“What's the use of wondering if he's good or if he's bad...”
My great-uncle, the late great Bishop Donald Pelotte told me a story as a child, about how good and evil exists in all of us. Instead of having a devil on one shoulder and an angel on another, the Abenaki people speak of a pair of wolves that live inside them that battle for dominance. When I asked him, “how do we know which wolf wins?” he told me, “the one you feed.” That answer has stuck with me my entire life. We had been talking about my biological father, and asking about life choices and their consequences (which I will get into a little later).
Every single one of us has the capabilities of ugliness-- a sweet, trusted friend can be capable of the most insidious forms of jealousy and possessiveness, or that someone you loved so much could act in such cold blood and malice for seemingly no reason, you don’t recognize them. When presented with the ugliness of the people we love, at what point are we expected to love or not love them? When or where do you give up on someone? When we get past the first stage of being smitten with someone, and we see their ugliness and their imperfections, where’s the turning point where we decide to either support them and love them despite everything or say goodbye? What if someone is insufferable/ selfish/ boorish/ cowardly/ a crashing bore (boar)? What if, after the initial stage of the hearts and stars and sparkles and butterflies, you see them for who they really are, and what if some of it’s ugly? Can we love someone past the sweet talk stage, enough to love them enough to tell them, “Hey, you’re being a pretentious asshole.” What outweighs what at what threshold?
CAROUSEL is coming back to Broadway in the Spring of 2018. This is really going to be the first time we have seen it back on the Great White Way (other than the PBS staged concert version) in the age of the internet and social media. There have been some lovely regional revivals, as well as the UK touring production. Broadway is just a different animal, a strange, intense fandom rivaled only perhaps by CONMEBOL, incredibly savvy and incredibly dialed into social media, and on the pulse of social issues. I am curious to see how modern audiences will accept it--or not--, and how social media is going to play into the weigh-in on its return. How will the well-informed and incredibly conscious generation handle one of the toughest Broadway shows and its questionable content? I’m bracing myself.
CAROUSEL isn’t an easy show, for a multitude of reasons. CAROUSEL, first and foremost, is a stunningly beautiful piece of art. Almost all of the characters aren’t written like characters, they’re written as incredibly real people--flawed, multifaceted, capable of great achievements and great blunders in equal measure. Very few of them are stock characters or archetypes (Jigger, Mullins, Nettie). The magic of the scenes in Heaven have to be believable; if it’s cheap or corny, it’s all wrong and you’ve lost the audience. Additionally, CAROUSEL has a demanding, sweeping and achingly beautiful score. You really (and I mean really) need people who can act and sing and dance to pull it off with justice. While I am not really a fan of the formulaic Rodgers and Hammerstein canon, they truly wrote some gorgeous pieces of music, even if most of their subject matter doesn’t really resonate with me. But CAROUSEL, in my opinion, their opus.
( Side Note: I think a lot of the Old Chestnuts get bad raps not just because many of them just haven’t aged gracefully, but because the movie versions of these shows were always so terrible. Much of the scores were neutered to suit limited voices--not that this has changed so much in recent years--, bizarrely filmed in obvious soundstages, etc. The film version of CAROUSEL is a well-known victim of this trap; the film just doesn’t to the piece justice, paling in comparison not only musically, but also in depth. The actual book and stage show is a much more complicated, nuanced and sophisticated piece. If you’ve only seen the movie, you’ve never actually seen CAROUSEL).
Beyond the technical demands, by far the hardest aspect of the show is the topic of domestic violence and abuse between the two main characters, Billy Bigelow and Julie Jordan. There’s nothing easy about it. Even with the uplifting messages of redemption, forgiveness and overcoming obstacles, it might be too hard to save for a lot of audiences. In the end (spoiler --although the show’s been out since 1945, you’ve had decades at this point) Billy Bigelow redeems himself and gets to go to Heaven after all (in LILIOM, the original play by Fernec Molnár CAROUSEL is based on, Billy’s counterpart goes to Hell). When your leading man is a wife beater, dies, and clumsily stumbles his tumultuous way to Heaven, the show’s probably going to be a hard to sell, at the very least. Billy Bigelow is supposed to be a sympathetic character, although to most of us, no matter how captivating a portrayal, Billy won’t elicit sympathy for recklessness, selfishness, and abuse.
