The Comparative Drama conference is over, and I’m back home. It was fabulous, but there was one frustration Friday afternoon when I went to a session about musical plays, including a terrific presentation about domestic violence in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel.
I fell in love with Carousel early in the 1960s when I started listening to my older sister’s LP Broadway cast albums. There was a magical moment when I first heard “You’re a queer one, Julie Jordan…” (queer meant something quite different in 1945!). I went to the public library and read the play, and it instantly became my favorite Broadway musical. It didn’t matter that I didn’t get to see a performance of Carousel until 30 years later.
Julie is a dreamy, unworldly girl who’s decided she’s never going to marry—but then Billy Bigelow comes along, and there’s that chemistry. It’s one of those mystifying moments when life opens up and we throw away common sense and the careful plans we’ve made.
But as time goes by, Billy Bigelow – there’s no way to soft-pedal this – starts to hit Julie. The community around her speaks out against him again and again, but she doesn’t listen.
At Friday’s conference session there was a lot of discussion about “What’s the Use of Wond’rin’”—Julie Jordan’s defense of Billy Bigelow. It’s a lyrical and beautiful song that – if we’re honest – romanticizes domestic violence. Rodgers and Hammerstein reportedly struggled with that issue in the play, and from our vantage point in 2018, they could certainly have made that disapproval more prominent. Maybe Julie could have sung a song about waking up to what Billy was doing to her.
But that didn’t happen. For whatever reason, Carousel is what it is. Friday’s session quickly got heated. Several women argued that high schools and colleges need to stop mounting productions of Carousel.
I disagree—in fact I’m going to see Carousel in New York on May 26, and I’m taking seven people with me. I count the first production I ever saw, back in 1992, as one of the best nights of my life. (I’m in good company: Steven Sondheim—Broadway royalty—says it’s his favorite musical.)
Of course I wanted to jump in and defend Carousel—but I never got the chance. The moderator had his back to us and never saw my hand go up.
Saturday morning after breakfast I rode the elevator upstairs to my room and— amazingly—the presenter was also on her way to her room. She recognized me and said she was sorry I hadn’t had a chance to join the discussion. She even skipped her floor and got off at mine so that we could talk.
Here’s what I had wanted to say. Literature isn’t a rule book, and it doesn’t offer advice or solutions. The meaning of many great works of literature is a simple one: life happens. (And—by the way—it makes no difference whether we approve or not.) A good play or novel or short story or poem doesn’t need closure or a wise message. All it has to do is make a connection with us—and Carousel certainly does that. (I told the presenter that I’d instantly connected with Julie Jordan when I was a teenager. Her response: “We all did.”)
Please, please, don’t tell me I have to fold my arms disapprovingly when I go to see Carousel next month. Do we have to judge everything?
Julie doesn’t have the last word, and neither do Rodgers and Hammerstein. We do, and that’s enough.