By Laurence Maslon

In June of 1945 – in the grateful weeks after the war in Europe had come to an end – Rodgers & Hammerstein’s latest hit tune, “If I Loved You”, was bustin’ out all over. Both Frank Sinatra and Perry Como had renditions of the ballad that topped the pop charts and if everyone’s windows were open on a balmy spring day and their radios were blaring, there’s a good chance the tune would have been wafting down at you.

But you’d only have heard part of the story.

The four sentences that comprise the lyrics of the pop version were merely the epicenter of one of musical theater’s most cherished and seminal scenes, known familiarly as “the Bench Scene,” from Carousel (which had been running at the Majestic Theater since May of that year). In constructing this sequence – which can run up to twelve minutes in the theater – Rodgers & Hammerstein respectively drew upon decades of mastery of how words and music (and silence, for that matter) work together in a delicate dance of collaboration. There was nothing quite like this sequence before and, try as many writers may have, there is nothing quite as extraordinary since.

First and foremost, Rodgers and Hammerstein were theatrical craftsmen; they cared most about what would work in front of a paying audience on a proscenium stage; commercial considerations, such as which songs would land on the Hit Parade, were of secondary importance to the team. For the third scene of Carousel, their dramatic challenge would seem simple enough: how to make the two lead characters – a quirky, independent-minded mill worker named Julie Jordan and Billy Bigelow, a barker at the local carousel who’s also a self-assured egocentric blowhard – fall in love with each other.  But these were complex characters, with nuance, defenses, reservations; in other words, mature personalities. Julie and Billy couldn’t just proclaim some sort of adolescent unbridled affection for each other simply to move the plot forward; they were longing to tell each other their deepest feelings, but they were also, as Hammerstein eventually put it, “afraid and shy.”

Hammerstein had encountered this challenge before. Although he got his start in the operetta milieu of the 1920s – when audiences expected the leads to fall into each other’s arms with a soaring ballad like clockwork – he was nothing if not an innovator, increasingly bored with easy solutions or obligatory conventions. For Show Boat, back in 1927, he solved this romantic scenario by having his leading characters, Magnolia and Ravenal, fall in love at first sight while pretending to be characters in a melodrama who fall in love at first sight: “Make Believe.” In his first collaboration with Rodgers, Oklahoma! (1943), the team was stuck with a romantic couple who had to be kept at a playful distance from each other in order to keep the low-key suspense of the plot percolating a little longer. To solve this challenge, they derived “People Will Say We’re in Love,” which uses a kind of musical jiu-jitsu where the protestations of the two (potential) lovers, Laurey and Curly, only serve to draw them – and the audience – closer.

First and foremost, Rodgers & Hammerstein were theatrical craftsmen; they cared most about what would work in front of a paying audience on a proscenium stage; commercial considerations, such as which songs would land on the Hit Parade, were of secondary importance to the team.

In Carousel, by the time we get to the Bench Scene, the audience only knows a limited amount about Julie and Billy. She has become attracted to Billy while riding the local carousel and, in her typically headstrong way, she breaks the curfew in order to spend more time with him. Billy, already established as a womanizer with a questionable reputation, is both flattered and intrigued by this seemingly ordinary young kid who resists the admonition of a cop that she avoid Billy and get on home. Julie prefers to sit on the bench with Billy. As the orchestra picks up the underscoring, he asks her:


            Billy: [spoken] That your name? Julie? Julie somethin’?

            Julie: [sung] Julie Jordan.

Billy then sings to Julie for the first time, using a melody (and some of the lyric) sung to her in the previous scene by Carrie Pipperidge, her friend. It’s a smart use of a melody to reaffirm what we already know about Julie (although how Billy has “musical access” to this melody, not having heard it before is, indeed, a question):

            Billy: You’re a queer one, Julie Jordan. 
            Ain’t you sorry that you didn’t run away?
            You can still go, if you wanta –

            Julie: I reckon that I keer t’choose t’stay.

She then goes into a different melody, a kind of rambling “chatterbox” over-amplification of her thoughts (“TMI,” we might call it today):

            You couldn’t take my money
            If I didn’t hev any,
            And I don’t hev a penny, that’s true!
            And if I did hev money
            You couldn’t take any
            ’Cause you’d ask, and I’d give it to you!

            Billy: You’re a queer one, Julie Jordan.

            Have y’ever had a feller you give money to?

            Julie: No.

            Billy: Ain’t y’ever had a feller at all?

            Julie: No.

            Billy: Well y’musta had a feller you went walkin’ with –

            Julie: Yes.

            Billy: Where’d you walk?

            Julie: Nowhere special I recall.

            Billy: In the woods?

            Julie: No.

            Billy: On the beach?

            Julie: No.

Billy is pressing Julie about the romantic and sexual world that he’s familiar with – the woods, the beach – with the mild suggestion that these are places he himself has stolen a kiss – or perhaps more – from a lively lass. