I've needed to think about this for a long time to write anything about this show. WE ALL KNOW THE "BIG PROBLEM" THAT CAROUSEL HAS. Especially in this day and age, how can the actor playing Julie say, "It is possible dear, for someone to hit you, hit you hard, and it not hurt at all" and not be presented with the dilemma of this line?? God, even in 1945 I bet it was hard to do. They talk about it throughout the entire show: how horrible it was that Billy hit Julie. Even the antagonistic characters condemn him for it. So, everyone is saying how awful it is, including R&H, including me.
Now, this was not R&H's battle, as this musical was adapted closely from the play "Liliom," which would have been VERY fresh in theatre-goers minds. I suppose it's the equivalent to adapting 9 to 5 (or any of the hit movies from the 1980s turned musical) today. Everyone already knew the story. It wouldn't have been as shocking for them that he hit her. That she forgave him for it. They already knew.
But, look, it's there. It's there in today's world. I had thought about sub-titling this post "Carousel: a 2 hour sit down where I try to justify Billy Bigelow's spousal abuse." No one can JUSTIFY it; it's unforgiven... except to Julie.
And there's the thing.
I think Julie Jordan is thought of as this pure, innocent girl who gets mixed up with this ne'er-do-well and then he hits her, gets her pregnant, kills himself, and then comes back as a GHOST and slaps her daughter. Julie is not stupid. She's not like that border-line handicapped girl, Lili from Carnival! -- she KNOWS what she is doing. I feel like if we were to re-adapt this play to modern times, Julie would be like... almost goth (When I think of modern day Julie Jordan, she is very close to Aubrey Plaza). She's certainly unhappy. She's so cool with giving up her previous life that she just quits her job (it seems like they say she was fired... but it was her choice not to go back to the mill) to be with Billy. It is established as love at first sight in the very first scene of the play. Julie is not a push over. She does what she wants. She says no to Billy and anyone else (that's his reasoning behind hitting her -- they argued, he got carried away. What kind of woman was pushing back against her husband in the 1870s? Not a shy, innocent one, that's for sure). She isn't afraid of anyone. She stands up to Billy, stands up to his boss, Mrs. Mullin. She talks about how bored she is at her job; how unfulfilled it makes her. JULIE AND BILLY ARE THE SAME.... they're just... in a different time period and women acted different. They are the Kate and Petruchio of musical theatre, Julie just doesn't have the same temperament as Kate.
And since I mentioned Kate and Petruchio, it's well known, if you read The Taming of the Shrew, that the real shrew is Bianca, and she and Lucentio will end up with the bad marriage, not Kate and Petruchio. The same can be said of Carrie and Mr. Snow. On the surface Mr. Snow is a "upstanding man," but you start to see his true colors even before they are married (at the clam bake, god even on the WAY to the clam bake) and certainly when he's so horrible to Louise and encourages his children to be horrible (to the daughter of his wife's BEST FRIEND!) as well. I mean, he also forces her to have 9 children, which she is clearly uncomfortable with. All of this and more, still under the guise that he is a fine, respectable man. At least with Billy, he wears his flaws on the outside, so you know what you're going to get. Julie obviously knew.
"If I Love You" (one of Oscar Hammerstein's finest inventions: the conditional love ballad) is probably my favorite song in the R&H cannon, and one of the best songs ever written by anyone, ever. However, it's "Soliloquy" that gets me every single time. I knew when I was 14 years old how special that song was. I mean.. what the actual fuck. Apparently Richard Rodgers wrote the music in 2 hours because he was so moved by the words Hammerstein had written. I wish I could be a male baritone for 3 hours, just to work through this song a few times with a vocal coach. You, of course, see glimpses of Billy's soul in smaller moments, but it isn't until he finds out he's going to be a father that he really bears it... to us. The audience. And no one else. Billy can't show emotion to the other characters. He doesn't know how to do it and stay himself. I guess that's the problem with being a dude in the past: you were definitely not encouraged to have feelings. "Soliloquy" is the finest song for men in the theatre, and possibly the finest song, period.
Look, there is probably so much out there that is written about these characters. There's so much more I COULD say. Carousel is basically Shakespearean, and certainly as close as any non-Sondheim musical theatre writer ever got. I love this musical. Richard Rodgers got so much right musically in this and Hammerstein.... just... jesus. These characters are DEEP. The stakes are REAL. My god, you know from the first scene that your protagonist is a bad guy. Besides Pal Joey, when had that been done??
Oh, also, I can't end this without talking about Louise (Julie and Billy's daughter). I love her so much. She is my favorite character in this play, because she fucking says what she needs to say. Hell yeah she's sad. OF COURSE SHE IS. She is the perfect mix of those two, and thank god, ghost Billy comes back to tell her to not be held back from the mistakes of others. I believe Louise has a bright future ahead of her. I also am slightly obsessed with Agnes de Mille (as much as a non-dancer can be) because if there is anyone in the world who can move me just through dance, it is her. If you have the time, I encourage you to watch this video of the original Louise, and the original choreography. She kills. I cried a lot while watching this.
Music by Richard Rodgers
Book and Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II