Tradition(s?): The Limitations of Fiddler on the Roof

Kate Murphy and Madelyn Fahhoum discuss the successes and limitations of the 1971 film adaptation of Fiddler on the Roof.

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  1. Awesome discussion, guys! You brought up a lot of things I’d never thought of before. Your discussion made me think a lot about not just the content of Fiddler, but also how we view it as a cultural artifact. For many people, Fiddler is the only musical they’ve ever seen about Jewish culture, and so they consider it “THE Jewish musical”. This is, of course, a huge problem since there are so many different forms of being Jewish, as you point out in your dialogue. I feel like the problem is not that Fiddler only portrays one version of Jewish cultural history, but that we think of it as the end-all-be-all of Jewish musicals. No single musical can fully encapsulate the full historical richness of a people. Oddly, this sort of reminds me of the problems with Rent. Rent is considered “THE AIDS musical”, even though it centralizes middle-class, white, straight men, who were not the primary population impacted by AIDS. The musical also attempts to cover topics like homelessness and queer identity, but it is unable to deeply explore any of these things and ends up romanticizing a “cultural revolution” that didn’t actually do anything to fix the problems. And yet it’s thought of as the ultimate musical about the late 1980s. Maybe one big problem with how American culture positions popular musicals is that they are the and-all-be-all of their subjects. Fiddler is THE musical about Jewish culture, Rent is THE musical about the AIDS crisis, Miss Saigon is THE musical about the Vietnam War, etc. But in reality, a single musical can only cover a slim facet of such huge topics. We shouldn’t view any musical as a complete and exhaustive portrayal of its subject matter. I hope that made sense, and thank you for sparking these ideas with your great discussion!

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