Children, Choices, and Culture… Oh My!: When Cultural Tradition meets American Ideals in the American Musical

By Alyssa O’Connell

Admit it, we’ve all had those choices that involve convincing our parents that we, the 13-year-old brace-faced show choir kid with a YouTube channel, know more about the world than they do. As a kid, we always think we know best. (Frankly, I haven’t grown out of that.) However, when I got back from college, I somehow hoodwinked my parents into believing this very same thing. Maybe it was my college-educated brain, maybe they realized their own faults, or, most likely, they realized how sick and tired they were of arguing with me. Whatever the case may be, choices became less of a battle. 

While I thought, and still think, that the decisions I make, like how many inches of hair to get cut or which coffee shop I should “study” at, are life-changing choices that can bring about the end of the world, I’ve seen first hand how choices influenced by culture really can have life-altering effects. My nonna moved here from Italy when she was 18 years old, more like, was moved here. Scooped up by an Italian man she had never met to become a wife, she had no choice and left everything she knew to move to America. Though my nonna’s life was hard, she wouldn’t trade it for the world because it brought her me… and my brother and cousins. (But mostly me.) In her adolescence, this was pretty common in Italian culture. Women didn’t have much choice in the matter of marriage and when it came to starting a better life in America, it was always a no-brainer. We get to witness a similar event in the musical Fiddler on the Roof

While Fiddler on the Roof created space for a presentation of Jewish culture and is often considered a celebration of said culture, when it comes to making choices that defy cultural tradition, it is often the progressive or “American” values that are viewed as “right” or heroic. Today, I’ll be walking us through the streets of Anatevka as we examine both the 1971 film production of Fiddler on the Roof and the 2015 Broadway revival, to uncover the culture behind choices, specifically when looking at those of children. Then we will take a sharp right, down the yellow brick road of the American stage, where we will see how this theme resurfaces in the musical, Once on this Island. By then, we should have arrived at our destination, a theatre stage at the intersection of Choice street and Culture avenue. 

First, in defining the idea of American values concerning choice, I look to a quote from the Brown Political Review, which states “The United States has one of the most individualistic cultures in the world. Americans are more likely to prioritize themselves over a group and they value independence and autonomy.” In direct contrast to this, Tevye, as the father in Fiddler on the Roof and carrier of culture (and a dense beard), plays a role that emphasizes the culture of Anatevka and the Jewish community at large. He seeks out following tradition, especially when considering the prospect of marriage for his daughters. His daughters Tzeitel and Hodel, on the other hand, have other ideas for their future. Both have fallen for men that have not been selected by their father and in doing so must stand up to him and the Jewish community to fight for their own autonomy. In “Tevye’s Monologue”, a song with an extremely creative title, Tevye must weigh these two choices and discern what he believes to be best. Tevye begins by singing “Where do they think they are? America?”, comparing their marriage pledge to an American way of thinking. As Tevye struggles to decide between this progressive, “American” belief and tradition, he is taken aback by the look on his daughter’s face. In the 1971 filed version of Fiddler on the Roof, director Norman Jewison uses these lines to focus on Tzeitel’s eyes, the windows to the soul. Through artistic editing choices, it’s clear that her emotions are too strong and it would be “wrong” of Tevye to betray his daughter’s heart in choosing tradition. In the film, the idea of Tevye inching closing to a more progressive means of thought is demonstrated physically, with Tevye starting distant from the couple and slowing inching closer as the song continues. It would be unrealistic to portray Tevye’s shift as an immediate one but ultimately, he does allow his daughter to express her individualism by giving her autonomy in choosing who she would like to marry, even though it goes against tradition. In doing so, Tevye is beloved by the audience and even viewed as a heroic protagonist, as he fights tradition for a more progressive, American approach for the sake of his daughter’s heart. In the aptly named song “Tevye’s Monologue (Reprise)”, we see the exact same title reflect the exact same scene replaying itself, except this time with Teyve’s other daughter, Hodel. 

