Carousel is coming back to Broadway! There are plenty of reasons to be troubled by this– its blithe defense of main character Billy Bigelow’s physical abuse of his wife being the glaring one– but this production has managed to add another. Billy– a wife-slapping petty criminal with a heart of gold who dies in an impulsive, horribly-planned robbery that he undertakes so that his future child “won’t be brought up in slums/with a lotta bums/like me”– is to be played by African American actor Joshua Henry, while his wife Julie will be played by Jessie Mueller, who is white.
Let’s make it clear right off the bat that Joshua Henry is exceedingly talented, and speaking purely in terms of musical and acting skill, I would love to see him play Billy. But can casting ever really be taken purely in those terms? Can we ever actually be blind to the physical bodies being used onstage the way the terms “colorblind” and “genderblnd” casting suggest?
As the title of this post makes pretty obvious, I think the answer is no.
One of Carousel’s textual cruxes of conflict is class. Julie and her friend Carrie both find beaux who are out of place in their working class community: Carrie’s wealthy fisherman husband is an ambitious prig, and Billy is seen as a shiftless criminal. While making him black in the bargain adds another layer to the New Englanders’ suspicion– is it racism as well as classism?– that additional complexity is one the show doesn’t actually have the text to explicitly deal with. And even if letting the play’s discussions of class become oblique references to race is effective, it comes at the price of forcing a black actor to play out a set of persistent negative stereotypes about black men: that they’re violent (especially towards white women), that they’re impulsive, that they can’t hold down a real job, that they are prone– through prison or death or disinterest– to abandoning their families. Billy is ultimately redeemed, sort of… but first he does a lot of things that require redemption. And it still only comes after he’s dead.
Even if director Jack O’Brien decides to create a theatrical world wherein the characters are “blind” to race– where it is not highlighted at all in production and is treated as irrelevant, the audience will still see it. A director can decide that race doesn’t matter, but they’re naive if they think the bodies of the actors onstage won’t still carry meaning for the viewer. The actors can ignore Billy’s race, but the audience will still see a black man slap his white wife.
I’m always interested in revivals that want to complicate the racial or gender dynamics of the original. But so often, it’s a case of introducing an idea that the text simply doesn’t leave room to fully explore.
On the other hand: Joshua Henry is really talented, and will probably be a great Billy. Doesn’t he have the right to play the role if he wants to? Isn’t there power in having a black man stand alone on a Broadway stage and sing one of the most famous solos in musical theatre history? Yes, definitely. But I think this case is more clear-cut than many (ask me about my conflicted feelings about a woman playing Aaron Burr) in that the things Billy has to do are already so troubling, and have such strong resonance with powerful negative stereotypes, that it’s hard to feel like the chance to hear Joshua Henry sing “Soliloquy” is worth it.