Photo Credit: Jewish Press

Carousel is the second musical by Richard Rodgers (music) and Oscar Hammerstein II (book and lyrics). Although it never achieved success comparable to Oklahoma! – their first joint effort – Time ranked it as the best musical of the 20th century in 1999.

The story begins in 1873 Maine when Julie Jordan and her friend, Carrie, visit their town’s carousel after work, where she draws the attention of carousel barker Billy Bigelow, a financial failure with no future. When Mrs. Mullin, the widowed owner of the carousel, orders Julie never to return, Billy comes to her rescue and is summarily fired. He invites Julie to join him for a drink and, when she stays out late with him, she is discharged by Mr. Bascombe, the owner of the mill where she works.

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Carrie marries “Mr. [Enoch] Snow,” who becomes a great financial success, and Julie marries Billy. In a fit of rage, Billy hits Julie and leaves with Jigger, his scoundrel whaler friend, who tries to enlist his participation in a robbery. Although desperate for money, Billy initially declines to become Jigger’s accomplice in crime.

When Mrs. Mullin tries to lure Billy back to the carousel on condition that he leave Julie, Billy seriously considers the offer until Julie appears and tells him that she’s pregnant, which thrills him and instantly changes his entire outlook on life. However, determined to provide financially for his unborn child, he decides that he has no choice but to join Jigger in his planned theft.

Ironically, the robbery is pointless because, unbeknownst to the two conspirators, Bascombe has already deposited his mill receipts. In any event, the robbery falls apart when Bascombe pulls a gun on Billy who – knowing that he has made a mess of his life, lamenting the pain he has caused Julie, and determined not to hurt her any further – commits suicide by stabbing himself with his knife. (This scene is changed in the movie, with Billy accidentally falling on his knife during the robbery.) Julie arrives just in time for him to say his last words – he tells her that he loves her – and then he dies.

Fifteen years later, the “Starkeeper” advises Billy that his good deeds on Earth are insufficient to get him into heaven, but that he may return to Earth for one day to try to redeem himself by helping his daughter, Louise, who has grown up lonely and bitter as the neighborhood children ostracize her because her father was a thief and a wife-beater. As he departs, Billy steals a star to take with him, which the Starkeeper pretends not to notice.

Arriving on the day of Louise’s graduation, Billy, pretending to be a friend of her late father, reveals himself to a sobbing Louise and offers her a gift – the star he appropriated from heaven. However, when she refuses it, he manifests his continuing inability to harness his volatility and slaps her hand in frustration. When she relates the story to her mother, she describes the slap as somehow feeling “like a kiss,” and Julie immediately understands that the stranger was somehow Billy.

Now invisible, Billy attends Louise’s graduation, hoping for one final opportunity to help her and to thereby redeem himself. When the commencement speaker advises the graduating class not to rely on their parents’ success or to be held back by their failure, the invisible Billy whispers to Louise that she should follow that advice and live a full, happy life, and we suddenly see her exhibiting the confidence she needs to face life. Finally, after invisible Billy tells Julie that he had always loved her, he is taken to his heavenly reward.

From a contemporary perspective, it is astounding that Rogers and Hammerstein sought to romanticize Billy and to present his relationship with Julie as a tragic but beautiful love story. Billy Bigelow is clearly a dangerous narcissistic criminal sociopath, Julie is plainly an abused spouse, and no normal child should view a slap as akin to a kiss. One critic wryly refers to Carousel as “the wife-beater musical.”

At first blush, there would appear to be nothing even remotely Jewish about Carousel or its characters or, for that matter, about Rogers and Hammerstein’s musicals in general; as one commentator sardonically noted, “You’re about as likely to find a Jewish character in these musicals as you are to find Nellie Forbush singing that she’s gonna wash that ‘mensch’ right outta her hair before donning her sheitel” (a reference to South Pacific).

In fact, however, they adapted Carousel from Liliom (1909), a play featuring several Jewish characters and themes written by Hungarian Jewish playwright Ferenc Molnár.

