Notes on Carousel/Liliom

Fenster writes:

Eddie Pensier, a child of the opera and a co-blogger here, got me going to the Met, and I am thankful for that.  But, still, I have never been much of a fan of Broadway musicals. Music class in my school in mid-century America was very heavy on the Rodgers and Hammerstein and I never really recovered.  Oh, I know a lot of the songs–my music teacher guaranteed that.  I will even now come down with a Bali Hai earworm from time to time, and work hard to get rid of it.  I will admit it: I mostly find R&H musicals to be stuffed with what Pauline Kael called “sickly, goody-goody songs”.

In retrospect I see this was a little unfair, especially to Richard Rodgers, whose songs written with Lorenz Hart crept up on me over time and completely won me over.  But I have continued to avoid his work with Oscar, and until recently had not seen the stage or screen versions of Oklahoma, The King and I, South Pacific, Flower Drum Song, The Sound of Music or Carousel.

I was recently in Budapest and determined to spend each night at a musical performance of some sort.  It was not hard to do.  Culture is a big deal in Budapest.


A store front next to my apartment.

There are lot of goings on. And so I was able to see a symphonic performance or recital every night I was there save the last night.  And then there it was: a Hungarian language performance of Carousel at the Budapest Operetta Theater.


I took the plunge.

I knew faintly that Carousel was based on another work–a play entitled Liliom by the Belle Epoque Hungarian playwright Ferenc Molnar.  Indeed the performance was billed as Carousel/Liliom, indicating something other than a standard issue Maine clambake was in the offing.

Sure enough there was a story behind the performance, and it has to do with Hungarian national pride. Hungary has not yet caught the anti-nationalist cootie that is mandatory in Western Europe, and seems quite proud of itself as a nation on matters both cultural and political.

This calls for a brief detour.

Hungary is a country where history —national history of the old school variety–is taken seriously.  There are tables in front of paintings portraying Hungarian history at the national gallery, so that visitors can take notes.


Students, unsupervised by teachers, can actually be seen scribbling and discussing the paintings with one another.

And the stories are mostly tragic, given the ebb and flow of Hungary’s history.  The history paintings portray self-sacrifice, patriotism, nobility . . .  but most of the stories do not end well.  Here is a painting of a Hungarian hero trying to outrun Turkish janissaries.


And here is the story.


So the sunny optimism of the type you might find in, say, Oklahoma is recessive in these parts.  And sure enough Liliom is a darker work than Carousel.

But if you are going to do Carousel in Budapest it seems certain that Molnar would be foregrounded.  A great deal of attention is paid to Hungarian culture and arts in Budapest.

The production was professional and highly enjoyable, especially with subtitles.  But the foregrounding of Molnar was not without its challenges.

Liliom did not make the transition to Carousel in one simple step.  There is a more complicated history.  A Hungarian film version directed by Michael Curtiz (as Kertész Mihály) appeared in 1919.  The play was translated into English by Benjamin Glazer for a 1921 Broadway production.  Frank Borzage directed an English language film version in 1930.  Eva Le Galliene staged a revival in New York in 1932.  And Fritz Lang directed a French language version (with Charles Boyer as Liliom) in 1934.  No surprise the darker elements are visually central in the Lang version, which can be viewed in its entirety here.

The team attempting to synthesize the two works had their work cut out for them.  They opted for a hybrid.  The song lyrics are Hammerstein’s, translated into Hungarian for the performance.  But the spoken dialogue appears to have leaned heavily on Molnar’s original Hungarian text for Liliom.  As a local review concluded in fractured English courtesy of Google Translate:

this Carousel is actually Molnar’s Liliom, here and there complete with songs.

It helps in the adaptation that the basic frameworks of the play and the musical are similar.  Liliom is a carnival barker who is successful in hitting on women despite, or perhaps because, he actually hits them (note: I will use the name Liliom to refer to the main character throughout for clarity’s sake even though he is renamed in Carousel).

Liliom is a roughneck bad boy, appealing to the ladies even though he is known to love them and leave them, leaving them with less money in their purses and maybe with a black eye or broken nose.  This nasty aspect is fully present in Liliom and still quite present in Carousel as well, though somewhat downplayed.

Liliom meets Julie, a somewhat naive young woman who knows something of Liliom’s reputation but is drawn to him nonetheless.  Liliom cannot quite figure this odd and innocent woman out but he finds himself attracted to her without quite knowing why.

With our two star-crossed lovers uncertain of their own feelings and how to express them it is time, in Carousel, to cue one of the show’s most familiar songs:  If I Loved You.

