For Christmas, my mom gave me The Rodgers & Hammerstein Collection, a DVD box set containing Carousel, The King and I, Oklahoma!, The Sound of Music (so now I have three copies of that!), South Pacific, and State Fair.
The outliers here are SOM, which I obviously watch in my dreams while I sleep, and State Fair, which I’ve never seen. All of the others I’ve seen, but only once or twice around 6th grade as part of a short-lived personal quest to expand my musical education. The truth is, at the time I didn’t really care for what I found down this road, and in the end fell back on my old (lighthearted) standbys: My Fair Lady, The Music Man, Guys & Dolls, Singin’ in the Rain, Hello Dolly…
Nearly two decades later, I guess it’s time to give R&H another try. Since they, you know, invented the genre as we know it. I decided to start with Carousel, because it was the first one in the box, alphabetically speaking, and because it was the one I dreaded the most: while my grandma and Time magazine agree that it is the best musical of the 20th century, as I recall, I fucking hated fucking Carousel.
This time around, I tried to educate myself and come to the show with an open mind. I learned that Carousel, which debuted on Broadway in 1945, was Rodgers and Hammerstein’s second collaboration, after Oklahoma! It’s a musical version of the Hungarian play Lilliom. The 1956 film stars Shirley Jones and Gordon Macrae, who obviously also co-starred in Oklahoma! the year before.
OK, so none of this historical context does anything to help the fact that Carousel is basically Breaking Bad meets It’s a Wonderful Life. With songs. (Or the fact that Gordon MacRae spends most of this movie and Oklahoma! awkwardly copping some sideboob feel by grabbing Shirley Jones right under the armpits instead of around the waist.)
But I said I’d keep an open mind! OK, so. The story opens on dead Billy Bigelow, who is trapped for eternity polishing stars in some kind of celestial bureaucracy (doesn’t it seem like movie heaven always has an awful lot of regulations, loopholes, and middle management for, well, heaven?). Dead Billy, who apparently carelessly waived his right to ever return to earth (typical Billy), learns that his family needs him. He is invited to make a case for himself to the Starkeeper, played by the judge from Miracle on 34th St., to be allowed to return to earth for one day to complete his business and help his family. And with this compelling frame narrative in motion, Billy presents his backstory…
We’re transported from the afterlife, where everything is blue, to the past, where everything is red, pink, and orange (seriously! Across this movie and Oklahoma! there is a weird pervasive bias toward salmon-colored everything). Wearing what I can only assume is a first pass at Liesl’s 1965 gazebo dress,
Julie, millworker and carousel enthusiast, is trying to catch a ride…and barker Billy Bigelow’s eye:
(Sidebar: as carnivalesque themes go, I’m sorry, the Carousel Waltz has nothing on Mancini’s eerie Charade.)
Mary Martin about sums it up in the intro below: “He has been fired from his job for noticing her. She has been fired from her job, for letting him.” So as you can imagine, hilarious hijinks ensue.
According to Martin’s speechwriters, Billy and Julie are just “two lonely people, trying to find their place in the world, trying to find a meaning in their lives.”
Billy is an abusive, passive, aggressive, passive aggressive, narcissistic, cowardly, bitter (I was going to say alcoholic, but actually that’s about the one thing he isn’t, really) chump.
Julie is, well, loyal, I guess. But so much better off without him. On her own, she knows what she wants. She has grit and pluck. She’s a good friend. She is gracious to others, without putting much stock at all in what they think of her. She is stubborn, to her own detriment–she loses her job because she’s not interested in playing by the rules. She demonstrates all of this before taking up with Billy, and again after he dies. But when she’s with him she’s so anxious and cowed and focused on defending him that she totally disappears.
They fall together in what amounts to a game of chicken: Julie stays out with him all night to prove she ain’t skeered, and Billy marries her to prove likewise. The marriage is a disaster that (mercifully?) only lasts a few months. While the sailors and the stevedores join in joyous romp,
Billy can’t find work and doesn’t really care, except that sitting around is soooo booooring. Julie wants to tell Billy that she’s pregnant, but she’s afraid of how he’ll react–word on the docks is he beats her. And also she literally can’t find him because he is constantly dodging her. He takes the news well, to her surprise, but is more pleased with himself than anything else, and celebrates by frolicking on the beach alone while his wife, presumably, sobs in their garret.
When he realizes that he will actually have to support said child, however, Billy freaks out and agrees to help a shady character commit a robbery. After a real nice clambake, the holdup goes south: Billy falls on his knife and dies. Not that it mattered, because the intended victim didn’t have any money on him anway, and even if he had, Billy had already lost his share by gambling…with his partner in crime! Some people have backup plans. Billy has backup fails.
“So that’s how it was, was it?” asks the Starkeeper. Translation: get back down to earth and clean up your damn mess. Billy goes, not without a little convincing, and pockets a star on his way out, because hey, why not vandalize the celestial dome?
Fifteen years have passed, and Billy returns to earth just in time to witness his daughter, Louise, shunned by a Von Trapp-like line of snooty ducklings (the brood of Julie’s friend Carrie and the snooty Mr. Snow).
Feeling Louise’s hurt and shame, Billy wonders why he bothered to come back at all. Because YES BILLY IT’S STILL ALL ABOUT YOU.
He follows Louise home and tries to comfort her by bragging about himself and totally freaking her out. When she understandably rejects the stolen star he offers, he hits her across the face and disappears.
Awesome, Billy. Keep up the good work.
Julie comes out to investigate the ruckus and knows that Billy has been here in spirit: What dear? A man you’ve never seen before hit you in the face and evaporated? That was your father’s signature move! She assures Louise, I shit you not, that “It is possible dear, for someone to hit you, hit you hard, and it not hurt at all.” An inspiring message for young women everywhere.
Louise goes on to graduate from whatever 15-year-olds graduate from, in a ceremony inexplicably presided over by the Starkeeper. Billy lurks in the background and urges his daughter to live a better life than than he did, because that will take a lot of doing. Then he confesses to Julie for the first time ever, apparently, that he loves her. We know by her sad smile that she hears him. Business completed, Billy can go back to heaven feeling just fine and get back to the important work of polishing stars, while Louise and Julie are left just where they were before. The end.
Billy’s redeeming quality–his only one, really–is supposed to be that he loves Julie. Even though he can’t, you know, say it. Or act on it. This movie, I gather, is supposed to be a heart-wrenching tear-jerker, but leave you with a sense of hope and redemption. Oh joy! Fifteen years beyond the grave Billy learns to use his words! And this matters to his wife and daughter…how?
Let me be clear: I don’t dislike Carousel because it’s tragic. Bring on the heartbreak. #TeamEponine all the way. I don’t dislike it because Billy’s flawed. Let’s hear it for the antihero. What I don’t like is this sinking feeling I get at the end of the film, that the point of this entire three hours was to help dead Billy feel better about himself. That along with Julie and Louise and the whole audience, I’ve been made complicit in the mission of soothing poor, poor Billy’s tortured soul. But not to worry! He feels much better now.
In the wise words of Fred Savage, “Jesus, Grandpa, what’d you read me this for?”
Right. So, nothing’s changed. In my gut and in my heart, I still fucking hate fucking Carousel.
But then I watched Oklahoma!….and suddenly everything began to make sense….