“Carousel” is a great American musical. But it doesn’t come without baggage.
A first-class revival starring Jessie Mueller and Joshua Henry opened on Broadway Thursday night trailed by talk of how a show whose protagonist beats his wife would stand up in the #MeToo era.
As it turns out, the musical’s creators — Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein — had similar concerns back when they wrote it, in 1943.
“They would not have talked about it in the terms we do today, but they knew they were grappling with a hero who had many unsympathetic elements,” says Todd Purdum, author of “Something Wonderful,” an engaging new biography of the legendary songwriting team.
“Carousel” is based on Ferenc Molnar’s 1909 drama “Liliom,” about a carnival barker and his wife, Julie, who loves him even though he abuses her. It ends with a line no one could write today: “It is possible that someone may beat you and beat you and not hurt you at all.”
Rodgers and Hammerstein cringed at that line. But they took up the challenge to make a cad not so bad, by writing three of the most celebrated songs in musical theater.
Billy Bigelow and Julie Jordan fall for each other at first sight, though neither will admit it. They deflect their feelings by singing, “If I Loved You.”
“It’s a masterpiece of spoken dialogue, underscoring and lyrics,” says Purdum. “They’re halting about their feeling, but there is no doubt they are in love. If he’s such a bad guy, how is he worthy of her love? And the song shows his vulnerability.”
Later comes the famous “Soliloquy,” in which Billy, learning Julie’s pregnant, imagines having a son. But should he have a girl instead, he vows to find the money he needs to support her, even if he has to “go out and take it, beg, steal or make it or die.”
“He grows up,” Purdum says. “He becomes a man.”
Purdum also says Rodgers and Hammerstein intentionally made Julie a stronger character than Billy. When a robbery goes awry, Billy kills himself rather than face the consequences.
“It is Julie who endures, who prevails,” Purdum says. “He is weak. She is strong.”
Hammerstein rewrote Molnar’s ending so that audiences would come to embrace Billy — flawed or not. After his spirit’s sent back to earth to redeem himself, Billy mucks up and hits his daughter.
When he does this in the musical, audiences gasp today as they did in 1945. But as Hammerstein has it, Billy’s overwhelmed by guilt. He appears and whispers to his widow, “I loved you Julie. Know that I loved you.” When the cast sings “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” there’s seldom a dry eye in the house.
Rodgers and Hammerstein knew what they were doing. One night, Mel Tormé stood at the back of the house with Rodgers and told him, “This song makes me cry.”
“It’s supposed to,” Rodgers replied.
“Carousel” followed Rodgers and Hammerstein’s smash — and optimistic hit — “Oklahoma!” And while there were concerns that audiences would resist a show whose protagonist wasn’t a hero, “Carousel” ran 890 performances and toured America for two years.
“The sting of Billy’s behavior is still there,” says Purdum, “more so than ever. But Rodgers and Hammerstein made him human, and the show endures.”
You can hear Riedel on “Len Berman and Michael Riedel in the Morning” on the radio 710 WOR-AM.