Carousel Revival - A Rich Spiritual Layer Cake

A Breath of Fresh Air  

Wow.  This is the fourth time I have seen Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel, and it is the fourth time after watching it I am gutted and tear-logged.  While I have seen some fantastic shows on Broadway in recent years, I still wouldn’t qualify any of them as giving me what I would describe as a transcendent experience.  In fact, I’d forgotten that I could even have such an experience watching a Broadway show, which was the whole reason I ever fell in love with this medium in the first place.  I had forgotten about Carousel. 

Even this time around, I was expecting just another revival.  I was expecting to cringe at the seeming acceptance of domestic violence.  I was expecting to have grown beyond the point of being so affected emotionally by a musical.  But the affecting was effective, probably because it went deeper than the level of mere emotionalism.  This show has spiritual layers that present you with more than a faith-lacking reality, as so many modern musicals do.  On the contrary, this is a many-layered, complex work of art that not only suggests, but portrays a higher power who is watching, caring, and even judging.  And said higher power doesn’t stop there.  This higher power also brings redemption.  Not automatically, but by giving our anti-hero the opportunity to make better choices.  It may be after he has passed away, but the message is loud and clear.  Even the most broken among us, those society has written off, have not been forgotten.  On the contrary, in the profoundly beautiful settings and surroundings, it is Billy Bigelow, not the “upright” of society, whom we see constantly being watched by an ethereal figure whom later we learn is the Starkeeper.  Touches of a supernatural hand pervade even the naturalistic scene when Julie and Billy first talk privately: in the oversized moon that suggests an ever-watchful, even protective eye; the flower blossoms that fall even though there is no wind, just when Billy and Julie are experiencing feelings of love for the first time; and the thoughts that seem to suddenly arise in both of their minds about what it might be like to love the other, or even get married.  It’s as if something from the outside put those thoughts there (Billy: “Are you trying to get me to marry you?” Julie: “No!” Billy: “Then what’s put it into my head?”).  At least, that’s how I interpreted it in this production.  I used to view Julie Jordan and Billy Bigelow as two desperate outcasts who found each other.  But tonight I saw something deeper.  I saw Julie as one who was guided there to be the vessel through whom Billy would experience true love.  It was an opportunity for Billy to receive and give love, perhaps for the first time in his life.  He blew it, but then got a second chance when the Starkeeper allowed him one last visit to earth to tie up any unfinished business.  He blew that one the first time too, but got still another chance.  And while it is not an ending in which everyone is getting married and everyone is happy with their life on earth, it had the ring of reality that life on earth is imperfect, while still providing enough hope that also rang with truth so as to leave my heart edified.  It left me weeping at the brokenness, but grateful for a hope meaty enough and real enough that I could hold onto it.  While circumstances will never be perfect in this lifetime, love is still a real thing that exists.  Joy can be found by knowing on the inside that one is loved - not just by all of one’s dreams coming true.  In fact, that is the real, true joy that makes the most sense in this imperfect world. Too many musicals written the last few decades try to satisfy the audience by providing a “happy ending” that is unrealistic, and thus divorced from truth (like every Disney musical). 

The Feminist Issue 

Many feminists have expressed outrage that Carousel is even a part of the Broadway season in this day and age because of the claims that it approves of domestic violence.  I respectfully disagree with this claim.  And I think to focus on such a point would hinder one from seeing the greater message in this multi-layered, deeply compassionate portrait of two misunderstood loners in a Waspy New England town.  Billy Bigelow is clearly a man who was never given a fair chance at success in life.  It is clear that this is the reason he turns to womanizing (before he meets Julie), stealing, and hitting his wife (once - still utterly unacceptable, but I wouldn’t qualify that as earning the oft-used label of “wife beater”).  Having been living with those habits for so long, they’re not just going to suddenly go away when he falls in love.  His pain and struggle came out in the way he treated Julie.  He didn’t know how to love her because he couldn’t receive love himself.  Julie knew this about him.  She said after his death, “I knew why you hit me.  I always know everything you’re thinking.”  This statement does not justify Billy hitting Julie.  It rather shows that Julie loved and understood Billy in a way he couldn’t see.  What’s clear to me is that he had too much pain and shame to believe he could even deserve such love.  Also, several times in the show, Billy hitting Julie was looked down upon by sympathetic characters; e.g., when Carrie talked to Julie about it and even suggested Julie leave him; and when the Starkeeper grilled Billy, asking him if he was sorry for hitting Julie.  This writing portrays hitting one’s wife as bad.  The writers probably choose to have that happen to show why it was easy not to like Billy, tempting the audience to judge him just as the town did.  But like Julie, we are invited to see beyond the action to the heart.  Yes, he is accountable for it (and he literally accounts for it before the greatest judge of all).  But it is also presumed that he has much more stacked against him than any person of white privilege can relate to (see the section on controversial casting below). 

