- Kerry Auer Fergus
Billy Bigelow's Soliloquy
Father's Day is this weekend, so I figured it would be appropriate to talk about one of Broadway's most notorious fathers: Carousel's Billy Bigelow! Billy is... well, he's problematic, both as a human being and as a father (let's not forget that he hits both Julie and Louise), but he does get to sing one of the most complex solos in the Broadway repertoire. Rodgers and Hammerstein have perfectly captured a specific moment in time - the moment that this troubled man learns he is going to be a father - and with this revelation comes all sorts of emotional baggage. There's pride, arrogance, and anticipation, but also anxiety, and self-awareness. With the realization that the rough-and-tumble son he's envisioned might turn out to be a girl, Billy begins to evaluate his choices for the first time in his life. It is an uncharacteristic episode of introspection, and perhaps the most important character moment of the entire show.
"Soliloquy" was in fact the inspiration and starting point for Carousel the musical. 1 The show is based on the play Liliom by Ferenc Molnár. When Rodgers and Hammerstein first considered adapting the Hungarian play, it was this scene with its potential dramatic possibilities that caught their attention. The number is essentially an extended monologue set to music, but what sets it apart from other solo numbers is its ability to transition seamlessly in both music and text from one thought to the next. So let's break it down. Billy's train of thought goes roughly like this:
1. What will my son think of me? ("I wonder what he'll think of me...")
2. This is what I think he'll be like. ("My boy, Bill! I will see that he's named after me...")
3. What kind of job will he have? ("I don't give a damn what he does as long as he does what he likes...")
4. This is what I think he'll be like - Part 2 ("My boy, Bill! He'll be tall and as tough as a tree...")
5. He won't have a wife that bosses him around. ("And I'm damned if he'll marry his boss's daughter...")
6. I'll teach him how to get girls. ("I can see him when he's seventeen or so...")
7. But what if he is a girl? ("You can have fun with a son, but you got to be a father to a girl...")
8. This is what I think she'll be like. ("My little girl, pink and white as peaches and cream...")
9. I have to take care of her. ("I've got to be ready before she comes...")
So we have nine basic thoughts in the course of this song (eight if you don't want to count the reprise of section 2). Sections 2 and 4 are essentially the same and provide us with the closest thing to a repeated refrain that we get in "Soliloquy." (Billy's jubilant "My boy Bill!" melody certainly stands out as one of the more memorable tunes of the piece.) Sections 1 and 7 also share a common melody. But the connection here is less recognizable because Billy doesn't sing most of the melody in section 7, instead choosing to speak over the top as the melody is played in the orchestra. I love love love the return to Billy's initial melody ("I'll wonder what he'll think of me?") in Section 7. When the piece began, Billy was essentially in shock. He's trying to process this information and slowly, over the course of SIX SECTIONS of this monologue, he comes to terms with the fact that he's going to be a father and even begins to build up some excitement and pride in his unborn son. But the realization that his perfect son might be a daughter brings him back to square one. It's shock and anxiety all over again and fittingly, he returns to the old melody.
The amazing thing about "Soliloquy" is how smoothly Rodgers and Hammerstein transition between each of the nine sections. If you think about it, the train of thought is entirely reasonable. It makes sense that Billy would go from wondering about his unborn child to envisioning what he'll be like. It makes sense that he goes from facing the possibility that she might be a girl to wondering how he can provide a better life for her. Hammerstein's text is a brilliant reflection of Billy's emotional journey, but how does Richard Rodgers' music help to facilitate these transitions?
Well, first of all, the transitions between sections are always signified by a shift in the key signature, the time signature, the tempo, or some combination of the three. In this way, Billy's thoughts are clearly distinguished from section to section. For instance, the first part of the song begins in the key of B minor. Generally, minor keys sound more "sad" or restrained than major keys. So the fact that Billy begins in a minor key accurately reflects his anxiety in this moment. When we begin Section 2 ("My boy, Bill!") Rodgers shifts abruptly to 2/4 time and the key of G major. So the music seems to reflect Billy's new mood. There is a buoyancy to this section that was missing before. The tempo markings are also significant here. Section 1 is marked Moderato which signifies a moderate pace, whereas Section 2 is marked Allegro, which is a faster tempo. In fact, you'll want to pay attention to all the tempo markings in "Soliloquy." They can be incredibly enlightening. But for now, let's just take a look at one other moment where a tempo shift can teach us about this character.
Let's take a look at Section 3 - this is the portion of the piece that begins with "I don't give a damn what he does..." and ends with "or President of the United States. That'd be alright, too." Rodgers has indicated that this section be played Con moto which translates to "with movement." So the tempo is moving at a quick clip as Billy begins to envision his son's future career: maybe he'll be a railroad worker, ferry man, peddler, cowboy, etc. But then Billy thinks maybe his son could "bark for a carousel" and suddenly we have a huge Ritardando, a slow-down of the tempo. Remember, this is what Billy does, or rather what he used to do (he has recently been fired). The Ritardando gives this moment a certain weight that wasn't there before. Clearly the idea of his son following in his footsteps is meaningful to Billy. A few measures later, one other profession is set apart from the rest. There is a similar sense of gravitas as Billy suggests that his son could one day be "President of the United States." Isn't it interesting that the idea of his son being a barker for a carousel is just as significant to Billy as his son being the president? This tempo shift teaches us that there are things in this world that are important to Billy and having a son who might be proud enough to follow in his footsteps is one of those things.
