Carousel — also known as “that one show ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ is from” — is an odd musical. The costume and set design is elegant, the singing is wonderful, the acting (minus a few questionable American accents) is largely very good, but the question of whether this is enough to render a musical that pretty much endorses domestic violence as quality entertainment is a rather more dicey one.
The musical, with the music of Richard Rodgers and the lyrics of Oscar Hammerstein, was first performed in 1945, and tells the story of the doomed marriage between mill-worker Julie Jordan and carousel barker Billy Bigelow. Along the way we encounter outdated values, a totally unforeshadowed foray into the afterlife, and one of the more random incarnations of plot-twist suicide. Half the time the play seems so wholesome you feel defiled just for existing in the Twenty First Century, and the rest of the time you’re either disgusted with the whole institution of marriage or just overwhelmingly thankful you’re not obliged to farm out your uterus to the first guy who looks at you twice.
To say Carousel has aged badly would be an understatement. The idea that domestic violence is an expression of love isn’t so much implicit as half the point of the plot. There’s a particularly unbelievable moment when a girl asks her mother if a punch can ever feel like a kiss, which receives the reply, “It is possible dear, for someone to hit you, hit you hard, and it not hurt at all.”
Sexual assault is not only laughed off as hilarious, but being subjected to it is considered grounds enough for your fiancé break up with you. If this wasn’t enough, “What’s the use of wond’rin’?” — a paean to staying with your man in spite of ‘common sense,’ has been covered by Amanda Palmer as a character study in Battered Person Syndrome without needing to change a single one of the words, or any of the music. “You’re his girl, and he’s your fella, and all the rest is talk,” apparently, and if he’s hitting you, better suck it up and maintain that hollow façade of domestic bliss.
I do feel unkind for being so critical of what is ultimately a very well produced and acted amateur production, but at the same time, there are some huge question marks over the choice of this musical. Carousel is outdated, but its value system isn’t yet so far from our own to make it a mere historical curiosity; the attitudes expressed so overtly in the musical still lurk under the surface of our society.
The show finishes with the song it’s best known for — the aforementioned ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’. Even a song I have largely positive association with (an entire family of Liverpool fans, in case you were wondering) is, in its original context, rather unpleasant as it’s used to endorse the tired rhetoric of the American Dream. No matter how high the production values, I don’t think Carousel is a musical I would ever, or could ever, get on board with, and the association of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ with half-time at Anfield Road is still an infinitely better one.