One of the most beautiful things about this show, (surprisingly, as it was written by two men,) is its showcase of the strength of female relationships, bonds that can withstand any tragedy. The women are the emotional core of the show. Aside from the Starkeeper/ Dr. Seldon and Heavenly Friend(s) (and minor characters who don’t really have any lines), the men in this show, for lack of a better expression, just suck: cowardly, weak, ineffective, self-important, and/or selfish. Aside from Mrs. Mullins, the women of CAROUSEL are pillars of strength, for themselves and for each other, even in the darkest hours. The way that the women of this show build each other up and take care of it each other is fundamentally one of the most beautiful aspects of the show and why it’s the finest piece of writing of the Rodgers and Hammerstein canon. It can easily be said that “You’ll Never Walk Alone” is about the beauty and the power of female friendship and love.
Conversely, one of the most realistic things about CAROUSEL is the way that society treats Julie and Louise, her daughter from her marriage from Billy. Both are treated as social outcasts and held responsible for the way that Billy conducted himself, even after he’s long dead. Louise grows up to be a troubled and isolated child. Victim blaming in cases of domestic violence is incredibly common. In 1945, the terminology “victim blaming” didn’t exist. Whether it’s 1873, 1888, 1945 or 1995, society will hold the victims of domestic violence and abuse accountable for their abuser's behavior, and hold it as a reflection of them, the victim. I know this from personal experience. My own childhood physical and sexual abuse at the hands of my biological father isolated from my peers for decades. I, like Louise, was treated as a social outcast. Parents didn’t want their kids to come to my house after school or play with me during school hours because my father (though at this point long out of the picture) was “a drunk Indian,” a wife-beater, a thief, and a semi-derelict feckless layabout. The greater assumption from my teachers, peers and their parents was that I would fail in life. I identified the f*ck out of Louise as a kid, and even sometimes now as an adult. Intergenerational trauma (which is what we see here in CAROUSEL with Julie and Louise) is a hard pattern to break, especially when society and our communities offer very little encouragement.
But, back to Billy Bigelow.
For many of us, sympathetic takes on the likes of Billy Bigelow and his ilk in the real world fall on deaf ears and closed hearts. I “get” it. “One bad act” doesn’t make someone “all bad forever,” which is easy for someone writing the show can say, or someone in the audience trying to make a more forgiving ruling on the piece. It’s a lot harder as someone who has suffered from the consequences of the poor actions of someone like Billy Bigelow. Survivors of abuse cannot afford the luxury of such philosophical subtleties when we experience the repercussions for the abusers’ selfishness for the rest of our lives. “He only hit her once” is also a foolish rebuttal; once is enough, and too much. In the opening dialog, Billy threatens to hit both Mrs. Mullins and Carrie. Had he lived, he would have hit Julie again, because it never happens just once. Just like there is always more than one victim because abusers operate in patterns.
I understand the time periods shows like this take place and when they were written, abuse was incredibly common and oft dismissed. It’s why it’s important for CAROUSEL to be making a comeback in this time because now we have the words and the terminology for victim blaming, intergenerational trauma and respectability politics. We can now appropriately address what’s occurring in the material because now we have a name for them.
Which brings us to a Mister Enoch Snow.
I. Love. Enoch. Snow.
Or, at least, I did, for a long time. There is a huge part of me that has a very soft spot for Enoch and always will. I’d always, admittedly, had a bit of a crush on Enoch Snow. (There are two kinds of people in the world, those who get crushes on fictional characters at least once in their lives, and those who lie about it.). For me, looking through a lens of abuse and domestic violence and toxic relationships, I saw someone like Enoch--someone with ambitions, goals, hard working, family oriented,-- as my goal. To find an Enoch would mean I would have learned the lessons from the mistakes of others and chose wisely, as to not continue down the same paths and patterns of intergenerational trauma. Like Carrie, I saw an Enoch type as a refuge. Revisits to CAROUSEL in the last year or so with the release of the Applause Librette Library edition of the complete book have sired realizations that have changed the way I see, Enoch Snow, forever.
