Americans love musicals. Americans invented musicals. Americans perfected musicals. But what, exactly, is a musical? And how does love make it onstage? In The Secret Life of the American Musical, which MORE has praised as an “engaging, insightful anatomy of a singularly American art form,” Jack Viertel takes musicals apart and puts them back together. We are proud to share this excerpt with you today!
Back in the 1970s, when I was a struggling screenwriter, a collaborator and I got hired to write a werewolf movie. It was to be directed (though it never got made) by the great cinematographer Michael Chapman, and, like most werewolf movies, it featured a love story at the center. When we turned in our first draft, Chapman came at us with a barrage of notes, one of which was about the first meeting between the young woman and the older man who would, in the course of the story, fall in love.
“This is awful,” he said, though he may have used a stronger word. “If you want to understand how to write the first encounter between two future mates, there’s a book that will tell you everything you need to know.”
This was intriguing. These scenes are damned hard to write. What was this secret book, the key that would unlock one of the mysteries of screenwriting?
“It’s called The Courtship Habits of the Great Crested Grebe,” he said. We were, unsurprisingly, deflated. A dryly written ornithological monograph was hardly what we had hoped for. But it was only eighty pages long, so we read it. It told us everything we needed to know.
The great crested grebe is a lake bird, and all I really remember about the book today is that it detailed, painstakingly, the odd ritual of courtship that the male and female go through, which is baffling to the human eye but hard not to watch if you are lucky enough to get the chance—ungainly birds approaching each other on water, flapping their wings aggressively, retreating from each other, pecking at each other’s necks, retreating again, shaking their bodies in something that looks a little like a dance and a little like a fit, and then, for no discernible reason, building a nest together.
No one knows why they do it that way, but as a metaphor, it’s a study in fear and desire, and humans do it just like the grebe—awkwardly, with a lot of insecure, wasted motion, overaggression followed by apology, sufficient preening, and sufficient modesty. Bravery and cowardice, hope and hurt feelings play out a tug-of-war, with a big dose of uncertainty about the outcome. It’s the inevitable upshot of seeing someone we want; it will change two lives forever. And it’s almost always compelling to watch. As the Stage Manager in Our Town says, right before he serves strawberry ice-cream sodas to the teenagers Emily and George, “I’m awfully interested in how big things like that begin.”
In a musical, after the protagonist has told us of his or her hopes and dreams and the accompanying determination to achieve them, in the I Want moment, there’s usually an encounter with a love interest. And there’s usually a song, which is called, generically, a “conditional” love song. It’s called that because of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “If I Loved You,” which is embedded in what people in the business refer to as the “bench scene”—Act 1, Scene 2, of Carousel. It’s arguably the most perfect scene ever written in a musical, in part because it beautifully imitates, unwittingly I’m sure, the courtship habits of the great crested grebe.
Carousel goes in and out of favor as its sexual politics are continually put on trial by audiences and critics—it’s about a man who loves his wife and strikes her, and a wife who doesn’t want to and won’t leave. But the magnitude of its achievement tends to overwhelm the objections. Based on the play Liliom by Ferenc Molnár, it treats the fatality of love, as two quietly desperate people choose the freedom of romantic passion over the prison of everyday drudgery, and pay an awful price. Julie Jordan, its heroine, is a naïve millworker, destined to live out her life at the weaving loom in a bleak and gloomy factory, surviving on a menial’s wages. Billy Bigelow is a young tough making his scant living as a carousel barker at a traveling carnival. Neither has much of a future, unless they take it into their own hands.
As previously noted, Carousel begins with a dance prelude (Scene 1) that reveals both the straitened circumstances and the petty pleasures of a life defined by rural poverty and routine. There’s nothing romantic, or even hopeful, about Julie’s existence. The carnival is the best she can expect, and it’s a tawdry thing. “Carousel Waltz” is a beautiful piece of music, and the ballet that accompanies it can be dazzlingly good theater—but the world it depicts is a sad one, bereft of real hope. The magnificence of the wooden horses on Billy’s carousel promises something noble, romantic, and grand, but it seems impossibly far off from the daily life of this hidebound Maine fishing village.
