Sexist Broadway Musical Lyric Ethics: Carousel’s “Soliloquy”

“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:

I gotta get ready before she comes!
I got to make certain that she
Won’t be dragged up in slums
With a lot o’ bums like me!
She’s got to be sheltered
And fed and dressed
In the best that money can buy!
I never knew how to get money,
But, I’ll try, By God, I’ll try!
I’ll go out and make it or steal it
Or take i!
Or die!

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.

30 thoughts on “Sexist Broadway Musical Lyric Ethics: Carousel’s “Soliloquy”

  1. Jack,
    I believe “half again as bright” is a compliment that she is brighter than the average girl. “Half again” would mean one and a half times whatever. In the song he’s extolling her virtues. That’s how I read it.

    Had he said “half as bright” that would be demeaning.

    • I believe the misgivings come from the fact that the song states that she’ll be half again as bright as girls are meant to be. Meaning that sure, she’ll be smarter than the average girl, but girls aren’t that smart anyway. That’s why its oder is eau de sexism.

    • No, it says she’s half again as bright as girls are MEANT to be, which means that the jerk thinks girls are not “meant” to be especially smart. They are supposed to cook, clean, have babies, and not worry their pretty little heads over things like politics, or be lawyers or doctors or business execs. That’s what he’s saying.

      • Hi Jack,

        I disagree with you that the sentence, “half again as bright as girls are MEANT to be” proves that he is a jerk.

        What do we know about Billy Bigelow?
        He is brutish, none-too-bright; an arrested-development adolescent.
        He is a bum living in the slums.

        What does he wants for his to-be-born child if it turns out to be a daughter?
        In his ‘own’ words, “She’s got to be sheltered and fed and dressed In the best that money can buy!”
        And he is willing to do whatever it takes to give her that.

        What are his hopes, his dreams about his little girl?
        Physically she is pink and white, as peaches and cream is she!
        And mentally she is half again as bright as girls are meant to be!
        She will be so attractive that dozens of boys pursue her.

        As I wrote in my comment about the meaning of “half again as”he hopes she is smarter than the other girls.

        In the slum he is living in there will be culturally ideas about how smart a girl/woman should be. And he knows these norms. But he wants the best for her even it means he will loose her as she will (hopefully) leave the slum and live a better life.

        No sir, in regards to the high hopes Billy Bigelow has about his (not yet born) daughter, and his willingness to care for her,Billy is no jerk.

        • I didn’t see this before my last comment. Now that’s what I’m used to from you. Well argued.
          But still a stretch too far. Billy, whatever he sings here, IS a jerk: he hooks up with a criminal, decides to steal money, and risk having his daughter grow up with no father at all. He’s an abusive husband.

          I admire that you are making a gallant attempt to see the song in the best possible light, but anyone show sings “You can have fun with a son but you have to be a father to a girl” is beyond salvation. You DON’T have to be a father to a boy? Raising a girl is chore while raising a boy is a joy?

      • Nobody’s disagreeing with THAT Z. The issue is “MEANT.” Girls aren’t MEANT to have a limit on their intelligence, which is what Billy thinks. I can’t make that any clearer, and there is no dispute over what the lyrics say. It is like saying that boys are MEANT to be good at sports, or to screw lots of girls, or to be macho, or strong, but not “meant” to be sensitive, etc. Carousel takes place in a period where women were not “meant” to vote. Are you trying to misunderstand the post?

        • Hi Jack,

          Chill out man.

          I’ve been some years now reader of EthicsAlarms and have given plenty of comments (even some COTDs).
          Suggesting bad faith on my side when commenting here hurts.

          Zanshin

          • I know.

            I’m not suggesting bad faith. That was not my intent. I’m suggesting faulty comprehension that I find inexplicable since I know you to be perceptive. It also hurts to lay out a clear position and have it criticized for what it doesn’t say. Sorry to be harsh, but I do hate that.

  2. I’m not sure, absent other evidence, that we can with certainty say that Hammerstein meant it as derogatory. Would we take it that way if the lyric had been
    “My little boy
    Is half again as bright
    As boys are meant to be!
    ?

    Just change the second “girls” to “kids” and be done with it. That may have been what Hammerstein was going for, anyway, but just kept “girls” in because the song was all about, well…a girl.. Could just be a Hanlon’s razor offshoot.

    • The whole song is sexist, but mostly in the usual ways. If you reverse the pronouns, then he’s saying that boys aren’t smart…that’s a different bias. It’s a bias any way you cut it..”meant” can’t be sanitized. “If God Had meant her to go to college/vote/be President,he wouldn’t have made her a girl.”

      Before I figured out that lyric, as a kid, I thought “bright” meant “shiny,” like attractive. The idea that there was any limit on how smart a girl was supposed to be didn’t compute.

  3. ” 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.”

    (One of these days I’ll learn how to properly quote in WordPress)

    It’s not just for the “woke”. One of the theaters I work with has an older, Christian demographic. Directors are often asked to remove offending phrases such as “Oh my God!”. I’m not kidding. I sit in committee meeting where they actually discuss these things. It makes me want to shove an ice pick into my frontal lobe.

