What’s the Use of Wondering if He’s Good or if he’s Bad?

When we talk about “the American Musical”, we associate this type of genre with a product that shows certain specifications. Classical musicals usually are comedies that are mainly concerned with entertaining the audience through spectacular musical numbers and intense love stories, Oklahoma, Sound of Music, Peter Pan, Brigadoon.  This is not the case with Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical Carousel.

Carousel_2212898bThe musical Carousel (1945), was based Liliom (1909), a drama written by the Hungarian author Ferenc Molnár. The musical presents the story of Billy Bigelow, a carousel barker who marries Julie Jordan, an innocent and naïve young woman who works at a mill. They both end up without jobs, having to live off of Julie’s cousin Nettie. When Julie tells Billy that she’s pregnant, he tries to steal some money in order to support his unborn child, but is caught.  Instead of going to jail and shaming Julie, Billy decides they are better off without him, and kills himself.  As a consequence, he is sent to the “stars”, some kind of purgatory, a place somewhere between Earth and Heaven. The Starkeeper asks Billy if he wants to go back to Earth for a day and help his kinfolk. When he finally comes back to Earth, he meets his daughter Louise, who is now fifteen years old, and is very unhappy because she has been having problems with the rest of the kids due to her father’s reputation as a thief and a wife-beater.

Even though this musical is very much based off Liliom, Rodgers and Hammerstein tried to adapt the bitter and dark drama Liliom into the more colorful musical Carousel.  Although this team is very well-known for including transgressive themes in their musicals –such as suicide, domestic violence, racism, or even Nazism, they confronted a difficult task when they tried to adapt the dramatic elements of Liliom, including the suicide of the main character.  Ann Sears explains this, “They thought that the Hungarian setting and the bitterness of the second act presented insoluble difficulties.… [which] was overcome by moving the play to the coast of Maine in 1873, turning the leading lady into a wife rather than a mistress,and finding a more acceptable approach to the ending.”  But Rodgers and Hammerstein kept many of the original dialogues and the main themes of the play, including the episodes of domestic violence. The plot included the troublesome relationship between the protagonists, something that was quite innovative at the time.


Since the term ‘domestic violence’ first appeared in the 1970s, it is clear that it did not exist when Carousel was produced, but neither did a social understanding of this type of abuse.  As Theodora Ooms, states, “rape and domestic violence were still treated as personal rather than social problems” –a situation we can actually see in the characters of the musical. Although they all condemn Billy for hitting Julie, none of them takes action against him, and the scenes where he either hits his wife or his daughter, take place in their house, in the domestic sphere where nobody can interfere.  To the modern audience we sit horror stricken that no one does anything about it, or that the musical takes this matter so lightly.  We have to think that it is because it was written in 1945 and based on a play written in 1909. But even there, it falters, Rodgers and Hammerstien take away some of the grit from Liliom and gloss over the abuse in their musical. In Liliom, all characters spoke their minds against  Liliom’s (Billy) abuses, even Julie herself, the victim of her husband’s anger. When he commits suicide Julie cries over his death, although she also reproaches his behavior: “It was wicked of you to hit me… on the breast and on the head and face… but you’re gone now. (She sits next to him and touches his face.) You treated me badly; that was wicked of you. But sleep peacefully, Liliom… you bad, bad boy, you. I love you.”

In the musical version, nonetheless, the authors only talk of the violence, or show Billy being pushed to the limit of hitting someone, but controlling it.  Still in this version, Julie confesses to the violence…

“Julie: Last Monday, he hit me.
Carrie: Did you hit him back?
Julie: No.
Carrie: Whyn’t you leave him?
Julie: I don’t want to.
Carrie: I would.  I’d leave him.  Thinks he ken do whatever he likes jest because he’s Billy Bigelow.  Don’t support you! Beats you…! He’s a bad’n.
Julie: You don’t understand, Carrie. You see, he’s unhappy because he ain’t working. That’s why he hit me Monday.
Carrie: Fine reason for hitting you. Beats his wife because he ain’t working.”