Without the cinematic liberties of film, these scenes look a lot different on the stage yet are still able to portray this juxtaposition between old ways and new ways, cultural tradition and individual autonomy. In the 2015 Broadway revival, director Bartlett Sher situates Tevye a ways away from his daughter, Tzeitel, and lover, Motel. Instead of using editing techniques to emphasize Tevye’s soliloquy (maybe the song isn’t so aptly named), a spotlight is shined on him as the rest of the stage goes dark and the characters are frozen. Again, this creates a divide between Tevye and his daughter and what they stand for until Tevye gives in and they unite their beliefs with a physical sign of unity, a hug. While these scenes mold Tevye into a heroic protagonist, his heroism and humanity are put into question when his third daughter also decides to make this choice for herself. Chava, like her sisters, wants to pursue a man of her choice to marry. However, she falls in love with Fyedka, a Russian, which her father will not accept. Like her sisters, she begins by asking for her father’s blessing. Ultimately, when he refuses to give it, she carries on without his blessing and is disowned by her father, and loses her family. In this situation, Tevye is not necessarily seen as the villain, but his heroism is put into question because he clings to tradition over individualism, even though it will cost him his daughter. Ultimately though, he caves as well, addressing Chava and Fedyka as they leave for Poland. In this momentary acknowledgment, Tevye is accepting his daughter’s choice, even if it hasn’t received his full approval. In other words, individualism and autonomy triumph because its hardest fight against tradition (in the form of Tevye and Chava) is broken down before the movie comes to an inconclusive conclusion. 

All three daughters in Fiddler on the Roof are celebrated as heroines as they fight for love and their autonomy to choose their future. However, it is important to note how all three girls go about doing this. In keeping with American standards of feminine beauty (as according to men), women are supposed to be docile, that’s why we see all three girls begin by carefully asking their father for his blessing. While the girls further the notions of progressive American values of individualism over culture, they are also furthering the notions of American femininity. Chava is the only one who does not keep to this ideal; however, this is due to her father’s lack of progressionist thinking. Chava is perhaps the most heroic of them all, the Superwoman in a sea of Supergirls one might say, because in claiming her own identity, she sacrifices family, one of the most important things in Jewish culture. 

Now that we’ve made it through Anatevka, we’re off to see a little girl in a tree. Down the yellow brick road, there is an island. Once on this island, we will see a very similar story unfold. Like Tevye’s daughter, Ti Moune in Once on this Island dreams of marrying a man she’s never met before. To be fair, she does knows that he wears white, drives a car, and is going somewhere far. Nice. Anyway, Ti Moune is eventually separated from Daniel and asks for her parents blessing to search for him. Though they are reluctant, as any parents might be when you can’t even provide enough information to start a background check, they ultimately give her their blessing. Against their better judgment, against cultural and classist norms, and even in spite of the fact that Daniel’s people look at theirs with disdain, choice and individual autonomy prevail again. With that, Ti Moune is to take on a heroine’s journey to reunite with her true love and conquer social and cultural barriers, much like Tevye’s daughters. Both musicals also include an element of religion and diety, though Once on this Island is much more explicit. In the case of Ti Moune, the gods spur the crash that causes Ti Moune and Daniel to meet, with the goddess of love rooting for the couple to end up together. This brings into question a whole other layer of divine intervention when it comes to choice. Because both cultures the examined daughters come from are so rooted in religion, it would be interesting to examine how this belief (or even the gods) works in favor of or against tradition. Is arranged marriage really a question of faith or one of change? I’ll leave you with that because, as I said, it would be interesting but frankly, I’ve already taken up enough of your time. 

With that, we have arrived at our final destination. At the intersection of Choice street and Culture avenue, we see how culturally immersed American musicals, like Fiddler on the Roof and Once on this Island, ultimately serve to further progressive or “American” values as heroic while hiding under the veil of presenting and celebrating diverse cultures. Much like when Dorothy meets the wizard, only to discover he is but a common man, these American musicals hide under the veil of cultural appreciation. Though we made it to Oz, we ultimately found ourselves back in Kansas, though it looks a little more like Oklahoma to me. 

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