the unbridled immorality of carousel
Content warning: This piece discusses abusive behavior and mentions suicide.
The whimsically titled “Carousel” at first seems to be a heartwarming romp of a love story, as young men and women seek innocent fun at the fair. Yet a dark side to the patriarchal power dynamics of the play is quickly revealed—a dark side that was perhaps undetectable to society during its initial run in 1945 but is painfully obvious today. The quick switches between trivialized scenes of abuse and chirpy, carefree songs were more disturbing than mood-lightening. Still, the cast of Musical Forum’s production, which showed from April 22-25, did a marvelous job with the script and direction they were given.
Tough-guy carousel barker Billy Bigelow (Frankie Troncoso ’16) and naive, sweet millworker Julie Jordan (Hannah Margolin ’16) both sacrifice their jobs in order to be with one another—Billy because he is supposed to attract girls to the carousel while ultimately remaining unattached; Julie because she will be banned from her boarding house for indecency if she stays out past curfew. They get married but, out of fear of embarrassment, can never quite bring themselves to admit the depth of their feelings. Instead, they take turns singing in speculative fashion, “If I Loved You.”
Weeks later, frustrated by his own lack of prospects, Billy starts to beat Julie and contemplates leaving her. But when he learns that she is expecting a baby, he is motivated to turn his life around and provide for his child. Billy is influenced by his jailbird friend Jigger (Marcus Sudac ’17), who convinces him to try to get easy money by mugging and killing a rich woman.
In the second act, Billy is anxious and preoccupied about the crime and takes it out on Julie. But in the nauseating song “What’s the Use of Wond’rin’,” she justifies her husband’s emotional and physical abuse, saying, “He’s your feller and you love him; that’s all there is to that.” What’s more, her song convinces her best friend Carrie (Emily Garrison ’16) to share this opinion as well.
In another distasteful turn of events, Jigger tries to force himself without consent onto Carrie. This scene is clearly meant to be heartfelt and funny; Jigger is portrayed as passionate, if misguided, and he tricks Carrie into practicing sexualized “self-defense” techniques with him even after she has refused his advances. When Carrie’s husband-to-be, Enoch Snow (Sam Kortchmar ’16), arrives and witnesses the scene, however, he blames her rather than Jigger. Carrie, held aloft and powerless by Jigger, innocently insists to Enoch that “this is how firemen carry people,” prompting laughter from the audience. This use of humor fell flat, as it simultaneously trivialized Carrie’s near-rape and Enoch’s victim shaming.
Later, Jigger’s plan goes wrong, and Billy commits suicide rather than surrendering to the police. In a heartbreaking moment, Julie runs to him and finally confesses her love for him.
But for Billy, death is not the end. He awakens in an afterlife, where he is told by angels that he hasn’t done enough good yet in his life to get into heaven but that he has the chance to return to Earth for one day and change that fate. Billy looks down onto Earth and observes his daughter Louise (Sarah Hsu ’17), who is ostracized and friendless due to Billy’s reputation.
In an unexpected, skillfully executed, and refreshing ballet number, Louise and a young suitor flirt with one another. The young man seems truly interested in Louise, but when his friends arrive he joins them in making fun of Louise to retain his popularity. After abandoning her, he later returns and has sex with her anyway. The ballet could have been a successful redeeming moment (without compromising the original script) if it had included a physical commentary about sex and violence. Several times, the young man tries to coerce Louise into certain acts, and she refuses or runs away. But in the end, he overpowers her emotionally and physically. This would have been a perfect opportunity to introduce some indication of our modern values—some doubt about the outdated norm of male domination and abuse—without tampering with the original dialogue or plotline. Even in the original script, the man decides not to have sex with Louise because she is too young for him. In my opinion, it would have been better if she refused to have sex with him when he returned, or if he understood her hesitation and became more understanding instead of so physically assertive. This way, the performance could become more relevant, rather than mindlessly endorsing the original 1940s perspective. Alas, this opportunity was overlooked.
Upon seeing his daughter distressed, Billy goes down to Earth intending to help her. But when she shows understandable unease around him as a new, strange man, Billy ends up hitting her too. Louise runs and tells her mother that a man hit her, but that it miraculously felt as gentle as a kiss. Julie seems to understand the situation immediately. She affirms to her daughter that a blow can indeed feel like a kiss: “Someone can hit you real hard and not hurt you at all.” This scene was uncomfortable to sit through; it was despicable to me that abuse could be equated with love in this way. In a final attempt to be a good man, Billy attends Louise’s graduation. Invisible and unable to be heard, he whispers words of advice to her and finally tells Julie he loves her. The cast sings an uplifting rendition of “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” and a light shines upon Billy’s face. Although not made explicit, it seems like Billy’s overdue and unheard admission is enough to warrant him getting into heaven.
I was utterly confused over what to take away at the end of this play. A content warning on the playbill brought up the play’s themes of suicide, abuse, and consent. But what it should have warned about was the trivialization of these themes. The play seemed to unequivocally endorse that abuse is okay as long as the abuser has good intentions and that the victim should love the abuser no matter what. While I’m certain that neither the director nor the Musical Forum board members actually hold this view, there was an unfortunate lack of commentary on the matter within the production. Wisely, there was a talk back event with SHARE (Sexual Harassment and Assault Resources and Education) after one of the shows. But while this event was a good idea, it would have been more effective if it had been better advertised and had taken place after the show’s run so that more people could be involved.
A dramaturgical note on the playbill also responsibly attempts to address concerns about misogyny: “‘Carousel’s’ musical beauty is inextricable from the violence, both physical and psychological, that permeates the show…. [It] is about domestic violence and redemption more than just a love story…. [Its] seemingly antiquated way of thinking still permeates contemporary society. Billy is not a hero; in fact, he’s not unlike many men today.” This is a good start to addressing the disturbing themes in “Carousel.” Similarly, I spoke with a member of the cast who strongly felt that all parties had done their best to treat the difficult themes carefully and that this production was in no way meant to justify Billy’s behavior. I recognize the extreme efforts made to prepare actors to deal with the unsettling themes of the play, yet despite noble intentions, this did not translate to the audience. I did not find any evidence of such moral disapproval within the production itself—a necessary next step to shift attention onto the modern implications of an otherwise backwards and outdated play. By viewing the play merely as a window into the past, it remains disappointingly unproductive. Why not take the opportunity to teach or reinforce that abuse is, in fact, a heinous act and not something for which to be rewarded?
Luckily, much of the distasteful content was overshadowed by the standout musical talent of the singers, especially Troncoso, Margolin, and Emma Dickson ‘16—as well as the breathtaking skill of the dancers. Korchmar and Sudac also brought well-executed and welcome comic relief.
It is worth mentioning that “Carousel” is based on “Liliom,” a play from 1909 by Ferenc Molnár. Richard Rodgers, who wrote the original music in the ’40s, explained the ending of his version of the story: “‘Liliom’ was a tragedy about a man who cannot learn to live with other people. The way Molnár wrote it, the man ends up hitting his daughter and then having to go back to purgatory, leaving his daughter helpless and hopeless. We couldn’t accept that.”
My question is why.
I wanted to give this musical a pass because it was written in a “different time,” but clearly that’s no excuse if even a decent human from 1909 had the right idea. Brown’s production could have transformed a misguided show into a shrewd critique of abuse if it had restored Molnár’s original ending. Rather than being absolved and rewarded for his actions, Billy should have been sent to purgatory, if not hell. In any case, Carousel unfortunately does not translate well to modern times or to Brown’s campus. When the play ended, I only found that I was glad to step off that carousel and back into 2016.