If I loved you,
Time and again I would try to say
All I’d want you to know.
If I loved you,
Words wouldn’t come in an easy way
Round in circles I’d go!
Longin’ to tell you,
But afraid and shy,
I’d let my golden chances pass me by!
Soon you’d leave me,
Off you would go in the mist of day,
Never, never to know how I loved you
If I loved you.


If you know the musical–and who hasn’t seen Carousel?–you’ll recognize how this song proceeds touch and go, as both Liliom and Julie toy with the idea of love, feeling it under the surface but unwilling to acknowledge its presence.  It’s all quite romantic in a Broadway musical kind of way.

She is drawn to a roughneck despite her better judgment and he is likewise captivated by someone far less worldly than the women he spends time with.  But the director of the Budapest production, Attila Béres, acknowledged that elements of Molnar went missing in the shift to Carousel.

This is also the result of a great misunderstanding by the Americans, the first song in the overseas version of the musical being titled “If I loved,”, a love which immediately disappears.  . . . (I)n our version this line reads: “If I trusted”.  (Our translators) kept Molnar’s original emphasis.  

In Carousel the characters are struggling mostly with their own problem acknowledging the presence of love.  Liliom is more hard-bitten: if I could only trust you.  They struggle less with their own conflicted feelings than concern over the other.

Take the exchange in Carousel between the two just at the end of the scene.


Aha…I’m not the kinda fella to marry anybody!
No, even if a girl was foolish enough to want me to,
I wouldn’t!
Don’t worry about it, Billy!
Who’s worried?


Compare this with the Benjamin Glazer’s 1921 English translation of Liliom.

Want to dance? 

No. I have to be very careful. 

Of what? 

My character. 



Because I'm never going to marry. If I was 
going to marry, it would be different. Then I 
wouldn't need to worry so much about my character. 
It doesn't make any difference if you're married. 
But I shan't marry and that's why I've got to take 
care to be a respectable girl. 

Suppose I were to say to you I'll marry you. 



That frightens you, doesn't it? You're thinking 
of what the officer said (n.b., about Liliom's bad character 
and violence towards women) and you're afraid. 


No, I'm not, Mister Liliom. I don't pay any 
attention to what he said. 


But you wouldn't dare to marry anyone like me, 
would you? 


I know that that if I loved anyone it 
wouldn't make any difference to me what he even 
if I died for it. 


But you wouldn't marry a rough guy like me 
that is, eh if you loved me 


Yes, I would if I loved you, Mister Liliom.

But why stop at an English translation undertaken for the play’s Broadway opening in 1921?  Let’s go back another step to the Hungarian text written by Molnar.  Google Translate does not do a terrific job with Hungarian, which is a difficult language.  But the gist of the exchange using Google Translate is darker still.


And what if I told you to lose it now? . . .   Are you scared now?  . . .

Not me, Mr. Liliom.  . . .



Would you dare to marry me?


I know that if I loved someone, I would not mind it if I died.


Would you go for such a thug?


Then the hangman, too. . . Mr. Liliom.


If the segue from Liliom to Carousel back to Liliom requires a stretch near the beginning, with If I  Loved You, the challenge only grows at the conclusion, which in Carousel entails the show’s musical highlight: You’ll Never Walk Alone.

When you walk through a storm
Hold your head up high
And don’t be afraid of the dark
At the end of the storm
There’s a golden sky
And the sweet silver song of a lark

Walk on through the wind
Walk on through the rain
Though your dreams be tossed and blown

Walk on walk on with hope in your heart
And you’ll never walk alone
You’ll never walk alone

When you walk through a storm
Hold your head up high
And don’t be afraid of the dark
At the end of the storm
Is a golden sky
And the sweet silver song of the lark

Walk on through the wind
Walk on through the rain
Though your dreams be tossed and blown

Walk on walk on with hope in your heart
And you’ll never walk alone
You’ll never walk

You’ll never walk
You’ll never walk alone

It makes for an inspiring ending to the musical but let’s review how Hammerstein got here, as the path here creates a problem for the Budapest production.

After the coy opening number we see that Liliom and Julie have gotten married.  Dark elements intrude in the relationship but they tend to be in the background.  We come to understand that at some point in time Liliom has hit Julie.  He says it only happened once and that it was not that big a deal–but is that the case?

There is tension in the relationship.  Each party chose a partner against type, presumably on a less than conscious impulse that the strong medicine of difference might act as a salve for their respective internal conflicts.  Julie the naive opted for a bad boy rather than a responsible provider. Liliom opted for virgin rather than a more familiar worldly girl.  But for most of the play it is not at all clear that the cure has worked.   They remain who they are, unable to cure, or to be cured by, the other.

