Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel, After #MeToo

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Jan Clayton (as Julie Jordan) and John Raitt (as Billy Bigelow) in the 1945 original production of Carousel. Photo: Eileen Darby/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty

Billy Bigelow says he does not beat his wife. “I wouldn’t beat a little thing like that — I hit her,” he explains to the Starkeeper, head man in heaven’s waiting room. But I’ve gotten ahead of myself.

Bigelow is the protagonist in Carousel, the second work by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, and one that’s come to be known as a problem musical, or “the wife-beater musical.” And the problem is not that Billy hits his wife, Julie, but that Julie, seemingly, makes an excuse for him, thereby teaching their daughter Louise that abuse is a form of love. This happens near the end of the show, when Louise asks, “Has it ever happened to you? Has anyone ever hit you — without hurtin’?” As Hammerstein wrote it, Julie answers yes: “It is possible, dear, fer someone to hit you — hit you hard — and not hurt at all.” And because Hammerstein places this conversation just as the play gears up for the reprises of “If I Loved You” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” the thought gets tangled up in the great emotion of the show’s ending.

This year, the women are not saying those lines. In a new production that opens April 12 at the Imperial Theater in Manhattan, director Jack O’Brien cut them in previews, a measure that may forestall some criticism. Except that Julie’s frame of mind and her way of loving are so deeply woven into the musical that this small deletion doesn’t change very much. Still, the audience might find the controversy is more complex than whether or not the show condones domestic abuse.

When it was new, Carousel was a kind of corrective to Rodgers and Hammerstein’s debut groundbreaking musical, Oklahoma! Hammerstein said that Oklahoma! had “no particular message,” but “a flavor” that he identified as gaiety. The 1943 smash hit is about a couple and a country on the rise, looking toward the future with irresistible optimism. Written two years later, Carousel focuses on lovers who cannot dig their way out of poverty, crime, and brutality; a couple whose only comfort comes in retroactive forgiveness and redemption in the afterlife. For Bigelow and his wife Julie Jordan, happiness on earth is not in the picture.

In this and other aspects, Carousel is unlike any musical that came before it, and the show remains a complete oddity. It shouldn’t work. It’s about a man who figures out how to be human only after he dies, and even then just barely. And yet Carousel, and particularly its problematic ending that may or may not ask us to forgive Bigelow his crimes, remains among the most moving experiences in all of musical theater.

O’Brien cast Joshua Henry, an African-American, as Bigelow, a role originally written for, and until now virtually always played by, a white actor. While O’Brien’s bit of nontraditional casting might have provoked some commentary in another year, this year it will be irrelevant (as it should be and might well have been regardless). Six months after the parts were cast, the actions of one Harvey Weinstein inspired the #MeToo movement and a rethinking of everything we accepted as the social status quo for women.

Bigelow has a gift for obliterating whatever good might come from his few impulses toward decency. When he gazes at the stars he’s inspired to contemplate eternal forces, but the only lesson he’s able to then draw is that he is irrelevant to the universe — that he and his lover “don’t count at all.” He comes as close to telling Julie he loves her as O.J. Simpson came to confession; Bigelow can only say “if I loved you.”

Julie (Jessie Mueller) is so loving and unguarded that she opens up a world of human engagement for Billy. But he doesn’t get to travel very far down the road. After they marry, Billy, who’s been unable or unwilling to find work, lashes out and hits her. It is a shocking moment, even though it happens offstage. When Julie tells her friend Carrie Pipperidge about it, in O’Brien’s production it seems like the entire chorus overhears and is repulsed simultaneously, along with the audience.

But public condemnation has no effect on Billy; his judgment never evolves. His best plan to care for his unborn child is to rob a rich man. When he botches that, he knifes himself rather than go to jail, and he dies crying out the name of his pregnant wife. Then — and this shouldn’t work either — he comes before a heavenly tribunal, presided over, in this production, by a kindly, gray-suited Starkeeper (John Douglas Thompson), who allows Billy to return to earth for one day to do something for Julie or for his lonely, now 15-year-old daughter Louise (Brittany Pollack). Billy bungles that as well; when he tries to force a gift into Louise’s arms, a star he’s stolen from the sky, she pulls away in fright, and Billy smacks her hand in frustration. At this, a gasp went through the audience at an early preview.

O’Brien competes with a legendary, critically lauded Carousel that is still within living memory: the London National Theatre’s 1993 stark and unsentimental production, which came to Lincoln Center in 1994. British director Nicholas Hytner paid great attention to the way poverty grinds down even the young. His Billy Bigelow (Michael Hayden) appeared deeply embalmed in dirt and sweat, and grew more haggard as the play went on. Injustice and toil were everywhere — they seemed to emanate from the gigantic clock that oversaw Julie and the other mill workers, an instrument so heavy it would crush them if it fell. Hytner’s Carousel provided an argument about class that contextualized Billy’s violence.

O’Brien never shows us the mill at all — his is a less grim, more traditional and more romantic Carousel. Hytner says he borrowed a bit of “a Central European grotesque” from the play on which the musical is based, Ferenc Molnár’s Liliom. That work was set in the playwright’s native Hungary, where the “carnival is a place for thrills and sex, and there’s danger in the festivity.” The new production restores some of the reassuring Americana that the previous one stripped away — for instance, where Hytner’s fairground featured a bearded lady and an animal trainer who mercilessly beats a bear, O’Brien’s features a clown bedecked in silver and colored fluffballs, and cheerful, well-heeled patrons who wear mink-trimmed shawls and carry balloons. His female chorus often looks like it was shipped in from Oklahoma! — long ruffled skirts and crinolines, bloomers and little ankle boots, and everyone looks healthy and happy. Bigelow and his accomplice-in-crime Jigger may not be respectable, but they never look debauched like the pair from 24 years ago on the Lincoln Center stage.

