or another, “Oh my gosh you sound amazing, you should be in Phantom of the Opera, it’s my favorite!” As a classically trained singer who has heard this statement numerous times, I feel the need to point out that Phantom is not an opera, it’s a musical. However, Phantom keeps public interest in the classical world alive, and for that, classically trained musicians should acknowledge the relevance and importance of this particular work. Phantom has undoubtedly shaped both the classical and musical theatre worlds, so much so that it is the most performed musical in the history of Broadway. Why is this musical, set in 1800s Paris and styled in a manner that could potentially alienate a modern musical theatre aficionado, be so popular, and how has it survived the ruthless chopping block of Broadway critics and fickle audiences? 

This musical is a happy medium, combining both the history of French Grand Opera and the theatricality of Broadway – the best of both worlds. Written by composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, with lyrics by Charles Hart, it premiered in 1986 in London at Her Majesty’s Theatre to great acclaim, winning Olivier Awards for Best Musical and Best Actor in a Musical (for Michael Crawford’s portrayal of the Phantom). Two years later, it premiered on Broadway, promptly winning the Tony for Best Musical and Best Actor in a Musical (same performer). Notably, Blair alumnus Chris Mann performed in the US touring production of Phantom of the Opera as the titular Phantom in 2015. 

Originally based on the French novel Le Fantôme de l’Opéra by Gaston Leroux, this novel was serialized and then subsequently turned into a silent film starring Lon Cheney, the “Man of a Thousand Faces.” The 1925 movie translated the novel and turned it into something easily digestible for American audiences. Another musical based on this tale was produced in 1976 but was nowhere near as popular as Webber’s version. In addition to the numerous staged performances, the 2004 movie adaptation  of Phantom of the Opera starring Gerard Butler and Emmy Rossum pushed  the musical into the realm of Hollywood. 

For this particular essay, I watched the Royal Albert Hall’s 2011 anniversary production starring Ramin Karimloo as the Phantom and Sierra Boggess as Christine Daaé.It is important to note thatthis Royal Albert production is overwhelmingly white and/or white-passing. In 2015, Norm Lewis became the first African American to play the Phantom. To my knowledge, there isn’t isn’t one instance when the role of Christine has been played by a BIPOC. Much like opera, musical theatre is whitewashed, and has only recently begun to attempt to cast BIPOC in leading roles that don’t tokenize or stereotype based on racist preconceptions. 

The first number  – the Hannibal rehearsal – begins with Carlotta’s elaborate entrance, which sets the tone for the entire opera. Clearly, Webber drew inspiration from the rich history of French Grand Opera (or FGO), even going so far as to reference an opera by Giacomo Meyerbeer, a composer who loved to compose operas in the FGO style. When FGO was popular, audiences would see large, grandiose productions with both opera singers and ballet dancers, much like Phantom. The sweet ingenue, Christine Daaé, is a dancer and cannot be distinguished from the horde of other dancers who look just like her. Carlotta and Hannibal are stereotypical opera singers- fat divas who “park and bark,” or who simply stand there and sing. Eventually, Christine is plucked from the crowd and takes Carlotta’s place. Before our eyes, Christine transforms, changing from a shy chorus girl into a fully grown diva, ready for her debut performance. With triumph and relative ease, Christine finishes her metamorphosis and sings “Think of Me,” a syrupy sweet aria designed to showcase just how lyrical and youthful the performer’s voice is. Christine then finishes her cadenza and flings herself to the ground, folding over in supplication. 

Phantom keeps all of the traditional aspects of opera whilst adding modern elements, such as a fancy exploding chandelier and fog machines, but simultaneously adds visibility and accessibility through the use of English rather than a lesser known language. Phantom requires diligently trained singers and expert orchestral members; without the expertise of classically trained musicians, Phantom would not be sustainable. For example, the 2019 World Tour Carlotta, Beverly Chiat, is classically trained, and she has performed famed operatic roles like Gilda in Verdi’s Rigoletto, Olympia in Offenbach’s Les contes d’Hoffman, and Donna Anna in Mozart’s Don Giovanni. All three of those roles require classical training and a certain “fach,” or type of voice, and no ordinary singer can perform these roles, just like no ordinary soprano can sing Carlotta or Christine. 

Unflattering stereotypes permeate both classic and contemporary musicals. The most common and well-known stereotypes are: the fat lady with horns on a helmet; the tenor that wears the scarf and steams his voice right before performing; vocalists walking around whilst humming and buzzing to warm up when there aren’t any available spaces. All singers, regardless of their musical background, have been one or more of these stereotypes. Phantom just happens to reinforce and introduce stereotypes like these to the common public. In Phantom, there are multiple stereotypes shown in several of the main characters- Christine, our slim, virginal soprano; Carlotta, the fat diva who throws a snit at anyone and anything when something doesn’t go her way; Raoul, the tenor who wants to love and be loved, but can’t possibly offer the excitement and sexual spontaneity that any baritone exudes; and the Phantom, our deformed baritone who is somehow inexplicably virile and intoxicating. In a way, Christine only exists to validate the Phantom. He wants to possess her because she is shiny and new, and in turn, she believes that she can help him. It’s very tempting to compare Christine to a manic pixie dream girl, simply because her character functions as a foil for the Phantom and a partner for Raoul. 

Is the Phantom’s “don’t look at me, I’m hideous, but please heal me” vibe what attracts all sopranos, or is it because lower male voices are just inherently sexier? Webber could have easily cast Christine as a mezzo-soprano, a female singer with a lower voice, but he chose to cast Christine with a higher tessitura, or vocal range- audiences love to revel in and even fetishize the beauty of impossibly high phrases, and Christine, our sexy soprano, gets to sing the high notes. This dichotomy of the soprano-tenor doomed love is a trope that is found in both operas and musicals (see: Violetta and Alfredo in La traviata, Mimi and Rodolfo in La bohème, Kim and Chris in Miss Saigon). There’s always a lusty baritone that manages to weasel his way into this relationship, and the soprano is always tempted by this interloper (Mozart’s Don Giovanni is the first example to come to mind). These musical tropes fuel Phantom and other vocal works and help the audience find common ground and make the productions relatable; no matter what educational background you come from, whether or not you have any musical training, you can almost always find a character that you relate to. 

Stereotypical (read: white) sex appeal and internalized fatphobia are important to mention when discussing musicals, and  Phantom is no exception. Broadway has a history of hiring very thin singers, both male and female. This purposeful avoidance of casting heavier and older performers in highly visible roles reinforces the underhanded message that fat people are not desirable. Simply put, we don’t want to find Carlotta attractive because she’s fat and old; for example, the new owners of the opera house, Firmin and André, make an effort to point out that Carlotta has been a resident of the Paris Opera House for the last nineteen seasons. We can reasonably assume that the audience, Raoul, the Phantom, and the managers of the opera house find Christine attractive because she’s thin and young and brings life to a stilted role. This thin-fat dynamic is further reinforced through the Royal Albert casting of slim Sierra Boggess in the role of Christine and the heavier Wendy Ferguson as Carlotta. The Phantom is bored with chubby, aged Carlotta, and wants to possess the freshly processed, slimmed-down product that is the ingénue. “Fat” is just an adjective, yet Broadway has managed to turn that word into a disgusting negative, reinforced by the near-constant casting of thin, white singers. Similarly, the opera world is going through the same reckoning, dealing with the obvious stereotypes thrust upon the singers that are so desperate to make a living in a divisive environment. Companies are attempting to hire more BIPOC performers, feature more works written by female-identifying and queer composers, and cast singers that aren’t short and petite, but there is still a long way to go. 

Carlotta’s opening line, filled with rolled r’s and gratuitous high C’s, shows far more finesse than any of Miss Daaé’s musical lines. While watching Phantom, one can’t help but think that Carlotta got the short end of the stick- the experienced and trained singer, furious about the “ghost” that’s trying to kill her, is shafted and tossed aside for a shinier, newer model. Most young singers can perform the role of Christine if you can sing a high C on command; in contrast, the famed high E at the end of the oft-performed “Phantom of the Opera” number is prerecorded and is never sung live. I acknowledge that this is my own bias, as my voice is too large to sing Christine, my body is not shaped like an ingenue’s, and admittedly I can be dramatic about the health of my voice. Through and through, I and so many others are Carlotta, and that’s okay. 

As a classically trained singer, and as someone who admittedly doesn’t like very many musicals, I have a deep respect for this musical. Webber has managed to create a work that combines both old and new musical techniques, proving that there is certainly room for opera in the everyday lives of normal people. On a personal note, I teach a studio of approximately fifty students, around twenty-seven of whom are singers; over half of those singers are women. Every single female singer that has come through my studio has, without fail, requested to sing a song from Phantom of the Opera, mostly “Think of Me.” Most of these students who have learned “Think of Me” have decided to pursue classical music for their careers. Christine, Carlotta, and the Phantom inspire generation after generation of young performers, and when you are a part of educating the next generation, it’s something that is truly inspiring and breathtaking. 

Phantom is the story of two misfits finding their way but somehow manage to find each other instead, and there’s nothing more American than finding your place in the world. Christine wishes to be a famous performer, and the Phantom wants to be loved. Phantom has spawned scores of budding young Christines and Phantoms as well as a sequel musical, Love Never Dies. From the original novel to the first movie remake to the 2004 movie to recent performances, it is clear that interest in Phantom has not waned. Singers dream of performing one of these roles, hoping that they too will have a chance to share the stage with that famous chandelier.

Phantom of the Opera makes us want to be Christine. We want to be on that stage, dressed in glittering costumes and caked with red lipstick, desired and adored, on a beautiful stage in Paris. We see characters that we can easily relate to, accompanied by a score that echoes the emotions showcased by the performers. Most importantly, we want to find our place in the world, and we want to find that place accompanied by the person we love. As Phantom is continued to be performed, I can only hope that the future casting directors choose to include a more diverse profile of performers, creating a cast that will find common ground in all types of people.

Anatevka – The Unbreakable

Communities are built on standards. Standards of etiquette, of work ethic, of moral values, of how you ought to treat your fellow man, etc. In the formation of communities, as people live with and around each other, the manifestation of collective normative values and expectations is an inevitability. As we see our neighbors act as they do from day to day, we build and reinforce an ever-strengthening cognitive framework through which we understand what is “normal”. We develop our own personal understandings of the identities of others through what limited information we have. We gauge the dynamics of our relationships from the nature of our encounters with one another. We adapt our personalities and actions to find balance and harmony within those relationships. We seek stability and security. We fear notions of conflict or change. We establish and live within the norms that sanctify and optimize peace. 

In the 1971 movie musical Fiddler on the Roof, the people of the fictional town of Anatevka live in a tightly knit community. Though far from wealthy or unilaterally prosperous, the Jewish people of Anatevka live in an apparent state of collective harmony through their adherence to strict community standards. As the show’s narrator, Tevye, and the ensemble of villagers make it heard loud and clear, these standards are born out of tradition – traditions which seem to emanate both from the town’s ancestral history and the townspeople’s shared subscription to the Jewish faith.  Before going any further, I do not and will not attempt to claim in any sense that I am an expert on Jewish religion or culture. Rather, from a dissection of the performance text, I am simply positing that the traditions and lifestyles of the people of Anatevka are likely not completely identical to any other Jewish village in Russia at the turn of the 20thcentury. Communities inherently tend to develop their own nuanced idiosyncrasies based on their unique collections of individuals, and no two individuals are exactly the same. I am saying that it is more likely that the performance of Jewish rituals and ceremonies in Anatevka are identical to the performance of these rituals in other Jewish communities than, say, the likelihood that the exact social dynamics and hierarchy of Anatevka would be perfectly replicated elsewhere. Thus, for the purpose of analysis, Anatevka can be seen and understood as a unique communal entity. 

Throughout Fiddler, the people of Anatevka – and Tevye especially – are faced with circumstances which challenge their adherence to the normative standards of tradition. As is true of humanity, resistance is the natural response to the threat of change because we find comfort in normalcy. So it makes sense that the characters in Fiddler display resistance and reluctance when aspects of their traditions are subjected to change by the action of the plot. And while one may adopt the opinion that it is the subscription to tradition which weakens the strength and survivability of their community, as they are ultimately forcefully removed from their home and dispersed across the globe, I would like to offer a very different contention. It is their value of tradition that provides a constant source of strength which sustains their community across space, and, simultaneously, the people of Anatevka’s willingness to adapt aspects of their traditions to accommodate new ideals reflects the bravery of a community able to meet the challenges of an evolving world without sacrificing any aspects of their shared identity. 

From the very top of the show, the audience is introduced to the value of tradition by way of metaphor – through the aforementioned fiddler on the roof. Tevye likens all the people of Anatevka to this fiddler, saying that they are all trying to scratch out happy lives for themselves whilst maintaining balance, and that they maintain this balance through the value of their traditions. As we are introduced to the ensemble that comprises the village in the number that ensues, we see what Tevye means. There is a powerful and clear rhythm to daily life in Anatevka, with well-defined roles for each individual that are largely informed by the people’s ancestral traditions. This way, as Tevye says, “everyone knows who he is and what God expects him to do.” This is well exemplified by the performance of the ensemble in this number as Tevye takes the viewer through the village, showing that, even in moments of disagreement (a mule, or a horse?) there is a pervasive sense of harmony which triumphs. Early in the first act, as Tevye and Golde gather their family for Sabbath dinner, we see an explicit example of traditional rituals strengthening the bonds between community and family members. Sure, in looking at these opening scenes through a contemporary lens, the social roles to which the members of this community are assigned seemed to be aligned with a patriarchal social hierarchy. However, men and women in this show are not intended to be portrayed as necessarily unequal; rather, in accordance with traditional Jewish culture, they perform equally important social functions, just in different domains. The text makes an active effort to equalize the respect shown to characters regardless of gender; for example, though Tevye repeatedly refers to himself as the decision maker of the family, he rarely acts without first trying to either convince or appease Golde to his reasoning, and Golde frequently teases him for his self-referential importance. 

Indeed, the female characters of the show are portrayed as independently minded individuals who dare to subvert communal norms through their well-established self-identities and strong willpower. Tzeitel, Hodel, and Chava play incredibly active roles in pushing both Tevye and Anatevka collectively to adopt and assimilate new ideals. For example, Tzeitel’s declaration of love for Motel to Tevye prompts Tevye to evaluate, in an aside, what is more important – the procedures established through tradition, or his love for his daughter and want for her happiness. Thus, when he agrees to allow both Tzeitel and Hodel to marry Motel and Perchik respectively, he has decided that his daughters’ pursuits of love are more conducive to ensuring their prosperity than to have them adhere to the traditional matchmaking processes. When Hodel and Perchik approach him asking for his blessing (not his permission) in their marriage, Tevye says, “Love. It’s a new style. On the other hand, our old ways were once new, weren’t they?” Tevye is able to realize that the values of tradition, though great, do not always provide the best solutions to novel situations. Tevye’s reverence of tradition, which at first limits his openness to such proposals as this, ultimately instills in him a strong set of moral values against which, being a rational (in the philosophical sense) person, he can determine for himself moral decisions without harming his dedication to or value of his traditions or his community. 

The wedding scene at the end of the first act is perhaps the best singular example of how Anatevka makes itself strong through both the power of their traditions and their ability to adapt aspects of their lifestyles. At the top of the scene, there is a joyous aura which permeates the room and the villagers attending the wedding as they march to the inn with candles and smiles abound (except for Lazar Wolf, who we see scowling, but let’s agree that this is somewhat understandable given that he was in fact promised Tzeitel by Tevye). As the crowd files in, we see the fiddler perched on a loft and watching with a smile on his face. After Motel smashes the glass, everyone in attendance shouts “Mazeltov!” and dancing ensues – the men dance with men and the women with women, but there is a palpable joy shared by all the attendees. Even when the camera shows Lazar Wolf at this point, the bitterness is no longer written on his face. These traditional dances and wedding celebration practices undeniably unite the community of Anatevka with a sense of joy, hope, and possibility for the future. The number that precedes this dance, “Sunrise, Sunset”, though somewhat melancholy in its tonality, underscores and emphasizes these themes regarding change, growth, and hope for the future found in the new bond of Motel and Tzeitel. All of this serves as an excellent example of how great value for tradition unites and strengthens the people of Anatevka within a shared liminal space. 

The real magic, though, happens when the villagers adapt their customs to assimilate a new idea heralded by the ~radical~ Perchik: to have men and women dance together. Yes, when Perchik first interjects with this notion and dares to step over the rope which segregates the men and women, an uneasiness and tension immediately envelopes seemingly everyone in attendance. However, following approval from the Rabbi, he and Hodel begin to dance, followed by Tevye and Golde, and then Motel and Tzeitel (sidenote: the interactions between Tevye and Motel throughout this sequence are hilarious and I love how he mimics Tevye tactics of convincing Golde to dance when he approaches Tzeitel with the same mandate). As more and more of the attendees begin to join in in the thrill of this new festivity, the excitement and joy that radiates throughout the inn seems to reach a peak that wasn’t met with the first dances. In freeing themselves from an aspect of their tradition – without actually harming their value of their traditions, given that the Rabbi not only gives approval but also joins in the dancing – the people of Anatevka reach a new level of kinship and joy through this adaptation of their customs. To the viewer, this is the moment in which the villagers of Anatevka are in their greatest state of harmony with one another. 

It is thus tragic when the Russian soldiers arrive and proceed to destroy the contents of the inn and the ceremony, including the newlywed’s wedding gifts. Things do not get better for the people of Anatevka after this point, as they are forced to abandon their village under threat of brutal violence from the Russians. However, even as we see members of the village all preparing to go their separate ways to many different parts of the globe, the show still ends on a hopeful note, found in the fiddler’s following of Tevye out of the village. The fiddler’s presence here signifies that, even though the community of Anatevka will no longer exist as it once did, its inhabitants will forever be bonded through their shared standards and values, through the everlasting effect of their shared participation in traditions. 

The story of Anatevka is undoubtedly and immensely tragic. And yet, the show’s ending drives home the point I have been contending. These peoples’ willingness to adapt aspects of their traditions to assimilate new ideals brought them great amounts of joy and strengthened the bonds of their community while they were together. And as they are dispersed, it is clear that these bonds cannot and will not be broken by the vastness of space. These people are Anatevka. And as the fiddler follows Tevye out of town, we know that Anatevka and the spirit of its people will persist, just not within the same geographical space. 

History In Color

Before Hamilton, United States history was one of my least favorite subjects in school. I thought learning about America just consisted of memorizing the names of numerous old, white men and wondering how many more could have the name James or John. The American history they taught me in school never really applied to me for the most part. The only times it did apply to me was during the Civil War or rights units and from February 1st- 28th (and February 29th on the years they decided to allow Black history to be relevant in the American narrative for one more day). On most days, United States history was like looking at a painting made with white paint on a white canvas. However, in eighth grade, this all changed. The year was 2016, and my U.S. history teacher introduced the whole class to a new, up-and-coming musical called Hamilton. Being the theatre kid I was in middle school, I started listening to the soundtrack, and I fell in love. I listened to the soundtrack all the time, and for the first time, I saw American history in color. It was like the monochromatic painting of history I had been looking at before was now a large wall covered in colorful paints. 

The musical Hamilton, by Lin Manuel Miranda, sparked my interest in American history because it did for me what my textbooks in class never did. It included me! The producers on Hamilton erased the performance of whiteness that most people associate with American identity by using a cast and ensemble entirely made of people of color to tell the story of the founding of America. Lin Manuel Miranda also used Hamilton to make American history inclusive of people from all backgrounds through his selection of characters, the way he embraced the black culture, and the way he celebrated immigrants in the production. 

One of the most notable aspects in the casting of Hamilton was its composition of an almost entirely non-white leading cast and ensemble. This unique choice of casting is a big part of why Hamilton became such a great success. However, the call for a diverse cast was also the cause of the production’s major controversy. Several people have accused the producers of Hamilton, that sent out an ad calling for non-white performers to try out for the musical’s lead roles, of being discriminatory towards white people. These critics failed to recognize the essential part that a minority cast plays in the narrative of America Hamilton attempts to create. The musical, Hamilton, fills its ensemble and leads with people of various backgrounds to rewrite American history in a way that allows all people to find belonging in United States identity. 

When people think of the formation of America, there is usually an assumption of complete and inherent whiteness. But Hamilton shatters this notion and presents a beautiful parade of Black culture and immigrant celebration in its rewrite of America’s creation. 

Black inspiration in Hamilton is evident when listening to the musical’s soundtrack. You can hear the incorporation of black culture within Lin Manuel Manuel Miranda’s use of hip-hop, rap, R&B, and jazz in many of the songs. The producers of this show also display Blackness in the musical’s characters. Black actors and actresses play most of the lead roles in the performance of Hamilton that Disney Plus features. These actors are allowed to embrace their appearance and utilize Black style in the development of their character. A perfect demonstration of this is Daveed Diggs as Thomas Jefferson. In the musical, Daveed Diggs rocks his lively afro and exercises his swagger to steal the hearts of the audience. His suave movements and use of the pimp walk allow him to portray Thomas Jefferson without having to perform whiteness.  

Lin Manuel Miranda also stresses the value of immigrants in the creation of America. Throughout history, many have attempted to separate immigrants from the definition of American, but Hamilton teaches us that there is no America without immigrants. From the first song in the musical, Miranda emphasizes that Alexander Hamilton, one of the most important founding fathers of America, was an immigrant. Another immigrant in the musical is Marquis de Lafayette, played by Daveed Diggs, another crowd favorite. The producers portray Lafayette and Hamilton as incredibly hard-working, intelligent, and determined individuals. Together these two characters sing one of the musical’s most iconic lines: “immigrants, we get the job done.”