The conflicts are brought to the surface with the news that Julie is pregnant.  That triggers a deep reaction in Liliom in which he comes to acknowledge his inadequacies in the relationship, vowing to do better as a father than he has done as a husband.

Alas, he has only the flawed material of his self to work with, and the vow to do better for his daughter curdles without even his knowing it as he agrees to participate in a robbery so that his child will be provided for financially.

The robbery is botched.  With the police coming at him he attempts to flee and falls on his knife and dies (a suicide in Liliom).  But this is just the beginning of his troubles.

He is whisked off to purgatory where he bides his time for sixteen years.  As it happens in this particular universe those in purgatory are given a chance to return to earth.  If they undertake a good deed as penance they may be invited to enter heaven.  If they fail, hell beckons.

On earth, the apple has not fallen far from the tree with Liliom and Julie’s young daughter, now sixteen.  She is struggling.  We see she has issues of her own that threaten her chance at happiness.  Liliom sees this on his return and he appears before his daughter, who does not know who he is, to inspire her and give her advice for a happy life.

Alas, once again he has only the flawed material of his own self and that of his daughter to work with.  His daughter resists his advice.  A minor misunderstanding leads him in frustration to slap her hand, less to inflict pain and more to cause her to pay attention to his message.  But that is enough to warrant a visit from his angel-handlers, who intend to take him to hell.

At this point things are looking pretty bad for all three of our main characters.  Liliom has screwed up his one chance at redemption.  He has not caused any change in his daughter’s character, and she, like her parents, is not likely to find happiness.  And Julie?


She never changes.


Nope, Julie never changes.

Julie lives but she has not changed, and so in her own way is stuck.

But here Hammerstein takes a turn to redemption.


But my little girl, my Louise… – I gotta do something for her.


So far, you ain’t done much.


I know, I know.


Time’s running out.


But it ain’t over yet. Look. I want an extension.

And so, inexplicably, the angel grants the extension, and Liliom is permitted to attend his daughter’s graduation.  He is invisible to all and so manages to get close to his daughter and, whispering, to remind her of a song that they used to sing.  It is, of course, You’ll Never Walk Alone.

Once his daughter gets the earworm stuck it does its magic.  She is reminded that while she is flawed and comes from flawed parents love can conquer all.


Now, this is a lovely ending but it is not at all what Molnar intended.

In his play Liliom is not given a second chance, and he is escorted off stage to a dismal eternal fate.  Julie is unchanged, and his daughter does not find inspiration in her father’s invisible presence.  All are captive of their fates.

Hammerstein’s play has its tragic elements but the final rousing song suggests a way out.  Liliom gets to heaven.  His daughter is transformed, now able to face the future.  Julie can look forward to seeing her daughter grow up happy and confident.

But this situation leaves the Budapest production company in a quandary.  There is no inspirational final moment in Liliom where You’ll Never Walk Alone is suitable.  But you can’t end Carousel without You’ll Never Walk Alone can you?  What to do?

The answer is to structure a new final scene as a flashback, showing Julie just as Liliom dies from his wounds.  But of course this makes little sense.  The parting words “hold your head up high” and “you’ll never walk alone” are being directed by Julie to a screw-up husband destined to screw up again in sixteen years and thereupon to be transported directly to hell.

As a Hungarian reviewer commented:

Billy is taken to the afterlife immediately after the suicide, with the repatriation of his body only in the last scene, in the form of a remembrance. This change was probably needed to make  You’ll Never Walk Alone the closing number, but the catharsis experience is greatly diminished.

One final issue simply must be raised in our #metoo era.  It is the question of wife beating, an issue that is present in both play and musical.  As this recent article put it, Carousel is

a problem musical, or “the wife-beater musical.” And the problem is not that Billy hits his wife, Julie, but that Julie, seemingly, makes an excuse for him, thereby teaching their daughter Louise that abuse is a form of love. This happens near the end of the show, when Louise asks, “Has it ever happened to you? Has anyone ever hit you — without hurtin’?” As Hammerstein wrote it, Julie answers yes: “It is possible, dear, fer someone to hit you — hit you hard — and not hurt at all.” And because Hammerstein places this conversation just as the play gears up for the reprises of “If I Loved You” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” the thought gets tangled up in the great emotion of the show’s ending.

Now mind you this is not even as stark as how the play handles Julie’s reaction to being hit.  In Liliom since there is no graduation scene the “wife beating exchange” ends the play.  And the language is even more brutal.


Mother tell me has it ever happened to you 
has anyone ever hit you without hurting you in 
the least? 


Yes, my child. It has happened to me, too. 
[There is a pause.] 


