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The Movie “Oliver!” and an Antisemitic Trope

My huge issue is with the choice of music created for the iconic portrayal of Fagin.
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March 1, 2023
Ron Moody as Fagin in “Oliver!”

I finally watched the classic Best Picture musical “Oliver!” for my first time, and while I truly loved it I also need to point out something very troublesome. The music was awesome, and it served the story to perfection, which is what musicals should always do (instead of just breaking into song and dance to simply convey the mood of the scene). And the actors were incredible; Bill Sykes is menacingly played by the late Oliver Reed, and the actor who played Oliver is ironically voiced by someone else – a girl – who has the voice of an angel. Fine.

But my huge issue is with the choice of music created for the iconic portrayal of Fagin. He was a character written by Dickens that was already a money hoarding, horrible, antisemitic version of Shylock. Fine. We know that about Dickens and the classic novel. But when adapting it into a 20th century musical, does his MUSIC need to be Jewish Klezmer style tunes? The rest of the movie isn’t, it’s literally his own special accompaniment which immediately evokes feelings similar to Fiddler on the Roof. I’m not suggesting they change his character from the way it was written, I abhor the cancelling of the past, but did we need to double down on the antisemitic undertones of this major character, and all but confirm that YES THIS MONEY HOARDING THIEF IS A JEW? Really?

Ironically, Ron Moody played Fagan, and was himself an Ashkenazi Jew, but he felt highly uncomfortable about portraying the antisemitic tropes. Even more so as he was asked to continue playing the character on Broadway for years to come. As a result, he deliberately made Fagan as likeable as he could, making him more clownish.

Other than this, I truly loved the movie, which as a side note is a family musical, but interestingly still contains some pretty brutal violence. In spite of all of this, I do highly recommend the movie.
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