Before we address the end of the piece, I want you to take a look at the phrase "potbellied, baggy-eyed bully'll boss him around." This phrase appears at the end of sections 2 and 4 and it may sound a little familiar to you. Listen to it again. Do you hear it? This phrase is actually borrowed from one of the main themes of the "Carousel Waltz" - the pantomime that opened the show. (I'd encourage you to listen to the whole thing because it's one of my absolute favorite pieces of music, but if don't have time, skip to 4:06 to hear the phrase that I'm talking about.) While it's certainly interesting that Rodgers has revived the "Carousel Waltz" melody here, I would argue that this is actually an instance where there is no thematic significance to the reprise. Theatre scholar and author Geoffrey Block put it best when he pointed out that sometimes things can be "musically meaningful but dramatically irrelevant." 2 Composers have been known to revive themes simply for the sake of unifying the score and not for some lofty symbolic reason. Sometimes a theme is just a theme, and that's important for us to remember as we search for meaning in the score.
The reappearance of the "Carousel Waltz" theme may be thematically irrelevant, but there are other musical ideas that appear in "Soliloquy" that definitely do have some significance. Let's go to Section 8 and listen to the portion of the song where Billy explains, "My little girl gets hungry ev'ry night" (skip to minute 7:45 in the video to the left if you want to hear it). The phrase "hungry every night" has a dotted rhythm and while that might not seem like such a big deal to you, it actually is kind of important, and that's because of something that happened earlier in the score. For this, we're going to have to go all the way back to the beginning of the act to the moment when Carrie is questioning Julie about her odd behavior in "You're a Queer One, Julie Jordan." Carrie observes, "You are quieter and deeper than a well." Carrie sings with totally even rhythms and then when she accuses her friend of never telling her anything, Julie responds, "There's nothin' that I keer t' choose t' tell!" Julie borrows Carrie's original tune for her response, but this time she sings it with entirely dotted rhythms. A few minutes later, when Billy enters the stage, he is whistling the same melody, but with Julie's rhythms, aligning himself with her. 3 So now we can see that Richard Rodgers has created a rhythmic divide between these characters. On the one side is Carrie, a woman who craves stability above all else and thus has a straight and even rhythmic identity. And then on the other side we have Julie and Billy, two people who are ruled more by their passions than their heads. Accordingly these two have a looser sense of rhythm than poor, straight-laced little Carrie.
Well, Julie's dotted rhythms have appeared again here in Section 8 of "Soliloquy." Julie is the mother of Billy's child, but he barely mentions her in this piece. With the appearance of Julie's signature rhythm, we can finally feel her influence. Plus, it's sort of interesting that Julie's rhythmic idea has appeared in this moment - a moment in which Billy has begun to question his ability to provide for his unborn child. In fact, Julie has become his conscience. As Geoffrey Block explains, "Billy allows Julie's character - musically depicted by dotted rhythms and triplets - to infiltrate his thoughts and become a part of him." 4
Billy has taken us on quite an emotional ride in the past seven minutes or so, but now it's time for him (and for us) to wrap this up. The final section of the piece (beginning with "I've got to get ready before she comes") can be intense for both singer and audience. You see, Billy is supposed to be a baritone - a baritone is a particular voice type that sits between the low-voiced basses and the higher-ranged tenors. The Harvard Dictionary of Music and Musicians (I know, we're getting all official here) defines the range of a baritone as G2 to E4. You don't have to understand exactly what those numbers mean. Just know that this type of singer can reasonably be expected to sing as low as a low G and as high as an E. "Soliloquy" takes the baritone down to a B, so while this is at the lower end of the singer's range, it certainly shouldn't be too tricky to reach that note. However, Section 9 of this piece has Billy singing up beyond the range of your average baritone. It all starts at measure 261 when Billy exclaims, "I never knew how to get money, but I'll try, by God! I'll try!" Billy is up there sustaining repeated high F's. And then he reaches even higher at the climatic moment when he sings "or take it." There he reaches a high G! And while that's certainly not impossible to sing, it's pretty high for a baritone. It makes for a powerful musical moment - Rodgers and Hammerstein knew what they were doing - but what can it teach us about the character? Well, there are probably a lot of ways you can interpret the end of this piece. I would personally argue that these sustained notes up at the tip-top of Billy's range are an example of how far he is willing to go to for his child. He is quite literally out of range, but that just goes to show how hard he is willing to work.
So, in the end, what do we take away from "Soliloquy?" Well, Billy Bigelow can certainly come across as brusque and insensitive and oftentimes the music can give us the same impression. But his manipulation of the tempos, the way he's allowed Julie's music to infiltrate his own, the practically Herculean effort he makes at the end - all of this can give us a better idea of what is hidden behind the bravado. This is a man deeply anxious about his ability to provide for his family, and without the music, we might never have understood.
John Raitt, the original Billy Bigelow, sings "Soliloquy."
A big thank you to Geoffrey Block for his insights into Carousel. I owe a huge part of this analysis to his brilliant book Enchanted Evenings: The Broadway Musical from Show Boat to Sondheim (see the citations below). If you haven't read it, you should definitely check it out!
And shout out to my awesome dad who first introduced me to Carousel and who is a MUCH better father than Billy Bigelow! Happy Father's Day, Dad!
1. Geoffrey Block, Enchanted Evenings: The Broadway Musical from Show Boat to Sondheim (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 159-160.
2. Ibid., 171.
3. Ibid., 167.
4. Ibid., 174.