The first musical number of the show has Carrie professing her unwavering love to her darling Mister Snow with the utmost reverence. Our initial introduction to him is through this mention, and it’s all hearts and stars and sparkles, with Carrie, dewy-eyed, telling any and all who would listen about her "almost perfect beau;” he’s a shy, but hardworking man who loves his Carrie. Carrie sings about how MUCH she loves Enoch, and even though he smells like fish, she doesn't care if he's overbearing and obnoxious (red flags). When we, the audience, finally meet him, he is, admittedly, pretty endearing-- an awkward and bashful, “aw shucks” kinda guy with a doofusy laugh, who loves his garden and has big ambitions. He’s brought Carrie flower seeds instead of bringing her flowers so she could have something that would last--(HOW CUTE IS THAT?!?!?!). His introduction comes during the reprise of “(When I Marry) Mister Snow,” as he crashes the ending to profess his own love for Carrie. His busting in at the end of the song not only remains one of the funniest moments in musical theatre history but also very indicative of how self-important and controlling he’s revealed to be later on. This introduction is very telling--not only does he insert himself and interrupt in a song singing his praises, he makes classist comments about “hard work” and blaming a man for his own poverty (“...a man that can’t find work these days is just bone lazy.”). That’s foreshadowing of ugliness in Enoch that reveals itself later in the second act.
The brief, toxic relationship of Julie and Billy has always been framed as a cautionary tale, with Carrie Pipperidge and Enoch Snow being the alternative, “other” couple. The “almost perfect beau,” the “obvious” alternative choice to Billy, is rounded out by Rodgers and Hammerstein with petulance, just as Billy is rounded out by his last ditch effort attempt for redemption. We expect very little of Billy; within the first 10-15 minutes of the show, he’s threatened to strike multiple women and has lost his job. But for Enoch, it’s an unsettling and shocking ugliness. Enoch Snow is a model citizen, hard working and of an “upstanding” character. The loveable bashful doofus we’re introduced to quickly deteriorates into someone completely insufferable. Both Billy Bigelow and Enoch Snow appear to be options in a “Choose Your Own Adventure” of life for Julie and Carrie; the difference between choosing an out of work carousel barker or an enterprising fisherman seems obvious. Real life isn’t obvious. Real life doesn’t have perfect happy endings because we are constantly meeting new endings and beginnings. Peter Hillard’s genius “rough guide” to the show talks a lot about parallels, not only in terms of themes and music but how these apply to their relationships. Just as we are to have some sympathy for Billy Bigelow, we are also able to see darling Mister Snow as not perfect nor complete good.
Enoch Snow is very much as much of an abuser as Billy Bigelow, thinking of Carrie as more of a figurehead fitting into his ideals than he does see her as a human being. He sees Carrie has his vehicle for baby production. During “When the Children are Asleep,” he regales her with his biggest, rosiest dreams and where Carrie falls in them. Absolutely no thought is given to acknowledge that Carrie might not want to have that many children. Not once are her needs or desires considered. Enoch might love Carrie, but, ultimately, at the end of the day, it’s all about Enoch. In fact, he’s an insufferable jackass. He's a tantrum throwing, pompous windbag.
This is one of the hardest aspects of the show for me, personally, because of my personal attachment to what seems to be an alternative to abuse---to come to grips with the fact that Enoch Snow truly is just as much of an abuser as Billy, it’s just a different flavor of abuse. Emotional and Verbal abuse are still very much abuse. These newer casting notices now cite Enoch as an abuser as well because the scope of what we consider abuse has changed; the definitions of abuse have broadened, for the better. I think it’s what Rodgers and Hammerstein had originally intended, and I think we’re just now catching up with it.
“Conflict doesn’t build character, it reveals it.”- Morgan Kibby (White Sea)
“I don’t know what gets into men. Enoch put on a new suit today and he was a different person.”
Although presented as ridiculous, and wholly for laughs, one of the most uncomfortable scenes in the entire show is after the clam bake, after the treasure hunt begins. There are a lot of reasons this scene is cringe-worthy. Let’s unpack all of them.
“Geraniums in the Winder” is played for laughs because Enoch is so out of control ridiculous (“BOSTON CREAM PIE!”), but there’s actually very little funny about it. When met with a bump in the road, albeit, a terrible misunderstanding, he becomes completely undone.It’s a very hard scene to watch because you’re watching someone who thinks all their precious dreams have come to an end, and it’s a very public humiliation. This scene used to kill me because I felt so heartsick about poor Enoch; he’s on the verge of tears because he thinks his dreams are done for and the audiences laugh at him. My recent thoughts have changed-- because it’s all about him---his dreams, and his needs and his wants. “Geraniums in the Winder” doesn’t mention Carrie once.
