Stop the Carousel, I wanna get off …

Carousel musicalYesterday we treated ourselves to a performance of Carousel at a local theater. I love the classic American musicals, and Carousel is one of the big guns, so I was excited.

But although I know I had seen the show at some point in my past, I had apparently forgotten the plot. As the story progressed, I found myself scratching my head at several parts.

In case you’re unfamiliar with the story line, Carousel is the tale of carousel barker Billy Bigelow. Billy is totally unlikeable, which might create an interesting show, but it makes him hard to sympathize with much — and in this show, Billy needs a lot of sympathy.

He falls in love with millworker Julie Jordan (well, supposedly. He keeps denying it, and he never seems too affectionate). Julie isn’t the typical sweet heroine herself (at least she wasn’t in the production we saw). She is brash, like Billy.

At one point, Billy hits Julie. Uh oh — domestic violence is never good, even in the late 1800s, when this show is set. But throughout the play ad nauseam, Julie insists that Billy loves her even if he did hit her … he only hit her once … he just did it because he felt bad about being unemployed … etc. Gee! Get this guy off the streets and into therapy, quick.

The two get married (this was a mystery as well; in the midst of the show they began referring to each other as husband and wife, although no wedding was shown). When he learns Julie is pregnant, the gruff Billy breaks into a long and non-melodic musical soliloquy about his unborn child. He dreams big for his kid and it all seems utterly incompatible with the big jerk he has been up until now.

But no worries. Billy plans to support his family by robbing (and if necessary, killing) a ship captain. On the way to commit this dastardly deed, Billy and a scummy friend gamble and Billy loses most all of his (potential) earnings. Just another example of the fine human specimen he is.

Billy and his friend are caught by police just prior to committing their robbery, and when Billy learns he’ll spend life in jail, he stabs and kills himself. This is the point where the famous “You’ll Never Walk Alone” comes in. Also, Julie’s friend Carrie offers a line that sums up what we’re all thinking: “You’re better off without him!”

But alas, we’re not done with Billy yet. He meets an angel, who tells him he hasn’t done enough good to get into heaven (duh – plus what great theology … ah well, I suppose Rodgers and Hammerstein weren’t necessary Christians). He watches his now 15-year-old daughter’s life through a long ballet sequence. Like Billy, she’s a bit of a difficult recluse, and Billy wants her to snap out of it. He returns to earth, and slaps her. Yep, that’s our Billy.

And in the show’s continuing disturbing message, daughter Louise reports to her mom that the slap “felt like a kiss.” Julie agrees that “It is possible dear, for someone to hit you, hit you hard, and it not hurt at all.” Thanks, ladies, for setting back women’s rights about fifty years with that little gem.

Time recently named Carousel the greatest musical of the 20th century, so I’m willing to admit that maybe I’m missing something here. The music is lovely (well, much of it. There are some notable snoozers like the above-mentioned soliloquy). The costumes are great, but you could say that about most musicals. If you’re familiar with Carousel, what’s your opinion?

2 thoughts on “Stop the Carousel, I wanna get off …

  1. Wow! That sounds awful. Thankfully that’s not one I’ve been burdened with. I thought Oklahoma had problems! What’s funny is, like you, I’ve always heard that this one is good. And wasn’t it popular back when “everyone was Christian and America was wholesome” ??? Yeah, I kind of figured people have always been much as they are. The good old days are a myth.

  2. I never knew the story, but your review of it sure doesn’t entice me to try to see it!

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