Ferenc Molnár

Molnár (1878-1952), born Ferenc Neumann in Budapest, was a Jewish dramatist and novelist who is remembered principally for The Paul Street Boys, the story of two rival gangs of youths in Budapest, a classic of youth literature beloved in Hungary and abroad for its treatment of the themes of solidarity and self-sacrifice, but he is best known to Americans and to Broadway aficionados for Liliom.

Molnár wrote Liliom in an attempt to publicly justify himself after his wife, suing him for divorce, alleged that he had struck their daughter. (This evokes in my mind the 15-year-old Louise characterizing Billy’s slapping her hand as “a kiss.”) When it premiered in Budapest in 1909, the audience was confused by the play, and it ran for only 30 performances before closing.

However, when Liliom reappeared on the Budapest stage after World War I, it became a sensational hit and went on to become a theatrical standard, including, in Hebrew translation, at the Habimah Theatre in Israel. The Theatre Guild presented the play in New York City (1921) with Joseph Schildkraut cast as Liliom; a great success, it ran for 300 performances.

Carousel essentially follows the plot of Liliom. Carnival barker Andreas Zavocky – nicknamed Liliom, the Hungarian word for “lily” (a slang term for “tough guy”) – falls in love with Julie Zeller, a servant girl, and they begin living together. When they are both fired from their jobs, Liliom considers leaving Julie but decides to remain when he learns that she is pregnant.

Desperate to make money so that he, Julie, and their child can escape to America and a better life, Liliom conspires with rogue Ficsur to commit a robbery, but it goes badly and Liliom stabs himself to avoid capture. Appearing before a heavenly court, he is advised that he may return to earth for one day to try to redeem the wrongs he has perpetrated upon his family, but only after serving 16 years in a fiery purgatory.

Upon his return to Earth, he encounters his daughter, a factory worker, tries to give her the pilfered star but, when he strikes her after she refuses the gift, he is ushered off to hell for all eternity.

The producers of Oklahoma! proposed to Rodgers and Hammerstein that they turn Liliom into a musical. They attended a performance of the 1940 revival of Liliom starring Burgess Meredith and Ingrid Bergman and were inspired by it. Coincidentally, among the other attendees at the performance was Edna Ferber who, in the undated correspondence exhibited here (but undoubtedly written in 1940), writes to American drama critic Clayton Meeker Hamilton:

Edna Ferber correspondence.

…I’m enormously interested to see what Burgess Meredith (among others) will do with LILIOM [a play by Ferenc Molnár].

If it’s not too late I shall be happy to accept your invitation to see the opening performance on Monday, March 25th.

The prolific Ferber (1885-1968), who ranks among the most influential female novelists in history, is perhaps best known for So Big, for which she became the first Jewish Pulitzer Prize winner (1924), and Showboat (1926), which was made into one of the most beloved Broadway musicals of all time with music composed by Jerome Kern.

Notwithstanding their enthusiastic reaction to Liliom, Rogers and Hammerstein were initially reluctant to take on the project because they believed that audiences might be unreceptive to the dark story; a dismissed carnival barker who hits his wife, attempts a robbery, and commits suicide seemed an unlikely central character for a musical and too depressing for musical theatre.

But the bigger obstacle may have been Molnár’s steadfast refusal to grant permission to adapt his play, including rejecting a request from Giacomo Puccini, who wanted to transform Liliom into an opera, and rebuffing a request from Kurt Weill, who had previously sought permission to turn the play into a musical.

Molnár changed his mind after The Theatre Guild took him to see Oklahoma!. Awed by the production, he stated that if Rodgers and Hammerstein could adapt Liliom as beautifully as they had adapted Green Grow the Lilacs into Oklahoma!, he would be delighted to have them do it.

The Guild obtained the rights from Molnár in October 1943, but a problem arose when Rogers and Hammerstein insisted that, as part of the deal, Molnár must permit them to make changes in the plot. The playwright ultimately agreed, and Hammerstein later admitted that there would have been no Carousel had Molnár refused to yield on this point.