By emphasizing the immigrants that played a role in the revolution and founding of the United States, Lin Manuel Miranda writes American immigrants back into the narrative of this nation and shows them their identity as an essential part of our country. Lin Manuel Miranda also highlighted different important aspects and identities in American history through the selection of largely dismissed members of history that helped in the creation of The United States as characters in the musical. 

An exemplary member of Hamilton’s character selection that highlights essential aspects of America’s identity is the part of John Laurens. John Laurens, played by Anthony Ramos, is undoubtedly one of my favorite characters in Hamilton. His multifaceted role on stage taught me a new side of history that I never learned in school but is integral to American culture and identity. John Laurens’ first solo is in the song “My Shot.” In the solo, Laurens expresses his belief that America can not claim freedom until the enslaved Black population receives the same rights as white men. Throughout the musical, John Laurens is passionate about his goal to abolish slavery in the United States, but his dreams are cut short by his sudden death at the end of act one.

John Laurens was one of the few early allies in the fight for freedom and rights for Black Americans, and his exclusion from history allows the country to overlook the long and continuous struggle of Black people in the United States. By including John Laurens in Hamilton, Lin Manuel Miranda teaches viewers that Black people were always present and relevant in American history. John Laurence proves that there was a struggle for Black Americans’ rights even before the fight for American independence and long preceding the era of the civil war or the civil rights movement. 

Another aspect of John Laurence that makes him a crucial character in America’s narrative is his ambiguous sexuality. Based on the letters between Hamilton and Laurens, historians have speculated the two may have shared a romantic relationship. Knowing this, Lin Manuel Miranda did not shy away from displaying a very intimate relationship between the two characters in his musical. In the song “My Shot,” Hamilton says, “Laurens, I like you a lot…” and throughout the production, you can see the two are closer and more physical with each other than any of the other men on stage. The display of this relationship in Hamilton sends a powerful message to the viewers. Introducing the possibility that Hamilton, Laurens, and other historical figures that aided in the creation of America, may have been queer provides representation for the LGBTQ community in the founding of our nation. John  Laurens represents a group of people that modern history has almost erased from the story of American. He was an ally to the Black American’s struggle for equality and a man who crossed the lines of heteronormative behavior. Hamilton “put [Laurens] back in the narrative,” and in doing so, represents the diverse people and struggles that made this country. 

Before Hamilton, United States history only taught the creation of a nation by white people and for white people, excluding minorities from the American narrative and identity. This teaching of history is the reason my sisters were thoroughly confused when they found out that I was obsessed with a musical about American history and yelled at me to stop when they heard me spitting bars about the founding fathers. They never had an inclusive and empowering experience learning about our country. But when my sisters watched the Hamilton for the first time on Disney Plus, I got to see their jaws drop as they danced with Thomas Jefferson and sang about George Washington. They literally could not stop raving about how much they loved it! Lin Manuel Miranda’s inclusion of minorities, celebration of immigrants, and use of black culture are the reasons why Hamilton was able to rewrite the way people think about American history. The musical was particularly impactful the year after it premiered on Broadway, during the 2016 election when some politicians and citizens were alienating and antagonizing United States Immigrants. Hamilton taught our nation that every member of America is an indispensable and crucial part of our counties story and identity.  

Carnaval del Progreso: Almost There, But Not Quite

After watching the PBS documentary and unexpectedly coming across a bootleg that featured the original Broadway cast (YouTube always comes in clutch when you least expect, I must say), I became more aware of what Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights intended to do and what it meant for the performers and members of the creative team who were involved. The musical intended to not only showcase the vast diversity of Latinx people and their culture but to provide opportunities for Latinx performers to portray characters that shed a positive light on the many heritages and traditions Latinx people celebrate. And after reading the show’s libretto and taking a glance or two at the YouTube-recommended bootleg, I believe I accomplished these goals. In the Heights does a satisfactory job of highlighting a concept known as multiculturalism. The production most certainly allows spectators to gather awareness of the presence of Latinx identity and the communal cultural heritage that exists in the real-life neighborhood of Washington Heights. However, the story dramatization forces parts of the plot and character representation to become more superficial rather than profound.

Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes’s Into the Heights was a flagship for Hispanic representation on the Broadway stage when it debuted in 2008. Miranda and Hudes’s production was one of the first of its kind to showcase the robust and diverse community of Washington Heights. The show portrays how a collective set of similar beliefs binds together the Latino immigrant community despite community members hailing from different regions of Latin America. The choice to fuse traditional Broadway storytelling with Latin-inspired dance, unapologetic Spanish-speaking characters, and emphasis on the immigrant story advance an intuitive plot that explores what it means to find belonging amongst a close-knit community where cultural differences are welcome. Not only does the musical do this, but it also examines how this sense of belonging functions in an overarching, modern American landscape. Into the Heights employs character relationships, production and design elements, and ensemble performance to demonstrate how multiculturalism, the coexistence of different races, ethnicities, and nationalities, fosters a unique and diverse set of individuals who all find universal belonging in the production’s setting, Washington Heights.

The musical number “Carnaval del Barrio” was one of the most enjoyable numbers to watch. The song emphasizes and celebrates the importance of fostering a cohesive and diverse community amongst its Hispanic characters. The number especially brings to light the importance of helping bring up members of the community during moments of doubt and adversity. During this song, Daniela, the local hair salon owner who comically doubles as the unofficial town crier, rallies members of the Washington Heights community during the hottest Fourth of July, which just so happens to coincide with a citywide blackout. Daniela commands her community to lift its spirits despite the circumstances and join her in song and dance. She wrangles the idling ensemble members into an impromptu neighborhood celebration while singing in not just English, but in Spanish as well. As Daniela seamlessly flows between the two languages, she demonstrates the unique, multicultural characteristic that defines the community of Washington Heights. Her bilingual fluency functions as a bridge that joins the neighborhood’s collective Latino heritage with the American landscape they currently occupy. Daniel’s Spanish functions as a tool that reminds everyone of their heritage and where their families have been before, while English operates as a reminder as to why the characters find themselves in Washington Heights in the first place. Daniela’s ability to speak Spanish does not hinder or prevent the fluency of which she speaks English or vice versa.  The performance of the two languages complements each other, offering insight into a community that is just as proud of its ethnic roots as it is to be celebrating Independence Day in the country they call home. Daniela’s words reinforce the multiculturalist message that In the Heights aims to recreate accurately. Daniela successfully demonstrates that Latinx culture and American culture can coexist and create a distinct experience that adapts the cultural values and practices of each character’s heritage into a new setting.

An image from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s 2008 production In the Heights featuring Miranda (center left) as Usnavi and Andrea Burns (center right) as Daniela.

As the number progresses, the ensemble members slowly begin to join Daniela in her Latin celebration. They start off dancing relatively slow and constrained, restricting their movements to simple two-/three-step Latin choreography. Although the ensemble performance remains scaled down during this point of the production number, the Latin influence in their footwork and hip movements is apparent. Together the ensemble, although not positioned in a distinct formation, sway and move their feet in time with the music as if they are a complete unit. While each ensemble character is distinctly separate from the other and performs differently from one another, the timing of their movements altogether unifies them. Each character’s individuality serves as a representation of the wide range of Spanish-speaking countries and territories they represent. Although the ensemble’s dance steps represent various styles and steps of Latin dance, the ensemble appears united as the members all move to the same beat and feed off of each other’s enthusiasm. The ensemble movement effectively functions as a mechanism that fosters bonds amongst the individuals that makeup Washington Heights, once again emphasizing the variety of cultural and ethnic identities amongst Latinx people that can coexist within a singular community. Each body that operates functions as a sect of the multiculturalism that makes up the greater community.

From this point on, the “Carnaval del Barrio” choreography continues to grow with more energy and enthusiasm. Progressing from simple steps and hip sways, the ensemble members burst into highly involved Latin choreography that consists of energetic spinning, punctuated clapping, and enthusiastic flag-waving. During this moment, the three flags that the ensemble members dance with represent the countries and territories of Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic. These flags are waved proudly above the ensemble’s heads and shaken with vigor, signaling the multi-national pride that exists as Washington Heights proudly celebrates. While each of these flags represents a different country, the synchronous dancing once again unites each individual together. The dancers’ uniformity sends a message that differences in national origin do not prevent community formation. Instead, In the Heights contests that community prospers from collective celebration and recognition of cultural differences.

There is no doubt that “Carnaval del Barrio” is a celebratory explosion of Latinx pride and dance. Unfortunately, I believe the recognition of distinct Latinx culture begins and ends here. Outside of the national flags that hang from the fire escapes and the occasional Spanish interjection, everything else about the characters’ situation seems fairly normal. And let me be clear, normal is not used here with a negative undertone. Normalcy can be good. Normalcy, in this case, can help an audience member relate to the characters within the story, a concept referred to as universality. Universality recognizes that as humans, we are just that, human. We are all the same regardless of our skin color, the traditions we engage in, where our family is from, or the religion we choose the practice. However, it is possible to simultaneously acknowledge that we are all humans that deserve to be treated as such and recognize that society affords different groups of people distinct life experiences. Into the Heights does a great job at conveying the former. But the latter? Not as much.

The Into the Heights finale left me leaning more heavily into the normalcy narrative. I perceived the characters from Washington Heights, everyone from Usnavi to Vanessa to Nina to Sonny, and the real-life group of people they represent as people who deserve to be treated with decency. And if this was the sole narrative Miranda and Hudes wanted to achieve with their work, then they definitely have achieved that goal. However, as someone who was under the impression that In the Heights would educate them on the diversity that exists in Latinx immigrant culture, I was unfortunately underwhelmed. While I did learn about Washington Heights and the diverse community that calls this neighborhood home, I am still left with the bigger question of what distinguishes this group of individuals from each other. While Puerto Rico, Mexico, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic are all represented either visually or through character exposition, the differences in culture in each of these countries are never explicitly explored. Although all of these countries are lingually united, I can’t imagine that a Cuban would full-heartedly agree that Mexican culture is the same as Cuban culture. Yes, Miranda’s characters are Latinx, but Latinx people are not a monolith. And going forward, future theatrical work should actively work against this idea.

Criticism and all, Miranda still manages to create a body of work that provides representation to those who have historically been underrepresented on the Broadway stage. In the Heights successfully subverts negative Latinx stereotypes and offers Latinx performers an opportunity to engage with their cultural heritage through a publicly enjoyed art medium. In the grand scheme of Broadway and entertainment at large, Miranda succeeds in introducing Latinx multiculturalism to a broader audience. Granted, Broadway typically caters to a majority white audience that may or may not perpetuate the same process the musical warns about (ahem, I’m looking at you, Gentrification), but I digress. In the Heights certainly has not been the last Latinx-inspired story to hit Broadway. On Your Feet!, the jukebox musical that retells the life of the legendary Cuban singer-songwriter duo, Gloria and Emilio Estefan, graced the Great White Way in 2015. And I am sure once Broadway starts back up after the pandemic, positive portrayals of Latinx communities will only become more frequent and representative over time. It may not be perfect, but In the Heights is an important stepping stone towards the Latinx representation we should all be championing for.

Our Founding Fathers Were Bad Dads

My life is full of lies. I have spent the past year stressing over elections for politicians that lied straight to my face; my mom keeps telling me I’m special; and my ex says she still loves me. All I ask for is a smidgen of truth or just a temporary escape from the lies of reality, and surprisingly, I often find this safe haven in musicals. Now, I’m not about to argue that Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark is a canonical, historical event nor am I going to claim that Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson should replace our history textbooks (although our education system would be hell of a lot more fun). Musicals can be some of the rawest forms of commercial performance and expression. There is no lying during show-stopping belts or spectacular ensemble choreography, and there’s even a semblance of truth in the acting. Every movement, every note, every expression has truth in it somewhere, and that comfortable feeling of sincerity is one we chase every day.  

After seeing it back in 2018, Hamilton was my safe space. There was a song for every moment in my life that I could retreat to instead of facing reality. For a show centered around the birth of American politics, it is remarkably apolitical, and that’s what makes it so universally appealing. The production number “The Room Where It Happens” isn’t about the formation of the National Bank; it’s about wanting to fit in and being a part of something bigger than oneself. “Burn” provides solace for the heartbroken, and “You’ll Be Back” deploys an 18th century tyrannical monarch to help them cope with this heartache. But, just like every political campaign, just like my supposedly innate uniqueness, and just like my ex’s empty words of affirmation, Hamilton is too good to be true, and for the sake of performative diversity, Lin-Manuel Miranda throws away his shot to make a substantive, meaningful statement on sexism, cyclical political centrism, and the racism that this diversity is meant to battle.

The public opinion of Hamilton has shifted negatively in recent years without a tangible impetus for this downward turn. The music has aged well, the creative players haven’t been involved in any egregious scandals, and the Disney+ release has made the show more accessible than ever. Frankly, Hamilton didn’t change; the world around it did. Similar to Into the Heights marking the beginning of Barack Obama’s presidency, Hamilton’s late 2015 release bookended the other side of it, but its meteoric rise also coincided with that of our current president, who launched his original campaign a month before Hamilton’s Broadway debut. Donald Trump’s populist promises and uncompromising attitude towards lawmaking and the Democratic Party shot him past the more centrist candidates running for Republican nomination, and Hillary Clinton’s similarly bipartisan message did little to slow Trump’s momentum. The situation is more complicated than a one sentence explanation, but the root cause of it is not. The decline of centrism allowed Trump to enter the forefront of national media and enabled his eventual victory.

People are going to bat for this guy?

Hamilton is a celebration of American exceptionalism, unity, and patriotism, all monumental tenets of centrism. Of course, there are moments of discord between the Founding Fathers. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison giddily dance around to celebrate the discovery of the damning Reynolds Pamphlet, and it seems like they can’t stop shooting each other every 30 minutes. But, in the end, they all live happily ever after. Sure, Hamilton unnecessarily dies, but Jefferson and Madison finally recognize his genius, George Washington is honored for being the ultimate symbol of American unity, and all the slaves are freed! (Oh wait…no. Eliza Hamilton just speaks out against slavery.) These idealistic outcomes and revisionist perspectives on political figures are what American politics have revolved around since the country’s inception. Before Trump’s recent defeat, the transition of power between administrations has been largely cordial, and this respect lends itself to forgiveness. Our history books paint Thomas Jefferson as a master negotiator and one of the great American writers of the Revolution, not a rapist and serial slave owner. More recently, George W. Bush, responsible for the backwards Patriot Act and the continuation of the endless war against terrorism (*cough* oil *cough*), is now lauded as a respectful man that brought us out of the dark shadow 9/11 cast upon this country by liberals and conservatives alike. The sins these politicians committed and the regressive policies they passed are forgiven to maintain the image of excellency that we are told our representatives share in common because if our leaders are bad people, what does that make us?

Hamilton projects American exceptionalism for the world to see because that is what its audiences crave; that is the truth they want to believe. No proud American wants to recognize the atrocities of slavery in their totality. So, we’re given smaller, palatable truths to swallow. Sally Hemings was Thomas Jefferson’s mistress, not property. George Washington freed his slaves when he died, excusing his ownership of these men and women during his lifetime, and Hamilton portrays these men in exactly this way. Jefferson and Washington are illustrated as heroes of the Revolution and sympathetic to the struggles of slaves, despite the latter not being further from the truth. Lin-Manuel Miranda had a rare opportunity to tell American audiences the truth. In an industry and world dominated by white men, he had the privilege to shine a spotlight on the reality of America hidden in the shadows for too long, but Americans don’t like that truth. Instead, Miranda compromised, like any “great” politician would do.

Lin may compromise his morals, but he sure doesn’t compromise a good ol’ lip bite selfie!

Miranda takes a Jordan-like approach to his products. In 1990, one of the first African-American senate candidates in North Carolina Harvey Gantt challenged incumbent senator (and unabashed racist) Jesse Helms. Basketball legend Michael Jordan refused to endorse Gantt’s Democratic campaign, justifying his lack of activism with “Republicans buy sneakers too.” Gant lost the election by a narrow 5 point margin. At the end of the day, Miranda’s shows are for-profit products. They are opportunities for him to showcase his talent in front of the brightest lights on the biggest stage. Maybe he wrote this show with the express purpose to make a statement on bigotry and the state of America, but any meaningful attempt at that falls flat. Miranda writes a show that appeals to the centrist ideals of America without alienating any of his potential customers but does throw progressivism a bone in his casting. All of the protagonists are minorities! Again, in such a Caucasian-dominated industry, this is a huge step forward for diversity in Broadway and talented minorities are finally recognized, but simply making the cast diverse is not enough on its own. The diverse cast propped on a pedestal leads to complacent writing that does not acknowledge the full extent of America’s past and makes the audience too comfortable with the false identity of these characters.

Going back to Thomas Jefferson, Daveed Diggs compounds the issue of Miranda’s lack of activist writing. His natural stage presence and charm makes it nearly impossible to dislike Thomas Jefferson. The swagger that he exudes in the Cabinet Battles and his introductory number “What’d I Miss” fills the theatre, and this charisma is what audience members remember. Until my viewing of Hamilton, my only experience with the portrayal of Thomas Jefferson were educational documentaries with dramatic reenactments of historical events and pictures of his uncomfortably greasy hair. Do you expect that relic of American history to compete with Daveed freaking Diggs? Now when the name “Thomas Jefferson” is mentioned the first image that comes to mind is Daveed Diggs with his lavishly purple coat and stylish cane. The musical not only completely disregards Jefferson’s gross mistreatment of his slaves, but it subtly relinquishes the image of Thomas Jefferson as a white, privileged man.

Contrary to Hamilton‘s portrayal, the actual Thomas Jefferson had negative zero swag.

This performative casting diversity continues to be applauded for the future of Broadway that it represents and for getting Leslie Odom Jr., Daveed Diggs, and Chris Jackson all on the same stage, but it distracts from more than just racism and centrism. Male characters dominate Hamilton. That isn’t unique to this show specifically, but the women’s lack of effect on the plot throughout the show is another missed opportunity by Miranda to make a powerful statement on sexism in America. Eliza feels like a pawn waiting to be moved. Alexander Hamilton walks into the ball, and she and her sister immediately swoon over him. She spends the rest of the show pleading for her husband to relax or at the very least survive, neither of which he can do, and in the second act, she is a conduit for the heartbreak that comes with Hamilton cheating on her and her son passing away. Only when Hamilton dies does Eliza finally get the faculty and power to effect change. She and her choices are reactionary to the world around her without the people around her paying much mind to her decisions. It’s rather disappointing because Phillipa Soo’s incredible vocals and strong acting could make a true female lead shine, but Miranda diminishes her to a source of internal conflict for Hamilton and of the resulting soliloquies when he neglects to heed her advice.

American exceptionalism is an ideal that we accept as the truth but do not necessarily believe to be true. From the moment we step in an American public school, everything from the Pledge of Allegiance to President’s Day are empty promises of national greatness, but there’s no reason to believe otherwise without evidence to the contrary. People with privilege and power are the individuals writing our textbooks and producing our shows telling us America is great, and the reality is that most of these individuals are rich, white men. But, sometimes a minority creator defies expectations and is given a platform for their voice to be heard. Lin-Manuel Miranda had the opportunity to tell the American people the whole truth and nothing but the truth. In the midst of rampant unemployment, people drowning in debt, and the perpetual presence of systemic racism, Miranda fed us what centrists and patriots have told us for years. America was great, is great, and always will be great, and we truly believe it when we watch Hamilton. Only when we step out of the theatre and face the reality we desperately tried to escape do we realize the truth of our nation. America was not great, is not great, and will never be great unless we stop compromising for the bigots of the past and present and recognize the flaws of our nation.

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. 

BOGO: Rose Colored Glasses for Sale in Hamilton!

By: Cheyenne Figaro

I’ll be the first to admit that I never planned on watching the musical Hamilton. Something about its massive success made me think it’s too good to be true. It turns out I was right and wrong. Both on and off stage (and screen, more recently) Hamilton presents itself as a challenge to American social norms. The musical, brought to stage by composer/lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda in 2015, is most famous for its color conscious casting of the founding fathers, and it’s clear from the start that race isn’t something to be ignored in the show, instead being amplified and celebrated. Surely, the musical could have been done with historical accuracy, but that would’ve meant an all white cast aside from any slaves or servants. For, too often period dramas take people of color out of the narrative completely unless they’re showing them in bondage or another traumatic circumstance. Hamilton serves to place people of color back where we belong: in the center of America’s history. However, revising history through a modern lens has its drawbacks. While Hamilton uplifts people of color through meaningful representation, it also undermines itself by ignoring the disadvantages of people of color not only during the colonial era, but also in modern day society. Furthermore, while the musical makes waves for racial progression, it makes a failed attempt at women’s empowerment which begs the question: if women don’t win in actual history or rewritten history, exactly when is our time to shine?

At its very essence Hamilton is an underdog story about “a bastard, orphan, son of a whore” who defied the odds in front of him to become a founding father. Hamilton is an immigrant and an orphan, but Miranda makes it known that he isn’t bound by those labels. In “My Shot”, he finds a community in the revolutionaries of New York City. They proclaim, “I am just like my country/I’m young, scrappy, and hungry,” and the words resonate not just because they hold true for the characters, but because they hold true for the cast. People of color can relate to having to fight against convention for a respectable place in this world. Mulligan wants a revolution for social mobility, Lafayette for a more stable society, and Laurens because he’d like to see the slaves freed from bondage. Especially in America, there is a universal experience amongst marginalized groups of desire for more. Desire for more rights, more opportunities, or just the desire for more visibility. Although the show is based on the lives of white, heterosexual men, their struggles and their visions take on a deeper meaning when applied to people of color, and this scene specifically conveys the idea of building a community out of a struggle, something that many people of color can relate to. Yet, past this proud display of diversity the musical does little to reflect BIPOC and women in America, at least not in America outside of the Hamilton universe.