After the waltz, Julie and her friend Carrie are discovered running from the woman who owns the carousel through a corner of the local park, which contains nothing but a bench. The scene begins in action and peril, and the stakes just keep going up. To be fair, considerable credit is due to Molnár, whose play, ironically, is said to have been translated into English by Lorenz Hart, Richard Rodgers’s first lyric-writing partner. (Hart was an employee of Benjamin Glazer, who got credit for the translation, according to Hart’s biographer Gary Marmorstein.)
Hammerstein shortened the scene by almost half, and while the structure remains the same, the intensity is expertly ratcheted up. From the very first line, there is an argument going on, and the scene is a series of engaging, quickly shifting, and escalating disputes, which result in two lives being changed forever. It begins with the carousel’s owner, Mrs. Mullen, hurling accusations at Julie about her behavior on the carousel. Julie, whom we don’t really know much about, has been “taking liberties” with Mrs. Mullen’s barker, according to Mrs. Mullen. This Julie hotly denies, in a manner that suggests she’s not easily cowed. Soon Billy arrives, and it develops that Mrs. Mullen may only be suffering from a bad case of jealousy. But she may not be entirely wrong, either. Julie has seen something she wants, and she’s not about to back away—from Mrs. Mullen or anything else that might stand in her way. She doesn’t completely understand her own behavior, but something is driving her. She fights off the accusations, and she fights off Mrs. Mullen, and while we’re not sure what it is that she’s after, we do know, in that classic musical theater sense, that she’s the one to watch. She’s “quieter and deeper than a well,” her friend Carrie sings, but not at the moment. In some way she’s unknowable, and unrevealing, but there’s something inside her struggling to get out. She’s the one who is battling the hand she’s been dealt, not wisely, perhaps, but with an unquenchable thirst and the determination that goes with it.
Once Mrs. Mullen has been dispatched by Billy (she fires him in the process), Billy goes to get his gear from the carousel, and Julie and Carrie are left alone. Carrie confesses that she’s found the man of her dreams—an industrious herring fisherman named Mr. Snow—and wants to know whether Julie feels similarly about Billy. Julie can’t say. She just doesn’t know what’s happening to her, as a young but strong-willed mill girl might very well not. But we do. And when Billy returns and Carrie goes off, leaving the two of them alone, we see it start to unfold, as Hammerstein wrote in an earlier lyric, like “passion’s flower unfurled.”
Billy is a risk, but Julie appears to have little to lose. Yet the risk keeps getting bigger and worse. In the course of a few moments, we learn that Julie will lose her job if she stays another minute with Billy. She’ll be locked out. She’s even offered a lifeline: a ride back to her mill dormitory by the mill’s owner, who appears serendipitously, but she turns it down and—like Billy—is fired. Now she has nothing. She learns from a passing policeman that Billy has a reputation for betraying young girls, that he’s up from Coney Island, in the reckless precincts of New York. She doesn’t care. Billy can’t rob her—she has no money. Each black mark against Billy seems to cause her to get closer to him, not further away. As the stakes for her future go up, she becomes more and more determined to ignore them. She wants to stay—that’s all. And once alone with Billy, she can’t really say why.
Hammerstein’s dialogue proceeds in a grebe-like fashion. Billy and Julie work their way toward the subjects of love and marriage through contradiction and defiance. Neither of them knows anything about either subject—but they can’t stop talking about them. Finally Julie explains, “Y’see, I’m never goin’ to marry,” which turns out to be a challenge to Billy that he wasn’t expecting.
“Suppose I was to say to you that I’d marry you…,” he says, not knowing where the thought has come from. “But you wouldn’t marry anyone like me, would you?”
At this point, the die is cast, but neither of them can even begin to admit it. Instead, they sing, and their song is woven through dialogue—a musical scene, really, more than a conventional duet. They leave their fantasies of life with the other in the conditional tense. But nature is working against them. The lyric of “If I Loved You” is almost entirely about fear—fear of confusion, of an inability to communicate love, of a tragic ending. All these fears will be justified by the events to follow, yet something about the scene suggests, counterintuitively, that it will all be worth it anyhow.
