Compare & Contrast:  Carousel vs Guys And Dolls

Compare & Contrast: Carousel vs Guys And Dolls

A dear departed friend of mine loved Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II’s Carousel, and he was far from the only person to do so.

Ever since it opened in 1945, Carousel has been a perennial favorite, revived countless times on Broadway and regional theaters, adapted into a film, and chockablock with memorable numbers and well crafted scenes.  “If I Loved You,” “June Is Bustin’ Out All Over,” and the big hit from the show, “You’ll Never Walk Alone” have been covered by thousands of artists and are in repertoires all over the world.

I can understand the fondness for the songs, and the admiration for the quality of the writing, but Carousel itself as a story?

This is one of the vilest pieces of crap penned.

Based on the play Liliom by the Hungarian playwright and poet Ferenc Molnár, Carousel is the story of Billy Bigelow, a self-destructive idiot who diminishes the lives of those around him simply by existing.

Molnár’s original play doesn’t dodge that bullet, and it ends with the protagonist being led off to eternal punishment while his dim-witted widow waxes nostalgic over him, despite the fact he abused her, never supported her, and left her in the lurch to bear and raise their daughter after he was killed in botched robbery.

Given a chance to redeem himself by performing one good deed for his daughter, Liliom (Hungarian for “lily” but also slang for a street thug) botches even that simple task and so gets dragged off to the fate he well deserves, the fate he quite deliberately and exquisitely fashioned for himself over the course of the play.

Small wonder those who adapted it to stage and screen typically sought a means of mitigating Liliom’s fate, to give one last ray of hope instead of following the story through to its grim but wholly logical conclusion.

Of all the adaptations that tinkered with Liliom, Carousel is by far the most egregious. It explicitly endorses spouse and child abuse as acts of endearment, Billy Bigelow (the Americanized Liliom) being a prideful, arrogantly ignorant sociopath who cares only for himself, and despite the vain promise of “You’ll never walk alone,” his daughter and wife are compelled to suffer all their lives for his sins and shortcomings.

He brings his daughter a star from heaven which even in the context of the story doesn’t mean anything; it’s just a gaudy trinket that can be and ultimately is ignored.

Geeze, a Marvel movie would at least see the kid get some superpowers out of the deal…

And if such a thing is possible,
the 1956 film adaptation is
even worse than the stage play:  
It begins with Billy in heaven, gainfully employed polishing stars, no need to either account or atone for his earthly behavior.  His return to Earth is just to help his daughter out, not redeem his terrible behavior with a single good act, and in that context he’s more trouble than he’s worth.

One’s tempted to call Billy Bigelow a worthless sac of human excrement, but that’s not accurate: Excrement has use as a fertilizer.

Billy Bigelow is a 55-gallon drum of toxic waste, poisoning all it comes in contact with.

The key plot elements of the stage play are this:  
Billy Bigelow, carousel barker, gets fired by his jealous boss, Mrs. Mullin, when she sees him flirting with young mill worker Julie Jordan.  Julie loses her job as well because of her infatuation with Billy, and the two marry impetuously.  

A month later and he’s still found no work due to his refusal to return as Mrs. Mullin’s barker or take any other job that requires him to answer to a boss.  He’s drunk and abusive, and while the stage play raises the issue that Julie should leave, it just as quickly subsumes it with Julie’s "he's your feller and you love him" attitude.

When a disreputable pal, Jigger, suggests they rob Julie’s old boss, Billy first refuses (though he doesn’t warn anyone of Jigger’s criminal intent), but when he learns Julie’s pregnant, launches into the most odious song in the show:  “Soliloquy”

“Soliloquy” is a schmaltz fest that most people choose to hear as a loving father doting over his unborn child.

It’s not.

It’s a sociopath’s love song to himself.

Billy Bigelow does not care what is truly best for his son, he only cares about vicariously enjoying success through the boy, and not through the boy’s own efforts and desires but by shaping him into a mirror image of his father, a toy for him to manipulate and play with.

Almost all the careers he imagines for the boy are the kind of low level manual labor jobs that he’s only fit for, the exceptions being carnival barker and President of the United States (which he disdains).

“Bill, my boy Bill
I will see that he is named after me, I will.
My boy, Bill! He'll be tall
And tough as a tree, will Bill!
Like a tree he'll grow
With his head held high
And his feet planted firm on the ground
And you won't see nobody dare to try
To boss or toss him around!
No pot-bellied, baggy-eyed bully
Will boss him around.”

He even fantasizes about teaching his unborn son how to seduce girls…then realizes to his horror that his “son” maybe be a daughter.

“My little girl
Pink and white
As peaches and cream is she
My little girl
Is half again as bright
As girls are meant to be!
Dozens of boys pursue her
Many a likely lad does what he can to woo her
From her faithful dad
She has a few
Pink and white young fellers of two or three
But my little girl
Gets hungry every night and she comes home to me!”