Is it possible for someone to hit you hard like 
that real loud and hard and not hurt you at all? 


It is possible, dear that someone may beat you 
and beat you and beat you, and not hurt you at 

[There is a pause. Nearby an organ- 
grinder has stopped. The music of his organ be- 


The 2018 staging of Carousel tried to fix the wife beater problem.

This year, the women are not saying those lines. In a new production that opens April 12 at the Imperial Theater in Manhattan, director Jack O’Brien cut them in previews, a measure that may forestall some criticism . . .

But is it that easy?  Just cut those lines and all will be well?

Except that Julie’s frame of mind and her way of loving are so deeply woven into the musical that this small deletion doesn’t change very much. Still, the audience might find the controversy is more complex than whether or not the show condones domestic abuse.

Cleansing the musical of the troublesome wife-beating lines pushes it about as far as it can go away from Molnar’s dark elements.  Carousel was a Hammerstein “problem musical”, but now it is closer to the goody-goody ideal Kael wrote about.

There’s something gained and lost in that.  In retrospect the original Hammerstein version does seem like an awkward marriage of dark and light, and excising the dark does straighten out some contradictions.  And who knows perhaps the book will be amended further to chase out remaining elements at odds with our current American self-image.

If that happens Carousel will end up like Julia herself at the outset of the play.  When she first meets Liliom Julie is only faintly aware of the extent to which she has amputated real parts of herself in her quest to be who she thinks she wants to be.  Love has become a phantom limb, one which since it is well and truly missing she never quite gets to employ in a dextrous fashion.  Carousel without the Molnar’s darker sensibility risks producing a similar willful but ultimately precarious naivete.

Likewise the original Molnar vision is like Liliom himself–which is why, after all, Liliom is the title character and not Julie.  His inability to transcend primal instincts seal his doom.

As history ratchets forward day by day the cultures that are its captives move through somewhat predictable cycles.  Gender roles comprise one of those cycles.  In certain periods gender differences are emphasized and the gap between the sexes is celebrated.  In other periods the differences are muted or–as in the current day–erased or reversed.

Liliom is a tragedy.  You do not have to look to royal intrigues or wartime conflict to see the workings of tragedy.  Sometimes you need only look to love itself–indeed just to daily life.  Liliom and Julie fretted and fussed when love tempted them with promises of salvation.  But even if only on a less than fully conscious level they were apprehensive about love for a reason.  When they gave themselves over to it they found, eventually, that it did not save them–indeed it damned them, one of them all the way to hell.

The box they were in was not of their own making, and there was precious little they could do about their predicament.  The masculine identity that was Liliom’s essence needed but could not fashion a workable, loving and permanent relationship with its opposite.  The same was true in reverse for Julie.  The distances were just too great.

This is exactly the kind of tragedy that serves as cultural fuel for the dialectics of cultural movement.  Perhaps Beauty and the Beast can be made more compatible if only we can find a way to rearrange the separate identities of men and women, reducing the huge distance between them.  Might that not prompt an end to the War Between the Sexes?

A tantalizing idea but we have cycles precisely because we don’t have permanent answers to such matters.  It’s ordered flux all the way down.

But we keep trying.  That’s our fate.

And so we reach out current day, one in which feminist principles hold the cultural high ground.  The culture of #metoo prevails.  The offending lines are cut from the musical.  All’s well–or it would be if only we could just get those last remaining patriarchal hold-outs to surrender their arms.  Then things would be organized just so.

But did I mention?–Budapest is a lovely city with a rich and storied history.  There’s tragedy there, and nobility, and lost causes, and the many paradoxes of history are on display.





About Fenster

Gainfully employed for thirty years, including as one of those high paid college administrators faculty complain about. Earned Ph.D. late in life and converted to the faculty side. Those damn administrators are ruining everything.
This entry was posted in Movies, Music, Theater, Travel, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Notes on Carousel/Liliom

  1. Faze says:

    A brilliant and unique take on a great musical. I’ve never liked the story – I hate life-after-death gambits – and there’s no question that Billy’s a jerk. But why shouldn’t an audience accept a play that foregrounds a man who beats women, and a woman who accepts her maltreatment? These are believable psychological traits that, as you say, create an interesting “problem”. The musical runs away form the problem, but leaves a ravishing score in its wake. (My brother just got back from a week in Hungary. He admired the countryside, which he described as neat and pretty, like rural France.)


  2. Peterike says:

    Of course, in the recent Broadway revival, Billy was played by a black guy, because everything in America has to promote race mixing and be anti white male. So did the Hungarian version feature any blacks?

    It must be an incredible relief to see an all white performance of anything.


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