The giddy beginning: Laura Osnes and Steven Pasquale as Julie Jordan and Billy Bigelow
  • Todd Rosenberg
  • The giddy beginning: Laura Osnes and Steven Pasquale as Julie Jordan and Billy Bigelow

The other night, I decided to take advantage of the Lyric’s rush ticket program and go see Carousel. This would be my first Carousel, but I’d heard a lot recently about its greatness and that it was darker and more complex than the other Rodgers and Hammerstein shows, which I sometimes find a little hard to take. (“Sickly, goody-goody songs,” as Pauline Kael put it in her review of The Sound of Music.) Anyway, this production was supposed to be an especially fine one, and it was nice to have an excuse to get dressed up and visit the Civic Opera House.

It was a great production: music, singing, dancing, even acting, usually a weak point in musicals. I don’t think I contributed to the general sniffling during “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” but I did get chills during the “Soliloquy.” I could even tolerate the cornier aspects (“A Real Nice Clambake”) and the weirdness of its afterlife cosmology (the Starkeeper, who seems to think that you can redeem your sorry life by giving people cardboard stars). But then something happened in the penultimate scene that wrecked the whole thing for me.

About halfway through act one, the heroine, Julie, tells her best friend, Carrie, that her husband, Billy, hit her. Well, OK, it was the Depression and Billy was out of work, and it was clear he didn’t have the sweetest temper anyway. Julie’s big act two number, “What’s the Use of Won’drin'” is a big old “stand by your man” thing, and I could see her point of view there too. Divorce wasn’t really an option in the 40s, when the show was written, or the 30s, when the Lyric’s production takes place, not to mention the 1870s, when it was originally set. Besides, they’d only been married two months, and he’d only hit her once.

But then in the second-to-last scene, Billy comes back to earth to help out his daughter, Louise, who’s having a rough time because she’s a teenager growing up in a small town with a single mom and no money and because she’s inherited her father’s combative temperament. She’s wary of him because he’s a stranger, but she warms up a bit after he tells her he was a friend of her dad’s. When he tries to give her a star, though, she gets creeped out and refuses to take it, and he slaps her.

And then when Louise tells Julie about what happened, she says that even though he hit her, it didn’t hurt at all. It felt like a kiss! Is that possible, she asks? Yes, it’s possible, Julie says. In the next scene, Louise graduates from high school and Billy comes back as a spirit to let her and Julie know how much he loves them and is redeemed, sort of, even though he’s still dead.

Nothing I had read about the play had prepared me for this. If I’d been alone, I would have yelled something obscene. Billy was meeting his daughter for the first time—the same daughter, incidentally, that he’d vowed in “Soliloquy” to protect and provide for, even if it killed him—and he hit her! How could this be OK?

I raged for a while on Facebook, and Albert Williams, who reviewed this production for the Reader and who also teaches musical theater at Columbia, took pity on me and explained that Billy had issues, and that Carousel is also rooted in 19th-century transcendentalism, the belief that a spiritual experience, like Billy and Julie’s great love, transcends something physical, like a slap. And also that while Billy’s initial meeting with Louise was a complete failure, like everything else he did, the final scene was another example of transcendental love.

There was also another explanation that I learned about by reading the Lyric dramaturg Roger Pines’s notes in the program: Carousel was based on an older play, Liliom, by a Hungarian playwright named Ferenc Molnár. Molnár was very particular about adaptations of his work and had already turned down Puccini and Kurt Weill by the time he met Rodgers and Hammerstein. Consequently, Rodgers and Hammerstein promised to be faithful to the source material. And Liliom, the prototype for Billy, is a complete ass.

One of the nice things about being a reporter is that when certain things bother you, you can call people up and ask questions. So I called up Pines the afternoon after I saw the show and explained my issue—not that I wanted a trigger warning or anything, but how could Billy possibly be worthy of redemption?—and asked what kind of discussions the Lyric cast and crew had had about how to play the hitting scenes. Pines said he hadn’t been privy to any of the rehearsal discussions, so he couldn’t talk about that, but he could tell me a bit more about the show itself, which he’s loved since he was a little kid, and its evolution from Liliom, which he read for the first time only recently.

“This comes up a lot,” he said. “I’m not condoning it, but Liliom was first played in 1909, and the world is obviously different now.”

Rodgers and Hammerstein, he said, were both optimistic and cheerful people. So what, I asked, made them want to adapt something dark and depressing like Liliom? They were looking to do something different from Oklahoma!, their first big hit, Pines said, something more tragic and ambiguous.

But they were still the guys who wrote “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’,” so they gave Billy songs like “If I Loved You” and “Soliloquy” and invented the final redemptive high school graduation scene. (Which Molnár totally loved, by the way.) “They wanted the audience to leave with a sense of uplift and hope for Julie and Louise and for Billy to do something good,” Pines said.

“In the play,” he continued, “Liliom is a lout. He has no redeeming qualities. When he dies, you feel nothing. What humanizes Billy in the musical are the songs, ‘If I Loved You’ and ‘Soliloquy.’ They give him humanity. The bench scene [in which Billy and Julie sing “If I Loved You” and fall in love, though in the Lyric’s production, there is no bench] couldn’t come out of the character Molnár created. When he hits Louise, I think, that’s Liliom up there, not Billy Bigelow. Liliom is hateful. He made me angry.”

That explanation did make a bit more sense to me. It was comforting—sort of—to know I didn’t necessarily have to hate Carousel, at least not completely, but I could just transfer all my hatred to Liliom.

Someday, like 75 years from now, there will be a revival of something that is popular now and someone will go see it and be amazed at how appalling and hateful it is and ask a dramaturg how he or she can possibly justify it. Maybe the dramaturg will say something like what Pines said:

“I look at it as a piece of time. You can’t take it out and soft-pedal it. It wouldn’t be Carousel.”

I guess it all wouldn’t be so upsetting to me if Carousel weren’t so beautiful that it’s impossible to dismiss.

  • Robert Kusel