With the new arrangement, this scene establishes a greater contrast between the female leading character and her friend. Julie, who is the victim of her husband’s violent nature, endures and even justifies his actions due to his frustration at being unemployed. The opposite attitudes of her friend, Carrie who is clearly against female passivity and victimization, as well as against wife-beaters. This dialogue constitutes the only attack on violence that is made explicit in the musical. Julie can be seen as the prototypically abused woman. She loves her husband above all, and forgives his rough attitude towards her and his beatings. She states her mind in her song “What’s the use of wondering,” which was criticized by the Women’s Liberation Movement, who were “one hundred percent against it.”  With sure lyrics as…

“Something made him the way that he is
Whether he’s false or true
And something gave him the things that are his
One of those things is you
So when he wants your kisses
You will give them to the lad
And anywhere he leads you, you will walk
And any time he needs you
You’ll go running there like mad”

With these lyrics, most people now a days will question the sanity of Julie.  This is where the Domestic Abuse comes in and Julie falls into a category of a woman with low self-esteem (a common trait of women who stay in an abusive relationship).   This plays into everything in the show, Mrs. Mullin bullying her, Carrie bossing her around and Billy being able to do anything.  Even when she does try to stand up to them, she rarely gets her way.

Carousel has been read by generations as an “unconventional” love story, but neither the critics nor the audience ever regarded the issue of domestic violence as a primary concern in the plot.  This is because gender-roles were so different back then.   Take this song by Billy, Soliloquy, the hardest song in musical theatre for a man.  This is because it is the only time we see Billy as a “nice guy” worrying over his unborn child, and the actor playing Billy has to sing an eight minute song while acting the heck out of it.  This song deals with gender stereotypes, that are still prevalent today, but at least we know that it’s not right to pigeon hole our children.   For this song, such lyrics include… “His mother can teach him the way to behave, but she won’t make a sissy out of him. Not him!”

The song continues in the same fashion, with Billy listing off all the things Bill might do when he gets older (e.g. hammering spikes, ferrying a boat, hauling a scow along a canal, becoming a heavyweight champ, or, if that doesn’t work out, maybe becoming the President of the United States, duh). But then, Billy’s all—“Wait a minute! Could it be? What the hell! What if he is a girl?”  And then we change everything for the girl.  Billy doesn’t know what to do with a girl.  “You can have fun with a son, but you gotta be a father to a girl.” And this girl, she’ll have ribbons in her hair, and she’ll be pink and white as peaches and cream.

It is because of these gender roles, that some people think it’s passable for Billy to hit Julie and not call it domestic violence.  The playwright, lyricist and composer Stephen Sondheim defines it as a story in which “love conquers death,” and the critic Miranda Lundskaer-Nielsen justifies the existence of violence in the following terms: “Billy fundamentally loves Julie. His violence is somehow permissible or at least bearable. A contemporary audience will recognize this as a classic case of domestic violence but in 1945 the connection would have been more opaque. This is not to suggest that these problems did not exist, but simply that our attitudes toward them have.”

Despite what Lundskaer-Nielsen argues, I feel it’s the fault of the musical theatre genre that disguises the themes and makes the audience overlook the social criticism that is being presented. It is important to remember that in the 1940s people were not used to seeing taboo themes such as this so bluntly presented in a musical, not to mention the fact that they were not used to thinking about this type of violence as something that could be exposed outside the privacy of the domestic sphere. Just look at this ad about coffee, they are making light of a spanking, just because the wife bought the “wrong” coffee.

Carousel is a musical with dizzying dance sequences and well-known musical numbers to be sure, but it’s also a musical in which women are disregarded and are expected to accept the actions of the men around them without judgment, regardless of the harm those actions may cause. In any case, it is undeniable that Carousel made a first step towards a more mature musical genre.

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