A director of a show must know their audience to appeal to them, but unfortunately for this production, Miranda (Accidentally? Intentionally? Who knows) appeals to the more revisionist and idealist side of America. The show is the perfect gift for Americans who can confidently say that racism ended in 1964 when the Civil Rights Act was passed. They deny the effects of systemic racism and honestly believe that any person of color who is unsuccessful is unsuccessful because they didn’t apply themselves enough. Now Lin-Manuel Miranda, a proud Puerto Rican-American Democrat, doesn’t believe any of those things. So why does Hamilton enforce this idea over and over and over again? Hamilton’s immigrant status is brought up so many times as if equating it to being an immigrant today. Hamilton may have been an immigrant, but he was White and the country wasn’t even formed yet when he arrived, making his immigrant status marginal to the rest of his identity. Thus, he easily “Got a lot farther by working a lot harder/By being a lot smarter/By being a self-starter,” in ways that many people of color in real life have tried and failed to do. Miranda as Hamilton, Leslie Odom as Aaron Burr, and Daveed Diggs as Thomas Jefferson present an illusion of the man of color, who once educated, can get through any doors he sets his mind on. However, this illusion is so grandiose because the entire main cast is diverse, that it blinds the audience from reality. A person of color who has an unstable household, works multiple jobs, and lives in poverty will actually see the effects of these disparities in their life. Whether they have less access to quality education, or less time to pursue passions, they will not have the life of Alexander Hamilton who was put in charge of a trading charter at fourteen, and who gained access to the President of the United States because of his revolutionary ideas.

Contrary to the experience of POC in America, one can ignore mass incarceration, the school-to-prison pipeline, and other forms of systemic racism when watching Hamilton, because no people of color face challenges because of their race. The color-conscious casting created a color-blind musical which reinforces the idea that any immigrant or person of color who loves this country more than life, and who is willing to put endless amounts of work into contributing to American society will be exceptionally successful. The narrative pushed by the story is that “patriots” of any color belong in this country, and that’s a distasteful message to promote in 2020, a time riddled with valid social unrest. It was this narrative that made me the most uncomfortable because I should be allowed to be a Black woman in America who can criticize the country and still belong in it. The message appeases White Moderates and Conservatives while condemning the liberal person of color, a counterproductive move on Miranda’s part.

Furthermore, the success stories of POC are imaginary in the context of Hamilton, as the diversity of the cast is in place of the Whiteness of the real people, but even if they weren’t only a few POC would have reached success while the rest were slaves. For the musical all but ignores the fact that slavery was rampant during the time period, but then goes a stretch further to paint the main characters as abolitionists, when Hamilton himself owned slaves. In many scenes, the ensemble are definitely playing slaves or at least servants, wearing minimalist off white garments compared to the lavish coats and garments of the main cast. Yet, they’re hardly given a second thought and it begs the question: how was slavery erased in a musical set during slavery? Well, I guess Miranda couldn’t have the entire main cast look like the hypocrites their real-life counterparts were, the audience was supposed to believe in these characters after all.

Yet, at least Hamilton attempts impactful racial representation on the stage, for it certainly falls short in uplifting the women of the story. Although the Schuyler sisters play a pivotal role in the story, their characters can be broken down into two main tropes. Eliza is the good wife: white passing and compromising. Angelica is the modern-day woman: independent and headstrong. One would think from their introduction that the Schuyler sisters were included to bring a woman’s perspective to the show, but at times this feminist approach feels forced and most times it is non-existent. Much like he does with slavery, Miranda addresses misogyny in Hamilton by bringing it up once and brushing over it for the rest of the production. The lines, “We hold these truths to be self-evident/that all men are created equal/And when I meet Thomas Jefferson/I’m ‘a compel him to include women in the sequel!”, followed by a collective “Work!”, are meant to empower the women in the audience, to emphasize the fact that women have been and still are fundamental to the fabric of the country. The entire “Schuyler Sisters” number redefines the colonial woman as someone who was knowledgeable, who looked for a man who suited her desires, and who wouldn’t settle for just anyone. So color me surprised when Eliza and Angelica spend the rest of the musical doing just that, throwing empowerment to the wind. Unfortunately, but not surprisingly at this point, this is when the show gets a little racist.

Eliza, the white-passing sister, is of course Hamilton’s wife and mother to his child. Angelica, played by Renee Elise Goldsberry, entertains Alexander’s affection behind her sister’s back, perpetuating the stereotype of Black women being hypersexual and deceptive compared to White women, an idea built upon by his mistress Maria Reynolds. Even more offensive, Angelica spends half the musical stroking Alexander’s ego in letters and the other half picking up her sister after a tragedy. Where was her storyline? I’m aware she was a side character, but every other side character was alluded to having an important task at hand when off stage, while Angelica’s only purpose was to worry about Hamilton and Eliza.  This heavily conveys the idea of black women having to bear the burdens of society without anyone supporting them. Hence, the feminist tone in “The Schuyler Sisters” looks extremely performative in comparison to the portrayal of women in the rest of the musical. Moreover, the jubilant “Work!” which is shouted throughout the number is almost a mockery of the BIPOC women who coined the term, since their representation dwindles from that moment on. Even in Hamilton, a show revising history, the women of color didn’t really belong, at least not in their own independent, nurturing spaces.

Aside from covert racism, Hamilton’s misogynistic angle is established through the absence of character development for the women leads. Eliza isn’t really given much character besides caring mother and loving wife, but this is exaggerated to the point where she decides to “[erase] herself from the narrative” when she finds out Hamilton cheated. Phillipa Soo does an amazing job portraying Eliza’s defiance through her tone during “Burn”, but even that performance begs the question: was it really defiant for a woman not to speak out against her husband in the 1700s? And was the audience supposed to be shocked when she took him back after their son died? I truthfully have so many questions on what Eliza’s character was meant to convey. For a musical that took so many other historical liberties, this portrayal of the textbook colonial woman was disappointing and offensive. It seems less like Eliza was erasing herself, and more like Miranda was erasing her from the storyline out of convenience to the plot. Eliza embodies the misogynistic ideals of colonial America that women are relevant only in the context of being someone’s wife or daughter. The script only revealed Eliza the mother and wife, and never gave insight into Eliza the person until the very end of the musical, and only after Hamilton dies. Audience members can’t name one thing Eliza did during the musical besides teach her son piano and return to Alexander after he cheated. Even Angelica, who is introduced as a character looking for a man with ideals and a vision, falls into the trap of Alexander’s “charm”, and then only shows up in the musical when their relationship is mentioned and when she comes to console her sister- both events revolving around Hamilton. What exactly is this musical saying about women? Honestly, I have no fucking clue. Because all that the audience gets in the two hour and forty minutes is that Eliza was a humble woman who served as Alexander’s doormat (Was her pain supposed to be empowering? Because a majority of her scenes were spent crying and not one minute of that made me think: Go Women!), while Angelica was a supportive and wise sister who was sometimes morally ambiguous, and in the end the two spent the years until their deaths working to preserve Alexander’s legacy, as well as the legacy of the other men he worked with.  “Who Tells Your Story” becomes a rushed history lesson reminding that audience that Yes! Eliza did in fact have a life outside of Alexander. But this revelation is too little, too late, and Eliza never gets the relevance she deserves. 

No questions asked, Hamilton deserves the accolades that it’s received for the outstanding acting, choreography, and lyrics of the musical. What’s clear throughout the entire production is that the cast performed with well intentions to instill pride in BIPOC across America, reminding them that they are a visible, integral part of America. The rapping and the grit of the characters reminded me of New York hip hop culture in a way that made me homesick. Nevertheless, the show falls short in its representation of women and BIPOC in so many ways and this deserves as much acknowledgement as the positives of the production. The truth of the matter is that one show can’t tackle everything, and no show is going to be perfect no matter much thought and intention is put into it. Miranda wants others to use Hamilton as a blueprint, but not the end all be all. Diversity in casting is important, but more important is the impact of this diversity on the messages conveyed in a production, and this is where future shows must expand past Hamilton’s limits to create a much more authentic representation of Americans and America itself.

Soup or Salad? West Side Story and American Multiculturalism

“America is a melting pot”. 

We’ve heard this all our lives; America is a country that melts together immigrants of diverse racial, ethnic, and religious backgrounds into one emergent American culture. But this vibrant nation isn’t a monotonous, homogenous soup. No, America should actually be a multicultural salad. A beautiful conglomerate of different cultures and peoples that remain distinct and separate to each other. A harmonious medley of individual ethnic communities that live peacefully among each other. But this salad metaphor isn’t completely accurate either. So then, what is America? 

In Jerome Robbins’ musical West Side Story, the Sharks are a group of brown-skinned, Puerto Rican immigrants who are forced to confront the ugly realities of their inferior rank in American society. The musical features a constant racial tension that taints the relationship between the Sharks and the Jets, a gang of white teenagers who are mostly second generation European immigrants. Although both groups strive towards achieving a common American Dream, the Puerto Rican ethnic identity of the Sharks precludes them from claiming equal space in the American public sphere. The Sharks’ interactions with the Jets, Lieutenant Schrank, and other Puerto Ricans reveal that an idealistic multicultural society is far from reality. Watching West Side Story in 2020 invites us to consider if the experiences of immigrant people of color have truly changed since the 1950s. 

The song “America” is a reflection of the conflicting realities of immigrant inclusion and exclusion in this country. This musical number features an ensemble performance from the Sharks that unapologetically defines their vibrant Puerto Rican ethnic identity. Notably, this distinct immigrant identity is established as the Sharks highlight the glories and downfalls of the American Dream. 

Firstly, “America” makes a statement on the unique flair, drama, and energy that exudes from Puerto Rican immigrants.The song takes place on a barren rooftop of New York City. Looming metal beams make criss-crossing structures over a backdrop of dimmed city lights and nearby brick buildings. The costuming of the Sharks shines in stark contrast to this dark and muted set design. Shimmering shades of lavender, bright red roses, and pink ruffles adorn the hips of the Puerto Rican women. Their hair is permed to perfection, eyeliner accentuates their expressive eyes, and golden hoops dangle from their ears. The men have their hair slicked back and they are dressed in prim dress shirts and pants of burgundy, purple, and grey tones.  Before “America” starts, Bernado, the leader of the Sharks, is holding his girlfriend Anita in his arms. He kisses her head playfully in the midst of other affectionate couples. The atmosphere is flirty and fun and soon after the guys and gals split up to begin a dance battle of sorts. 

When the Sharks begin dancing, their bodies fill the screen. Their movements take space. Anita’s movements are especially bewitching. When she moves her arms, they reach far above her head. When she bends her back, her head reaches for the ground. She is sassy with her expressions, turning at angles to face the camera, chin down and eyes looking up. The women’s dance movements are accompanied by claps, whistles, and cheers from the men. Even though both groups are on opposing sides, there is still exchange happening. Each side takes turns to let the other express themselves. The men tap across the rooftop diagonally, meeting the women in a corner of the stage. Then, the men dance backwards, eyes facing the women, and hands leading them to the front. In this way, the expression of their Puerto Rican ethnic identity is defined as welcoming, energetic, and rooted in love. Despite the arguments, the men and women still laugh, smile and flirt with each other. They invite each other to dance, enjoying each other’s company. Thus, “America” allows the Sharks to affirm their Puerto Rican identity through music and dance. 

“America” additionally makes a statement on the fraught nature of assimilation and integration for immigrants. While the women envision a rose-tinted American Dream, the men sulk on the harsh realities of racism and poverty instead. The song’s lyrics play off this tension and they follow a feisty back and forth between the men and women. Colliding lyrics include “Free to be anything you choose/Free to wait tables and shine shoes” and “Life is all right in America/If you’re all-white in America.” Thus, the women’s naive optimism regarding the American Dream is sharply cut short by the men’s cynical realism.

Ultimately, “America” shows how inclusion and acceptance is conditional. Equality is contingent on the color of your skin, the language that you speak, the accent of your voice, and the land from which your ancestors came. These ideas go against the concept of meritocracy that America prides itself in. If you just work hard enough, all your dreams will come true. If you still don’t achieve them, you probably didn’t deserve it in the first place. Despite their perseverance, the Sharks can never raise their heads with pride and dignity in West Side Story. Their place among the lower rungs of the racial hierarchy are a significant deterrent to their acceptance as equals. 

West Side Story also depicts the overwhelming presence of law enforcement in the lives of immigrants. Police largely dictate the movement of the Sharks, deciding the spaces they can and cannot occupy. Their freedom is much more limited than the Jets’ because of racial and cultural bias from the police. Characters like Officer Krupke and Lt. Schrank have unbridled authority to determine who is a threat and who is not. Unsurprisingly, the Sharks are more frequently targeted. In particular, the character of Lt. Schrank regularly spews racial hatred towards the Sharks.This behavior is an extension of the racist American judicial system at large. The fact that this “racist cop” phenomenon has continued to seep its way into contemporary American life is what I find most disturbing. 

Lt. Schrank is a megalomaniac of a cop. He revels in his power to suppress and provoke the Puerto Ricans. He looks at the Sharks with disgust as he claims, “As if this neighborhood wasn’t crummy enough”. He seeks to incite hatred when he advises the Jets to leave before the Sharks “turn this whole town into a stinkin’ pig sty.” Thus, Lt. Schrank is an additional deterrent to immigrant integration. If the Sharks’ existence is governed at the hands of such corrupt agents of the state, their failure to be accepted as equal citizens comes as no surprise. 

One of the most poignant scenes of the film is when Lt. Schrank encroaches on a meeting between the Sharks and the Jets at Doc’s local drugstore. Lt. Schrank screams “Clear out!” to Bernado’s face. He mocks Bernado, claiming “It’s a free country and I ain’t got the right. But I got a badge. What do you got?” Bernado’s expression quickly changes to resolute defeat. He musters whatever dignity he has left and snaps abruptly, indicating to his members to leave with him. One by one, each Shark walks with stoic acceptance to the door. Ironically, they exit the scene while whistling to the tune of “My Country ’tis of Thee”. Bernado’s shoots one last glance towards Lt. Schrank before he shuts the door. This scene highlights, again, the futility of the Sharks’ efforts to gain an equal footing in society.

Doc’s local drugstore is also the setting for another gross abuse of power. Near the end of West Side Story, Anita goes to meet the Jets so she can relay a message from Maria to Tony. Anita’s character is quite different to the innocent, virginal female character like Maria’s, which is often idealized in media. Anita is a Puerto Rican woman who openly expresses her sexuality and enjoys her social freedoms. When Anita finds herself alone among the gang of Jets, her freedom is immediately threatened. These white males mock and intimidate her. They charge at her, lift up her skirt, and touch her without consent. As a woman of color, Anita already bears the brunt of patriarchal abuse. But her immigrant, Latina “exoticism” further objectifies her, making her even more vulnerable to abhorrent sexual violence. Anita escapes the Jets after being stripped of her dignity, her voice, and her respect as an autonomous woman. 

Perhaps the most critical aspect of West Side Story is its utmost relevance to today’s world. This musical reveals current themes of the immigrant experience which center around denial, permission, and expulsion. The bitter truth is that a story from 60 years ago continues to expose the conditional realities of belonging and exclusion for people of color in America. Why is it that the Sharks need to erase every distinguishable part of their ethnic identity in order to be seen as American? In a modern, globalized world, multiculturalism is a natural byproduct. Yet, systemic exclusion seems to be a part of the fabric of this nation. It is important to untangle these repressive knots of society in order to truly ‘let freedom ring’.

Takeaways from : Appreciation, Respect, and Ambition

Xinyi Wang

Hamilton has lightened up Broadway since 2015 with its wonderful mixing of serious history and creative artistic elements. It reflects on the legendary life of Alexander Hamilton — the thriving and devastating story of this tragic giant — yet dissects and then reconstructs it into a story of an immigrant starting from the bottom to fight for the American dream. This is the portrait of America, a country of immigrants. On the stage of Hamilton, this portrait is elaborately adorned with many designs, including elements of repeating lyrics, substantive hip-hop performances, and performers with a diverse background. These designs made Hamilton a great musical, and more importantly, they emphasize the contributions made by immigrants, imprint the growingly diverse society senses of pride and belongingness, as well as awaken everyone’s ambition to build this nation a better one.

            That one sentence deeply rooted in every audience’s mind shapes who Alexander Hamilton is. Compared to other founding fathers, Alexander Hamilton is always the more controversial one: he is the youngest, yet he is the poorest; his contributions to the Revolution War and the establishment of the financial system are undeniable, yet his conceit and aggressiveness in politics are widely criticized. However, despite his widely known identity as a representative politician or simply a historic figure, Hamilton focuses on the hindered identity: an immigrant from Charlestown Nevis who realized his value in the land of America. The very first lyrics “How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean by Providence impoverished in squalor grow up to be a hero and a scholar?” well emphasized the immigrant identity of Hamilton. Throughout his lifetime, his opponent Burr would repeat his lyrics whenever Hamilton made any achievements, reminding others of his inferior identity. Burr is not the only one who kept repeating information about immigrants; Hamilton would repeat for himself as well. At every significant moment in his life — getting married, scandals being exposed, until dying from the battle — Hamilton reflected on his experience immigrating from Nevis to New York and achieving his career. Another character as an immigrant affiliate to illustrate contributions made by immigrants from all over the places: the one “who’s unafraid to step in”, who is “constantly confusing, confounding the British henchman”, Marquis de Lafayette! Lafayette worked closely with Hamilton in the Revolution War, fighting for the independence of the nation without any fear or hesitation. They were proud to show everyone once and once more: “Immigrants, we get the work done!” 

            The repeating lyrics in the middle of fast beats emphasized the fact that Alexander Hamilton and other gentlemen like him who contributed to the country are all immigrants. They are proud of their identities, while they love their country as deeply as natives do. This elaborately designed element caught every audient’s heart well because it reflects on American society in reality. Ever since the 17th century, immigrants from all over the world migrated into America, and immigration kept changing the composition of the population until today. As immigrants with diverse cultural and religious backgrounds interacted on the same piece of land during the past years, the diversity in culture has become an impression of American society, effectively affecting the development. Though immigrants came from multiple homelands, spoke multiple languages, and believed in various religions, they held the same dream when they step on the land of America, which is to fight for a brighter future. This ambition in common is summarized by the symbol “American dream” and is again well claimed by Hamilton’s repetitive arias: “I’m just like my country, I’m young, scrappy and hungry.” Through all of these repeating arias, <Hamilton> appreciates the significance of contributions made by all the immigrants and eulogizes the “American dream” and the striving spirit of everyone in this diverse society.

            Besides the “sung-through” with many repeating lyrics, the hip-hop performances are another revolutionary creation made by Hamilton that further reflects on the immigration cultures. Distinguished from traditional musicals, Hamilton mixed jazz, hip hop, and rock music together, and combined popular music in the 21st century and serious political history in the 18th century together, giving audiences a brand-new vision of classics. The hip-hop performances cater to the appreciation of immigration culture from three perspectives. Firstly, the upbringing of hip-hop matches the life experience of Alexander Hamilton. Born in the slum block Bronx, New York City, and thriving with the black culture, hip hop has been the representative of a popular culture rooted from the bottom of the society. Its specialty in social identity, ethnicity, and a spirit of rebellion fit Alexander Hamilton’s spirit and the revolutionary social atmosphere across the nation at that time well. Similar to the black communities who are proud of their pop culture, Hamilton takes his immigrant identity for granted as well. Secondly, the spiritual core of hip hop reflects on the spirits of minority immigrants, struggling from the bottom-most social status to realize their American dream. Hamilton’s transition from powerless immigrants to founding fathers of the United States is an illustration of his struggling as well. In addition to the spirit of working hard, hip hop’s tradition of “underground” illustrates its supporters’ pursue of freedom and independence; though developing underground against the major trend in society, hip hop lovers never cease to express their eagerness of singing freely and confidently in front of more people in their songs. It is the pursuit of freedom that enkindles the enthusiasm to overthrow the British colonialism in America in the 18th century. Finally, considering the form of expression in hip hop, the strong sense of rhythm and beats, <Hamilton> sceneries the cabinet debates among senior ministers into battles between rappers. As president Washington becomes the host of the battle, Hamilton and Jefferson express their political views regarding national debt and international relationships through hip hop. This form of music makes serious history more acceptable and more interesting for audiences today, taking a step forward to forge a sense of nationalism.

            While the repeating lyrics aim at the appreciation of the immigrant community, and the inspirational adaptation of hip hop is to respect the cultural diversity from various communities in the society, <Hamilton> is also excellent in building every character instead of depicting an ethnic group as a whole. This musical is passing on the idea of equality to audiences not only conceptually, but touchingly through every vivid and lively character on the stage. In “My Shot”, Laurens calls out “But we’ll never be truly free until those in bondage have the same rights as you and me” to defend black citizens’ equal rights. In the first cabinet debate, Hamilton suggested irrationality when Jefferson said “We plant seeds in the south. We create.” Because “We know who is doing the planting.” Hamilton and his companions criticized the exploitation of black labors in the south by white elites like Jefferson and appreciated the indispensable contributions made by the black people. Besides, there are several times that Washington faced audiences alone, introspecting his “flaws”. The president is not the only one who confesses to the audiences; in the finale, Eliza sings about how she is “still not through”— after she “raise funds in D.C. for the Washington monument”, “speak against slavery”, “established the first private orphanage in New York City” — she kept asking: “Have I done enough? Will they tell my story?” Eliza is the epitome of millions of women, who were ambitious in promoting the development of society in their ways yet being neglected in the mainstream historic narration. Just as the finale “Who lives, who dies, who tells you a story” indicates, everyone fighting for the nation should be remembered, regardless of his or her ethnicity or gender.

