“Soliloquy,” also known as “My Boy Bill,” may be my favorite Broadway musical song of all time. (I don’t know, it’s between that and “Losing My Mind” from Sondheim’s “Follies.”) It certainly is among the most ambitious of all the songs from the genre, an emotionally wide-ranging, musical equivalent of a Shakespearean monologue. Both the song’s lyricist, Oscar Hammerstein, and especially its composer, Richard Rodgers, were at the top of their form when they created it, and the top of their form can match any songwriter who ever lived. It’s also a tour de force for the singer, a seven-and-a-half minute musical mountain that only the very best even dare try to scale
The song comes at a key moment in the plot of “Carousel,” when the brutish and none-too-bright hero, Billy Bigelow, has learned that his wife is pregnant. The arrested-development adolescent muses about the joys and ultimately the responsibilities of his impending fatherhood, and having accepted the fact that his child might be a girl, makes a fateful vow at the song’s climax:
He tries to make good on his vow, an it does not end well for Billy.
The song literally gives me chills; I put it in my very first professional musical revue, where it ended the First Act. One lyric in the song, however, bothered me from the second I heard it as a child. Yesterday I listened for the first time to the Frank Sinatra .: Ol’ Blue Eyes was originally cast as the brawny Billy in the 1956 film version of “Carousel,” but he dropped out. There are lots of theories why; I think he knew he was badly miscast. Sinatra could certainly sing the role’s big song, but casting him as Billy Bigelow would be like casting Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher. Oh…right.
But I digress. As I was listening, admiring the fact that Frank didn’t screw around with the song at all but just sang it straight as it should be sung, he came to the tender section where the carousel barker imagines what his daughter might be like…
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…
Wait, what? Back that up…“Half again as bright as girls are meant to be”? What the hell is that supposed to mean? Hearing the song for the first time when my dad brought the album home, I was genuinely puzzled. I always had to hustle to keep up with my younger sister, and my mother was no bimbo. The line didn’t make any sense to me for years, until I figured out it was a condescending sexist slur. It always takes me out of the song for a second. If I had a daughter, I’d feel obligated to explain that lyric.
What’s worst about it is that it’s just a throwaway; it isn’t written or delivered to be any kind of denigration. That’s just how women are supposed to be, Billy’s saying matter-of-factly—not very bright. You know!
As a culture, what should we do with such a small scar on a masterpiece?
In the the song “I Shall Marry the Very Next Man” from the Pulitzer prize winning musical “Fiorello!”, there is this verse, where the New York mayor’s future wife sings of him,
And if he likes me
Who cares how frequently he strikes me?
I’ll fetch his slippers with my arm in a sling
Just for the priviledge of wearing his ring!
Yikes! Those lyrics shocked me the first time I saw the show, and they were eventually removed and changed by the time Encores! did a concert version at Radio City Music Hall in 2013. (“When he proposes/I’ll have him bring me tons of roses/Sweet scented blossoms I’ll enjoy by the hour/Why should I wait around for one little flower?”—not great, but at least not gag-worthy.)
Should the “Soliloquy” lyric be changed? Except in extreme situations like the “Fiorello!” song, where the lyrics damage the audience’s respect for its protagonists, I strongly oppose changing dialogue or lyrics to make older plays and musicals more “woke.” They reflect the times and values of when the were written as well as the periods in history they portray, and should be preserved that way. I can also justify that line coming from Billy’s mouth: he’s an idiot. The character engages in domestic abuse; he’s an ignorant thug with a heart of gold and a great singing voice. When I hear the lyric, however, I don’t hear Billy being a sexist. I hear a whole culture in the Forties and Fifties that thought of smart little girls as unnecessary.
I still wouldn’t change it. I sure wish it wasn’t there, though.