When you think of Rodgers and Hammerstein, “dark” is not typically a word that comes to mind. Sure, South Pacific touches on racism, The King and I centers on a pseudo-barbaric ruler who treats women like property, and The Sound of Music takes place during the Third Reich’s rise to power. Despite some heavy subject matter, though, it is impossible not to root for the protagonists: Nellie gets over herself and embraces Emile’s mixed raced children, the King of Siam dies a changed man thanks to Anna, and the von Trapp family flees Austria. In all three cases, we are rooting for goodness and righteousness to prevail. Easy.
But with Carousel, things get a bit murky. Set in the late 1800s in a coastal Maine town, Julie Jordan—a naive millworker—falls for Billy Bigelow—a rough, brooding carousel barker. Although they are not an obvious match, they fall in love. Billy hits Julie—the extent of the abuse isn’t exactly clear, but he hits her at least once during the course of the show. Ever faithful and true, Julie shrugs off suggestions that she should leave Billy. When Billy finds out that Julie is pregnant with his child, he is afraid that he will be unable to support his child, financially or otherwise, and he agrees to aid in a robbery that would bring him a decent chunk of change. The robbery goes awry, and Billy kills himself to avoid capture by the police; Julie is then left alone to raise their daughter on her own. “Stephen Sondheim said it best,” said Rachel Bertone, who will be directing and choreographing this production. “Oklahoma! is about a picnic, and Carousel is about life and death.”
The challenge with Carousel is that its success hinges almost entirely on the audience’s ability to accept Billy as a well-intentioned but tragically flawed man who is probably doing the best that he can, the only way he knows how. In addition, we must feel for Julie without dismissing her as a two-dimensional, submissive pushover. “Billy obviously has major issues,” said actress Jennifer Ellis, who will be playing Julie in Reagle’s upcoming production. “It is important to the story, but it is so jarring for today’s audience. There is a loneliness in Julie and Billy that I think is very timeless and relatable,” she added.
Bertone finds Julie and Billy equally flawed. “She is a damaged woman and probably has a difficult past,” she said. “She does the same thing every single day at the mill, and although women were gaining independence by working at the mills, it was still a very dreary life. But Julie is strong-willed. She sees something better for herself and she’s determined to have that. With Billy, I think she sees an escape from the world that she’s living in and would rather have a little bit of—dare I say—drama in her life than nothing. She’s a very nurturing, supportive, understanding woman and simply sees through Billy’s flaws and sees a mirror. I think they kind of reflect one another. She sees in Billy what Billy sees in her, and I think she wants to give him a chance.”
Regarding the issue of domestic violence, “[Julie] just understands it,” Bertone said. “There are people who live in black and white. Julie lives in the gray. The reality is that Billy kills himself too quickly for Julie to make the decision to leave. The fates kind of worked themselves out that he left her, you know?”
“It’s an oddly intimidating role because of that,” said Ellis. “[But] she’s not that naive. She works, she has a job, she lives on her own. That—for the time period—is pretty independent to begin with,” she added.
Carousel was written in the mid-1940s and is based on Molnár’s Liliom, which was written in 1909. These characters are not only a product of the time in which they were written, but also of a certain kind of mindset of the 1870s, which is when Carousel takes place. In short, aspects of the show are dated. Can a modern audience empathize with Julie and not judge her for her passivity? “I love putting on the classics and staying true to them to an extent,” said Bertone, “but how can I make this relatable to a modern day audience? How do we make this fresh, active, different, and alive?”
But for Bertone, the challenges of Carousel move beyond Julie and Billy and extend to every last member of the cast—all 49 of them, to be exact. According to Bertone, the most difficult part of Carousel is “showing that these are real people. There are sexy moments in this show, and gritty, dark, edgy moments. Playing those colors throughout and not getting overwhelmed by the lush score,” she said. “The hard part, for me, is making sure that every single actor up there is telling the story.”