By Velvet Belle Tree
On Friday April 26, 2013, PBS broadcast a semi-staged version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel (1945) with the New York Philharmonic on stage. I was ambiguous about watching it:
I’ve always loved the music (I often find the waltz going through my head) but disliked the story. But it starred Kelli O’Hara, who we loved in South Pacific (1949), so we watched it. As expected, the music was beautiful, the performers were excellent, but to put it in the vernacular, we thought that the story sucks.
On the other hand, we loved everything about South Pacific, which we saw at the recent Lincoln Center production. Since both are by the same composer and writer, I’d like to discuss them together.
Let’s begin by picking out a short song from each and seeing the lessons they teach. In South Pacific, one memorable song is “You’ve Got to be Taught.” The song begins: “You’ve got to be taught to be afraid of people whose eyes are oddly made and people whose skin is a different shade.” The lesson: Prejudice is not innate, it has to be taught. In Carousel, there’s the song “What’s the Use of Wondering” which begins: “What’s the use of wondering if he’s good or if he’s bad, he’s your feller and you love him, that’s all there is to that.” The lesson: the character of the man you love doesn’t matter.
Now let’s look at the main romance in the musicals. In South Pacific, Nellie Forbush and Emil Debecque fall in love. She is an American nurse stationed on an island in the South Pacific during World War II. Young and charming, her character is distinguished from the other nurses by the fact that the sailors, enlisted men who aren’t allowed to fraternize with nurses who are officers, like her because she treats them well. Emil is a Frenchman in exile who has become a successful planter. He’s about 20 years older than Nellie.
In Carousel, the romance is between Julie Jordan and Billy Bigelow. Their ages are not clear, but Julie is probably in her late teens or early twenties and Billy most likely is slightly older than she. The story takes place in New England, probably in the first decade of the 20th century. Julie works in a mill and Billy is a Carousel barker. The only thing that distinguishes Julie from the other girls at the mill is that she often daydreams at work. Nothing distinguishes Billy, except that he can supposedly charm any girl.
In South Pacific, the love story builds realistically and we can see why they love each other: he’s successful and charming and cultured, she’s young and caring and enthusiastic about life. The conflict comes when Nellie discovers that the mixed race children she thinks belong to Emil’s servant are really Emil’s by the, now deceased, native woman he had married. Nellie tries to overcome her prejudice, but after all, she’s just a little girl from Little Rock Arkansas, so she tells Emil she can’t marry him. Distraught, Emil volunteers for a dangerous mission. When Emil is believed dead, Nellie goes to his home and tells his children that she loves them and will take care of them. The emotional impact when Emil returns to find her having a meal with his children and trying to communicate with them in her halting French is overwhelming.
In Carousel, the love story doesn’t seem to build at all. The first night they meet, they sing “If I loved You” saying how they’d act if they were in love. But they declare that they don’t love each other (How could they, they just met?). And they declare that they’d never marry. But the next time we see them they’ve been married for two months — no explanation. And, by the way, they both lost their jobs the night they met — not a very good start for a marriage. Julie tells are best friend that Billy hit her. Billy’s friend Jigger tries to get him to join him in a murder / theft, but Billy is reluctant if murder is involved. Then Julie tells him she’s pregnant. At first, Billy is ecstatic, dreaming of the son he’ll be a buddy to. But wait, he thinks, what if it’s a girl: “You can have fun with a son but you gotta be a father to a girl.” And you need money. So he tells Jigger he’ll do it.
The crime goes wrong, the victim has a gun, and Billy kills himself. Only then does Julie admit she loves him. And Billy doesn’t admit he loves her until a post-death scene in which he’s allowed one day on earth to “do good.” His “doing good” consists of his trying to talk to his daughter (now 15) but lashing out and hitting her and then at her graduation telling her to listen to the message from the speaker (what you’re parents did doesn’t matter, have hope). But the worst part is when she tells her mother that this strange man hit her but it didn’t hurt and her mother tells her that yes, you can be hit and it doesn’t hurt: two cheers for domestic violence. I found the emotional impact of this scene decidedly underwhelming.
So here we have two stories. In one, the lovers have real reasons to love each other and the prospect of a good life together. In the other, the lovers seem to have no real reason to love each other and no prospect for a good life together. In one, the woman loves the man because of his character and his bravery. In the other, she loves him despite the fact that he has no character (or is it because he has no character?) and is cowardly.
I will see South Pacific and listen to our recording enthusiastically in the future. I have no desire to see or hear Carousel again.