Calliope

It seems high time I weigh in one on of the great controversies concerning a classic musical.  The recent broadcast of the New York Philharmonic’s concert staging of Carousel keeps the show, what it says, and how it says it, on my mind.  Perhaps on your mind, too.  It’s rare that we get old musicals on television these days, and, while one might quibble with this or that, nothing in this production got in the way of the text.  We can accept that the four leads were far too old and focus on the genius of the show Time named the twentieth century’s best musical.  Yes, I, like many, preferred the theatricality of Jason Danieley and Jesse Mueller as the Snows to Nathan Gunn and Kelli O’Hara’s Bigelows, but the acting and singing certainly got the emotion across, and shines light on the age-old controversy.

To wit: People believe Carousel excuses, romanticizes or condones wife-beating.

What should be said to those people?

Before we get to that, there’s something else that has been on my mind – also controversial, also about New England – and I think I can mention it without breaking my “no politics” rule.  On The New Yorker web site, John Cassidy drew interesting comparisons between how the nation reacted to last December’s tragedy in Newtown and the more recent bombing at the Boston marathon.  The public associates bombs in crowds with international terrorism, and associates the shooting of innocents with automatic rifles with mentally-disturbed Americans.  Bills designed to make it harder for people with mental problems to get access to rifles that shoot off forty-five rounds a minute have stalled in Congress. I find the different responses to the two tragedies instructive, fascinating.

But now let’s talk about armed robbery.  Two lugs plan to mug an old man they know will be carrying a lot of cash, and if he has to be killed in the process, that’s OK with them.  As Strindburg wrote (in a play title), “There Are Crimes and Crimes.” Our reaction to a thief who’s willing to kill is, I think, different than our reaction to a man who hits his wife.

And yet I’ve never heard anyone complain that Carousel is a musical that excuses or condones armed robbery.  Have you?

Obviously, the evolving reactions to Carousel since its 1945 debut have to do with our increased awareness of the scourge of spousal abuse.  It’s a national tragedy, and we hear of masochistic wives and girlfriends who keep returning to the miscreants who lay hands on them.  We keep a sober eye on this situation, and recoil against romanticizing a situation that would seem the polar opposite of love.

Prior to Carousel, I’d say about 99% of musicals were fluff.  That is, they didn’t explore the psychological underpinnings of human behavior.  We watched couples fall in love, some minor issue gets in their way, causing a rift that’s repaired before the happy ending.  Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, writing separately, were responsible for some of the great hits of the Twenties and Thirties.  The R & H ideal – and don’t forget this is the second example – was to take off the rose-colored glasses and look more closely at characters who, like real people, are less than perfect.

Billy Bigelow is a long way from perfect, and Carousel dramatizes the question of whether he deserves to go to heaven.  We witness a very bad man’s attempts at redemption.  One attempt is so off-the-mark, it’s nearly comical. Billy literally steals a star from heaven, returns to earth and tries to present it to his teenage daughter, without telling her who he is.  The girl has enough sense to reject a gift from a strange older man, and man, that’s one weird gift.  Billy, frustrated, slaps her hand and she runs away.  Earlier, we hear (but don’t see) that Billy has hit his wife, Julie.  But now we are witnessing what we previously only imagined as off-stage action.  The girl asks her mother if it’s possible for a hit to feel like a kiss and Julie says it is.  So, is Julie saying that, all those years ago, it felt like a kiss when Billy hit her?

Some people jump to the extremely odd conclusion that Hammerstein is saying that an abusive husband’s blows can feel like love.  But can we talk about ghosts for a minute?  What do we know about them, really?  Dead people return to the earth and sometimes we can see through them, and, in Carousel’s alternative reality, there’s a clunky process by which the dead can choose whether they’re seen or heard, but it takes a moment.  Julie catches sight of Billy, 15 years after his death, looking exactly as he did in life.  Pretty startling, no?  If the dear departed can materialize, then anything is possible: The worst pain you’ve ever experienced – emotionally, that is, being struck by your lover – can possibly feel like the pleasure of being kissed by your lover.  Not that it did at the time, all those years ago.  The daughter is asking “Is it possible?” and, having just seen a ghost, Julie’s mind is blown. Yes, it’s possible, because anything is possible in a world where the dead return.

(Also, there’s the question of what a slap from a ghost feels like. Does it hurt? If you’ve been hit by an apparition, get back to me.  Also, I urge you to join a Victims of Spectral Abuse support group.)

In Carousel, there is much talk, and a whole song, about those who judge our actions after we die.  In high school, I played the Heavenly Friend, a minion who accompanies Billy to a waiting room that’s outside heaven’s gates, and also back to earth.  When he sees Billy hit the girl on the hand, he makes it very clear this is a bar-you-from-heaven offense:

“Failure!  You struck out blindly again.  All you ever do to get out of a difficulty – hit someone you love!  Failure!”

In my real-life role as a dad to a daughter (17 months!), I must make mention of the Soliloquy, that stupendous song in which we all identify with Billy Bigelow.  He’s just learned Julie is pregnant, and goes through all sorts of emotions I went through two years ago.  The thing is, I always identified with that song.  I worked on it in high school, considering every interpretive and expressive nuance, knowing that all parents-to-be have many of the same thoughts and feelings. This is Carousel’s great humanizing moment.

So Rodgers and Hammerstein accomplished a remarkable thing: they make us root for an often-evil man to redeem himself and get into heaven.  We see we have something in common with Billy while we recoil at his contemptible actions.  Carousel successfully engages us in a sinner’s efforts to act nobly.  Everything about the show is extremely moving, partly due to its insistence that we examine three-dimensional characters, warts and all.

You got a problem with that?  Then stick to fluff: plenty of shows feature two-dimensional characters, wart-free.

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