For reasons we can only speculate, this is the autumn of immigrant stories on Broadway.
This month alone, we have seen “On Your Feet!,” a routine but lively Cuban-American jukebox musical about the careers of Gloria and Emilio Estefan. “Allegiance,” an imperfect but deeply moving musical about the internment of 120,000 Japanese-Americans in World War II, is based on personal experiences of George Takei, who also plays two elderly characters.
The brilliant smash of the season is “Hamilton,” the multicultural hip-hop show about Alexander Hamilton, the Caribbean immigrant who sneaked over to the continent to become one of the country’s founding fathers. And next month comes the much-anticipated 50th anniversary (OK, it’s the 51st anniversary) revival of “Fiddler on the Roof,” the beloved pre-immigrant classic about shtetl Jews being chased out of Eastern Europe, probably bound for America.
I ask Alisa Solomon, author of the award-winning “Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of ‘Fiddler on the Roof,’ ” if a thread about immigrant stories runs through the American musical.
“I wouldn’t call it a thread,” says Solomon, who is also a professor of arts and culture at Columbia’s journalism school. “I would say the immigrant narrative is a central strand. This is, after all, a form made by immigrants” — in the so-called Golden Age, mostly Jews writing American musicals for non-Jews. “These themes are baked into the form.”
Even a musical with the tragic material of “Allegiance,” she says, “still has an optimistic form. It’s very American in that sense of self-invention. A lot of musicals are about assimilation.”
But they are also about, as Tevye himself is known to say, “tradition,” trying to hold onto a sense of your people while fitting in with the new world. In “Allegiance,” the first-generation tries to instill in young Americans an appreciation for Japanese culture, even in the midst of a country at war with their cultural roots. Before the military begins ripping these people from their homes and businesses and imprisoning them in cruel camps, the community is gathered for a traditional harvest celebration, which includes putting wishes on a tree. Still, even in the camps, the young people jitterbug.
In “On Your Feet!,” Emilio fights with a record producer to let them cross over from the Latin market into the English pop world. They do, of course, but not before struggling against the limitations of the niche market.
As “Fiddler” legend has it, one of the producers who originally turned the show down explained to its creators that he loved the show, “but what will we do when we run out of Hadassah benefits?”
Solomon tells me that “Fiddler” came along at a special moment in the evolution of American immigration. She repeats a trenchant observation made by Harvard cultural historian Matthew Frye Jacobson, who said the ’60s were the moment “when America’s nexis of origin shifted from Plymouth Rock to Ellis Island.” Strict immigration quotas that began in the ’20s began to open up, first with John Kennedy, then with Lyndon Johnson. “ ‘Fiddler’ was embraced by all kinds of people — partly because of the quality of the show, but also because of the times.”
With “Fiddler,” I understand the historic importance of immigrants to the musical form. And let’s not forget “West Side Story,” with the Puerto Rican women playfully one-upping one another’s loyalty to their new and old homes with “America.” Even “The King and I” and “South Pacific” struggle with outsiders trying to fit in with a community.
On the Sunday night when Lin-Manuel Miranda could have been watching himself and his hip-hop multicultural “Hamilton” on “60 Minutes,” he was instead in the audience of “Allegiance.” He tweeted, “Sobbing. There is nothing like the power of an insanely talented company telling their story.”
Meanwhile, some presidential candidates dream of building a wall between us and Mexico and deporting undocumented immigrants to Mexico — 11 million, according to Donald Trump, who promises a “deportation force” to get the job done. President Obama prepares to ask the Supreme Court to reverse an appeals court decision against his plan to let 4.7 million stay in the country. And we’re not even talking about the millions of families enduring dangerous journeys to escape danger in Syria and other countries.
Is Broadway’s immigrant theme and the world’s immigrant panic, a mere coincidence? “The theater is always a little slow to respond, so it can’t be instantly topical,” says Solomon. “But coincidence?,” she asks, “I don’t think so.”