If I have one complaint about the portrayal of Julie Jordan, at least in this production, it is not that she makes excuses for Billy’s hitting her.  I didn’t see one shred of victim mentality in Jesse Mueller’s empathetic portrayal of her.  I didn’t see a wife deluded about her husband’s ill-treatment of her.  But I did see something else this time around, that I sometimes see in portrayals of heroines written by males.  I saw a sort of spiritual prototype.  As mentioned above, Julie seemed to love Billy with an almost other-worldly, unconditional love.  In their initial interaction in the “If I Love You” scene, Julie seems to have this sixth sense of knowing him and understanding him better than he could potentially reciprocate: 

Billy: But you wouldn’t marry anyone like ME, would you? 

Julie: Yes, I would, if I loved you.  It wouldn’t make no difference what you - even if I died fer it. 

Billy: Aw! How do you know what you’d do if you loved me?  Or how you’d feel... or anythin’? 

Julie: I dunno how I know. 

Billy: Ah. 

Julie: Jest the same I know how I - how it’d be - if I loved you. 

She also already knows she’d love him to the death.  This is also backed up in the controversial lyrics of her Act 2 ballad, “What’s the Use of Wondrin’” - “What’s the use of wondrin’/if he’s good or if he’s bad/or if you like the way he wears his hat?/Oh what’s the use of wondrin’/if he’s good or if he’s bad./He’s your fella and you love him/that’s all there is to that.” 

I have never found this lyric controversial because I always viewed it as someone who was singing from a point of faith that there was one person for her, as if he was chosen for her, and her for him, by some higher power.  If you believe that everyone has something in them worth loving, and that there’s someone out there who will see it, then this is simply Julie’s statement that she is the one who sees what is lovable inside Billy, and is therefore the one who is meant to love him. Julie was never going to let the negative qualities keep her from loving him - even if she died for them.  She is one who when she loves, she is all in.  If Julie Jordan has a fault, to me, this is it (depending on whether or not you consider that a fault).  But if we are to see Julie Jordan as a vessel sent by God to love Billy Bigelow, rather than a woman who is vulnerable to an abused-wife mentality, then it makes her perspective somewhat more acceptable.  However, I don’t love seeing women portrayed even in this way, although I prefer it to seeing them portrayed as victims.  But I find that sometimes when men are writing female characters they find admirable, they make them a little too flawless and even other-worldly (examples in cinema are Mary and Mary Madeleine in Passion of the Christ, and the elfin ladies of Lord of the Rings). I am not criticizing male writers for this, as they are writing from their perspective.  But I, among many others, would love to see more female writers writing about life from a truly female perspective (enter a plug for my current work-in-progress, Songs for Women). 

Controversial Casting? 

There have been some questions in the air about whether the casting of a black man as Billy Bigelow is perpetuating an unfair stereotype.  While Joshua Henry’s incredibly powerful acting and blow-you-to-bits singing voice is plenty reason for him to play the role, it’s inevitable that seeing an African American man play a role traditionally played by a white man, set in a Puritanistic, late 19th Century New England town is going to add some layers to who Billy really is.  I personally think this decision is genius.  First of all, once again, to label Billy Bigelow as wife-beater and a ne-er-do-well is to reduce Billy Bigelow to a label the writers are inviting us not to assign to him.  And the reality we continue to see played out in current events is that still today too many young black men are getting unjust sentences for minor crimes.  They are too often being labeled as criminals before they have a chance to receive the kind of love that would see them for who they really are.  Doesn’t Billy’s heart-cry to get a chance to be heard by “the highest judge of all” echo the cries we hear from the African American community - especially young black men - to be treated with the same respect and empathy as white people by our own court system?  Perhaps seeing a black actor as Billy Bigelow can help the empowered white class see how easily these labels get assigned. 