            In addition to shaping figures on the stage through their performances, Hamilton also support the idea of equality through its casts. As a Broadway musical based on the story of the white founding father of the United States, “Hamilton” has been subversively using a large number of minorities and female actors such as African Americans, Latinos, Latinos, etc. as leading actors and group actors since its premiere. The main character Hamilton has appeared in multiple productions on Broadway, National Tour, and West End with actors of different ethnicities; in the Broadway premiere version, President Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and the Skyler sisters are all cast by actors of different skin colors. Within the increasingly diverse cultural background, <Hamilton> innovates by adopting theories like “conceptual casting”, “cross-cultural casting”, choosing the actors who best fit the artistic performance of the musical instead of who meet the requirements like skin color and such. 

            As the producer and playwright of Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda, once said, this is a past story told by contemporary America. Through revolutionary elements on the musical stage including repeating lyrics, innovations in hip hop performances, and dynamic characters, Hamilton constructs an emotional bund between the past and contemporary American society, inspiring everyone to realize their “American Dream”, to love the nation and everyone else regardless of their ethnicity and gender. 

Fiddler on the Roof Makes Me Proud to Be a Jewish Woman

A Closer Look at the Coexistence of Tradition and Choice in Judaism

BY MAYA PARNESS

Growing up as an Ashkenazi Jewish woman whose family has been in the United States since the early 1900s (a classic Eastern European ancestral Jewish cocktail of Russian, Ukrainian, and Austrian), Fiddler on the Roof has the magical ability to make me feel seen. Now, my practice of Judaism, at least on the surface, is very different from the Jewish practice that Jerry Bock, Joseph Stein, and Sheldon Harnick present in Fiddler. My denomination, the Reform movement, is relatively secular and rooted in individual autonomy within Jewish practice.  “So Maya,” you may ask, “how exactly does Fiddler on the Roof speak to your soul this much if it’s so different from the Judaism you know?” The answer to your question is because it’s really not that different. In many ways, Reform Judaism and the Judaism presented in Fiddler are very similar— significantly, they both hold ideas of tradition and choice at their core. To a non-Jewish audience, it might seem as though notions of belonging in Fiddler on the Roof are dependent on the ability of individuals to strictly adhere to Jewish tradition by way of community norms around ethnicity and gender. However, the Judaism presented in Fiddler on the Roof is, in its own way, revolutionary in that it redefines who belongs in the community through its definition of what belongs in the community. In creating space for tradition and choice to not only coexist but to strengthen one another, Fiddler’s Jewish community in turn creates space for anyone to belong so long as they do not actively undermine the community’s core.

First, I’d like to define what the Eastern European Jewish tradition interpreted by Fiddler actually is and how it got to be that way. In the song “Tradition,” Tevye outlines pretty clearly what everyone’s role is. The men make a living and study Torah, while the women care for the family and keep a “kosher” (read: Jewish) home. It’s clear that these roles are very gendered, but it’s important to understand that these gender roles are not oppressive. In Jewish text, women are seen as inherently more spiritual than men and thus are exempt from certain commandments in order to focus on nurturing the cultural identity of the Jewish people which is centered in the home. Being exempt does not mean being forbidden. Women do not have to go to synagogue, but if they have the time and would find it meaningful to do so, they may. Additionally, the spiritual work of women (upholding Judaism in the home) is viewed as equally important to the spiritual work of men (studying at synagogue)— neither the synagogue nor the home are considered more sacred than the other. Women in Fiddler’s Jewish society have a lot of agency and value within their observance of tradition, evidenced by the song “Do You Love Me?” in which Golde decides she loves Tevye who is a stand-in for tradition, therefore choosing tradition despite being exposed to the different choices her daughters have made. How Jewish women are oppressed in Fiddler is no different from how the men are oppressed, in that the oppression as perpetrated by the Russians is due to their Judaism. Many of the gendered and insular traditions of this community come from centuries of persecution that have resulted in relative segregation from non-Jewish society for safety concerns along with specific delegation of roles to preserve faith and tradition despite everyone around them wanting them assimilated or exiled at best and wiped out at worst. 

Alongside the everpresent backdrop of tradition in Fiddler on the Roof is the pervasive force of choice, particularly the choices made by Tevye’s family and those who come in contact with it, and this change actually strengthens Jewish tradition as opposed to dismantling it. We can look at Tzeitel’s love story as emblematic of this phenomenon. When Motel asks Tevye for permission to marry Tzeitel, Tevye’s knee-jerk reaction is to comment on how two young people making a pledge for each other is “unheard of” and “absurd,” but not against tradition. But when Motel’s strong assertion makes it clear that Tzeitel will not starve, which Golde and Tevye both identify as an important factor in their decision to accept Lazar Wolf’s offer, Tevye points up at G-d and yells “Tradition!” and then shrugs, as if to say, “this new idea and tradition can coexist.” He then accepts Motel’s proposition, leading to the most beautiful show of Jewish tradition and its interaction with choice in the entire musical: the wedding scene. 

In wedding scene, we see the whole community, even Yente, come together over the union of Tzeitel and Motel, each of them joining together for an emotional chorus of “Sunrise, Sunset,” in which, sung and dressed in relative unison, reflects on the inherent change that occurs with the passage of time as individuals grow up and come into their own lives and choices. Once they are married, the whole community breaks out into dance, which initially is separated by gender, but eventually, Perchik challenges the community to consider another choice they can make— to break shomer negiah, the Jewish practice of abstaining from touching members of the opposite gender to whom one is not married or related. And then they do. Hodel dances with Perchik, not to reject tradition (during the first time they dance together, Hodel decisively asserts “we like our ways!”) but to add to what tradition can mean. Tzeitel and Motel dance together, Golde and Tevye dance together, and then the whole crowd does the same. Hodel even starts to dance with the Rabbi, who makes his own choice to remove the element of touch by extending a handkerchief to Hodel but still continues to dance with her. Here, we see the Jewish community make a choice to change the external manifestation of tradition, the practice of shomer negiah, in order to strengthen the internal reason for the tradition in the first place: joy and celebration. This show of a change in the tradition is not any more or less joyful than the celebration before the change was put into place— the dances are just as percussive and joyful, the ensemble claps and smiles just as much. The tradition was strengthened (though not necessarily improved) by widening the definition of what tradition can include. It’s also notable that this change in tradition was not what stops the wedding. The two events that put a damper on the joy of wedding are attacks on choice, namely Lazar Wolf’s attempt to assert his own dominance over Tzeitel’s choices when he argues that this was supposed to be his wedding, and attacks on community itself, i.e. the Russians starting a literal pogrom, causing the community to scatter, and then destroying the town, including throwing out pieces of paper from inside Jewish stores (read: Jewish text/law) and burning down buildings emblazoned with Jewish stars. 

As Tzeitel and Motel’s story is an example of a transition from challenging previously held notions in Jewish tradition to communal acceptance, there is another story of eventual acceptance into the community— Chava and Fyedka. When Chava first tells Tevye of the close relationship between them, Tevye reminds her, “you must not forget who you are and who that man is,” referring to the fact that Fyedka, as a Russian, is part of the group that actively oppresses the Jewish people of Anatevka, and, as we are reminded by this exchange occurring outside of Tzeitel and Motel’s house, are willing to destroy them. He then says, “a bird may love a fish, but where will they build a home together?” These are not statements made in anger, these are statements made out of genuine concern for Chava’s wellbeing. He understandably does not see how someone of an oppressed community can have a truly equitable and safe relationship with one of their oppressors. Of course, his tone is angry once she officially says she and Fyedka want to get married, but his face is shocked and confused. “Marrying outside of the faith? Do you know what that means?” he asks. He is asking her if she knows it could lead to her losing her faith and her culture via assimilation into Fyedka’s values. This is why it makes a lot of sense when Tevye declares Chava to be dead after she elopes with Fyedka, through a Christian wedding no less— in his eyes, she has lost her culture and therefore she has lost herself. Historically, if Jews will do anything to stay alive, they convert to Christianity. But most Jewish people, like the Anatevka Jews, choose to continue practicing Judaism despite the misfortune that will befall them because of it. Tevye posits that Chava is dead to him not because he’s angry that she’s disobeyed him, but because for Tevye, if you marry the oppressor, you stop being Jewish, so you might as well have died because you are not you anymore. 

This leads me to the community’s acceptance of their marriage. It’s easy to conflate the exile of Tevye from his home with a release of communal expectations that resulted in his begrudging change of heart. But that’s not what’s happening in that scene— note the moment where Tevye drops his resolve. Tevye avoids eye contact with the couple until Fyedka says, “We cannot stay among people who do such things to others,” and then Tevye looks at them. This moment of eye contact is an acknowledgement. He realizes that Fyedka is not interested in upholding the dominant oppressor culture through complicity, and therefore will not require Chava to sacrifice any part of herself. This moment allows Tzeitel to wish Chava and Fyedka goodbye, and with no hesitation, Tevye adds, “and G-d be with you.” He accepts Chava and Fyedka because Fyedka has rejected the ideology that directly undermines the Jewish community and therefore the ideology that undercuts Chava’s very personhood. The community doesn’t seem to have a problem with them either— nobody pays Chava and Fyedka much mind as they walk away. They’re all in the same boat— forced out of their home, in one way or another, by Russian othering of Jewishness. And by accepting a marriage so out of the norm as Chava and Fyedka’s, Jewish tradition has done what it does best— reaffirming everyone’s personhood. 

In Fiddler on the Roof, it’s so easy to think that change and choice are enemies of tradition. We can take a surface-level look at Jewish tradition and conclude that Jewish women are oppressed, that every choice made that doesn’t explicitly fall within tradition is actively undercutting it, that exile from Anatevka was a hidden blessing because it provided a backdrop in which social norms fall to the wayside and allowed Jewish people to embrace more progressive values. But this surface-level take is a trap. It’s what people like the Russians want everyone to think, so it seems that Jewish tradition is an outdated and backwards ideology and that only assimilation into modern ideals can set Jewish people free, because then it’s easier to dehumanize us and destroy us one way or another. But if we think about tradition, choice, and change as things that amplify and uplift one another, we see Judaism for what it really is— a people that reaffirms the humanity of all that do the same for them. Jewish tradition is living, breathing, and ever-changing, and it makes space for everyone to have value and everyone to have agency. This is the tragedy of  “Anatevka”— the community was learning and changing together, just as they were from the opening notes of “Tradition,” and exile, or, destruction of Jewish community, leaves just one fiddler on a sad, cold, and gray screen, playing the same melody, but playing it alone. 

The Heights of Controversy: Lin-Manuel Miranda Made A Mistake

Lovingly Written by Maggie Mershon

When Lin-Manuel Miranda developed In the Heights, he intended for it to be a story of his Latin heritage for other people of Latin heritage. At the root of the show, this sentiment remains. Miranda weaves the story of Usnavi, Benny, Nina, and Vanessa, The Rosarios, Abuela Claudia as they go from day to day in their community in Washington Heights. As was his intent, Miranda created characters for Latino people that weren’t seen on the Broadway stage. These were not gang members or criminals, but people with dreams, striving for a better life.

However, as the show continued to move up the ladder of financial success and those risking capital became integral to your production. An artist can, in some cases, become beholden to the whims of those who pay hundreds of dollars to see these shows, and perhaps lose focus of his intended audience in favor of their paying audience. In other words, It’s a majority white, incredibly privileged audience who expects to be involved in the story that’s on stage. So how does that affect the way the story is told? Does it change the meaning of the musical when the people who are watching are expected to be “in on” what’s going on? Does it force the show to shed its intended identity? I believe that in the context of performance to a majority white audience, In the Heights compromises its original intention-to exhibit a genuine picture of Latin culture-and instead through its story, lyrics, and casting actively caters to this audience and tokenizes what should be empowered.

If you don’t know Miranda from Heights or Hamilton, perhaps you recognize him from Internet lip-biting infamy

Source: @Lin_Manuel via Twitter

In this class, we’ve been talking a lot about Hamilton, another show written by and starring Miranda. Specifically, we’ve talked about the piece delivers a centrist narrative that appeals to both sides of the aisle and is unable to communicate an impactful message of systematic change. I believe that this commentary also applies to In the Heights, where even then, Miranda is fully aware of who his audience is. In the opening number, we hear him sing, “You may be thinkin’ / I’m up shit’s creek / I’ve never been north of 96th street,” a direct reference to the demographic difference across the geography of Manhattan.

In this story we follow several diverse members of a neighborhood in Washington Heights, as they simply go about their lives. They work incredibly hard to sustain themselves: Usnavi demonstrates this in his opening rap, rattling off the orders of his bodega’s regulars; Mr. Rosario sells his business to provide for his daughter; and  Vanessa works from the crack of dawn every day to try and get out of her toxic home life. There is a sense that because these characters all work extremely hard and look out for one another, they will achieve what they are aiming for, as The Engineer in Miss Saigon refers to it, The American Dream. The audience wants to see them achieve this dream: financial success, a family, and a home where they are happy and loved. The musical does not disappoint in this regard. When Abuela Claudia gives Usnavi her lottery winnings, she gives him a chance to do whatever he wants-he has earned this money through his hard work and caring for the people around him. In the beginning of the musical he talks about how desperate he is to get back home to Puerto Rico. Once he has that money? Usnavi ruminates on his live in New York and is no longer driven to return to the Dominican Republic. He concludes he is already at home, Washington Heights is his home and his dream.

This is a beautiful sentiment. The idea that the community in which Usnavi grew up is the one in which he feels happy and secure is great, but the gentrification that the characters are fighting does not disappear in the reality of these characters. The musical may end before we see our protagonists pushed out, but it is coming sure enough. And as this home Usnavi takes up becomes destined to some destitute fate, Usnavi takes up its burden, promising to keep the legacies of the people who live there, to serve them and to uplift their beautiful stories. He’s even decided to go on a second date with Vanessa, whose coworkers helped pay to get her out of her current living situation. With the money he has earned from being a good guy, Usnavi is able to uplift his community and sustain his home.

Who wouldn’t give these faces winning lottery tickets?

Source: Carlito Pucl, ‘In the Heights’ – 2008 Tony Awards Performance – 96000, YouTube

Honestly, I would be shocked if such a heartwarming ending didn’t bring a tear to your eye or swell your heart. This ending provides the audience with an inspiration sendoff that, “Wow, anyone really can follow their dreams.” But that is not the case. It’s an exceptional act of kindness for Vanessa’s coworkers to give her enough money for a down payment, but what happens when she can’t pay next months rent? It’s touching that Mr. Rosario would sell his business to support his daughter but how will he continue to afford life in the community he has called home for so long? And concerning Usnavi-lottery tickets don’t come around every day. Without this enormous completely random gift, how would he continue to support his failing business as he watches the community around him crumble? Furthermore, should it be his responsibility to take care of the community with this money now that he has it? Of course, when watching people on stage and considering morality, we all know what we should do, and what Abuela, Usnavi’s mentor, would have done. But Usnavi as an individual, supporting the community off of one lottery ticket and warding off gentrification is unrealistic and an irresponsible way to portray hope. These stories of people lifting each other up in their community are beautiful and touching but they only treat symptoms and absolve the audience from their guilt and power to stop the root of the disease.

Built into the design of the show are assumptions about the culture that Miranda has acknowledged are not necessarily perfect. In an interview he gave at Swarthmore College, he noted that Abuela Claudia’s journey was, “the farthest outside my experience, I did a lot of research on Cuba and that initial wave of migration in the 40s, and then your job is to forget about it… your job is to write this woman’s story, so you choose, “Okay, when did she get here? What was her experience?” (Zapata, Rosado, Martinez, & Miranda, 2011) Miranda as well as any one understands that there are inconsistencies within his story, which, when presented for an audience that comes from that same background, and understands these things as well as he does, works in his favor. In the case of the specific demographic of Heights’s Broadway audiences, it doesn’t necessarily support the multicultural message intended.

Multiculturalism is an essential component to the spirit of In the Heights. In the opening number, the ensemble sings, “I hang my flag up on display / it reminds me that I came from miles away.” Each member of the ensemble has a story and a culture that they individually bring to their community in Washington Heights. For example, Miranda, a Puerto Rican man, plays Usnavi, a second generation Dominican. Miranda thought it was important to accurately represent the culture of Washington Heights, Usnavi be Dominican. However, when it came down to casting him, Miranda made the decision to compact the two cultures and, instead of finding a Dominican actor to fill the role, played it himself. Miranda received criticism for the inaccuracy of his Dominican accent for other Latino members of the theatre community but was widely accepted by audiences who saw the Broadway show, a majority of whom were white. This oversight directly opposes pursuits of multiculturalism, ignoring a character trait of its main character and gently assimilating Latino culture into one generic whole. Though in word Miranda succeeded in creating this multicultural community, it feels as though an active choice was made that this small design element wasn’t important enough or would not catch the attention of its audience if not corrected.

A DC production of In the Heights throws their flags up on display!

Source: Olney Theatre Center

I sincerely hope that this piece doesn’t come across as hateful, as there is a lot of wonderful work done by In the Heights. When it opened, the producers actively tried to make some seats available to audiences of lower-income backgrounds, targeting communities represented in the show. There are students around the globe who can now study theatre through characters that were written to look and act like them. That is an incredible achievement. But all the whole house can’t be filled by people not paying full price because profits will go down. And in terms of the Broadway show, what good can the piece do if it’s not accessible to the audience it seeks to empower? Even more, if there’s no call to action, no holding the white audience it is presented for responsible, then does it simply become a tokenization of culture? A story of immigrants pulling themselves up by their bootstraps that a white audience can feel good about, totally removed from, and forget at the end of the day?

When he wrote In the Heights, Miranda worked closely with Director Tommy Kail, who sometimes couldn’t understand the Spanish he was incorporating, and Miranda would pull it back. In his words, “we knew our goal in this show … 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” (Zapata & Miranda, 2011). Except Fiddler on the Roof didn’t play to contemporary crowds of anti-semetic Russians. The compromise and concessions that Miranda made to create a story that would fit on the Broadway stage didn’t make it any less of a literary success. It just may have had the impact it wanted if had it actually played in the heights.

Find Below a Work I Cited:

Miranda, L. (2011). In the Heights: A Conversation with Lin-Manuel Miranda [Interview by R. Zapata, A. Rosado, & L. Martinez]. Retrieved November 16, 2020, from https://www.swarthmore.edu/news-events/heights-a-conversation-lin-manuel-miranda

You (Don’t) Belong with Me: Senseless Racism in the Face of Eastern European Jewish Culture

By: Kacy Jones (the token goy on the Hillel Jewish Life Committee)

The simplistic plot of Fiddler on the Roof in five words would go something like: tradition, family, love…pogroms…exile? Historically, not an unexpected twist, but a truly heartbreaking one as the show places viewers alongside Tevye and we follow life as he does – loving with him, learning with him, and, eventually, leaving with him. We experience firsthand the acceptance the community finds in new expressions of cultural values and people foreign to their belief system. Though the Jewish men and women of Anatevka should not be expected to be kind to their oppressors, they make a point to not rock the boat between cultural divides out of kindness and fear of harm. However, this outpouring of love and goodness from the Jews is not reciprocal and the respect they give is met with purely racially motivated violence and death – physical death from outside antisemitism and the looming Holocaust, as well as death of their lifestyle. It’s perhaps surprising that the quintessential musical celebrating the beliefs and open-mindedness of Eastern European Jewish culture ends with the characters being stripped of their identity as they’re forced to move to countries that will refuse to acknowledge their religion and ways of life, but when you’re the minority, you don’t get to choose when and how you belong.

            For the Jews in Anatevka, there is no right way to belong. Sure, Fiddler on the Roof, specifically the 1971 movie musical by Jerry Bock, Sheldon Harnick, and Joseph Stein and directed by Norman (Not-Actually-A)Jewison, starts with a song called “Prologue/‘Tradition’,” but the musical makes clear that these are traditions that can be altered if anyone wants to do things differently. It’s also a bit of a joke, as Tevye posits that the papa has “the final word at home,” but he invents wild schemes so that his wife Golde will accept his opinions and he always lets his daughters do what they wish. This is not to say that tradition does not have a place in Eastern European Judaism or in Fiddler. It does, as shown by many of the main characters and the Jewish ensemble. The main characters also change certain customs, but tradition is not the enemy of change and neither is depicted as being more valid than the other. Golde married Tevye via a matchmaker and yet they still have a loving marriage and wonderful partnership full of respect. In the song “Do You Love Me?” we learn that Golde is very happy with the life she has created, in the same way her daughter Tzeitel is, despite the fact that Tzeitel found love with Motel rather than marrying Lazar Wolf. Tevye’s anger at Tzeitel does not come from a place of sticking to tradition only, but from a place of care and concern for his daughter. He wants her to live comfortably in a way he could not provide for Golde, but once Motel says Tzeitel will not starve, Tevye relents. Similarly, the initial concerns Tevye has for Hodel’s marriage also come from a place of fatherly love rather than nonexistent overbearing religious and cultural values. Hodel plans to get married with or without her father’s consent, which breaks convention, and then she moves away from their insular community, which could be dangerous, but her father simply asks her to stay Jewish, and therefore still herself and safe, and asks God to keep her warm. Hodel also doesn’t go to Siberia in order to leave her culture. She expresses sadness about all of the things she must leave behind, but she goes for love. This is not depicted as heroic or more important than what Tzeitel or even Golde have done. It is simply a choice, one Hodel is free to make, as is everyone in the town while still belonging to Jewish culture and to each other.