Why? Because the blossoms of the trees are beginning to cascade down on them. “The wind brings them down,” Julie says distractedly. But Billy points out that there isn’t really any wind. And suddenly we’ve slipped into a dreamlike space, supported by Rodgers’s stately but trance-inducing music, which perhaps justifies Billy’s next lyric, an unexpectedly philosophical and poetic one, especially coming from the mouth of an uneducated carny. “Ain’t much wind tonight. Hardly any,” he begins, speaking, and then sings:
You can’t hear a sound, not the turn of a leaf
Nor the fall of a wave, hittin’ the sand.
The tide’s creepin’ up on the beach like a thief
Afraid to be caught stealin’ the land.
On a night like this I start to wonder what life
Is all about.
Julie does her best to bring the conversation back to the normal realm of things, but Billy has a point to make, and he makes it:
There’s a helluva lot o’ stars in the sky
And the sky’s so big the sea looks small
And two little people—
You and I—
We don’t count at all.
By this point he, and the magic of the evening, have somehow won Julie over, and she contributes two simple lines—she’s moving toward what she always wanted anyhow, but it’s still a leap. If she’s going to contribute to Billy’s melody and his philosophy, the mating dance is nearly done:
There’s a feathry little cloud floatin’ by
Like a lonely leaf on a big blue stream
Billy answers her:
And two little people—you and I—
Who cares what we dream?
These aren’t the famous lyrics in “If I Loved You”—popular versions of the song eliminate this slightly supernatural interlude—but they are, in some ways, the most important ones: they carry the “two little people” beneath a sky that’s bigger than a sea into the realm of myth and fate, and bond them.
The well-known lines of the lyric are all about how they would want to treat each other if they were in love—with tenderness and reassurance. But they wouldn’t be able to do it. They’d let all their “golden chances” get away. And in fact, by grand design of the authors, that’s what happens. It takes the whole course of the play for either of them to be able to say the words “I love you” to the other. By the time Julie says it, Billy is dead. By the time Billy says it, fifteen years have gone by and he’s a ghost. They have, indeed, let their golden chances pass them by, and by that time there’s no turning back. But here, in their initial meeting, they can’t stop the primal pull, no matter how much they intuit their future failures. The interlude confronts the fact that they can’t stop themselves—they’re going to be together anyhow because they are a part of something bigger: the magnetic force that pulls people together. As a result, at least there will be a moment of passion in what are otherwise empty lives without prospects. What will happen to them now is not really in their own hands anymore; a scene that started out with a noisy but petty squabble has become somehow an examination of the universal state of falling in love. And Billy has joined the little army of American leading men who are frustratingly inarticulate in the cold light of day but who have poetry locked in them, which, in rare and unexpected moments, finds its voice under the stars.
It’s a poetry that cannot be allowed to flower for long, however, or Billy would risk no longer being masculine under the definition by which he lives.
“I’m not a feller to marry anybody,” he reassures Julie after singing about the likely unhappy ending of any such adventure. She pulls back with him, almost to a comfort zone.
“Don’t worry about it, Billy,” she says. But she’s used his name—for the first time.
And just as they seem perhaps to have reached dry land, nature intervenes, in the form of those persistent blossoms, which once again begin to flutter to the ground all around them.
“You’re right about there bein’ no wind,” Julie says. “The blossoms are just comin’ down by theirselves. Jest their time to, I reckon.”
And with that, the conspiracy is complete. Julie and Billy kiss, as we now know they were always destined to do, the music swells, and the next time we see them, they’ll be married.
Hammerstein (sourcing Molnár and improving the source) has held off the kiss for about twelve minutes. The scene has a slow natural tempo, but it is pulled as tight as a high-tension wire. What the writing achieves is a sense that this romance isn’t domestic, isn’t upper or lower class, isn’t constrained in any way at all. It’s bigger than all of that. Billy’s claim that their lives don’t matter at all is both the ultimate truth and the ultimate fiction. Their courtship is the essence of human need—it’s what drives the whole species. It gives Carousel size and stature.
This is part of why musicals endure. Their mythmaking continues to speak to us. And for that to happen, they have to communicate human experience in some way that tells. The bench scene is justly celebrated along Broadway because it does that—and no single scene has ever done it better.
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