A great breakthrough came when Rodgers, who owned a house in Connecticut, proposed a New England fishing village setting, which Hammerstein described in 1945:

I began to see an attractive ensemble – sailors, whalers, girls who worked in the mills up the river, clambakes on near-by islands, an amusement park on the seaboard, things people could do in crowds, people who were strong and alive and lusty, people who had always been depicted on the stage as thin-lipped puritans – a libel I was anxious to refute…. As for the two leading characters, Julie with her courage and inner strength and outward simplicity seemed more indigenous to Maine than to Budapest. Liliom is, of course, an international character, indigenous to nowhere.

The American version of Carousel, as summarized above, essentially follows the Hungarian story except that, after his death, Billy Bigelow succeeds in his mission on earth but Liliom fails and is sent to hell. As Rogers explained the rationale for the changed ending:

Original Carousel Playbill, 1945.

Liliom was a tragedy about a man who cannot learn to live with other people. The way Molnár wrote it, the man ends up hitting his daughter and then having to go back to purgatory, leaving his daughter helpless and hopeless. We couldn’t accept that. The way we ended Carousel it may still be a tragedy but it’s a hopeful one because in the final scene it is clear that the child has at last learned how to express herself and communicate with others.

The most interesting change, however, may be Hammerstein’s total removal of anti-Semitism, an important theme in Liliom, from Carousel. The intended victim of Liliom’s robbery was not a rich mill owner but Linzman, a Jewish cashier whom Molnár portrayed as “a strong, robust, red-bearded Jew about 40 years of age” who delivers the payroll to a leather factory on Shabbat. When Liliom expresses fear about killing Linzman because his ghost will pursue him, his co-conspirator – ironically, considering how the story ends – tells him that the ghost of a Jew never returns.

Moreover, Hammerstein’s successful businessman who became “Mr. Snow” in Carousel was originally “Wolf” in Liliom who, according to Julie’s friend Marie, is perfect…except for the fact that he’s a Jew. (Julie advises her, “[W]ell, you can get used to that.”)

Ironically, Molnár himself ended up embracing the revisions, particularly the ending. After attending a Carousel rehearsal, he enthusiastically told Rogers and Hammerstein, “What you have done is so beautiful. And do you know what I like best? The ending!” Molnár thereafter regularly consulted with Rogers and Hammerstein, who adopted some of his suggestions.

Notwithstanding all their changes, Rogers and Hammerstein retained the darkness underlying Liliom and brought the first musical with a tragic theme to the Broadway stage. Carousel opened on April 1945, only a few days before Hitler’s suicide in his bunker and the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II, and it ran for 890 performances.

Molnár grew up in a typical assimilated middle-class household in Budapest, a city with a significant Jewish population, where he was regularly exposed to discussions and debates about assimilation, anti-Semitism, Jewish wealth and poverty, and Jewish identity. His Jewish self-image reflected both pride and shame, and a common theme in his work is Jews who make themselves appear ridiculous by attempting to assimilate into their surroundings.

His plays are noted for their masterful theatrical technique, sparkling dialogue, and beautiful expressions of humanity and decency. His first novel, The Hungry City (1900), is an historical picture of Budapest, particularly its Jewish Quarter, and another of his novels, Andor (1918), symbolizes the young Jewish intellectual destroyed by his own character flaws.

Molnár studied law but turned early to journalism before establishing himself as an author and playwright. He served as a correspondent during World War I, filing reports with The New York Times, despite the fact that Hungary was an enemy of the Allies, and he immigrated to the United States to escape the Nazi persecution of Hungarian Jews during World War II.

Molnár was also involved in critiquing plays by other authors. Thus, for example, in the July 27, 1941 correspondence to one Dr. Klein exhibited here, he writes, “I cannot bring your idea into a play. This play cannot be performed at these days. It has been written some years ago and many years will pass if we can discuss it again.”

Molnár correspondence critiquing an idea for a play.
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Saul Jay Singer serves as senior legal ethics counsel with the District of Columbia Bar and is a collector of extraordinary original Judaica documents and letters. He welcomes comments at saul.singer@verizon.net.