Every time I hear Soliloquy sung at the end of Act I, I bawl.  I bawl because we finally get to see Billy’s heart.  Billy finally gets to see Billy’s heart.  And I bawl because I know he isn’t going to see the way to realize his dreams for his child.  Perhaps if he were able to dream at an earlier age, always believing he could really be a loving father, he would’ve invested more of his life into preparing for fatherhood.  But by the time he found out he was going to be a dad and realized he cared enough to do whatever it took to provide for his family, his options were too few.  He still could’ve chosen better, but he didn’t have nearly the opportunities set before him that one would’ve had with parents who could send them to Harvard.  If we’re crying out for Billy Bigelow to have a fairer chance at life (and if we’re not, why not?), then are we also crying out for those living across the river?  I’m asking myself that question. 

Richer Characters and Relationships 

I have to credit Jack O’Brien or whomever else is responsible for the editing down of the original script.  Somehow every shred of potential corniness and stereotype was streamlined out, and what remained were more complex characterizations of Billy, Julie, and especially Carrie Pipperidge. The casting of Lindsay Mendez helped to add levels to Carrie, as she added a little sense of a “Brooklyn broad” to the mix of her pure, naive, fiercely loyal, if not so wise, qualities, that made her more likable and less caricature.  Even the townsfolk themselves are not drawn as stereotypes in this production (I can’t help thinking that if this piece were written today, they would be portrayed as hypocritical religious zealots), but rather as generally good-hearted people.  Their flaw was not seeing beyond the surface of Billy Bigelow.  The adjustment in having Nettie sing the line in “What’s the Use of Wondrin’”, “Common sense may tell you that the endin’ will be sad, and now’s the time to break and run away” with Julie completing the stanza, “But what’s the use of wondrin’ if the endin’ will be sad.  He’s your fella and you love him - there’s nothin’ more to say,” adds a layer of depth to Julie’s relationship with Nettie, and gives Nettie an even deeper compassion for Julie’s situation.  In the original script, the other women sing a final stanza of the song, and because we don’t see them in as close a relationship to Julie, it feels a little more distant. 

Whatever Happened to Beauty? 

The last point I can’t help but to mention is the sheer beauty of the music and the dancing - Oh, the dancing!  I felt the meaning of the show more through the dancing.  This is the legacy of Agnes de Mille, the original choreographer, and the pioneer for bringing such a story-telling quality to musical theater dance.  But choreographer Andy Peck, while honoring DeMille’s original style, put his own stamp of storytelling into it.  I truly never really cared about the song “Blow High Blow Low” before.  I don’t even think I knew what it was about.  What I got out of it this go around was a culture of men in this fishing town who were less refined than the types who work “on land”.  Furthermore, it’s a culture in which Billy could potentially fit in among the burly whaler types (with whom he sings and dances).  Why he never considers becoming a whaler is unclear.  And I wonder if this song is meant to underscore the tragedy that Billy didn’t have to remain a jobless outcast with no options but to steal.  Whatever it’s story-telling function, it was just so beautiful I was moved by a rush of something in my chest.  I’m not sure exactly what or why, but it all made sense.  And the sheer beauty of the Carousel waltz, both musically and in the dancing left me breathless.  Throughout the show, the sheer sweep of the music, orchestrated with lush strings and brass brilliantly as always by Jonathan Tunick, drew me in further to whatever was going on onstage.  It caused me to care more. 

Not dissing on any contemporary artists, but I MISS BEAUTY IN MUSICAL THEATER!  Much of theater music today is prisoner to driving beats that keep songs in the rock-pop genre so they’ll be accessible to the masses.  Or it’s just plain recycled.  We can have beauty without compromising story-telling - Carousel is proof!  Our hearts want it. 

Overall, every winning element of this production seemed to serve the deep spiritual undertones of the work.  What I saw was a rich spiritual layer cake of beauty, longing, pain, hope, redemption, and faith, interwoven fluidly throughout every scene, song, and transition.  More of this, please!


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