            This bond between custom and innovation is encapsulated in Tzeitel and Motel’s wedding scene where each member of the ensemble creates their own way of celebrating their culture, while not invalidating anyone else’s. Lazar Wolf’s anger at not being able to marry the 19 year old of his choosing aside, the rest of the community is happy to support the couple and the family at the wedding. And when Perchik, a man from outside the specific Anatevkan community, encourages men and women to touch and dance, most everyone does. However, again, this is revolutionary in that people who believe unmarried men and women should not touch are dancing together, but it is not portrayed as growth or better than the old way. It is simply a choice one could make and one everyone makes differently. The Rabbi is pulled onto the floor and unknowingly dances with Hodel, but as soon as he realizes, he backs away. Tevye prompts him joyfully to dance and the Rabbi brings out a piece of fabric so that he can dance with the women without compromising his personal beliefs and everyone looks on in glee. Tevye also asks Golde to dance and, when she hesitates, he slaps his hands together and she takes them. Before this clap, Topol’s Tevye gives a very telling glance to God. In it, he seems to convey “I hope I made the right choice. I hope you will not smite me” and then you can see him make the decision that if God will smite him for encouraging men and women to dance, he may as well dance with his wife. So his clap is out of fear for possibly misjudging the balance between tradition and change, but also excitement at something new. These reactions to the dance represent what every Jewish person in Anatevka goes through over the course of the musical. They must find the ways in which they want to embody their values, but they also allow for the new and respect the choices others make.

            The Jewish people are incredibly loving and open minded, even to the Russians around them, and yet the wedding scene is broken up by a violent attack from the Constable and his non-Jewish companions. The Jews have done nothing wrong nor have they disturbed their gentile neighbors and yet it is their Star of David marked buildings that go up in flames. The camera lingers on the smirks of the men before they tear the wedding hall to shreds, but during the destruction we are only allowed to see the screams of the victims and the destruction of property. We do not need to see the face of the oppressor as they destroy because this is not a story about how individual men have targeted anger. The Russians are just a racist hive mind, unable to respect other ways of living. Instead, glass shatters and we get a close up of the Rabbi who minutes earlier found joy in change and acceptance, only now his face is appalled at the unexplainable hatred of his peers. Although the Jews were nothing but respectful to those in the village who “make a much bigger circle” and Tevye even formed a close bond with the Constable, it is not enough to save them from the racism of the Russians. When the Constable tells Tevye there is to be a pogrom, Tevye responds “You are a good man. If I may say so, it is a shame you are not a Jew.” The most good a man from outside the Jewish faith in Anatevka can do is let him know of future violence. The bond between the Jews and the Russians is not a symbiotic one. Rather, the Russians have all of the power and they decide under what circumstances the Jewish people can stay there unharmed.

            The Jews in Anatevka even try to assimilate to the best of their ability when in public with the Russians, but it does not change how they’re viewed in greater society. In “To Life,” the Jewish men dance traditionally with spinning and high arm movements before being stopped so that the Russians can show off their own cultural dances, backing the Jewish men to the wall. They only invite Tevye in to dance when he is accidentally pushed onto the dance floor and you can see the apprehension in his fellow men when the Russian extends his hand. Topol in his portrayal of Tevye takes the hand with a devilish raise of his eyebrow, a sign that he does not know what is going to happen but he certainly would not be allowed to refuse. The Jerome Robbins choreography that follows (adapted for the screen by Tom Abbott) is not a collaboration between cultures, but a brilliant depiction of coercion and assimilation at play. The Russians rush towards the Jews with kicks and sprints, which are part of their own traditional dances, but take on new aggressive meaning when being performed towards the minority group they hate. The Jewish men eventually go back into their own raised arm dance, while the gentiles snake between their legs. This does not last long, though, and soon the Jews are back to copying the Russian moves. This scene and the choreography explain the power imbalance between the two groups. One group belongs, while the other must pretend to be something they aren’t to fit in and avoid danger for as long as they can.

            Fiddler on the Roof is an important look at an oft-misunderstood culture, and spends much of its runtime focusing on both the beauty of the long historical traditions and the willingness of the Eastern European Jewish people to adapt and change when members of the community see fit. The musical takes care to show exactly how the Jewish people belong among each other, which is with respect for differing beliefs and customs, and also depicts how the Jewish community fit within Russia, which is to say it didn’t. Not because of the Jewish community itself, but because the majority group was unwilling to see the humanity of the community right under their noses. The ending of  Fiddler where everyone loses not only their personal cultures they’ve worked so hard to cultivate and define, but also lose each other and other living remnants of their way of life is a heartbreaking one. It is proof that belonging within your own community can only get you so far when you are in the minority and that no amount of goodness, love, and respect can save you from hatred from people who do not wish to understand you or see you as an equal.

Puerto Ricans Are The Odd Ones Out

Let’s play a game. 

It’s called “which singer does not belong.” I’m going to give you four names and you have to tell me which one does not belong. And yes, you have to choose one. 

Ready? 

Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Jennifer Lopez, and Brittney Spears.

5 seconds left…

Okay, time’s up. What’s your answer?

Did you choose Jennifer Lopez? 

If you did choose JLO, ask yourself why. Was it because she is the oldest one out of the group? Maybe because she hasn’t made any hit songs lately? Maybe you’re a World of Dance fan? Despite these justifications, the reason may be deeper than any of those: she is the only American singer on the list who isn’t white. Although you may think that you were not considering ethnicity when choosing your answer, the world that you live in inherently sees race before anything else, and in America especially, there are racist stereotypes that feed into our first perceptions of others. And while we can all try our hardest to suppress these implicit biases, they are impossible to escape.

The classic film musical West Side Story is an iconic example of these stereotypes. Either knowingly or unknowingly, we tend to exclude immigrant groups out of the American identity because the term “American” has now become synonymous with “white.” This white American identity is incredibly ironic because America is a country of immigrants that derives its uniqueness and its greatness from its diversity. 

West Side Story, one of America’s beloved musical performances, directed in 1961 by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins and packed with exuberant jazz and Hispanic style dances, lively music and singing, and climatic moments. It highlights the rift between two gangs: the Jets, composed of white members, and the Sharks, composed of Puerto Ricans. These two groups constantly battle over who owns “the turf,” which is contested land in the West Side of New York. The musical is a modern adaptation of “Romeo and Juliet”, and it uses the tensions between white Americans and Latinx Americans as a method of showing how arbitrary racial identity can be. The play grievously ends in the death of the two Jet members and one Shark member, including the play’s Romeo. When the movie musical was first released, it was appreciated by many Latinx community members, as it brought representation onto the stage. It was one of the first times that a movie had incorporated the experiences of the Latinx community, along with their cultures such as costumes, music, and dance, onto the big screen. While these aspects were adored by many, we as an audience must realize that the writers purposefully created racial tension between the two ethnic groups, as a way to show the disparity between American identity and cultural identity of Puerto Ricans and immigrant groups in general. They portray the Puerto Ricans’ lack of belonging within the musical through the dialogue and dancing, and in the real world through the casting. 

The main characters are Tony, Bernando, Riff, Anita, and Maria. Tony and Riff are the white Jets in the musical, whereas Bernanado, Anita, and Maria are Puerto Rican Sharks. Anita, played by Rita Moreno, was the only Puerto Rican actress. Bernando and Maria, played by George Chakaris and Natalie Wood respectively, were white American actors performing in brown face. Although Anita is the only character portrayed by a Puerto Rican, the Juliet of the adaptation, Maria, was played by a white actress. Although Latinx audiences may originally have been excited to see representation, the casting choices by the producers clearly indicate that their interest in portraying the Puerto Rican-American identity was more of a way to make money than actually caring about substantive and accurate representation. This implies that Puerto Ricans do not belong on the American Hollywood sets. Without discussing the elements of the musical, this is a perfect example of how Puerto Ricans are being excluded from the American identity. In a movie about the Puerto Rican-American identity, there is still a refusal to acknowledge what that identity looks like because they refuse to hire actors with that background and life experience, even if it could enhance the role. 

Throughout the musical, the racial tension between the white and Puerto Rican gang members was used to highlight the fact that Puerto Ricans do not belong within their community. For instance, when the two groups met at the drugstore to discuss the terms of the rumble, both sides began arguing over who started the fight. Riff, the leader of the Jets, states “who jumped Baby John this afternoon?” to which Bernando, leader of the Sharks, responds with “who jumped me the first day I moved here.” Then another Jet says “who asked you to move here…go back to Puerto Rico” These are very important lines that not only explain the origin of the tensions between them, but also reveals the internalized racism within the white boys. In the Jets’ eyes, the streets are rightfully their turf because they have internalized that only they (aka white people) belong in America and therefore, the Puerto Ricans don’t. While this portrayal of white privilege is a dangerous concept, it is an accurate representation of what occurs in the real world not only to Puerto Ricans, but to every non-white immigrant group. This argument is not something that has been lost over the last 60 years; rather, in some ways, we’ve seen these anti-immigrant sentiments rise in support, seen in videos of “Karens” claiming that “Mexicans should go back to their country because they bring drugs, black people should go to Africa because they are thugs, and Asian people should go back to China because they bring Coronavirus, or in President Trump’s words, ‘Chinese Flu’.” While such radical statements are not exactly stated in the musical, it is insinuated through the comments made by the Jets. In both the real world and the movie, ethnic groups are constantly considered the outsiders of America, just like in my “who does not belong” game. All the singers I listed are American, but the reason Jennifer Lopez unconsciously stuck out of the group is that she is the only one that is not white, and although race is always something that we see, it’s identification as a lack of belonging connects to our country’s inclination to see non-white people as outsiders.

  The Jet’s opinions on the Sharks are not insular. The constant bombardment of immigrants and people of color with these messages becomes internalized; the Puerto Ricans themselves feel like they do not belong either. In the musical number “America,” the Shark boys and girls are divided on the greatness of America. The women praise America and claim that their identity is American, while the men denounce America and claim their identity will always be with their home country, Puerto Rico. Although Anita and the girls support America, their dresses and dancing say otherwise. They wear traditional Hispanic dresses that have numerous ruffles on the bottom so that while they are dancing, they can flail it around and expose their legs. They also rhythmically tap their feet, shake their hips, spin in place, and perform high kicks. This confident and exuberant way of dancing was portrayed to parallel their pride in having an American identity, while still exuding the cultural traits of their Puerto Rican heritage. The boys on the other hand, in one specific part of the number, dance more elegantly in partners, somewhat like a ballroom and ballet type of dance, by going in releve and spinning in place. Then all of sudden, they fake slap each other across the face and scream “America.” They go back to dancing elegantly, and suddenly kick each other in the butts and scream “America” again. This contrasting and peculiar way of dancing shows how the boys think they do not belong in America because in America everything seems elegant, classy, and like a dream, but in reality America “kicks you in the ass,” especially when you’re an immigrant or a person of color, or both. This is exemplified by their reasons for why they don’t like America; the girls say there is “credit here” (elegant ballroom), but the boys respond with “they will charge twice for people who are not white” (followed by a slap in the face or a kick in the butt). At the end of the number, the two groups come together, partner up with one boy and girl, and they happily and lively dance the same upbeat Hispanic dance by clapping their hands, jumping around wildly, and skipping in place, to show that although the two groups have opposing views on America, they are all happy to share the same ethnic identity of being Puerto Rican. These two separate perspectives that they have on America is partially related to the American Dream and the violence that men of color face in America, while women of color, although they also face violence, are often also commodified, shown by how the love interest in the movie is the Puerto Rican girl. 

The movie ends in the death of Tony, a white jet who falls in love with a Puerto Rican girl named Maria. Even though Maria screams at both groups for letting their hatred for each other result in multiple deaths, the creators of the musical do not end it with both sides coming together, apologizing, and coming up with a resolution for the future. Instead, each group walks away to their respective side. This silent scene speaks the loudest in that it shows how the white people still do not see the Puerto Ricans as one of them. It portrays the real-world actions of how immigrants groups never belong in America. Despite the logic, the facts, the historical context of America, and the power of diversity in creating the America we live in today, the Jets and the Sharks represent the ongoing tension between an American identity, and a white one. It shows how Puerto Ricans have not been and currently are not, a part of the American community. In our world today, JLO is in fact the odd one out.

“In the Heights” is Not Revolutionary: How the Ordinary Story of Washington Heights Uncovers “Home”

At the end of the seventh grade I acquired the nickname “Mexico.” Actually, it wasn’t really a nickname at all, or at least not one that I approved of. I can’t remember the exact insult that led to the birth of this name, but I know one of my “friends” made some probably unoriginal jab at Mexicans, to which I replied, “uhh… I’m Mexican…” What followed was a series of comments like “no way,” “no you are not,” “are you serious?” Yes. I was serious. I am serious. And just like that——in one rare moment of me owning my ethnicity——a message was thrust upon me. A message that said “this part of your identity is laughable,” “being Hispanic is not something to be proud of,” and probably most damaging, “if you are White-passing, why expose yourself as Mexican?” As a result of that “nickname” and many other interactions and moments in my adolescence, I have never sought to unpack that part of my identity. I think I convinced myself that it just wasn’t worth it——that I wasn’t missing anything at all.

In the Heights proved me wrong. It was here——in a story seemingly very distant from my own——that I found pieces of my identity I didn’t know were missing. Through the spectacularly ordinary lens of three days in Washington Heights, the audience faces the challenge of learning more about themselves——each viewer either sees parts of their identity mirrored in the characters, or they see the absence of such.

Mama circa 1966

For me, that’s how my discovery started. I saw the absence of myself in a narrative that, ethnically, I should have fit into. But I don’t. Lin-Manuel’s lyrics in the opening number pushed me away because they tell my mama’s story, not mine. Mama, who is 100% Mexican, always told me that she felt “too White for the Black kids and too Black for the White kids” during her childhood. Even when she entered the Marine Corps at eighteen, her enlistment forms only had the options “Black” or “White.” I’ve heard this sentiment my entire life but I cannot relate to it. Personally, on the one hand I feel like a Hispanic imposter, while on the other hand, I feel like maybe I should take my White-passing skin and economic privilege and run with it as fast as I can. But where does that leave me? Honestly, sometimes it leaves me feeling utterly unknown. 

Grandpa, Mama, and Uncle Phil

That’s what I felt in the first number: unknown and frustrated. I was so close to dismissing the whole musical because——like usual——my untapped ethnicity and my Whiteness couldn’t find anything to latch on to. But instead of giving up, I started watching the Chasing Broadway Dreams episode on In the Heights. For the first time, I heard someone say the words I’ve felt my whole life, “I felt like a fake Latina.” It probably sounds crazy, but hearing Karen Olivo, who plays Vanessa, say these words unlocked a part of my being that I’ve ignored for so long. I felt like someone had finally given me permission to explore who I fully am.

That is what In the Heights is capable of: personal discovery and cultural celebration. Unlike most Broadway shows, In the Heights does not win the audience with grandeur and flashy spectacle. Even within Lin-Manuel’s own discography, In the Heights is incredibly different. Hamilton, for example, hinges on its ability to subvert the narrative of history and has often been called “revolutionary.” In the Heights is not that. In fact, it is the very opposite. At the core of the show, In the Heights is a story about a real neighborhood, real jobs, and real people——being told by actors who carry their identities with them as they step into these nuanced characters. The beauty of In the Heights is its ability to be at once engaging and incredibly ordinary. In that space of engaging and ordinary I saw the faces of people I’ve known my whole life.

Mama embracing the curls!!

I started finding myself even in the one-off, seemingly unimportant lines like “What happened to these curls?… You have to accept hair gel into your life!” In the sixth and seventh grade (it was a rough time, y’all) people loved to make fun of my big curly hair. So at the age of twelve, I started straightening it every day and I lost my curls. That moment in the salon between Nina, Daniela and Carla validated my own lived experience. When I recognized that I related to that line, I realized——on an intimately personal and visceral level——how important representation in theatre is. I am hyper aware that this small gesture toward my hair pales in comparison to the challenges faced by non-White-passing Latinx folks and other BIPOC. Nonetheless, In the Heights both validated me and called me to a higher cultural awareness toward representation.

Grandma Maria. No, I do not call her Abuela because I don’t speak Spanish, hence part of me feeling imposter syndrome

In the song “Everything I Know” I found myself close to tears (you can read more about my crying habits here: https://thewritingstage.com/2020/10/21/i-am-chris/) when Nina sings about how Abuela Claudia could barely write her name but always made sure she did her work. Every time I call my Grandma she asks me about school and says, “Good, you study hard because education is the one thing no one can ever take away from you” and it breaks my heart because she didn’t even finish high school. I’d really like to think that I’ve never taken my education for granted, but this moment demanded I stop and think about how I can better honor my family with my schooling. I even realized that I will be the first woman in my family to graduate from a four year university. My chest physically hurt when Kevin sang, “I always had a mind for investments. Nina Rosario, Bachelor of Arts. When that day comes, we’ll call it even.” In my head, I didn’t hear “Nina;” I heard my dad saying my name.

Many times throughout the recording I thought about how much my parents have given up for me. I think I arrived at the conclusion that part of my tendency to ignore my heritage is likely rooted in Mama’s efforts to make sure it was never something that held me back. I don’t resent that. Again, I will be the first one to admit that my parents provide incredibly well for me. But In the Heights illuminated the nuance of identity for me. In hearing Nina sing about searching for “home” at Stanford, I realized I didn’t even know I was searching for a more complete sense of “home” at Vanderbilt——at least not in this way. And yet, I found it. I found pieces of myself in In the Heights that I didn’t think mattered. I found home here.

“If We Are Like You In The Rest, We Will Resemble You In That”: Belonging in Fiddler On The Roof

by Olivia H.

I have an obligation to preface this essay by saying that I am not Jewish – yet. That is a very personal part of my life which I choose not to share with many people, but I feel somewhat comfortable saying that I have a more than basic understanding of Judaism and a more unique perspective. Naturally, this means that my analysis may be biased to a certain extent (sorry). It’s also important to mention that while Fiddler on the Roof is a solid starter course when it comes to learning about Jewish life, it has an inherent flaw: it’s Ashkenormative, meaning that it only focuses on one particular Jewish cultural subgroup (Ashkenazim) and fails to acknowledge the existence of other Jews (i.e. Sephardim, Beta Israel, Mizrahim, Jews of Color, etc.) Jewish life, especially in the 21st century, looks very different than it did even a century ago. 

Consider the “Us versus Them” dynamic: insider versus outsider, normal versus abnormal, accepted versus unorthodox. Jews are part of a minority ethnoreligious affiliation (where genetics are not the sole criteria of belonging, but that’s another topic for a different essay), meaning that in almost every country and community, they are the outsiders. Fiddler flips the script and reverses the dichotomy – gentiles become the “Other” and the audience is the outsiders. Yet somehow we never fully forget that Jews are and have historically been the “Them,” the “outsiders.” Pogroms and the order from the Tsar to leave Anatevka tell us that to be Jewish means to be a part of a global diaspora which is constantly on the move, despite the occasional illusion of stability and belonging in a state which will never love them the way they love it. The Jewish residents of Anatevka love their little shtetl, but they have never truly belonged there, and they will never truly belong to the new places in the United States in Eretz Yisrael (where they move post-edict). 

It must be reiterated that Fiddler is a great introduction to Jewish culture, as long as you understand that Fiddler specifically addresses Ashkenazi minhag (or accepted traditions) and a more Orthodox interpretation of halacha (Jewish law). Fiddler is not the first, or the last, movie or TV show to attempt to educate gentiles and Jews alike on Jewish culture. Most recently, the Netflix show Unorthodox gave viewers an inside look at the Satmar Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn. Fiddler, like the Netflix show, provides us a uniquely Orthodox perspective on community, belonging, interfaith relationships, and gender roles. Everyone, Jewish or Gentile, has an innate understanding of what it means to “belong” to something. What happens when Fiddler is the only source of information one has on what it means to “belong” to a Jewish community? How does this skew the viewer’s perspective on the Jewish patriarchy or various perspectives on interfaith marriage? These questions must be asked because they inform different levels of understanding the quintessential “Us versus Them” dynamic which fuels Fiddler and its resulting popularity. 

If you ask any person what the first thing they think of when you say Fiddler on the Roof (in particular, the 1971 Norman Jewison production), odds are they will say either “Tradition”, the Bottle Dance from the Wedding Scene, or maybe “If I Were a Rich Man”. “Tradition” goes through various aspects of everyday Jewish life. We meet Tevye, our hardworking protagonist, as well as other residents of the shtetl. We meet the other members of Tevye’s household- Tevye’s wife Golde and their three daughters Tzeitel, Hodel, and Chava. The Bottle Dance, or the entire Wedding Scene, introduces even more key parts of Jewish culture- the importance of weddings, dance, music, and tradition, the glue that holds the community together.“Tradition” is our opening scene, and provides all of our first impressions. People from all backgrounds can find common themes and characters, it makes us feel at home. Most people understand or at least are familiar with the concept of the nuclear family, or a heteronormative nuclear family (husband, wife, 2.5 children, the works). “Tradition” hammers the importance of family into the listener’s ears, citing Jewish familial customs and halachic practices as cornerstones of Jewish society- why one wears tzitzis, how one observes Shabbos, how one lives a so-called “righteous” life. 

This concept of family is brought up in the song, “Matchmaker, Matchmaker.” Tevye’s daughters do the household laundry as they go over their own laundry lists of suitable qualities- “for Papa a scholar, for Mama rich as a king.” But by the end of the movie, all three daughters end up with men that were neither chosen by the matchmaker nor approved by Tevye. Tzeitel marries her poor friend Motel, Hodel chooses Perchik, and Chava pairs with Fyedka, a Gentile. The latter marriage is devastating to Tevye, forcing him to mourn the loss of his daughter to what he sees as the ultimate betrayal of Jewish values and law. Tzeitel, the eldest, is the first to marry, spawning one of the most iconic scenes in Fiddler, the Wedding Scene. The men and women are split apart and separated by a cord. The women are clad in bright colors, and the men in a uniform of bekishe and peyos. It’s considered a mitzvah, a commandment or “good deed”, to entertain a bride and groom during a wedding, and the attendees certainly do their best. The men kick up clouds of dust as they perform the Bottle Dance, an act that requires dancers to carry half-full bottles on their heads as they kneel and rise in rapid succession. A plucked string accompaniment follows the first half of the dance, rising to a crescendo that is complemented by crashing cymbals and a clarinet line reminiscent of traditional klezmer music.

