Matthew Arcuri’s deep thoughts to introduce this blog…
Ensembles are representational. For the audience, they help define the norms of the society that exists within the musical as well as provide a greater context to the musical through representation of real life tropes. Through the ensemble’s representational acts, they challenge the audience’s preconceived notions while also welcoming them into a story that may break every bias each audience member holds. They help translate the stories the audiences watch on stage into stories that could exist within the audience’s own life. The ensemble is there to be the society, reject the main characters, accept the main characters, celebrate the main characters, envy the main characters. Consequently, the ensemble manifests that which in real life often lies within the collective unconscious.
What this blog will do.
To see how an ensemble world-builds best, I’d like to take a look at two very pandemonious opening numbers: “Traditions” from Fiddler on the Roof and “Alexander Hamilton” from Hamilton. Both numbers allow the ensemble to set the scene for the rest of the musical, but I’d argue they do so, much more.
Diving deeply into Fiddler on the Roof’s introduction.
Fiddler’s opening scene establishes the ‘rules to live by’ for the whole community- the norms on which the entire culture is based. Tevya, the main “Papa” character, tells the audience that in his village, Anatevka, tradition dictates everything… “how to sleep, eat, work, how to wear clothes,” including the constant expectation to wear a head covering and carry a prayer shawl to show a person’s dedication to Jewish traditions and religion. When singing about the importance of tradition, Tevya states Anatevka’s other expectations for people. Men become papas and work. Women become mamas by working for men, marrying rich and having children. At the end of the song, before entering the village, Tevya declares, “Because of our traditions, everyone knows who he is and what God expects him to do.” He says that life in Anatevka is solely about “balance,” which for the audience obviously means “stay in your lane” and do not break the traditional roles assigned to you. The roles for gender, socioeconomic status and ethnicity (being Jewish by birth and faith) define life and happiness within the fictitious village.
In the 1971 film, directed by Norman Jewison, the audience is lead through the village life in full swing, with every symbol, costume, gesture, and prop reinforcing Tevya’s homage to tradition, Tevya throws out his first challenge to the audience. He simply looks into the camera and says, “Without our traditions, our lives would be as shaky as a fiddler on the roof… but I don’t even know how the traditions got started.” Now the audience is faced with a conscious choice. Do I observe the exotic nature of Anatevka’s time period, political environment, religious undertones and cultural practices and be entertained or do I examine my own life, my own community, my own traditions, and ask myself hard questions- “What do I do out of robotic compliance to traditions which have no meaning to me? How do the traditions of the community I live in affect me?” The musical’s action continues so fast the audience has little time to reflect, but they will continue to be challenged with the same issue over and over as they watch traditions… and harsh expectations for people to conform to the rigid roles in the community… crash. These “values” weaken as the changing world threatens the community itself, thus making it possible to live outside the norms of the “traditions.”
Diving just as deeply into Hamilton’s Introduction.
The filmed Hamilton begins, not with telling us where the action will take place, but by reminding us where we, the audience, currently sit and what we know. This sets up a challenge for the artists: now that you’ve reminded us of what we already know, can you pull us away from that comfort and into your story? The first thing we see is the stage, bare, with a floating credit telling us this was filmed only a few years ago in “present day” New York City. The first lyrics we hear intentionally trigger the audience to start questioning their inexplicable knowledge of this long-deceased founding father. We know what Hamilton did, but “how?” The ensemble quickly begins to answer this question. Starting from his birth, the ensemble creates a chaotic visual where Hamilton’s life flashes before our eyes. They fast forward Hamilton’s life up until the minute he meets Aaron Burr. They establish his position in society. They run through his broken relationships. They define his motivation, his inspiration, and his ambition. And most notably, through exquisite dance and blocking, –throughout the entire rap ballad– every character in Hamilton’s life literally positions themself in relation to him. Almost as if creating a flowchart from a textbook, the history is taught directly and unambiguously. “We, fought with him; me, I died for him; me, I trusted him; me, I loved him.” The norms are set. This is a world of guns and machismo and love and so many erudite elites. We will see Hamilton scrap his way to the top, but how this affects each and every one of these relationships; I guess we’ll see soon. As the ensemble works hard to build a world from an empty stage, we realize the story we are about to see is about building another world: the world in which we now find ourselves. The ensemble represents everything we see in 2020 America reflected by 1700’s America and they lay it all out on the table in the very first song.
So how does this make a story?
For the musical’s characters, ‘to belong’ is to fit within the norms of the society that is built and reinforced by the ensemble. But we would not have a story if the norms of this society weren’t challenged by our lead characters. And when the biases of the society portrayed on stage are challenged, then the audience’s biases are challenged right back. The ensemble builds a detailed world the audience has no choice but to fall into. The musical’s story, not the ensemble, then breaks our assumptions about that world. Not only are we entertained by song and dance, we learn the lesson that assumptions can sometimes rob us of discovering beautiful individuality.
So what does Hamilton’s ensemble teach us through story?