Another telling difference is the way O’Brien uses the celestial Starkeeper — he is front and center at the top of the show, and he reappears every time Billy is about to make one or another disastrous decision, at times staring into his face. His ubiquity suggests a heavenly omnipresence, a god who cares, and this, too, reveals a more sentimental reading, one that is perhaps meant to soften the blow of the hard ending. But, aside from providing an old-fashioned staging for the musical, O’Brien does not offer any thoughts on Bigelow’s violence or Julie’s masochism.

Twenty-five years after he staged Carousel’s finale, Hytner told me he regrets not deleting the dialogue between Julie and Louise. “Those words should not have been said on the stage, because they are a lie,” he said, with passion. I suggested that since Billy is long dead when Julie speaks those words to her daughter, they cannot be construed as enabling further abuse, but the director would not have it. “It is an appalling truth that people feel that way, but … to put those words in the show’s climactic moment is a huge blot on that text. It’s outrageous and unforgivable. It should be cut.”

Perhaps Hytner had forgotten, but when I rewatched a video of his production at the New York Public Library at Lincoln Center, I saw that Billy, who is looking on as Julie says those words to Louise, shakes his head “no.” That directorial choice offers the audience not only Hytner’s own comment on the text, but an important amplification of Hammerstein’s attempt to show Billy’s awakening comprehension. And it gave the 1994 audience permission to be swept up in that gorgeous ending, rather than feel they were acquiescing to a justification for violence.

While I understand O’Brien’s decision to remove the lines, I would have left them in, the better to confront and contemplate a trope that has become almost universally offensive. There is no question that Hammerstein saw nobility in Julie’s sacrifice — the sacrifice of her own body and dignity — and he wanted the audience to see it as well. Near the show’s end, when we see Julie’s old friend Carrie, now long married to her prosperous Mr. Snow and trailed by many children, the everyday happiness and relative inanity of Carrie’s safe existence casts Julie’s pale loneliness in a romantic light. Despite her deprivations, Julie sees more, feels more, and knows more. This is present in both productions, possibly in every production. Suffering does bring some kind of knowledge.

Hammerstein first floated the idea of painless abuse in a forgotten 1935 operetta he wrote with composer Sigmund Romberg and book writer Frank Mandel called May Wine, adapted from a treatment by Erich von Stroheim and Wallace Smith (which became the novel “The Happy Alienist” by Smith). In that musical a professor named Volk is adored by his assistant Vera, who tries to warn him that his bride is a con artist. “You’re in love with something that doesn’t exist,” says Vera. “A madman’s dream!” At that, Volk smacks her across the mouth. Her answer is triumphant: “Ah! That didn’t hurt at all!”

While the smack is in the source material, Vera’s response is original to May Wine.

Julie’s second-act ballad, “What’s the Use of Wonderin,’” contains the beauty that Hammerstein saw in enduring love and female self-sacrifice. So do other songs of his, like “Can’t Help Lovin’ that Man” from Show Boat and “Something Wonderful” from The King and I. But, it should be said, both of those shows (as well as Carousel) also showcase spirited and independent female characters. I think it’s undeniable that Hammerstein saw beauty in suffering and redemption, but not in suffering for its own sake.

Though Hammerstein was a great progressive in many ways — accused by a derisive Mike Wallace in a 1958 television interview of being an “active liberal” — he was also a man of his time, especially where gender roles were concerned. In his love letters to his future wife Dorothy — who spent December 1928 through February 1929 in Reno, Nevada, in order to obtain a divorce from her first husband — he shows himself to have rather firm ideas about how a man and a woman, but particularly a woman, should behave: stick very close to her man’s side and end any alarming friendships with other men. When Hammerstein grew rich in the 1940s and richer in the 1950s, he was forever trying to convince Dorothy to quit the successful interior-decorating business she had started during the Depression, when he was struggling unsuccessfully to create consequential work in both Hollywood and New York. Dorothy acquiesced but always drifted back to her business with one large commission or another.

Both as an activist and as a writer of shows like Show Boat, Carmen Jones, The King and I, and Flower Drum Song, Hammerstein played a large part in opening Broadway to actors of underrepresented races and nationalities. His song from South Pacific — “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught” — is possibly the most influential song about racism ever written, the latest evidence being Lin-Manuel Miranda’s quote from it in Hamilton. Hammerstein had enormous depths of compassion for the human predicament, and he knew that forgiveness can be a messy and complicated business.

Carousel examines forgiveness.  We all agree that domestic violence is a scourge, and making excuses for it a trap, but forgiveness is something else. We are capable of course of condemning the sin but forgiving the sinner. And Hammerstein knew, too, that forgiveness can transform: Billy does, at very end, learn some basic empathy; he is able to whisper something to both his daughter and his wife that just might help them both.

Most of us will cry at the end of Carousel because its true subject is the overwhelming power of love, both the happy and tragic kinds. As Lin-Manuel Miranda said at the 2016 Tony Awards in response to the mass shooting at Pulse, an LGBT club in Florida: Love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love. Hammerstein knew that one form of love is forgiveness, that forgiveness is hard and fraught and not without its costs. Some of us will weep at all of that, too.

A founding editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books, Laurie Winer is the author of  Song of Ourselves: Oscar Hammerstein II and the American Musical, to be published next year by Yale University Press.

Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel, After #MeToo