So how does Fiddler on the Roof reinforce these “Jewish” elements? We see characters clad in what could be called shabby shtetl chic garb, with a dusty and gritty palette that sets the stage for our introduction to shtetl life. The cacophony of the ensemble actors shows us that life in Anatevka is chaotic yet somehow also harmonious, which is oddly comforting. The storylines of the various characters may change – a widower’s life story is different from a rabbi’s, which contrasts with Tevye’s – but the steady and reliable pace, and tradition, of Jewish life provides stability to the story and history of the Anatevka shtetl. Throughout the musical, we become accustomed to the noise and the grit and we start to feel at home, lulled into a false sense of complacency and peace, until outside events (i.e. the pogrom) throw us off our rhythm and remind us once again that we are just as much outsiders in Anatevka as the Jews are outsiders in Russia, and in the rest of the diaspora at large.  I still do not feel comfortable saying that I am Jewish. I honestly don’t know that I will ever feel fully comfortable saying it. I have become acutely aware of what it means to be an outsider in what implausibly feels like home. Fiddler was almost painful to watch because I felt so connected to it, and also so uncomfortably disconnected – perhaps even alienated. We have to ask ourselves what it means to belong, and why there are these boundaries of insiders and outsiders that have been created. We are all Tevye, Golde, Hodel, Tzeitel, and Chava. We are all Perchik, Lazar Wolf, and Motel. Perhaps we are also Fyedka, or even the Constable. Fiddler asks us to initially lean into stereotypes, and then question what we think we know about what it means to be both insiders and outsiders, strangers in a strange land, poor occupants of a small shtetl. Can we ever truly belong? Fiddler would seem to argue that, while we superficially can, at the core, we are all searching to belong.  

Who am I?

 It seems like I’ve been chasing the answer to the question “Who am I?” for my whole life and still haven’t quite found it. I think for everyone, the search for identity is a common question. Almost 3 years ago, I was asked to write an essay for a scholarship application, and “Who Am I?” was the only prompt. This seemingly simple question really threw me off and I thought about it for weeks. Last minute, I ended up writing a pretty basic answer that was good enough to win the scholarship, but far from good enough to satisfy my own wonder and need for identity. I think that might be why part of me is jealous of Tevye’s daughters in Fiddler on the Roof. 

Jewish, female, and a part of a family. These three qualities defined, almost in entirety, who Tevye’s daughters were with little else left for self exploration. Ever since the beginning of their lives they knew who they were… or at least who they were supposed to be. Jewish, gendered, and a part of a family. Although it was restricting, it provided them with a set identity and secure sense of belonging. 

Tevye’s daughters first and foremost receive their sense of identity as a member of the Jewish community. When Tevye first mentions the non-jewish people in their village, he calls them the “others.” with a tone in his voice that makes it very clear how he feels about them. In a world where the Jewish people are made outcasts, the people of Anatevka have created their own community of belonging. Within their community, the mold is exactly what they are; all they have to do is follow the path that is laid out for them. 

The people of Anatevka find this path first in the Torah and its law. The Torah is like a “how to” for their life, full of rules and standards for them to follow. If anything in the Torah isn’t clear all they have to do is ask the Rabbi, and he will tell them what to do. At the beginning of the show, a young man comes to the Rabbi and says he has a question. Instantly everyone around them becomes quiet or is shushed. This clearly shows from the beginning that everyone has high respect for the Rabbi and his words. The young men are eager to follow him and learn. This is also seen in the wedding scene, when the wedding guests argue if it is wrong or not for men and women to dance together. The same effect happens, the people grow quiet and move closer, they lean in to see and hear what he will have to say with their eyes open wide. What the Rabbi says goes! When he says that dancing is not forbidden, the whole room eventually begins to dance.

Outside the word of the Torah, the cultural traditions of the Jewish religion also help define their path and who they are. Before the show opening song Tevye states, “because of our traditions, everyone knows who he is… and what God expects them to do.” It’s the simple things from how they dress–always wearing a prayer shawl and keeping their heads covered–to their behaviors. Some of these behaviors include their observance of the sabbath, their family roles, and their relationships with one another. 

The Jewish community in Anatevka also finds a sense of who they are through the gender roles expected of them in their society. This is seen through the portrayal of the men and women in the working environment. There are countless scenes of the men hard at work, and their movements in their jobs are sharp and aggressive. They are shown pulling waggons, chopping wood, smashing metal, and butchering meat (with their knives choreographed way higher in the air than I believe would be necessary). The women, in contrast, are shown doing jobs that are clean and gentle. We see them kneading dough (which arguably should be quite aggressive, but somehow isn’t), sliding food in and out of the oven at the perfect time, scrubbing children, ironing clothes, and folding the laundry. Showing how both genders do their work reflects their roles in the home and society, men as the big and strong authority figure, and women as the soft spoken, delicate keeper of the house. 

We also learn a lot about the gender roles and expectations of the people of Anatevka from their portrayal of movement in the Wedding Dance. The females movements are gentle, and they quickly fall in line. We see their chests and chins held high during their simple calm movements, with sweet smiles always on their face. They float from movement to movement like they float from task to task – quickly and quietly, sweetly and delicately. We see all of this contrasted with the movements of the men on the other side of the rope. Their movements are much less controlled – even sloppier in a way. Their arms flail out of choreography, their claps are much sharper and more aggressive. They also have bottles of alcohol as a key component of their choreography, which the women do not have. Men in Anatevka have much more freedom and say in what they do, while the women’s role is to quietly obey and be the prized possession of the men, little to no attention drawn to them. The contrast between male and female dancing in this scene show that the lives and expectations were different, but very clear. Each person is called to fit in on their side of the rope, with the small square they are allowed to dance in almost like the small space for freedom of individuality they are allowed to explore.

Finally, they find identity and belonging through their family. Family is extremely important to the people in Anatevka. There is no divorce, and a part from extreme circumstances, families rarely separate. We see this clearly in the relationship between Tevye’s daughters. The sister’s close bond is clear in their first song “Matchmaker.” We see them helping each other complete their chores and get ready for dinner. The choreography so well depicts each girl knowing exactly the move her sister is going to make next, and either assisting her or letting her shine. They sing and banter together, knowing exactly what will take the funniest but still playful jab at their sister, but not going too far as to hurt her (as someone with a sister, I know that this is a perfect art). 

We see this love and bond even further during the dance at the wedding. When the three oldest sisters dance together, their love for each other shines through. They each take turns looking at each other, with a great affection in their eyes and approval in their soft nods. They also show how fond they are of each other when Tzeitel gives each of her younger sisters a soft kiss on the cheek when they break a part. This shows that even though she is getting married, their sisterhood will never go away. They will be there for each other through thick and thin. They prove this at the end of the show when Chava comes back to say goodbye to her family after doing the unthinkable: marrying a Christain. Regardless of her status with the community, Tzeitel runs to greet her with a hug as soon as she sees her, showing that after even the worst, nothing between them could ever change; they will always be sisters. 

In Anatevka, you could be known and belong if you followed the mold, and a small part of me wonders why anyone would want to break that. It sometimes seems like being told who you are might be easier than trying to figure it out for yourself. As Tevye says, “without our traditions our lives would be as shaky as a fiddler on the roof.” So… who am I? What are my traditions, identity, and belonging? I still don’t know, but maybe “shaky” isn’t a bad thing. Shaky pushes us forward, stability just holds us back from being who we truly are meant to become.

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)

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.

Forbidden Love: Maria as Pocahontas

By Elise Darby

Pocahontas and West Side Story share a major similarity: both productions display a story of forbidden love. Just like Pocahontas and Captain John Smith, the love between Tony and Maria is disapproved of because of their different races. Both characters want the love they have never been allowed to experience, providing them with a unique taste of the culture they have been taught all their lives to despise. In both Pocahontas and West Side Story, the separation of communities creates unparalleled love stories when the two groups are at last united, speaking to the way groups, whose very existence seem to oppose each other, belong in harmony with one another.

From the beginning of West Side Story, the two different communities are separated, and their differences are highlighted. Throughout the production, it is always the Sharks versus the Jets; they do not mix. The Sharks and the Jets are divided by their ethnicity. The Puerto Rican members are all a part of the Sharks, while the Jets are a part of the white community. The ensembles never intertwine. In fact, the Jets and the Sharks despise each other. They are constantly arguing, picking on each other, and creating chaos. In front of the cops, however, they appear civilized to avoid getting in any sort of trouble with the law.

As an ensemble, their performances are divided between the two groups. In fact, their dancing is a way for the two groups to express their culture. When they dance, the movements are different within the two groups and the number is clearly divided amongst the Jets and the Sharks. For example, in West Side Story’s, “Dance at the Gym,” the Puerto Rican women move their hips, raise one hand into the air, and use the other hand to hold their skirt, which is a common dance move for their culture. On the other hand, the American Jets take big strides; they look stiff, awkward, and their dance moves do not look as swift as the Sharks. The American Jets’ dance moves would be easily described as “white.” As the Sharks take over the gym floor again, the room is filled with claps to the beat of the music. As two of the characters dance, they move elegantly with one another. The Jets, however, are more focused on flips, tricks, and sudden movements with their arms, while the Jets are twirling, moving elegantly around the room, and holding hands with one another. The Puerto Rican Sharks seem to have a more romantic, graceful movement to their dancing, which is similar to their culture that is full of romance and grace. On the contrary, the American Sharks dance sharply, and their dance moves display their “whiteness.” As the group dance ends, the division between the Sharks and the Jets quickly halts as Tony’s eyes align with Maria’s. The screen blurs out the rest of the dancers and the differences of race seem to disappear for a moment. As Maria and Tony begin to dance, they do not touch; they keep their distance at first. The background dancers have their arms together, making a bridge with their dance partner as Tony and Maria first touch, symbolizing the bridge Tony and Maria are making between the segregation of the Jets and the Sharks. As they slowly lean in for a kiss, Maria’s brother, Bernardo, quickly interrupts and stops Tony. He questions his sister, “Don’t you see he’s one of them?” and she replies by saying, “No, I saw only him.” Maria does not see Tony for his race; the color of his skin is not a factor for her. Bernardo persists and says, “There is only one thing he wants from a Puerto Rican girl” and Tony defends himself by claiming, “That’s a lie.” Bernardo takes his sister away from Tony and makes her leave the dance. He will not tolerate any of his Sharks mixing with the Jets—especially his little sister. Just as Pocahontas’ father, Chief Powhatan, disapproves of the relationship between Pocahontas and John Smith, Bernardo is against his sister’s interest in Tony. Chief Powhatan wants Pocahontas to marry someone of the same race: a native warrior. Likewise, Bernardo wants Maria to be focused on men from the Puerto Rican race, not an American Jet.

The Puerto Rican members of the Sharks are constantly being ridiculed by the Jets. The tension between the two groups seems to continue growing as the production continues on. Although there is a sense of belonging felt within the two groups, the women that are a part of the Sharks make it clear that they are enjoying living in Manhattan. In the song, “America,” the women sing that “life is alright in America.” However, the men quickly comment back that life is only good “if you’re white in America” or as “long as you stay on your own side.” Although the Sharks have a clique of their own and stick together, the community that they live in is very divided. Through this song, we are able see the discrimination the Puerto Rican’s face, simply because of their ethnicity and race. They are seen and treated as a minority; in the eyes of the Jets, they are second class citizens. The Jets are a group of “American” boys. They, too, have a sense of belonging within their clique. In fact, Riff reminds one of the Jets that they are “never alone” and that they are always “well protected” with the other Jets around. The loyalty that the Jets have with one another make them strong and give them power. However, the Jets and the Sharks never join together simply because of the color of their skin. Racism is the biggest reason for the divide between the Jets and the Sharks—it is why they do not get along. Both the Jets and the Sharks have one goal: to be considered better than one another.

Pocahontas’ relationship with John Smith was not supported since they were not both from the same ethnicity. In West Side Story’s “I Feel Pretty,” Maria dances around the room with joy for her newfound love. Her friends, on the other hand, claim that “she isn’t in love, she’s merely insane.” The other girls do not think it is possible for this relationship to work with Tony because they look different. Later, after Maria’s friends leave the store they work at, Tony sneaks in to meet Maria. Their relationship is secretive and requires a lot of tiptoeing around—just like John Smith and Pocahontas. At the store, Tony and Maria pretend they are living in a world that it is socially acceptable for them to be together and in love. Using the mannequins, they act like they are meeting each other’s parents. Eventually, they even pretend they are getting married. In the world they live in now, this seems like a dream. Sadly, getting married to one another and meeting each other’s families seems like an impossible future for the couple. As they sing in unison, they sing that “even death won’t part [them] now.” The test of their love through death comes sooner than they had hope for, however.

Pocahontas’ father does not support of the relationship she has with John Smith, and neither do other members in the community. She is supposed to stay away from the Englishmen. Throughout West Side Story, Tony and Maria lose the sense of belonging they had felt within their separate groups. They want to be together, but no one else wants this relationship to last. Their communities do not support their love. No matter how much fighting and chaos occurs between their cliques, they do not separate. As the communities come together and begin to fight one another, people end up dead. Bernardo kills the leader of the Jets, Riff. In the midst of anger, Tony grabs the knife and stabs Maria’s brother to defend his fellow Jet. Chino runs to Maria to tell her Bernardo is dead, but instead of asking about her brother and other Sharks in the rumble, she is worried about Tony—not the people of her own race. Even after Tony killed Maria’s brother, all she wants is for Tony to hold her as she cries in his arms. After Tony leaves, Anita comes into Maria’s room and sees Tony running down the street. Anita angrily exclaims that Tony “is one of them.” The groups, which are divided based on their race and ethnicity, are referred to as “they” and “them,” never “we” or “us.” Anita begins to sing “A Boy Like That” and encourages Maria to “stick to her own kind.” Anita is trying to get Maria to dump the Jet and be loyal to her culture as a Puerto Rican Shark. After all, Tony killed her brother. The love that Maria has for Tony is being put to its biggest test. If she stays with Tony, she is betraying her culture, her family, and all of the other Puerto Rican Sharks. Yet, Maria’s love for Tony remains strong. Comparably, Powhatan is about to execute John Smith, but Pocahontas stops him. Like Maria, her love was being put to the test; she defends John Smith despite the negative feelings other members in her culture possess.

As Anita enters into Doc’s store, the Jets begin to throw her around, make racist remarks, and attempt to rape her. Due to her ethnicity and gender, the Jets see her as inferior. In return to their cruel behavior, Anita lies and says that Maria is dead. In response, Tony searches for Chino; he wishes to be dead too. In the midst of his search, he sees Maria alive, but he is shot. He dies in Maria’s arms. Throughout the film, Tony and Maria are committed to one another. Before dying, they talked about getting away from Manhattan. With the Jets in the Sharks around, they would never have been able to live peacefully with one another. Before dying, Tony and Maria talk about leaving together, running away. Their loyalty between one another is strong up until Tony’s last breath. Maria tells both the Sharks and the Jets that they all killed Riff, Bernardo, and Tony with their hate.

Despite its fairytale romance, West Side Story did not end with a “happily ever after” like the princess movies. Everyone did not remain healthy and alive. Their love could not continue on. But, despite Tony and Maria never getting their perfect ending together, the two’s union makes sweeping cultural statements about how group hatred will only separate communities with the potential for love, acceptance, and shared growth. Despite its tragic ending, the musical suggests the necessity for bridging social, racial, and cultural gaps in society, creating a nationwide love story.

How Hamilton Became the First Musical of the Trump Era

Hamilton: An American Musical is a triumph of a production and an era-defining musical that embodies the hope, resiliency, and inclusivity of the Obama years. In 2015, telling the story of America’s very white Founding Fathers while using a cast of non-white actors felt, dare I say, revolutionary. The significance of the casting felt possible too. After all, America had a Black President representing us in our most powerful elected office. Hamilton: An American Musical’s rise in mainstream popularity practically coinciding with the divisive 2016 election made the musical’s message feel all that more poignant. But the election’s outcome, and the President changing from an ardent art supporter to a notorious art hater, represents a shift in the lens audiences are able to view the story through. The rise in negative critiques to the Disney+ version, even though it is just a filmed version of the original production, underscores a noticeable narrative shift: Hamilton (2020) is the first Trump era musical.

The critiques of Hamilton (2020) are, of course, only possible because of the widespread success of the original staged production. Audiences became enamored with the way Lin Manual-Miranda made the story of America’s establishment fun and flirty, with the added wokeness of non-white actors portraying our Founding Fathers through rap music. Now that the initial hype has died down and the casting gimmick has worn off, watching Hamilton on Disney+ is a new, different experience. Released in the midst of a summer defined by social unrest and the affirmation that Black Lives Matter, the problematic ways Hamilton (2020) used black bodies to white-wash American history cannot be ignored.

Hamilton’s use of black actors to frame the Founding Fathers as figures more progressive than they actually were is best analyzed through lyrics presenting Alexander Hamilton’s relationship with slavery as deliberately one-sided. The early Act I song “My Shot” features Hamilton and introduces the audience to his fellow Revolutionaries (Lafayette, Laurens, and Mulligan). In the song Hamilton raps the lyric “A bunch of revolutionary manumission abolitionists” to describe the cohort, framing them as a group of staunch anti-slavers. In reality, the Founding Fathers’ relationship with slavery was much more nuanced, with Hamilton actually owning slaves himself and generally sacrificing his personal distaste for slavery when it could benefit him politically. However, because Hamilton intentionally surrounds Hamilton with Black bodies, the audience is lulled into accepting the anti-slave narrative put forth in “My Shot.” 

The call to violence that’s made in “My Shot” is another aspect of the Hamilton experience that does not translate well to today’s sociopolitical climate. The lyric immediately following the reference to abolitionists has Hamilton practically shout “Give me a position, show me where the ammunition is!” The lighting immediately cuts to blue, magnifying the significance of what Hamilton just rapped. In essentially a call to revolt against the government, Hamilton doubles down on the song’s gun and violence references in the next refrain apologizing that he sometimes “shoots off at the mouth.” After the tragic instances of police officers shooting unarmed Black people this summer, there is something unsettling about a group of Black actors, especially Black actors portraying historical white figures, singing that it’s “time to take a shot!” When Hamilton: An American Musical initially premiered in 2016, this song and it’s call for martyrs came across as the revolutionaries being brave and courageous. Instead in 2020, the recklessness of the white characters basically begging to incite violence and fire their weapons doesn’t sit quite as naturally.

Despite slavery being a defining issue of America’s formative years, slaves are practically erased from the Hamilton narrative. In Act I, Daveed Diggs portrays the French Lafayette who helps the Americans fight against the British forces. His last words in that character are “I give freedom to my people if I’m given the chance.” That conclusion makes it particularly ironic when Diggs is reintroduced in Act II as noted slave owner Thomas Jefferson. This affirms that the quest for freedom and independence sought throughout Act I was only really ever for white people in America. The problem with Hamilton (2020) is that it doesn’t seem willing to tackle this double-standard head-on besides featuring a cast of Black actors. 

On the rare chance slavery is actually acknowledged in Hamilton, it is never the show’s focus.  Act II opens with the song “What’d I Miss” that introduces Jefferson while he descends from a lofty staircase back to the “ground” at his Monticello plantation. The ensemble resembles Jefferson’s slaves, who are already lined up on the stage-level ready to serve their master’s every need. At one point, Jefferson commands “Sally be a lamb, darlin’, won’tcha open it?” in reference to a letter he’s received. The irony in the phrasing is that it suggests Sally, notoriously one of Jefferson’s slaves he impregnated several times, had any sort of choice in the matter. It also equates Sally to an animal, implying she was nothing more than something pleasurable for him to consume. That lyric also represents the only instance in which an enslaved person is directly referred to throughout the show. Occasionally throughout Hamilton, an ensemble member takes on a small solo to play a bit-part like Samuel Seabury or James Reynolds. Every time this happens the ensemble member is portraying a white character, and there are no instances where an ensemble member speaks or sings while performing as an enslaved person. 

Later in “What’d I Miss,” Jefferson climbs up on the staircase structure he arrived on and boasts “Lookin’ at the rolling fields I can’t believe that we are free.” He says this ironic line to the ensemble playing his dutiful slaves, and it furthers cements the one-sided narrative regarding slavery Hamilton (2020) imposes on its audience. Since the audience never hears from a Black character, Jefferson’s implication that Americans are free is accepted even though it only applies to the country’s whites. This ignores that for a large number of Americans, “freedom” from Britain meant nothing. Furthermore, Digg’s positioning on the staircase has him elevated above the ensemble who are working on the ground-level to push him forward. Positioning Jefferson above his slaves shows that his social status as a wealthy, white man places him above his Black slaves in the social hierarchy. The ensemble pushing the staircase also suggests that Jefferson’s legacy has been pushed forward by this historically disenfranchised population who received no recognition for their own contributions but instead elevated their white master in a way that placed him in the best position to succeed. 

Lastly, the choice to release Hamilton (2020) in accordance with the July 4th holiday represents more of the tone deafness that accompanies the Disney+ version compared to the theatre production. Commonly referred to as Independence Day, the holiday celebrates the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the colonies subsequent freedom from British rule. But as mentioned earlier, freedom from Britain really only represented “independence” for the white community. Disney+’s decision to release Hamilton (2020) on the holiday white washes the reality of July 4th, which is that July 4th 1776 was a relatively meaningless day for enslaved, Black Americans. 

It’s not that the Hamilton released on Disney+ is a bad musical. In fact, it’s still just as brilliant as before. But now the performance, crafted and built during the Obama years, exists as a non-changing entity in an incredibly changed world. In its original iteration as an Obama-era musical, Hamilton: An American Musical allowed white consumers to conflate the color-blind casting of diverse actors portraying historically white figures as proof that equity existed in America. But the tragic events that have unfolded since 2016 prove that is simply untrue. Audiences’ faith and general optimism for American institutions, like the government, has eroded markedly, which makes it difficult to construct a musical where the basic idea of America serves as one of the primary motivators. A product of its release environment (cough *global pandemic where the government horrifically botched its response* cough), Hamilton (2020) opens itself up to this next-level of analysis in the Trump-era.  Maybe this is unfair to Lin Manual-Miranda and the Hamilton team. But when you sell your show to a multinational mass media conglomerate for a record-setting $75 million, you should expect some additional critiques. 

