“Which is your favorite of all your musicals?” was one of the most frequent questions Richard Rodgers used to be asked. His answer always was Carousel (1945). In his words: “Oscar [Hammerstein II] never wrote more meaningful or more moving lyrics and, to me, my score is more satisfying than any I’ve ever written…. It affects me deeply every time I see it performed.”
The character strength of HOPE, our choice for this month, is richly developed through the story of a carousel barker, Billy Bigelow, who grows from a childish braggart into a man who ultimately redeems his soul by instilling hope in the very people he hurts the most: the naive young millworker Julie Jordan, who becomes his wife, and Louise, the teenage daughter he meets only after his death.
Rodgers and Hammerstein beautifully dramatize this growth through their music and lyrics, especially in three defining songs: “If I Loved You,” “Soliloquy,” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”
The first meeting of Billy and Julie, in an extended twelve-minute scene in the first act, centers around the duet, “If I Loved You.” Hammerstein famously called this a “conditional love song.” The troubled relationship between these two, which will lead to tragedy, is suggested in the music as well as the words. Although he follows the standard 32-bar structure common to many Broadway show tunes of the time (an AABA form made up of 8+8+8+8 measures), Rodgers’ mastery of melodic and harmonic writing creates a marvel of hesitation and ambivalence.
For instance, as you listen to the video, notice that the opening two measures, which contain the hook “If I Loved You,” barely hint at the primary key of C in the words “If I,”while the crucial actions words that follow–“loved you”–are harmonized with what is known in the trade as a diminished seventh chord (C, E-flat, F#, and A–the last the melody note). Significantly, this is a chord traditionally associated with tension and ambiguity. In fact, it is one of the musical cliches heard in silent movies when a damsel in distress, tied to the railroad tracks, faces an oncoming train! Also, in the bridge (B), Rodgers again superbly sets Hammerstein’s lyrics “Longin’ to tell you, but afraid and shy, I’d let my golden chances pass me by,” drawing upon sharp and flat keys that are relatively distant from his home key to continue this subtle tension.
A turning point in Billy’s growth comes at the end of the first act with the unique “Soliloquy,” an extended rumination running to some seven and a half minutes as he reflects on the wondrous thought that he is to be a father. In the grand tradition of Shakespeare’s soliloquies, it ‘s a remarkable dramatic construction moving from idea to idea, mood to mood. Beginning in one emotional place, the song ends up in quite another.
He starts out daydreaming about a son who will live the kind of life Billy would have liked, who will be able to do whatever he wants and be successful at it. But slightly beyond the midpoint the music makes a sudden shift with the words, “Wait a minute ! Could it be – ? What the hell! What if he is a girl!” And then a key questions comes up : “What could I do for her? A bum with no money! You can have fun with a son, but you got to be a father to a girl!” The tone of the song changes as the tempo becomes more driven, reflecting Billy’s desperate determination to provide for his daughter. In fact, his closing words foreshadow what is about to happen in the plot— “I never knew how to get money, but I’ll try–By God I’ll try! I’ll go out and make it or steal it or take it or die !” Listen to this tortuous emotional journey which ends on such a dark note:
As those familiar with Carousel know, Billy spends the next seventeen years in Purgatory without much change in his view of himself. Then one day he is called to the Heavenly Accountant and told his daughter is in trouble and needs help from him. He’ll be allowed to return to earth for one day only, to see what he can do for her. He’s ambivalent about this until he sees his daughter for the first time and recognizes her pain. He tries to give her a star he has brought as a gift, to show her she is special to him. When she becomes frightened at this stranger’s insistence, and refuses to accept it, he slaps her as he used to slap her mother when he was frustrated. This is the old Billy who never knew how to handle his emotions.
But this time he stops himself from running away. He asks his guardian angel for more time to “make things right.” And he does. He goes to her high school graduation ceremony and stands invisibly beside her to whisper in her ear: “When you walk through a storm, keep your chin up high and don’t be afraid of the dark.” She hears this as an inner voice and draws strength from it. He has given her something intangible yet precious to carry her through life.
“You’ll Never Walk Alone” is stirring song , meant to be sung “with great warmth, like a hymn.” It builds gradually over the span of an octave and fifth, from middle C to the G atop the treble staff, to reach its climax on the key words “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” Its inspirational, confidence-building power is of a piece with other Rodgers and Hammerstein songs like “Climb Every Mountain,” (The Sound of Music ) and “I Whistle a Happy Tune” (The King and I). In so many of their works, they are messengers of HOPE.
This Youtube selection follows the arc of the story we have described from beginning to end in a little over 12 minutes. Listen for the new words to “If I Loved You” in one of the last scenes, as Billy is at last able to express his love directly to Julie. Compare the first rendition of “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” sung just after Billy dies, with the final triumphant one as he stands with Louise and pours his love into her. For the first time he is able to feel a real sense of hope himself. No wonder Richard Rodgers was so deeply affected!