Given its urban American and Jewish heritage, one would not expect broadway musicals to show much sympathy for traditional communities. But because this art form is generally popular and apolitical, some truth can often sneak in. Consider two deservedly famous musicals, The Music Man and Fiddler on the Roof. Both present more-or-less traditional communities: a small town in Iowa and a Jewish village in the Russian Empire, both around the turn of the twentieth century. Interestingly, both are sometimes accused of presenting these communities in an idealized, nostalgic way.
On its face, this criticism is surely wrong for The Music Man. Meredith Wilson seems to go out of his way to affirm all the negative stereotypes held by urban liberals about small-town Americans. The people of River City are naive, stupid, provincial, hostile to outsiders, and maliciously gossipy toward each other. The audience is more likely to sympathize and identify with con man Harold Hill. The town does have an internal liberal critic, Marian the librarian, who for her efforts to make a higher culture available to the townsmen is accused of peddling “dirty books” like The Canterbury Tales. Fiddler on the Roof, on the other hand, does present its subject community sympathetically. The hero, Tevye, even gets to give an explanation of tradition’s general function as the musical opens. (“Because of our traditions, each one of us knows who he is and what God expects him to do.” I think this sums it up pretty well.) However, the only traditions that matter to the story concern how marriages are decided. A matchmaker proposes matches; the father of the bride must approve; no marriage outside the faith. Each of Tevye’s three oldest daughters falls in love with a forbidden man and marries him, and the consequences are presented as either entirely good or negative only because of Tevye’s (presumably unreasonable) disapproval. The implication is clear. This tradition, and presumably many others like it, is stupid, and the daughters are right to disregard it. Like The Music Man, Fiddler on the Roof embeds the modern, liberal sensibility in one of the characters. This time it is Perchik, a former student and now socialist revolutionary who leaves Anatevka in Act 2 to go agitate the workers (taking one of Tevye’s daughters with him).
Having embraced so much of the liberal critique of tradition, why do liberals still feel threatened by these musicals? Indeed, they are surely right to, because people who see them immediately want to live in such a community. Despite surface agreement with liberalism’s critiques, the audience is still confronted by the immense success of these communities. To modern eyes, River City doesn’t seem contemptible at all. There is next to no crime, drugs, gang warfare, or illegitimacy; the town’s bad boy doesn’t do anything worse than harmless practical jokes and taking the mayor’s oldest girl out for ice cream. Behind it all is a cultural confidence, a sense that the town’s ways are right and worth enforcing, that white Americans have not been allowed to feel for many decades. Mock Mayor Shinn for his stupidity all you want, but do cities run by Marian-types have the same massive, undeniable success? Here of course we come to the accusation that the musical is giving us a false, “idealized” picture. But this is not true. American small towns one hundred years ago simply were not hellish. Wilson didn’t populate River City with opium dens, white slave traders, and constant rampaging lynch mobs not because he was too timid to show the truth, but because such a thing would have been so disconnected to reality that even urban liberals would have found it preposterous. The point is worth making again: the musical grants every accusation liberals of the time could credibly make against small town America, and the result is still very attractive. The only way to maintain a “we’ve come a long way” attitude is to add new accusations that anyone at the time would have found ridiculous (e.g. the liberal presumption that white townsmen before the 1960’s did nothing but prod their tiny brains to think of new ways to torment negroes). The success of Anatevka is even more impressive. A way of life is being preserved despite great adversity, a way of life that ennobles the daily tasks of people in every station by bringing them in relation to the sacred.
The audience is presented with a paradox. On the one hand, all these traditions and social conventions, considered individually, are wrong, stupid, and pointless. They should all be discarded. And yet, could one imagine River City or Anatevka continuing to exist with anything like the same character if they were all discarded? After all, look at what happened to American culture once Marian and her ilk got their way. Philistine social propriety has not been replaced by high culture, but by alienation and animality; not by Chaucer and Balzac, but by promiscuity and meth. And what happened to Russia when it was captured by a cabal of Perchiks? Hell on Earth–far worse not only than a world made by the likes of Tevye, but even much worse than a world made by the anti-semites that appeared to be Tevye’s main threat. (Fiddler on the Roof ends, ominously, with the harmless villagers of Anatevka expelled and mostly going to America, while Perchik is in prison in Siberia, foolishly left alive and in Russia to continue plotting his murderous revolution.) Somehow, tradition can be wrong in every particular, and yet still be right overall.
Of course, I don’t believe that tradition really is wrong in every particular, or even most of them, and I’ve never liked the idea of tradition as stuff we do for reasons we don’t understand. Nevertheless, the above is a good paradox to ponder if it leads some people to suspect that their criticisms of tradition are somehow missing the point.