Tradition! Fiddler on the Roof’s Protection (And Deconstruction) of the Patriarchy

By: Sarah Beth Huntley

From the opening line of the first song of the movie, Fiddler on the Roof  establishes the fact that the entire community works to maintain what they believe is most important: tradition. We see a tight knit community where everyone is involved in everyone else’s business and each high and low in life is felt by the community as a whole as they are bonded over their religious culture as Jews. This story showed some true Jewish traditions, such as in the wedding scene with the canopy and the breaking of the glass and in the opening montages, and beautifully represented the Jewish culture — at least from the outside looking in — except for one thing: the overwhelming presence of the patriarchy. From the way the women are traded around to the overwhelming number of men in the movie, you cannot escape from the power that is tightly held by the men in the community. The worst part is, they pass this off as acceptable because it is seen as “tradition” for tradition’s sake with no plausible reason for why they do things the way they do. This is best summed up in a line by Tevye in which he says “You may ask, ‘How did this tradition get started?’ I’ll tell you. I don’t know. But it’s a tradition.” We see the men act so intensely about the breaking of tradition in the village, but we also see the community — and Tevye specifically — grow and evolve as the younger generation of women tries to take more control of their destiny. Fiddler on the Roof creates a community in which the characters must uphold Anatevka’s patriarchal ideals and traditions to be accepted, but, through the agency taken by Tevye’s daughters, subsequently evolves to understand how tradition can change with the changing times.

As I watched Fiddler, I was immediately engrossed in the story and found myself silently celebrating each time one of Tevye’s daughters got what they wanted and fuming when Tevye refused to acknowledge Chava. As a Black woman, one of the biggest things I notice in the different types of media I absorb is how the women and minorities are treated. It did not take long for Fiddler to show me that the patriarchy was very alive and present within the village of Anatevka and, although disgusted by it and Tevye’s active participation in it, I still enjoyed the musical and the character of Tevye very much. The real question is why? Why am I able to enjoy a story and a character that is, in hindsight, kind of problematic? 

Change. One thing that Tevye and, in turn, the community was able to do was change. Evolve. Grow. At the beginning of the movie, it would be hard for me to not see Tevye as kind of awful — he literally was bargaining his oldest daughter off to a man close to his age. It was also ironic that he argued for his patriarchal control through the lens of tradition, considering the biggest tradition was the upkeep of his religious faith and throughout the movie we see him fail to recognize religious texts or to go to temple. Throughout the story, however, we see him begin to loosen his grip on this idea of his dictatorial patriarchal status being a necessary tradition. Why does this happen? His daughters, the women of the younger generation. Tevye very obviously loves his daughters and wants what is best for them. At the beginning of the movie, we see him thinking that he knows what is best. However, his love for them and their determination to get what they want is enough to show Tevye the error of his ways (if only it were that easy for all of the patriarchy). Women taking active control of their destiny is what impacts Tevye, and the community as a whole, in their thinking of what is right or wrong and I believe that is a topic that deserves more attention.

In the opening song, there are many troubling things that establish the patriarchal dominance in Anatevka. Before the music even begins, Tevye talks about the people in his community, only referring to them as “he” and “him.” The song further establishes the patriarchy as it describes how the men work and make all the decisions of the home while the women take care of the home and children in order for the men to be able to pray (HUH??). It gets even worse when describing the children. The boys are sent to school and wait for the matchmaker to let them know what girl they are going to marry while the girls learn how to keep a home and wait for their fathers to decide who they will be married to (once again, HUH?). Rather quickly, the absolute power that the men have in opposition to the lack of with the women is established. The women are allowed no agency in their lives while the men have all of it, and with no actual explanation for it besides “tradition.” 

We see the direct impact this system has on women in the community through Tevye’s three oldest daughters Tzeitel, Hodel, and Chava, specifically in their song in which they sing about hoping the Matchmaker does not match them with someone with whom they were dissatisfied. This song may seem wild to some — as it definitely does to me — because why should they have to wait on the matchmaker to find them someone when it could be someone old and/or abusive? Tradition, of course. Luckily, after this, the three women each decide to take agency over who they spend their lives with — to the dismay of Tevye — and finally gain some control in their lives and prove that not all “traditions” are good.

Tzeitel takes the first step towards change when she and Motel, the poor tailor whom she loves, make a pledge to marry each other. In the words of Tevye, this was “unheard of.” She keeps this from her father, however, because she hopes the matchmaker will match her with Motel in order to stay with tradition. However, she is matched with Lazar Wolf, the old butcher, and has to beg her father not to make her marry him and to instead let her marry Motel. Not only did this show her taking agency and sparking change but we also see this spread to Motel who, inspired by Tzeitel, takes some agency of his own when he fights back against Tevye’s claims that he is nothing. By the end of this scene, Tevye agrees to this, despite the fact that it goes against tradition and we see no pushback from the community in this decision with the entire village still attending Motel and Tzeitel’s wedding and supporting their marriage and life together. Whether Motel and Tzeitel had married or not, there would not have been any issue from the majority of the community. The real upholder of the patriarchal traditions were men like Tevye who felt their status as head of the home to be their only power in life. Still, the whiff of the patriarchy is still present in this situation, for Motel does most of the talking in this argument and it is the masculinity he begins to present in their argument that makes Tevye begin to consider. We’re getting there, though.

Hodel, Tevye’s second oldest daughter, shows a bit more agency than Tzeitel, feeling shepherded on by Tzeitel’s actions with her marriage to Motel. This first happens when she agrees to dance with Perchik, the girls’ teacher, at Tzeitel’s wedding, breaking the tradition of the men and women in the community remaining separated, especially at weddings. She and Perchik take down the barrier separating the two groups and bring them together through dance, urging on the rest of her family members followed by the rest of the community (even the rabbi, which I personally found hilarious). Hodel then takes things a step further when she agrees to marry Perchik and they (or he, because, you know, PATRIARCHY) tell Tevye they are going to be married and would like his blessing. Despite the tradition of first receiving the father’s permission, Tevye once again blesses the match. Whether he had or not, though, Hodel would be taking control of how her life will go, for she planned to go through with the marriage with or without the blessing. Later on in the movie, Hodel goes to join Perchik in Siberia, even though he has not asked her to. She does this based plainly on how she feels about him and her desire to help him in any way she can. Hodel has full control over where she is going and what she is doing and, despite the fact that this “goes against tradition,” she is still accepted by her father and, in turn, by the rest of the community.

Out of all of Tevye’s daughters, Chava pushes the limits of tradition the furthest, by not just going against her father’s patriarchal values, but also against the traditions of Orthodox Judaism with her marriage to Fyedka who is not Jewish. When discussing the idea of marriage, Chava is the one having the conversation with her father, not Fyedka. Unlike her sisters, she takes the most agency in directly addressing her father with what she wants and not taking no for an answer. Instead of submitting to his disapproval, Chava runs off and marries Fyedka, afterwards asking her father to accept them. He is unable to accept them, but not because of the threat of losing his patriarchal power. He is more worried about losing touch with his faith by letting his daughter marry a non-Jew. In the end of the movie, however, we see Tevye acknowledge Chava and Fyedka as they all depart from the village, and this proves how Chava’s opposition to tradition also led to its growth. 

At the end of the day, Tevye, and the community, learned about the importance of love and upholding who you are rather than the outdated traditions performed only because they always have been. Just as in today’s society, Anatevka learned a real lesson about why the patriarchal control of the men in the community held them all (but mainly the women) back from being able to find joy and love in their homes and relationships. All of Tevye’s daughters made the traditions within the community evolve by the end, just as the community as a whole is having to evolve by leaving Anatevka for many different plains. Not only has the community been changed forever, but the new sense of agency within the three young women would lead to their children growing with the notions of independence and freedom of choice (and feminism). The daughters’ lives as well as the community’s determination to uphold who they are despite going to a different place proves how, by the end of the movie, the community has learned that things change and it is not the end of the world, but merely life. The ending marks the collapse of the patriarchy in the community as they all learn to accept the women as individuals who are allowed to have agency over their lives and still be accepted by the community as equals.

It’s Always Hamiltime for Some Hamildiversity

Lin Manuel Miranda’s 2015 smash Broadway hit Hamilton revolutionized not only the music genre associated with musical theatre, but it also heavily influenced the general public’s perception of the origins of America. By remaining historically accurate yet also emphasizing the personal drama of Hamilton’s life, Hamilton retains the classic heartstring tug of musical theatre that people connect with, while also improving viewer’s AP US History grades. Despite that, ever since premiering on Disney+, Hamilton has been the subject of countless controversies for its glorification of slave owners such as George Washington and blatant omission of the darker aspects of Hamilton’s political views. These criticisms, while valid, eclipse the real purpose of Hamilton. Lin Manuel Miranda wrote Hamilton to illustrate how immigrants are integral to America’s origin story and emphasized its modern relevance by casting non-white actors and using rap music as the medium through which the story is told.

         Hamilton was dealt the challenging task of telling a historically accurate narrative, keeping the story entertaining, and staying within the usual length of Broadway musicals. People criticize American history for being taught through rose-colored glasses whether it be through popular media or academic classes, and Hamilton was no exception. The main issue viewers found with Hamilton is the glorification of slave owners, implied from blatantly disregarding that many Founding Fathers did own slaves. Although Miranda does briefly address slavery through character John Laurens’s abolitionist views, he fails to acknowledge the fact that both Washington and Jefferson owned many slaves, and even painted Washington in a positive light. However, many criticisms of Hamilton’s portrayals of historical figuresare through a 21st century lens. Miranda didn’t omit these controversial factors to idealize a society that thrived off of the cruelties of slavery. Instead, he covered what he could given the general time frame for Broadway musicals, which is about two and a half hours, and he treated slavery in the context of the era with the way it was unfortunately viewed: as normal.

         Lin Manuel Miranda chooses to start Hamilton by having Aaron Burr ask the audience “how does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore, … grow up to be a hero and a father?” Unlike other American-born Founding Fathers such as Jefferson and Washington, Hamilton was born a bastard out of wedlock and escaped his birthplace at the Caribbean by the skin of his teeth. These attributes are immediately acknowledged and pinned with assumptions, as the very first line is a historically stuffy white man pondering how a historically non-stuffy Caribbean-born man managed to find success in America. In fact, one of the main mantras of the first act is setting up a parallel between Hamilton and the budding nation of America as underdogs, referring to both as “young, scrappy, and hungry”, paving untraditional roads to success. At the first public presentation of Hamilton at the White House’s poetry jam in 2009, Miranda pitched Alexander Hamilton as a man who embodies hip-hop: a bastard immigrant who rose to power by becoming George Washington’s right-hand man, and “caught beef with every other Founding Father”. Before Hamilton was even conceived of as a staged musical, Miranda asserted that Hamilton’s story recognized the impact of outsiders on American culture.

         Much of Hamilton’s fame spawned from its use of hip-hop, a genre symbolizing how the influence of non-white people has become integral to American culture. As stated earlier, Miranda’s view that Hamilton embodied much of what the hip-hop genre represented with stories of underdog success. Hamilton told an immigrant story with a non-traditional genre that was unprecedented in both Broadway and the 18th century. By integrating hip-hop culture with the success of Alexander Hamilton, Miranda emphasized how what is considered “outsider” influences are relevant throughout history. Additionally, using a non-traditional genre for musical theatre further created a unique environment on stage that further differentiated Hamilton from other Broadway shows. Miranda also cites hip-hop as an efficient means of storytelling because rapping communicates information much faster than singing or dialogue. Using hip-hop as the medium through which Hamilton’s story is told cleverly integrates two eras, connecting immigrant influences from the American Revolution to modern day.

         Lin Manuel Miranda’s choice of casting non-white actors as the leads in Hamilton sought to reframe America’s success around the contribution of immigrants. By having African Americans, Latinxs, and Asians play the Founding Fathers and other main characters who contributed to the budding ideologies of America, Miranda argued that the nation was built on the back of immigrants. The founding of America has taken the Broadway stage twice in history: in 1969 Tony Award winning musical 1776, and, obviously, Hamilton. These two shows approached a similar narrative in wildly different ways. 1776 followed John Adams’s efforts to get the Declaration of Independence signed. It attempted to create a historically accurate environment with casting, costumes, and more mild music that was consistent with the culture at the time. Hamilton, on the other hand, while technically remaining historically accurate with content, took many liberties with casting choices and music style, much of which contributed to its blowout success. To narrate what some might view as a tedious biography of a former Secretary of Treasury, Miranda created an entire community on stage that flourished by being outside of the mainstream. While being non-white in musical theatre usually can be viewed as a major setback except in specific musicals set outside of America, Miranda cultivated a blockbuster musical that thrived off of integrating American stories with traditionally non-American influences.

         The main issue with race-blind casting is the subconscious prejudices and expectations that are prompted by non-white main characters. A Black lead must be struggling financially. An Asian lead must be suffering under academic and parental pressure. A Latinx lead must be struggling to just put food on the table. And as always, there’s always the tentative bet that the show just isn’t set in America, and nobody speaks English. Storytelling normally thrives off of these assumptions, since casting a BIPOC lead easily eliminates a good bit of exposition. People of color tend to have a clear path through stories, while white characters always need an airtight explanation for what put them in their specific position. These separate notions of “us” and “them” give audiences a means to define themselves through the “us”, and, frequently with BIPOC casting, an ego boost since they’re better off than the “them”. In Hamilton, Miranda completely throws these universal understandings out the window, casting non-white people as white historical figures and have them communicate in a decidedly non-white method. In fact, the only white lead actor plays the non-American and non-rapping villain King George III. With these casting choices, Miranda completely overturns the usual conceptions and redefines both the “us” and the “them”. The audience identifies with and supports the non-white actors onstage and ostracizes the white character. In Hamilton, rather than noticing and gearing up assumptions when a BIPOC character has a scene, a white character communicating in a traditional musical theatre song is viewed as “outsider”.

         It’s no surprise that Lin Manuel Miranda, an outsider to traditional Broadway, chose to premiere a song from his work in progress at the white house for America’s first black president. In Hamilton, Miranda tells the story of a bastard immigrant’s impact on the founding of the United States. His choice of casting non-white actors and using the hip-hop genre as the medium, Miranda tells not only Alexander Hamilton’s story, but America’s story. His choices resonate with audiences of diverse backgrounds and beliefs, crossing cultural biases to move audiences and change musical history with a historical musical.

Did Real Community Exist on the Upper West Side?

By: Morgan Baxendale 

Back in the late 1950s, the world and its view of culture was in a whole different place than it is today. The 1950s was a decade that was marked by post-World War II, immigration laws, but, more importantly, racial and ethnic tension. An Upper West Side neighborhood of New York City was the home of the rivalry between the Jets and the Sharks, which were two teenage gangs and of completely different ethnic backgrounds. In Jerome Robbins’ 1957 Broadway production of West Side Story, the main idea was centered around which group was going to have control over the neighborhood. The Jets, which consisted of the local white kids, were not in favor of the immigrants that were moving into their territory. Many of the Puerto Rican immigrants belonged to the other main gang, the Sharks. Both groups of people dealt with hardship and tension in the musical, but none greater than the Latinos. Through all of the misunderstandings, fights, and hatefulness between the two groups, each gang was able to bond and get closer in some way. Throughout the entire musical, the Puerto Rican community during this time had to deal with racism, discrimination, perceived differences in ethnic identities, and hurtful comments, but the way the musical plays out emphasizes the status quo on a more intense and realistic level. 

The Jets was started by a young man by the name of Tony. His vision for this group was to bond with a group of guys that were similar to each other and have a good time. However, Tony’s best friend, Riff took over the gang because Tony didn’t want to be involved with all of the mischief that was going on between the Jets and the Sharks. Throughout the first few scenes in the musical, the Jets bonded and danced over trying to figure out how they were going to gain control over the territory and the Sharks. You could see how comfortable they were in their environment and how much confidence they had in one another. Even from the very first song, you got a taste of what it was like to be a part of their group. The “Jet Song” emphasized the superiority and arrogance they thought they had, “When you’re a Jet you’re the top cat in town, you’re a gold-medal kid with the heavyweight crown.” They didn’t care what it took, they were going to gain complete control of the territory somehow, someway. It’s when Riff confides in Tony about a potential dance between the two groups; that changes the entire course of the musical.

Bernardo, the leader of the Sharks, has only one aspiration in his mind, carve out the territory as a sense of identity for himself and his other Latino friends. This group didn’t come to America with a lot, and the Jets and other white folks in this area make them well aware of that. This group was dealing with strong stereotypes as well. The Puerto Rican men were seen as poor, violent, and uneducated. The women were seen as loud, obnoxious, and feisty. All of these stereotypes were exaggerated and emphasized when they were in the presence of the Jets. It is clear that the two gangs are fighting and struggling for a given territory, but are also carrying out socioeconomic and racial confrontation. The Jets feel as though they should rule and be number one in the community, because of their all-white identity and the background in which all of them reside. When the musical gets to the middle of Act 1, is when both groups decide to attend the neighborhood dance and that their real battles between each other become much more interesting. 

All of the dancing numbers in The West Side Story tell a story and have a distinct tone to them. This musical has some of the most unique and elaborate dance moves that I have ever seen, and also emphasizes the relationships between the different characters and the gangs they were in. The “Dance at the Gym” number showed how competitive the two gangs were being towards each other. The toughness and tension that occurs on a daily basis on the outside of these gym walls, is happening within the dance. Even when they were told by an authority figure at the dance to switch partners, both gangs didn’t follow that and stayed with their own kind. No matter what anyone of them did throughout the number, they were going to make sure they were better than the other. 

There were many aspects to the “Dance at the Gym” number that grabbed my attention, but the choreography, attire, and the ethnic identity that was expressed from each gang really stood out to me. This number emphasized the perceived differences and stereotypes in the ethnic identities portrayed by the Jets and the Sharks. This scene focused on a dance-off between the Jets and the Sharks that created moments of pure tension and competition, but also allowed a significant moment of joy for one member of each gang, Tony and Maria. You could distinctly see the difference in the choreography and dance between the two gangs. The Sharks danced more in rhythm, style, and confidence, they were the ones who definitely owned the dance floor. They all looked to be in their natural element and dancing in great connection with one another. The Jets looked to dance more mechanically, with not as much freedom and focusing on themselves, not the entire group as a whole. Puerto Ricans are known to have more soul to their dancing and, in general, are known as good dancers. The Jets, I believe, were fully aware of these notions and seemed as though they were trying their best to maximize their moves to keep up with them. All of these decisions that Jerome Robbins made about the choreography related to the perceived ethnic identity that was present between the two gangs. “Not all stage movement is choreography, but all stage movement has purpose.” There was also a fine line between how both groups dressed. They were defined by the colors they wore, which directly relates to cultural codes. Most of the Latino women wore warmer colors like red and purple, while the American women wore cooler colors like yellow and orange.  Both gangs are unified during this number, but it was emphasized more in regards to the Sharks than that of the Jets. 

Because of the events that took place at the dance, Tony from the Jets, and Maria on the side of the Sharks were able to meet. This interaction sparked passion, connection, and ultimately a strong love between them. Their love was igniting many conflicts between the two gangs, but Tony and Maria didn’t care, they wanted to be together no matter what. In this setting, their culture was encouraged not to mix with another culture, especially American culture. They were both criticized by everyone around them, and ultimately both groups paid a large price. Maria’s brother, the leader of the Sharks, Bernardo was killed along with her lover, Tony, as a result from the constant hatred and disagreement between the groups and this particular love conflict. No matter what any of the Sharks or any other Puetro Ricans did at this time, they were never going to escape the hardships they were facing. All immigrants at this time experienced some type of hardship and criticism, and they knew this was out of their control. The American culture was definitely a “privilege” and the white Americans that were part of the musical, always seemed like they had the upper hand over the other communities of people. You could see that the Jets bonded and felt together as a group because of this very “privilege” they felt that they deserved.

With the events that occurred at the dance, Tony and Maria’s love conflict, and the reoccurring hatred between the gangs; all of it accumulated to resulting in a final showdown at the end of the musical. Bernardo from the Sharks and Tony from the Jets ended up paying a heavy price because of hatred and disrespect that was ever present between the gangs. When Chino, another member from the Sharks, shoots Tony, Maria makes a bold statement that I believe puts the entire musical into perspective. Maria tells everyone that was standing around Tony that “all of them killed Tony and the others because of their hate for each other, and, now I feel that I can kill too because now I have hate!” It was amazing to see how two groups of teens could have so much resentment and disgust for one another that they would even kill someone for it. After this moment in the musical, all of the members from the Jets and Sharks realize that all of the fighting and hatred had to come to a close.

The West Side Story showed how such a small difference can make a big impact. When you look at the whole picture, the two groups didn’t have many differences, but the ones they did have were magnified and caused many problems. Both groups did bond and come together as a group, but not all for the right reasons, and at the very end of the musical, that was clearly exposed. Once Tony was gunned down, every member of both gangs gathered around Tony, portraying that the battle was now official over between them. It’s unfortunate that it took for two of their own to be killed for them to realize how they were acting was wrong and the reasons for their actions were unacceptable. I believe both groups know what to do and how to act moving forward with these issues in the back of their mind, but will never forget what both experienced and lived through. The Sharks and Latinos in general, know in this setting that they will never escape adversity and stereotypes in this culture, but have bonded in a way that is unbreakable, powerful, and beautiful to see. 