As the ensembles for both musicals establish societal norms, gender roles, socioeconomic status and ethnicity begin to drive the narrative of the stories. In Hamilton, the ensemble presents the duplicitous nature of fulfilling the roles. On the one hand, Hamilton, Eliza, Angelica, Burr all live out the societal expectations of the musical’s “community.” On the other, the ensemble brings to the audience’s attention the long-lasting consequences, still affecting us today, of these characters conforming to such irrelevant norms. Angelica is the eldest sister, whose job is to ensure her sisters marry well. By fulfilling that role, she set into motion Eliza’s drive and passion when she becomes widowed. But before we see Hamilton fall in love with his wife, Andy Blankenbuehler, the show’s choreographer, uses the ensemble to rewind Angelica’s first moments with hamilton. This give us a deeply personal look into the exact moment she decided to act on norms she so desperately wanted to break. Without the ensemble, there would not have been a story to tell. We would have just seen an upper class woman fulfill her duty. This sets the tone for us to question the obedience of every future dutiful action.
We see so many more characters comply with the expectations surrounding them. As Angelica and Hamilton’s relationship matures, she can only act as a moral compass for Hamilton as much as her female identity and marital and socioeconomic status allow. All the while, Eliza’s money allows her to be moralistic when she discovers Hamilton’s extra marital affairs. Hamilton’s status as an “immigrant” makes him plunge into his work when he is being kept out of the “room where it happens.” His bravado makes him prove his worth over and over again, to the point of challenging Burr. All these actions, completely dependent on the characters obeying strict societal norms, have enormous consequences for us. We did not benefit from Hamilton’s intelligence as a potential president of the United States. Eliza made incredible gains for women’s rights and humanitarian aid simply because she remained a widow. But the audience remembers each character as an individual since the entire ensemble continues to focus audience attention on the value of their individual freedom and beauty.
Fiddler on the Roof reverses this. I’ll explain…
The Fiddler audience did not need the ensemble to remind how breaking with societal norms has subsequent consequences. In this case, the ensemble acts as a reinforcement to societal norms while the main characters break with tradition. In conjunction, we see the consequences on our own spheres of society symbolized in the changes forced onto Tevya. Every time a daughter challenges her role’s rigidity, Tevya’s acceptance parallels the progressive developments that are continuing to happen today in our own world. Tzeitel breaks from her rigid role as “unmarried daughter getting along in years.” She makes a pledge with Motel for love. She challenges Motel, a male “superior” (her boyfriend), to speak up for their desired marriage and against the tradition of marrying up. Tevya must now reconcile whether his daughter’s happiness as a person is more important than his own desire for her to be economically safe. The ensemble, including the Butcher, cannot let go of the sexist hierarchical traditions; only valuing promises and pledges between men, especially when it comes to marrying off their daughters. In addition, Tevya justified his enlightenment by lying to his wife about a dream. This does not represent true change of heart, but simply a misogynistic way to survive in a society that is becoming woke.
We, today, are still continuing that suffrage. Hodel, with encouragement from her older sister, challenges her sense of religion and ethnicity. While Tevya’s world viewed his faith as private and personal, Hodel, now feeling deserving of marriage for love, also challenges her father by insisting he accept Perchik as her groom. Perchik’s religion is politically tainted and he instinctively rejects societal norms. Even though both youngsters want love to be the center of their relationship, Tevya can only accept their togetherness when Perchik announces he wants to marry Hodel. Tevya rationalizes their union on very simplistic terms; the very thing we struggle with in our modern culture.
The ensemble helps to reinforce how much Hodel’s break costs for her, Perchik and the rest of society. Russia oppresses Perchik and imprisons him in Siberia. Hodel goes voluntarily to be with him. She does this not out of a sense of traditional gender roles and their inherent duty, but because she believes there are higher callings like love, decency, and hope. She harnesses a commitment to fight for the freedoms taken away from “the least of these.” She must leave a traditional orthodox society for more open, freer-thinking ideals, even if it means isolating herself from the only home she had known.
Throughout the musical, the ensemble establishes the societal norm that “ethnicities and religions do not mix.” Through this, the ensemble shows the audience how much hate there is between orthodox Russians and Jews. Young orthodox Russian men abused the weaknesses of Jewish women, and the ensemble shows the abuse and arrogance in every interaction. However, Fyedka, as part of the ensemble, breaks tradition himself and shows respect and love for Chava. Does Fyedka break from tradition or does Chava? The double-barrelled shotgun is too much for Tevya. As much as his heart has grown in terms of acceptance and progressive thinking, he simply could not process the extent to which Chava challenges gender and ethnicity roles respectively. Every bit of Chava’s desire to marry Fyedka stretched the orthodox roles Tevya simply could not set aside. As a result, the ensemble legitimizes his angst and confusion, but they also reveal the pain everyone experiences when awakened individuals remain stuck in the small, albeit comfortable, world of whimsical and meaningless norms.
Matthew Arcuri’s final Deep thoughts.
Stories would be boring if they never broke any norms. Well, honestly, stories wouldn’t be written if they didn’t defy any norms. My favorite quote I ever learned in my only Vanderbilt Art class is “Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.” Something isn’t art unless it helps you go beyond your assumptions, expectations, and preconceived notions. Musicals are in fact art, but ensembles are what brings the medium legitimacy. They serve to help the story, the characters, and the lessons stand out from the norm. They create realities on stage that engage audiences. By creating meaningful fictional realities, ensembles allow audiences to examine their own lives through this lens. In doing so they shed new light on their own preconceived notions about the social norms and rules through which they live their lives. The audience leaves the theatre ready to live a different life; an enlightened life. If a small group of people singing and dancing can both fully actualize and shatter a fictional hierarchy in under three hours, then norms are total bullshit, and empathy is necessary and fun. That’s what I learned from all this.