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Since we started this series, we've looked at how the plot and messages of musicals change when looking through the eyes of a different character. So far we've seen how Oklahoma! goes from a romp in the midwest to a story about how bullying leads to violence, when told through the eyes of Jud Fry. We also looked at how Grease changes from a high school comedy to a tale about succumbing to peer pressure to win friends and boys, when told from Sandy's perspective.
Today we revisit another Rodgers & Hammerstein piece, Carousel.
While the show is mostly known for being about one man's path to redemption, what often gets lost is the treatment of his love interest, Julie Jordan, who endures some of the worst abuse, both physically and mentally, all the while having some of the worst dialogue of any musical I've ever seen.
So let's break Carousel down, from Julie's perspective.
Julie Jordan is a young woman living in a small town in Maine. One night after work, she and her friend Carrie, go to a local carnival where she rides a carousel and catches the eye of barker, Billy Bigelow. While she's riding the carousel, Billy comes up to her, leans against her and puts his arm around her, which is basically 19th Century groping.
After she gets off the ride the owner of the carousel, Mrs. Mullin, comes over to yell at Julie, blames her for seducing Billy into putting his arm around her and literally calls her a "slut".
So to recap, within moments of the beginning of the show, Julie is hit on and touched inappropriately by a carnival worker and then slut shamed because of it. She's off to a good start.
After Billy quits his job as carousel barker, he tells Julie to meet him at a bench to have a drink with him. While they're talking, the owner of the mill, Mr. Bascombe, enters and along with a policeman, offers to escort Julie home so as she is not to lose her job. She refuses and is fired.
So Julie has just lost her only source of income to spend time with a man who basically forced himself upon her. Soon, the conversation turns to marriage(Good God that was quick!) and Julie admits that she will only marry the man she loves and then sings about how she would never tell him she loves him because she would be afraid to.
It's a beautiful song but in the context, "If I Loved You" is basically two people admitting that their marriage would be chock full of communication issues....so what do they decide to do?
They get married!
Well the honeymoon period doesn't last long because, remember, neither Julie nor Billy have a job. After a couple months Julie tells Carrie that due to Billy's frustration about being unemployed, he's hit her. Carries tells Julie she would have left him but Julie defends Billy because he only hit her because he doesn't have a job. Julie has essentially defended her abuse due because of Billy's inability to learn a trade.
Being the good friend she is, Carrie changes the subject and tells Julie she's getting married to Mr. Snow, and demands that Julie congratulate them.
Billy enters with Jigger, makes fun of Mr. Snow only to find out that he was going to offer him a job on one of his herring boats. Billy angrily says he would never stoop to work on a herring boat. He then demands that Julie go make him dinner, which she does. As she comes back, she overhears Mrs. Mullin tell Billy that if he abandons Julie, he can have his job back. Julie overhears Billy consider it....there is nothing better than hearing your husband mull over a job offer from a woman he used to sleep with, as long as he leaves you in the dust.
After Mrs. Mullin leaves, Julie tells Billy she's pregnant and the first thing she asks Billy is if he's mad. I'm not a psychologist but when that's the first thought after announcing a pregnancy to your husband, something tells me that's not exactly the sign of a healthy relationship.
Billy doesn't seem mad but at the same time he's not overjoyed towards Julie either. If you watch the movie version he literally pushes Julie into their room right when she tries to embrace him so he can go off on his thoughts. Let me repeat this, Julie never even gets a hug after telling her husband that she's pregnant...I can't even at this point.
Fast forward to after the clam bake. Julie comforts Carrie after Mr. Snow dumps her thinking she was fooling around with Jigger. Julie sings a song, which if you remove the music entirely, becomes incredibly disturbing:
Common sense may tell you
That the ending will be sad
And now's the time to break and run away
But what's the use of wond'rin'
If the ending will be sad
He's your fella and you love him
There's nothing more to say
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
You're his girl and he's your fella
And all the rest is talk
Basically this song is saying that no matter how bad a man treats his woman, because you him, it's alright. Ignore common sense and logic, just stay with him. Good God....
Right after this, she sees her husband sneak away with Jigger. Trying to stop him, she feels the knife under this shirt and begs him not to go. He goes anyway.
Next thing she knows she sees him dying on the dock after a failed robbery attempt. She tells him she loves him(apparently the first time she's said that to him) and he dies, never able to say to it back.
So if you're keeping score. In the course of just a couple months, Julie has had a man 19th-Century grope her, been fired from her job for him, married this man, endured physical and mental abuse from this man and on the same day she tells him she's pregnant, he dies. All the while never being told that he loves her.
Does Julie ever get a win?
Years later, after Billy's ghost comes to Earth one last time(and hits his now 15 year old daughter because, that would be par for the course) and Julie says one of the most cringe worthy lines that I can think of:
Louise Bigelow: But is it possible, Mother, for someone to hit you hard like that - real loud and hard, and it not hurt you at all?
Julie Jordan: It is possible dear, for someone to hit you, hit you hard, and it not hurt at all.
Eeeesh. Now some might say Julie says this because she saw Billy's ghost right before he disappeared, but you could also make the point that since she didn't mind him hitting her when he was alive, she could be referring to that. Also keep in mind, even if Julie thinks she saw Billy, she doesn't mention any of that to Louise. So, in her daughters eyes, Julie has just, once again, defended domestic abuse.
The show ends with Billy, while invisible, whispering to Julie that he lovers her and he finally gets to go to heaven.
So in the end Billy gets his redemption for trampling all over his wife over the course of the show and Julie.....well Julie just gets to go on assuming that her husband loved her.
Carousel is one of those shows that often sparks a lot of debate on the subject over whether or not it condones spousal abuse. As I said before, I don't think it does because the abuser is punished for his actions. But the show does put Julie through a lot of crap without ever giving her a break.
Now you could say that her daughter is her win. I can agree with that. But also remember that earlier, Louise tells Enoch Jr. that her initial plan is to run away to become an actress. So it's more than likely that Julie would have ended up a widowed abused woman who's 15 year old daughter ran away to become an actress.
Also, since Billy's death, it's implied that life has been hard for Julie financially and socially as she's essentially lost her best friend, Carrie, because she's beneath Carrie's "station". So to reiterate, Julie loses her husband, best friend and potentially her daughter.
And do you know what drives me the most nuts about this show? I love the music. I mean I LOVE the music. In my opinion it's, hands down, the best score Rodgers & Hammerstein ever composed. But maybe it's their best work to make up for the incredibly terrible treatment they put their lead female role through, in order to tell a story about a man's path to redemption.
I get that the show was written in 1945 when attitudes toward female empowerment was a bit different. I get the the show is set in the 1800's when the attitudes toward female empowerment was way different. But for a team of composers who wrote some of the more stronger female roles of the time(Anna in The King & I, Maria in The Sound of Music), it's incredibly surprising they would out a character through something like this.
So in the end, all I have to say is, we love you Julie Jordan, because for God's sake, someone should.
Photo: Steven Pasquale and Laura Osnes Pose for Lyric Opera of Chicago's CAROUSEL! Photo by Brad Trent