Jets Side Story

By Margie Johnson

Set in the 1950’s, West Side Story features the rivalry between two gangs in the Upper West Side of New York City. Although they face a common enemy, the police, the hostility between the two groups is palpable. Both groups consist of all male teenagers but differ in ethnicity. These groups, with the exception of a few minor characters, ultimately form the ensemble of the production. The Jets, led by their leader Riff, feature an all white gang who have grown up in the Upper West Side for their entire lives. In contrast, the Sharks, led by their leader Bernardo, are Puerto Rican and recent immigrants to the country. Throughout the story, the Jets attempt to dominate their neighborhood through the power granted by their whiteness and their status as the established ethnic group. The Sharks, however, utilize the strength of their community bounded by their culture and immigrant status to push back against this hostile environment, illustrating that when faced with the overpowering forces of assimilation, one must cling to their culture to survive.

The Jets utilize their white privilege to intimidate and assert their authority. In the very first scene, the camera pans to the Jets leaning together against a chain fence. The members are silent and snap in unison, creating a singular crack amidst the introductory music. Every step taken falls in a pattern amongst the other members, signifying the connection they feel to the ground they walk on. When striding across the court, the group collectively walks into an ongoing basketball game. The Jets stare silently in unison, creating a sense of hostility towards the harmless teenagers. As a result, the teenagers flee from the scene, leaving the ball to the Jets as they immediately begin a basketball game of their own. Now that the Jets have won the smaller battle and taken over the basketball court, they have nothing to  prove and can move more freely and individually. Thus, as the brilliant choreography and staging brings to life, every movement made by the gang is calculated and used as a performance to showcase their power and superiority, as shown in the lyrics sung by the ensemble in the high energy dance and song, “here come the Jets little world step aside.” By compiling the members into a singular unit, the Jets are able to concentrate the power into an overwhelming force.  This force follows every move made by their leader, Riff. When walking down the street away from the court, the group begins their usual pace of snapping and walking in unison. As the music quickens, however, Riff introduces new moves into the flow of movement. Immediately after doing so, a few members of the group copy his exact move, followed by the rest of the members following suit. They do so in front of audiences of smaller children along the sidewalk, again emphasizing that these movements signify a physical show of power. The movement made by the Jets’ leader ripple through the crew of gang members who will do anything to serve him as he attempts to rule his part of the city. The sea of movement with waves of one particular course through the ensemble prevents any outliers or outsiders from joining the group, particularly if they do not fit the white male mold. For example, teenager Susan Oakes desperately wishes to be a Jet. Although she is allowed to follow the group around the city, she is never able to participate and is repeatedly told to go home. When pleading to the gang to accept her after fighting alongside them in the first encounter with the Sharks, one member retorts to the group, “how else is she gonna get a guy to touch her?” Susan’s whiteness grants her the limited authority to follow the group along and listen to their meetings, but she is precluded by her gender from being fully accepted as a Jet. Thus, it is the strict homogeneity of race and gender of the Jets that allow them to carry a sense of superiority over the population of the Upper West Side and reinforce a dominant hegemony. 

In complete contrast, the Sharks, led by Bernando, express their dominance through the vibrance of their cultural traditions. One tradition, for example, is the fluidity of their dancing. During a dance event held for both the Sharks and the Jets, both gangs are ordered to dance with the opposite gender of the other gang. Male Sharks are expected to dance with female Jets just as male Jets are expected to dance with female Sharks. Although ordered to do so, once the music begins, the gangs immediately divide and the respective gang members pull away their original partner. When it is the Sharks’ time to dance, the female and male dancers flow in one unit, with each kick, jump, or twirl intertwining with their partner’s. Just as they stand together as a gang, they move together in dance; emphasizing their refusal to let go of their LatinX culture. In contrast, the Jets move with great exuberance and American self confidence, but with flailed arms and legs. Instead of moving as one unit as seen with the Sharks, the females and males each take turns showing off their moves. For example, after a long dance period of the Sharks, the Jets barge right through the middle, breaking apart the group of Sharks in the process. As they do so, the male Shark completes a flip while his female partner twirls beside him, suggesting that their dance is for the attention of the audience rather than their attraction. Further, when nobody is watching other than the audience of their own gang, the Sharks break out into another dance number with both the males and females. The females, specifically Anita, take over a large portion of the song, with female members chiming in with their own unique lines and dance moves. A dance scene similar to this one featuring the Jets, however, is never shown throughout the entire production. Instead, the majority of the dancing with the Jets is seen with just the male members of the gang for the benefit of their rival gang, further emphasizing the Jet’s need to prove their validity. Just as the Sharks have arrived together in America, they will stay together in America, surpassing the need for fear and intimidation to unify. Even their name implies lurking danger and threat while the Jets’ name implies surging of power.

Once settled into America, the female members of the Sharks desperately desire to adopt an American lifestyle. Despite their attempts, however, they will never be accepted by the Jets or by the surrounding community due to their lack of “American” style, clothing, language (without accent), and skin color. After the first scuffle with the Jets at the beginning of the film, a police officer tells Bernardo to “get [his] friends out of here.” In one swift sentence, a sense of hostility has been established between the officer and the Sharks. They, Bernardo’s “friends” who look and speak like him, are not welcomed “here”, in America.  During a song titled, “America,” Anita and the other female members describe the luxuries they now possess after moving to Manhattan. From skyscrapers to Cadillacs and washing machines, the women rave about their passion for their newfound home and do so in cheerful song and dance. They are reminded in a call and response type dance number, however, by the male members about the limitations to their luxuries as immigrants. After every response by the males, the group breaks into shouts and cheer. In one line, Bernando states, “life is all right in America if you’re all white in America.” Instead of being feared and respected by the community just as the Jets are, Anita notes that they are reduced to “foreigners.” She does so shaking her head and hands in disgust, erupting a response from the gang to shout, “Lice! Cockroaches!” While the ensemble carries out the tune in a joking and playful manner, all of the members acknowledge that they will never fully obtain the American dream that they crave. They must, then, rely on their tightly bound Latino community for survival in their new and unwelcoming environment. 

West Side Story highlights the animosity between the established group (Jets) and the newcomers (Sharks) in order to illustrate the severity of race and gender confinements and clashes. Although full of vibrance and passion, the Sharks will never fully be accepted into the Upper West Side by the Jets or by the surrounding community. As a result, they must rely on their gang, bound together by their culture, in order to face the challenges associated with their immigrant status. In contrast, the Jets are able to strike fear and intimidation into their community due to the privilege and power granted by their whiteness, and do so through performative and unified dance. It is not until the grave instances of life or death as seen in the final moments of the production with Tony’s passing, that the gangs are able to see past their racist and nationalistic cultural differences. This calls into question, then, when can the strength of a community surpass the limitations of racist ideals? Can two cultures, rooted in hatred for cultural differences, truly be unified or even allowed to coexist?

Who Cares About Patriarchy?

How Fiddler on the Roof Uses Two Separate Ensembles to Show the Effects of Oppression

By Kay Berlatsky

Fiddler On the Roof is a musical about the life of Jewish people, an oppressed group, and how that group relates to the Russians, who possess and exploit power over them. As part of the exploration of this dynamic, Fiddler establishes a strong concept of community between the Jewish members of Anatevka, while simultaneously creating a separate, but equally strong concept of community between the outside Russians. In this way, there are essentially two separate ensembles – the ensemble playing the Jewish people of Anatevka, which functions in one way, and the ensemble playing the Russian gentile enforcers, which functions in another, very different way. Fiddler uses these two separate ensemble groups to depict how community norms within an oppressed group are affected by an external oppressor, while simultaneously demonstrating that power dynamics within an oppressed group vary greatly from the power dynamics of the oppressor. 

         The difference between the two ensemble groups is very clear. The first group consists of the Jewish people of Anatevka. They are who the audience is expected to sympathize with, and their existence as a community is established immediately, with the song “Prologue: Tradition”. “Prologue: Tradition” establishes musical unity, a connection to history, a shared understanding of values, and the concept of a closed group. The entire town of Anatevka sings “Prologue: Tradition” together, sharing their roles with the audience and making it clear that there is a general sense of in-community understanding of everyone’s responsibility. While the song also first introduces Tevye as the narrator, he is introduced as narrator specifically to say that “We stay because Anatevka is our home”, immediately leading into the ensemble singing together to back him up. That is, the focus of the prologue to the entire musical is on shared tradition, which is only shared by the Jewish people. It is not, of course, shared by the secondary ensemble. The secondary ensemble encapsulates the Russian gentiles. They do not have a song of shared tradition or unity, and they do not sing together to establish their existence as a group when they are introduced – instead, they interrupt “To Life”, establishing that their unity exists only in opposition to the Jewish people of Anatevka. The identity of the Russian gentiles is very, very different from the Jewish identity in this way. These differences serve to frame the Jewish people as a people with a full history and full identity and the Russian gentiles as an oppressor, intentionally showing how the dynamics within the groups differ from each other. 

         This is distinctly relevant in how the show is received by outside viewers. The dynamics within the Jewish ensemble group are complicated, and are explored in their full complexity – however, the dynamics within the Russian ensemble group are not, because they are intentionally framed as just the oppressor and nothing more. This framing, though, is not obvious to all audiences. People who identify within the “in-group” (i.e., Jewish people) are much more aware of the ways that that ensemble’s complexity are reflected than people in the “out-group” are, and so, because of the framing of the musical, different people engage with the two different ensemble groups entirely differently.

         The clearest example of this is in discussion of patriarchy. When you look simply within one of the ensemble groups – the Jewish group – patriarchy appears to be a major issue of the musical. Gentiles, it seems, are more likely to do this, as the Jewish ensemble is more fleshed out than the Russian ensemble, and so it is easier to invest more thought in them; however, gentile viewers do not necessarily have the context to understand a good portion of the traditions and dynamics, and so analyze the Jewish ensemble without understanding the need to factor in how they are affected by the external, Russian group. This was incredibly clear in class discussion, which featured condemnation of Tevye, a lack of sympathy for him, a strong support for Chava marrying a gentile, and extended, unnecessary discussion of patriarchy. Within the Jewish ensemble, it appears as if patriarchy is the problem. Tevye has the “power” in his family, the rabbi is a man, the women are expected to marry who their fathers tell them, and men have most of the religious influence. This, when viewed in a vacuum, is definitional patriarchy and, when you separate the two ensembles – as the musical allows you to do, in large part – it is very easy to view either of them in a vacuum.

         However, the two ensemble groups cannot be separated entirely. Look at them together. Think about them together. The power does not belong to Tevye. Patriarchy is constructed upon power, is entirely reliant on power, and so what is Tevye, a patriarch without power? He’s not an oppressor, he’s not cruel or uncaring, he is not even, really, a patriarch. And the musical shows this through its usage of the two separate ensembles. 

         In “Wedding Dance”, the Jewish ensemble argues about tradition. Tevye and Lazar Wolfe specifically argue about a broken promise about who Tevye’s eldest daughter was to marry – this argument is patriarchal, as it is an argument between two men over the future and possession of a young woman whose only agency is to convince at least one of those men to agree with her. However, this argument eventually wears itself out – community norms are broken and begin to change, and men and women start to dance with each other. This is crucial. “Wedding Dance” shows how the Jewish community in Anatevka is not necessarily trapped in tradition, but, rather, is willing and able to change and grow and move forward, adapting those traditions for the future. The argument is patriarchal, but the community, as a whole, is attempting to move past that and, if left to their own devices, would almost definitely be able to do so. Of course, they are not left to their own devices, because they are Jewish people in Russia and there is no story about Jewish people in Russia that can allow them to live life uninterrupted. The second ensemble, defined exclusively in contrast to the first, enters. There is a pogrom. The Russian gentiles that make up the second ensemble come into a wedding, a symbol of growth and change, and destroy it, simultaneously disrupting the growth of the community, any feeling of security, and any real hope for the future.

         This pogrom serves the purpose of, once and for all, splitting the two ensembles. There is no more dancing together like there is in “To Life”, and there is no longer any way to view them as a single ensemble even though, in theatre terms, the ensemble encompasses everyone. They are two entirely different groups, separated incontrovertibly by power, and by showing that, the pogrom scene shows the differences in power dynamics within both groups. Tevye, although shown as angry and patriarchal, has just as much destroyed as any other member of Anatevka. And, furthermore, he (and the rest of the Jewish ensemble) is specifically interrupted in the process of growth. Anatevka, at the wedding, is taking a step forward in terms of how they view and approach gender. Men and women are dancing together, Tzeitel is celebrating her wedding to the man of her choice, and the rabbi has ruled in their favor. All of this growth is happening, and all of it is immediately interrupted. This is what Fiddler on the Roof uses its ensemble to show about the concept of belonging and shared identity within Anatevka – the oppressor, at any time, has the power to destroy it. It is nigh on impossible to progress as a community or as a society when in constant fear, and, by interrupting a wedding with a pogrom, Fiddler on the Roof shows that without question.

         The story that the ensembles tell is one of conflict and oppression, and how community held assumptions, specifically about gender, vary entirely based on what position a community occupies on the social ladder. This story is summed up by what Tevye says to Chava when she wishes to marry an outside gentile. He says: “Some things do not change for us. […] Some things will never change.” When looking at just the Jewish ensemble group without the context of outside power dynamics, as the majority of gentiles seem to do, based on class discussion, this seems cruel. Tevye is denying his daughter happiness simply because she wants to marry an outsider – isn’t this oppressive and patriarchal of him? Isn’t he incredibly backwards? How dare he steal that from her? But, when you place this conversation in the context of the Russian ensemble group, it becomes very clear that that isn’t what is happening. Tevye is trying to protect his daughter from a man who he has absolutely no reason to trust, after being betrayed by a Russian he’d dared to be friendly with, with the full understanding that it is unsafe to change. This scene drives home the point made by the pogrom scene. The Jewish people of Anatevka are not allowed to change, are not allowed to shift their dynamics, are not allowed to attempt to grow, because if and when they do, it will all be destroyed. 

         In conclusion, Fiddler on the Roof uses ensemble not to make a point about community belonging, but rather to make a point about how community belonging is destroyed by the presence of a separate oppressor. By crafting and clearly distinguishing two separate ensemble groups, Fiddler is able to play them against each other, clearly demonstrating how the existence of one group, the oppressor, deeply and unalienably affects the growth and progress of the other group. These two separate ensembles show how Tevye is not a patriarch, and, instead, oppression leads to fear of growth and change and an inability to pursue it that is then nevertheless condemned by outside audiences. 

Hamilton- Casting, Culture, and Racial Support

By Ben Damir

Most plays and musicals that explode from the theatrical world into broader American culture have not needed cultural or social relevance to succeed. Just look at the top grossing musicals and you’ll see – The Lion King, Wicked, The Phantom of the Opera – all decent shows, but each generally disconnected from the world at the time of their release. What made Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hit 2015 musical Hamilton so much more than any of these other shows was its emphasis on current racial issues. Highly publicized KKK rallies, black activist movements, and protests swamped the year of its release, giving Hamilton the perfect opportunity to discuss these weighty questions of race. It was catchy, well-written, beautifully choreographed, and as successful critically as it was socially and fiscally. Yet between the incomprehensible amount of money it made, its 16 Tony nominations, 11 wins, and Pulitzer, Hamilton’s greatest achievement came in the form of its racial implications and empowerments. Hamilton empowers people of color by disrupting norms regarding historical racial accuracy, by celebrating black bodies and legitimizing black culture to wider audiences, and by paving the way for a culture of equity rather than equality. 

We all know those theatre-goers that get caught up on the littlest things. You try to talk about the meaning of the show, and they’re still stuck laughing about the time a cue was late or a microphone gave feedback. Hamilton’s success brought a similar group of individuals that could not seem to get over the casting of historically white figures as people of color. Now, I could argue all of the things that Hamilton gained by having a racially underrepresented cast (and indeed I will!), but first I’d like to reflect on the reverse. What did it miss out on by not having a white cast? Whiteness with a historically white group of people is the default, the assumption. But Hamilton proved that casting black actors to tell white people’s stories does not diminish those stories in the slightest. The narratives are true to history, and offer unique perspectives from a group of people whose perspectives have been ignored throughout history. Although the actions of the founding fathers may have caused centuries of harm to the actors and their families, they did not allow their hardships to flatly villainize anyone, but rather to consciously inform them. The actors ultimately played the founding fathers as human. Far from perfect, but not evil. They had flaws, they had triumphs, they had hopes, and families, and lives. The cast’s diversity opened up room for a plethora of character interpretations, and broke down a wall of racial casting that clearly did not need to exist to begin with, instead favoring race-conscious casting. Among the clearest examples of racially-conscious casting choices and subsequent character interpretations are Samuel Seabury and King George III, as played by Thayne Jasperson and Jonathan Groff respectively. These white actors enjoyed positions of power in their connection to British royalty, and cast the revolutionaries as the minority population- the underdogs. Audiences are encouraged to empathize with the underdog, particularly since these underdogs are widely considered national heroes. By casting the patriots as people of color, a connection is established between these two oppressed groups across history- American revolutionaries and people of color. Audiences of all ethnicities see a bit of themselves onstage and empathize with the characters, all while subconsciously supporting an interracialism that America frequently lacks. 

Hamilton supported black culture in several ways, notably in its respect for black bodies and black art. Nowhere in the show are black bodies confined to the sidelines or played down in costuming and makeup, as can be found in dozens of shows where race is not central to the plot. The founding fathers may have actually worn powdered white wigs, but in Hamilton they make no attempt to cover their natural black hair. On several instances throughout the show, particularly during “Cabinet Battle #1,” Daveed Diggs, actor for Thomas Jefferson, even pats his hair playfully, using it to convey a sense of superiority. Moreover, the simple act of placing black bodies in fancy period costuming when they were barred from such sophistication during the actual period is an empowering and political action. These bodies are then prominently shown, front and center, throughout the show, emphasizing their actors’ positions of power and importance. American culture, and by extension American musicals, has had a history of downplaying or negatively associating black bodies (see also, tokenism and “King Kong” stereotypes), so these empowering notes on black bodies are refreshing and long overdue.

Another significant aspect of black culture that is recognized in the show is the use of hip hop and rap. Hamilton uses these genres for nearly every song throughout the show, serving the double purposes of bringing excitement to otherwise dry content and representing the diverse cast and cultures that make up the show. Let’s face it- people writing essays and going to meetings are not exciting topics for a musical (1776 proved that- sorry!), so incorporating high energy, fast-paced musical forms serves to liven up some potentially boring moments. The diverse casting is also represented and appreciated through the use of the historically black genres of rap and hip hop. These genres have long been scorned by white audiences, particularly older generations, of whom 61% said that “rap music is not real music” in a debate.org online poll. Hamilton did not single-handedly fix this close-minded perception of rap music, but it did open up the genre to a larger audience and prove that it is as legitimate as any other form of musical self-expression. Perhaps not everybody enjoyed the lyrical style and quick beats, but the show at least dispelled some racist notions that rap and hip hop were genres based in sex, drugs, and violence. By writing lyrically genius rap songs about many older Americans’ heroes, Lin-Manuel Miranda forced them to acknowledge that the genres were capable of legitimate music. Yet culture was not the only thing that Hamilton brought to the world- it paved the way for genuine racial equity. 

Whenever I discuss the concept of equity, I ask people to envision a foot race, between a black man and a white man. In the first centuries of the race, the white man jogged steadily, while the black man was bound at the starting line by heavy chains. Eventually, some of the chains were removed, and every once in a while more chains would come off. Nevertheless, the chains were never fully gone, and the white man had already gotten a massive head start. Equality, as the current American system would have it, would be removing the black man’s chains and letting him run freely. Equity would be boosting the black man up to wherever the white man is, and allowing the two of them to continue running from an equal starting point. While both cases maintain that the black man’s chains should be removed, only the latter addresses how far ahead the white man got in his multi-century head start. Among Hamilton’s great achievements in racial justice was its equity-based casting call, which called for “NON-WHITE men and women…” The show’s artistic vision required that the actors be people of color, but the audition notice nevertheless stirred up controversy and prompted calls of reverse racism. There is not enough space in this essay to explain why reverse racism isn’t a real thing, so let it suffice to say that it isn’t. By supporting people of color in particular, Hamilton gave them power in an industry that has historically failed to adequately represent them time and time again (see The King and I and every other incorrectly cast character of color). It gave acknowledgement to the fact that color-blindness is not a real way to fix generational racism, poverty, and oppression, and that the only way to move to true equality is to help the marginalized get on equal footing with those in power. More than that, Hamilton was one of the clearest recent examples of equity and race-consciousness; since then, focus on equity has increased dramatically, even resulting in legislative measures to address racially-connected cycles of poverty, such as CA Prop 16 and Portland’s Racial Equity Steering Committee. I should specify that Hamilton did not invent the idea of equity or pioneer it, but its casting was a source of controversy that exposed a lot of people to it. More than that, the production put its money where its mouth is, and actively included marginalized groups to create a unique perspective and wildly successful production. 

Perhaps Hamilton’s greatest achievement was making all of these intense social comments right underneath our noses. Audiences may sometimes have had to wrap their minds around black actors playing the founding fathers, or this or that regarding the casting calls, but after accepting those points, people loved the show. It’s been out for only 5 years and it’s already #7 in the list of highest grossing Broadway musicals, losing only to productions that have been running for significantly longer. I have no doubt that nearly all the readers of this essay could sing at least a few Hamilton songs all the way through, and am certain that more than a few could recite the entire show. So ultimately, Hamilton’s greatest successes in racial development and respect came from its great successes socially, critically, and financially, and vice versa. People loved seeing the show because it was beautiful and moving, and in that enjoyment gained some minor understanding of its racial points. It would have been easy to impart the show’s messages through a simple play or politically charged musical revue, but by thinly veiling them beneath the show’s catchiness and lovability, Hamilton reached untold audiences and imbued its messages with fun, grace, and charm.