The following was printed as a program note for Opera at USC's Winter 2020 production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Carousel at the University of South Carolina.
Is there a place for Carousel in our cultural life in 2020? With the #MeToo movement and the Women’s Marches at the forefront of our consciousness can we be comfortable watching a relic of a different time where abuse and the subjugation of women was not only often accepted but sometimes even excused? As with many dated but celebrated works of music theater and opera, the gender conventions are so baked into the core of this work, is it possible to present this work in a way that will be acceptable to a modern audience? The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence reports that 1 in 3 women have suffered some sort of physical violence at the hands of an intimate partner. Is that something we feel comfortable representing on stage when statistically there will be those among us in the audience that could have a personally triggered reaction to the work? At the same time, is there a way to honor these works in spite of our current “cancel culture” to preserve a piece that was once hailed by Time magazine to be the best musical of the 20th century?
We don’t have to look far in the performance history of this Golden Age musical to find artists grappling with this issue. Carousel had a Tony nominated revival on Broadway in 2018, as many of the stories to come out of “Me Too” movements were splashed across the headlines. In a 2018 interview with Entertainment Weekly, Broadway star Jesse Mueller who was nominated for a Tony for her performance as Julie Jordan expressed her feeling that it was “really important” to tell this story at this time because “the piece doesn’t shy away from the difficulty of the subject matter, the difficulty of the violence and that it’s hard to swallow.” Mueller went on to say that for her the show is more about “love and forgiveness and redemption.” After all, a great story is built on sharing the human experience, which Mueller points out, includes many complexities such as pain and suffering amongst the love and joy.
The producers of the revival obviously shared Mueller’s focus, even choosing to eliminate some of the lines that prove to be the hardest pills to swallow. Julie making excuses for Billy’s abuse leads their daughter Louise to accept such behavior as part of love. Louise asks, “Has it ever happened to you? Has anyone ever hit you- without hurtin’?” Julie affirmatively answers “It is possible, dear, fer someone to hit you- hit you hard- and not hurt at all.” Both of these lines were removed from the 2018 revival, even though the discomfort of the violence remains.
This is an issue that producers in music theater and opera are grappling with and will continue to do so. How do we continue to share popular works such as Carousel or Bizet’s Carmen, but still respect a greater cultural awareness? How do we present these works with integrity, while educating and inspiring our audiences towards a better future that we all hope and dream of? Are there lessons to be learned in our own discomfort? Just as Billy Bigelow seeks redemption in the end, can these jewels of our theater and operatic canon find redemption for perceived flaws in their story lines to maintain their place in our art form? Only time and our willingness to push our creative limits will tell.