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In Class With Jon Bailey: Musical Theatre in America

Professor Emeritus Jon Bailey’s survey of the development of musical theatre in 20th century America, covering shows ranging from Oklahoma! to Rent, is popular year after year, not only with Pomona students but also with senior citizens from the local community who are able to audit the class as part of a special program. Bailey finds their input enriches the classroom experience for students who were born years after many of these plays were originally staged. The following is edited and adapted from one day’s discussion of Fiddler on the Roof:

Bailey: I proposed in the last class that  many social issues of the 20th century have been dealt with in musicals at some time or other. Let’s take a moment and think about that. As we move in the 1950s, what were some of the things we were facing? Most of you weren’t alive then; I’ll talk to those of you who were.

Batya: It was the end of World War II and the beginning of the Cold War.

Judy: It was the McCarthy era. There were writers and filmmakers who were accused of communism who never worked again.

Mike: The ’50s were painted as an escapist generation and social issues were not addressed. You have one musical—West Side Story—that does that, but I think that the winner of the Tony Awards that year was The Music Man, and that didn’t deal with social issues.

Bailey: What about musicals addressing Black issues? There were some Black musicals from the late ’50s and early ’60s, and they were almost all, interestingly enough, flops. There was Tambourines to Glory. Another one called Hallelujah Baby depicted African Americans in this country as a soulful, gospel-y, ghettoized group of people, which is also true of Porgy and Bess in its own way. But I consider Porgy and Bess to be an opera as opposed to a musical. It’s a powerful experience of the African American community.

There was a real shift at this time. Between 1961 and 1964, there were five Jewish musicals that opened. Think about that. Why would Jews replace Black people in musicals?

Batya It might have had something to do with getting farther away from the Holocaust.

Bailey: And the acknowledgement that it had happened.

Kerry: When Israel became a state it was an opportunity for Jews to change the way people saw them.

Bailey: 1948. There was a legitimization of a people. They had a place. This revelation of the Holocaust, the founding of Israel—I think you’re absolutely right—gave Jews a kind of presence on the world stage. We’re still dealing with that presence and what it means, but it also gave Jews a sense of pride and an ability to speak out and come out and be who they were. Also, Americans  tended to begin to become much more interested in the Jewish story. There was a real sense that we were becoming a people together.

Mike: OK. Who was writing the musicals?

Bailey: Thank you! Point No. 2! I couldn’t have planted you for that any better. Since the 1920s, fully 90 percent of the writers of books, lyricists and composers on Broadway were Jewish. They were interested in writing about Jews but were only ready to do that once it became acceptable in the culture There was a whole set of Jewish musicals between 1955  and 1965. There was one called Milk and Honey that opened in 1961. It had 543 performances and really showed that Jewish musicals might have a place on Broadway. Another musical was I Can Get It for You Wholesale. It was the Broadway debut of an unknown 19-year-old performer named Barbra Streisand, and, as they say, worth the price of the ticket. In 1964, you had a musical about Fanny Brice, the story of a Jewish girl moving away from her own roots and trying  to become assimilated culturally, in this case, into the show business world.

What’s happening in the ’60s is about assimilation, a tribe moving out and becoming part of the culture. So, what goes up on Broadway but Fiddler on the Roof. Fiddler opened on Sept. 22, 1964, and played 3,242 performances. It broke Oklahoma’s record of longest running show, won nine Tony Awards, and had four revivals. There was a 1971 film and even a Fiddler on the Roof junior for middle schools.

Following ‘Jon Bailey’s rule,’ what are some of the social issues that get looked at in this musical?

Quinn: Young people coming into their own and changing tradition and deciding they don’t want to follow the same rules and guidelines their parents did, much to the displeasure of said parents.

Bailey: The generation gap, which is what I was talking about a few minutes ago—Jews were going through their own generation gap and, as they were trying to become assimilated into the culture, it becomes a musical. Imagine that.

Libby: It was about a community trying to adapt to the changes of the outside world, trying to maintain itself, not only its traditions, but keeping itself together.

Bailey: Which is a further extension of the generation gap. What happens is the generation gap in the family gets magnified as these people try to figure out, ‘Who am I in the midst of this new culture and how do I hang on to what is important and yet still become a part of this culture?’

It seems we have identified three issues. One is the generation gap; we’ve talked about prejudice and tolerance; and we’ve identified the issue of survival of a community. If you had to choose two characters in this show where these issues reside, who would they be?

Megan: Tevye. And the teacher, Perchik. I feel he stirs things up.

Bailey: Who else?

Mike: You have to consider his three daughters; his three daughters represent the difference in degree to which you can break with tradition. Each daughter goes a little further in the break with tradition.

Bailey: That’s true. I hadn’t thought of it in those terms. Is there any Shakespearean character who comes to mind?

Efe: King Lear.

Bailey: King Lear and his daughters. They’re trying to establish who they are apart from him. One of the major tests for all of us and one of life’s biggest challenges is differentiation from our parents. Tevye becomes the point around which all this revolves. Is he tragic in any way like Lear is tragic?

Libby: He would need a tragic flaw but I don’t know if his adherence to tradition and his commitment to his faith is really  a flaw. In that sense, I’m not sure he’s tragic. Didn’t it say in  the reading that, if this was a real tragedy, the end would make more sense? If you have a tragedy, the whole situation is supposed to be laid out much more deliberately so you see the seeds of tragedy in the beginning.

Bailey: What do you think of the ending?

Greg: The fiddler is still there, so they’re holding on to something. There’s a strong metaphor there that no matter what comes, no matter where we get pushed off to, we still have these beliefs and traditions that we can hold on to.

Batya: You go back to the Passover story of having to escape. It is tragic in a lot of ways, but it is essential to the story of the Jewish people—the idea that we’re always trying to bring back all these things that we’ve had to leave behind.

Mike: The fiddler is still following them and still playing; tradition goes on in a different form.

Bailey: And the wandering continues at the end of the musical. 

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