That’s pretty damn sick.

Bigelow, perfectly willing to raise a proto-rapist male, doesn’t want the shame of having a victim for a daughter, and thinking the only way he can protect her is by buying her a higher station in life, decides to help Jigger rob Julie’s ex-boss.

Even there he’s a punk, not willing to do anything directly to threaten the old man, but perfectly willing to share in the proceeds of Jigger’s crime.  (He’s also an idiot insofar has he had a nasty confrontation with the intended victim about a month earlier and apparently presumes the old man won’t remember him.)

But he’s not done destroying himself and Julie’s future and the future of their unborn child yet: While waiting in ambush, he and Jigger gamble, betting their anticipated shares of the loot.

Billy loses all his shares!

There is no point to him participating in the robbery.

There is no reason to help Jigger any further except arrogant pride.

They attempt to rob the old man, the old man draws a gun, Jigger flees, and Billy, rather than face the consequences, takes the coward’s way out and kills himself.

His daughter grows up being scorned and taunted by other children for having a father who was a stupid brute and a thief and a suicide, and as cruel as that is, who’s fault is it but Billy’s?

It was his choices that put her in that predicament, his pride, his arrogance, his lack of character and courage and imagination.

And Carousel celebrates this; it doesn’t pity Billy but rather feels sorry for him.

This is the difference: 
Pity can recognize the suffering of another person yet still recognize that person’s responsibility in bringing tragedy upon themselves; feeling sorry for someone negates the harm they have inflicted on others.

Billy deserves nothing. Julie deserves nothing -- she enabled this tragedy.

Only the daughter deserves sympathy and a second chance, Carousel’s climax is arbitrarily tacked on to give a fake happy ending and is as phony as a three dollar bill printed on a Xerox machine running low on toner.

Liliom and Carousel are tragedies, but only Liliom has the courage and clear vision to recognize it.

Compare and contrast with Guys And Dolls, the 1950 Damon Runyon musical by Frank Loesser, Jo Swerling, and Abe Burrows.

Like Carousel, it’s a crowd pleaser:  
Plenty of great scenes, lots of great numbers like “A Bushel And A Peck”, “Adelaide’s Lament”, “Luck Be A Lady”, “Sue Me”, “Sit Down (You’re Rocking The Boat)”, and “Guys And Dolls” itself.

It’s got a better structure than Carousel:  
A common convention in Broadway musicals is to have a main couple that the show focuses on and a supporting couple to offer a counterpoint to the main action.

One could eliminate the supporting couple in Carousel and, while the show would be diminished, it would not change the story of Billy and Julie.

But Guys And Dolls thoroughly integrates the stories of Sky Masterson and Sergeant Sarah Brown with that of Nathan Detroit and Adelaide:  Remove either couple and the entire show collapses.

And of special interest is this:  
While Sky and Nathan are gamblers and by association at least peripheral members of the underworld, they are also men of personal integrity (Nathan less so than Sky, granted, but it’s still there).

Nathan is trying to stage “the oldest established permanent floating crap game in New York” in the face of intense police scrutiny not for his personal benefit alone, but so he provide for his crew and so he can finally marry Adelaide, the show girl he’s been engaged to for 14 years.

Sky is riding on top of the world, a superstar among gamblers, a man who doesn’t need anything…

…yet at the same time is acutely aware of a large vacuum in his heart.

The story’s hilarious, with all sorts of outrageous characters and plot twists, but it rings far truer than Carousel because for all their flaws, the characters are trying to better themselves not for their own good but so they can better the lives of others.

This is a crucial difference between them and Billy Bigelow.  The characters of Guys And Dolls may be foolish on occasion, but they ain’t dumb, they know the score, and more importantly, they know themselves.

The show’s songs are rich with self-awareness, and while the characters take risks -- they’re gamblers, after all -- they aren’t stupid self-destructive risks that will harm others.

Sky and Nathan, in fact, demonstrate a willingness to sacrifice themselves for others, and accept the consequences for their own actions.

More importantly, they are willing to change in order to better help the women they love, and that change comes without regret but rather with (again!) the self-awareness that their happiness is intrinsically wrapped up in the happiness of the person they love.

No song better sums it up than “Guys And Dolls” itself:

“When you see a guy reach for stars in the sky
You can bet that he's doing it for some doll.
When you spot a John waiting out in the rain
Chances are he's insane as only a John can be for a Jane.
When you meet a gent paying all kinds of rent
For a flat that could flatten the Taj Mahal.
Call it sad, call it funny.
But it's better than even money
That the guy's only doing it for some doll.”

The song closes with as direct a repudiation of Billy Bigelow as we could hope for:

“When a lazy slob takes a goody steady job,
And he smells from Vitalis and Barbasol.
Call it dumb, call it clever
Ah, but you can get odds forever
That the guy's only doing it for some doll!”

 

© Buzz Dixon

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