    • I know I’ve related this story before, but a director asked my opinion when he was hired to put on a production of “The Fantastiks.” The nuns objected to the “rape” song (sample lyric: “such a pretty rape!”) in which rape is used to mean “abduction,” as in “the Rape of the Sabine Women.” The nuns wanted to change “rape” to something without a sexual connotation. So they had a meeting, and the nuns decided on “snatch.”

      “Such a pretty…snatch.” Much better.

    • Probably similar to the committees who sat in the 1990s analyzing various hymnals, trying to change every instance of “man” to “us” and trying to eliminate all the masculine references to God they could get away with. I think they sat right down the hall from the “stewardship” groups that tried to put a religious face on environmental activism and the “solidarity” folks who never met a lefty cause or a communist dictator they didn’t like.

      • Trudeau pushed hard to change the Canadian National Anthem from

        “True patriot love, in all thy son’s command” to
        “True patriot love, in all of us command”

        Because of course “sons” had to change, daughters can be leaders too! Can you imagine all the little girls who were dissuaded from seeking high office because they thought only boys could be leaders because the song says so?

        Ow, my cheek.

        Really though, anthems do change, they used to change fairly often, America has five, although only one is really official. If people can rewrite the bible to get all the “thy”s out of it, I’m sure we could update the song to a less obscure form of English before the lyrics become no more decipherable to a current audience than Auld Lang Syne.

        What irked me about this is the sheer awkwardness of shoehorning wokeness into the song while attempting to maintain the same number of syllables. “In all of us command” reads like “people-kind” to me. It reeks of cowardice, the Trudeau government opted to change the Lyric as little as possible because they knew that the changes would be unpopular, despite giving birth to a grammatical abortion. Meanwhile, if changing the lyric was so important that it just had to happen, and had to happen now, then maybe the right thing to do was actually do it competently.

      • I am waiting for “The Lord’s Prayer” to change to:

        “Our Godhead, who may be in Heaven,
        Hallowed may be your name . . . .”

        I can attest to your criticism here. In the late 1980s, like a lot of us, I fell away from the Church for various reasons. In the early 1990s, I drove by St. Michael’s Catholic Church on Sage in Houston, and thought, “Dear Lord! What is THAT monstrosity?” I stopped in and decided the inside was much more appealing than the post-modern sterilized buildings popping up all over Houston on the outside. As I came back to the Church, I had noticed that gender had been neutered, and songs I had known from my earlier self had been changed, mostly toward the awkward. They still irk me today.

        jvb

    • If this works you will see blockquote with the triangles on each side. The second one has the / before it which closes the quote.

      Put the first on in front of what you wish to quote, and the second one at the end.

      I’m evil . . . but I’m helpful (that is a twist on “I’m little but I’m old” from TKAMB)

      [

      ]

      [

      ]

  4. I got to play Billy once. Such a hard, rewarding song! It’s a rough lyric, but I feel that, especially with that show, once you start to sanitize it, you’re headed down a tricky road. Julie’s advice that when you’re in love, the blows dont hurt is also problematic. Heck, Carrie and Enoch’s song where he’s describing a lifetime of pregnancy for her is a laugh – doubly paid off when it’s revealed that it’s exactly what happens! I figure the lyric is in there to tell us first about Billy, and it tells us a lot in a short bit. Plus, it helps set up his reversal at the end – it’s his paternal impulse to protect a daughter that drives the rest of the show, and then his discovery that his habits haven’t changed from wife to daughter moves a lot of his growth in the last moments of the show. That’s a lot of carefully placed dominoes to risk scooting any of them around without excellent reasons. At that point, don’t do the show, I’m afraid.

    • I don’t like the show, but the music is glorious, especially the overture. You’re right: there’s so much wrong with its attitudes that once you start peeling the flaws away, there’s little left. “When he hit me, it felt like a kiss!” Ugh.

  5. He’s a ’50s working class guy? Leave the line alone. Give him a prize for even considering his daughter may have any sort of a brain at all. If he were still alive, I’d introduce you to my father-in-law, a pipe fitter for Mystic River Gas Co. Mrs. OB was supposed to go to secretarial school. Her sister was supposed to go to nursing school. Then they were to return home and live at home and pay rent. Also, when my in-laws were elderly, my sister-in-law was supposed to nurse them, at no charge. By contrast, the boy of the family was supposed to become a mechanical or electrical engineer. He was sent to Tufts, then the most expensive college in the country and dropped out after a semester or so to smoke dope and show his dad. Mrs. OB’s sister went to nursing school while Mrs. OB was unable to get any financial aid for more than one semester at BU because her father didn’t want to fill out the parents’ confidential information form. Didn’t want the neighbors knowing what he was worth.

    If you want to write about dopes in the ‘fifties, make ’em the way they were. And don’t touch that line. It’s perfect. It reveals the character to a T.

      • Pre WWI? Fine. Even more so then. A ’50s intellectual writing the book for a musical should have been striving for accuracy in his portrayal of characters, not interested in ginning up proto political correctness or leading the way to a more enlightened world. The audience can decide if they character is admirable or not.

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