That was a very problematic clambake! Sometimes, Broadway revivals manage to present a classic, beloved show in a new light, with the very best finding a new, deeper meaning that will make even devoted fans see something in the material they’ve never seen before. Other times, shows are better off left in the past. Despite many beautiful elements, the current Broadway revival of Carousel, which opened last month and received 11 Tony nominations, feels unfortunately timed in terms of the cultural zeitgeist.
Written by Rodgers and Hammerstein, Carousel tells the story of Billy Bigelow (Joshua Henry), a carousel barker who falls in love with Julie Jordan (Jessie Mueller), a millworker. After a series of unfortunate decisions results in Billy’s premature demise, leaving a pregnant Julie behind, he is given one last chance to make things right on earth and earn his way into heaven. It’s already a bit of a far-fetched story that demands a lot of the audience, and even more of a 2018 audience. Henry, a fantastic Broadway actor who earned his third Tony nomination for this role and the reason I personally wanted to see this production, is the first black actor to play the role of Billy on Broadway. For most other characters, a nontraditional casting choice would be exciting, but given the type of character Billy is, and the choice to cast Mueller, a white woman, as Julie, one cannot help but wonder what on earth they were thinking. Billy is a criminal, an abuser who hits his wife and later his daughter, and an all-around unsavory human being. The optics of watching a black man hit a white woman perpetuate a stereotype still being fought against in today’s society. If the producers were set on casting Henry, who has a stunning voice and magnetic stage presence, the only way to even slightly mitigate this would have been to cast a black woman as Julie.
When Billy falls in with Jigger (Amar Ramasar), a whaler and criminal who loops his friend into a scheme with the hope of getting a quick payday, the show attempts to make a poignant moment out of the choice to cast both characters as men of color (Ramasar is of Trinidadian and Indian descent). They discuss how not everyone is given the same chances in life, and this could work were these particular characters not seen making only terrible, manipulative, abusive decisions. Jigger attempts to sexually assault Julie’s friend Carrie (Lindsay Mendez), and when Billy isn’t physically abusing Julie, he is cold and argumentative towards her, belligerent at nearly every turn.
Over the years, act two of Carousel has drawn some critical eyes in particular because it is essentially a redemption arc for an abuser. In the current political and social climate, this is a turn-off on its own, but what makes matters worse is that at no point does Billy truly seem to learn anything. Time passes differently in the afterlife, so by the time Billy gets the chance to revisit earth for a day and do a good deed that will tip the scales to get him into heaven, his daughter, Louise (Brittany Pollack) is a teenager. Louise has had a rough childhood, often bullied by the other children because her father was an abuser and a thief. Billy arrogantly tries to force a gift, a star he literally plucked from the sky, upon her, and when she refuses it, he angrily slaps her hand. At that moment, Billy lost me permanently, and I was no longer interested in seeing if he could grow or change. The ending is intentionally a bit ambiguous, but it’s implied that by whispering something vague that is not even his own idea to his daughter, Billy earns enough goodwill to take his place in heaven.
An even more troubling exchange between Julie and Louise in which Julie seemingly excuses Billy’s abusive behavior, setting a fantastic example for her daughter in the process, was smartly cut from this revival. This still doesn’t fix the uncomfortable feeling that the entire story is about forgiving abuse, because Julie as a character is written as so gentle and loving that the sentiment still lurks beneath the surface. The sequence in which Billy dies is also perplexing. He is not even cold yet, and Carrie immediately tells her pregnant best friend, now a widow, that she is probably better off, a moment that is odd and unrealistic considering the circumstances. Other aspects are also generally dated. There is an entire song called “You’re a Queer One, Julie Jordan,” that simply does not play now that the way we use that word has changed. I was also troubled to learn that an early version of the playbill depicting both Henry and Mueller was replaced by one featuring only Henry, which feels like the production digging its own grave even deeper into controversial territory.
All of these issues unfortunately overshadow the many beautiful elements of Carousel. The score, highlighted by “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” is arguably one of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s best, and Justin Peck’s choreography is beautiful and reminiscent of all things that are to be loved about classic musical theater. Santo Loquasto’s set is a stunner, and the titular carousel actually drew applause when it was first revealed. The cast is also fantastic—Henry’s act one closer “Soliloquy” is masterfully performed, and it is wonderful that Mendez, long a favorite in the theater community, garnered some recognition from the Tony committee for her turn here. But ultimately, some shows may be best left in the past, and I cannot help but wish the talented individuals involved were part of an entirely different vehicle.
Carousel is currently running on Broadway at the Imperial Theatre. For more information and to purchase tickets, click here.