Let’s actually even go back a step:
The moments right before Enoch’s tantrum, Jigger, taking full advantage of Carrie’s both beneficent and simple nature, posing as a concerned friend offering to show her how to “defend herself,” is trying to seduce Carrie. In fact, there’s a good chance he was going to rape her, let’s be real here. When Enoch appears on the scene just as Jigger is “demonstrating” to Carrie “how the firemen carry people,” Jigger is about to carry her off into the woods. Enoch becomes unhinged about how she’s “free” and “loose” and “lallygaggin’.” Carrie’s innocent misunderstanding is ignominious to Enoch, one that was on the precipice of becoming a full assault.
Carrie and Enoch have made up by the next scene (the death of Billy), but it’s never the same. At this point in the show, “Geraniums” marks the turning point for Enoch where he goes from being endearing to nauseating.
15 years later, we see Mister Enoch Snow, now the proud captain of his canning empire, and his 9 rotten bully children who, like their father, look down their noses from their lofty perch and pass judgment on those they deem beneath them. Enoch has produced his brood of Mini Snows, including the sniveling Enoch Snow, Jr, a miniature version of his father, whom his father won’t allow to marry Louise because she’s an unsuitable match and beneath his station. (Luckily, for we the audience, Louise has inherited her father’s tenacity, and lets Junior know exactly how she feels about that). Enoch has forgotten his humble origins. He remains the king of respectability politics.
His material wealth continues to blossom prosperously, but his relationship with his wife has withered. His once charming overbearance now strains their relationship (name calling, belittling). Refreshingly, wealth and success have changed Carrie very little; she’s still very much the fun and delightful, spirited Carrie from the beginning of the show. Carrie is no submissive, wilting flower. She doesn’t take very much of Enoch’s nonsense and fires back at him as good as she gets. She also undermines him quite often. She knows where they came from, and she knows her husband is full of shit. Their marriage was not as perfect as they had both imagined. Their love isn't perfect, but real love isn't. We know they can't separate (especially with how class-obsessed Enoch is)--do they really still love each other? The weird space where love and abuse intersect is a tricky thing, and I'd like to think that they really do love each other, despite everything.
“It makes you wonder, don’t it?”
Though to compare Julie and Carrie and their responses to their situations just isn’t fair. Anyone who has ever experienced abuse knows that there is a degree of denial about the abuser, because it’s almost always someone you love, who has managed their way into your life in intimate ways (and part of the structure of abuse is debilitating you to a point where you cannot function without them, or their abuse). You cannot fault Julie for the way she behaves; people who are abused act this way because it’s how we survive. Julie’s way to survive is her quiet strength, her love of her cousin Nettie and her friends that remain by her side through everything. Carrie’s way is to hold her husband accountable, to push him back. CAROUSEL is very realistic--in real life, a woman, or anyone, in the situation would endure the abuse, would make excuses. It’s established in the show that domestic violence is wrong; you’re not supposed to agree with what’s going on. And, like I said before, there’s a fundamental difference between having the perspective of an observer and having high-handed judgments about what you would and wouldn’t do in that situation versus actually living through it personally.
Knowing that there is ugliness inside someone, can we still love them? How much ugliness can we excuse? Does it make us weak for loving them anyway? Which side of the person you love is the real one? Is it both? What does it say about them? What does it say about us for loving them? People do have the capabilities of change for the better, can redeem themselves. We have to hold them accountable, and more than just offer up an apology, they have to actively work toward correcting their behaviors and making effective change. More of often than not, they don’t.
As for good ol’ CAROUSEL? I think that the sketchy take on domestic violence of this piece merits more than a little side-eye or excuses. I hope we can have meaningful conversations about its themes, now equipped with the correct verbiage as a modern audience. I simultaneously love and hate CAROUSEL; I think that speaks to how well-written it is, that is can elicit dual, opposing emotions in equal measure. I don’t think it provides any succinct answers, and I don’t think it’s meant to. I think it’s more about the powerful conversations that we need to have, not only about the show but in our personal lives and the way we communicate with each other. Or the ways that we need to communicate with each other. We need to remember that complicated people are capable of complicated feelings. We have to love and really love, beyond the slots that others fill in our lives, and as figureheads for our dreams. We, personally and collectively, have to make better choices, but also have our communities better support us.
We’ve got to feed the right wolf.
Melody Nicolette makes records and scores films as @lebasfondmusic, illustrates children’s books, writes for OnStage and watches too many episodes of The Alan Young Show on YouTube.