Then April sighed and stepped aside, and along come pretty little May.
May was full of promises, but she didn’t keep ‘em quick enough for some,
And a crowd of doubtin’ Thomases was predictin’ that the Summer’d never come.
But it’s comin’ by gum, y’ken feel it come!
Y’ken feel it in yer heart, y’ken see it in the ground,
Y’ken hear it in the trees, y’ken smell it in the breeze.
Look around, look around, look around!
Yup, “June Is Bustin’ Out all Over” is one of the songs from the 1945 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Carousel. I’d planned on just writing about this one particular song, but then I did some research and found so much interesting information about the musical itself, that I’ve kind of changed my focus.
Our story starts in 1909 when the Hungarian playwright Ferenc Molnar put on his new playLiliomin his native Budapest. Liliom(Liliom is his nickname. It is Hungarian for lily—slang word for a tough guy) is the story of a carousel barker (the guy who could coax you into paying your hard-earned cash to ride his carousel) who falls for a young servant girl named Julie. They both lose their jobs, and time passes. Liliom proves himself to be a wife beater. But Julie tells a friend that she feels like every slap is actually a kiss. (Julie needs therapy.) Just as he is on the verge of leaving Julie, she finds out that she is pregnant. Now desperate to provide for his wife and soon-to-be child, he agrees to take part in a robbery. Things go badly, and Liliom stabs himself. He dies.
The next part of the play takes place just outside of Heaven. Liliom is told that he may return to earth for one day to right the wrongs he has done to his family, but that he must first spend 16 years in Purgatory. So, the 16 years pass, and Liliom has stolen a star from Heaven to give to his now teen-aged daughter, who, like her mother, works in a factory. She refuses the star, and he slaps her. Julie sees this and goes running to berate this stranger who has hit her daughter. (For some reason, she does not recognize Liliom.) Having failed in his task, he retreats into, presumably, Hell. Daughter ask her mother if it is possible to feel a slap like a kiss, and Mom says that yes, it is. The End.
The audience in 1909 was a bit confused by the play, and it only ran for a few weeks. When it came to the US in 1921, however, things went differently. It was a hit. A few years later, the play ran on the West End in London with Charles Laughton in his first stage role.
In 1939, Orson Welles directed and starred in a one-hour adaptation of the play for his radio broadcast. (This was a year after his famous War of the Worlds broadcast.) By 1940, the play was back on Broadway with a young Burgess Meredith as the male lead. (Meredith would many years later play the Penguin in the BatmanTV series.) It was this version that Rodgers and Hammerstein would go and see. (Liliom, not Batman. That would be silly.)
Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II had just done Oklahoma! While today, many think of that musical as dated and cliched, at the time it was ground-breaking. The music and dancing all progressed the story, and not everything was funny. In making this decision, they were following in the footsteps of Showboat, for which Hammerstein had written the lyrics.
The two had seen Liliom, and thought that they could do something with it, but there needed to be a few changes: with the outbreak of war in Europe, they needed to take the story out of Budapest, and it needed a more hopeful ending.
When first approached, Molnar was not willing to have his play turned into a musical. He had already turned down Kurt Weillof Three-Penny Opera fame. (Think Mack the Knife.) He had also turned down Giacomo Puccini! He wanted people to remember his play, not an opera by Puccini. (Instead, people think of the musical written by Rodgers and Hammerstein! How is this different?)
But he was convinced to see Oklahoma!and agreed to let them make their musical. He even agreed to a location change and a (slightly) happier ending.
Now, R&H just needed to find a better location. Their producers wanted Louisiana with the male lead being Cajun. Thank goodness that R&H kyboshed that idea. It’s really hard to get the Cajun accent right. Of course, it’s hard to get the New England accent right, too. But, because one of them had a house on Cape Cod, they chose to make Maine the location for the story.
They kept most of the plot intact. Liliom is now Billy Bigelow. Looking for their Billy, R&H heard a young singer from California,John Raitt, who warmed up with the famous baritone aria from Rossini’s Barber of Seville (Yes, you’re next. You’re so next!). They were so impressed with his warmup that they hired him immediately, and even cast him as the replacement Curly in Oklahoma!that they’d been looking for. (Along with his own long career, John Raitt is the father of singer Bonnie Raitt.)
Billy is still a wife-beater and a thief. He still dies in the course of a botched robbery. As he lies dying in Julie’s arms, her Aunt Nettie sings “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” a truly great song. (My mother had an Aunt Nettie. Don’t know if she ever sang that song, though.)
As for the more hopeful ending, Billy comes back to earth to help his out-cast daughter Louise. He offers her the star he stole from Heaven and she turns it down. He slaps her hand and drops the star as he becomes invisible when Julie comes out. Louise still feels the slap as a kiss not a slap and asks if Julie understands. Julie does. Julie also finds the star and picks it up as Billy tells her that he loves her, something he’d never been able to say before.
We go to Louise’s high school graduation, where, as Billy whispers in her ear, she reaches out to another girl, who does not rebuff her. Louise realizes that she is not as alone as she thought, as the entire group reprises the fabulous song—"You’ll Never Walk Alone.” Billy ascends to Heaven. The End.
June is Bustin’
There is so much glorious music in this play. “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” the duet “If I Loved You,” and Billy’s “Soliloquy” as he imagines himself the father of a son, or a daughter. “Soliloquy” shows us Billy’s thoughts through the tough braggadocio thinking of his son, his boy, Bill, to the very different idea of a daughter. It is this that leads him to the robbery. He needs money to give his daughter a better life. With its musical and dramatic changes, “Soliloquy” is more an operatic aria than a song in a musical. In fact, R&H almost turned Carouselinto an American opera, sung-through, but decided not to. Lost opportunity.
“June Is Bustin’ Out All Over” is a fun song. I wouldn’t call is great. The operatic soprano, Renee Fleming has recently played Aunt Nettie on Broadway. She gets to sing “June Is Bustin,” “This Was a Real Nice Clambake,”and “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” I’m trying to find her singing our June song live, but so far, no luck
However, there is a dark topic that I feel needs to be addressed: violence to women. Billy is a wife-beater. Julie, and later Louise, say that when he hits them, it feels like a kiss. No. When you are hit, it feels like you are being hit. I have been the victim of “domestic violence.” Trust me, it does not feel like a kiss. The character of Billy is supposed to be handsome and charming, and we are supposed to find him sympathetic. I did not see the latest revival of the show, so I don’t know how or even if they dealt with this issue. I’m sure that a lot of people would say that this was a different era and we need to look at it with that in mind. And while I understand that thought, I don’t agree. Particularly now, when violence to women and minorities is on the upswing, we need to talk about this and not accept it because “it was a different time.”
What do you think? Do you like this musical, hate it? Why? I’ll be playing some of the music (including the infamous Leslie Uggams version where she forgets the words and starts making up the most delightful gibberish!) on my Minnich Music Facebook page, so please be sure to check them out.
Until next time!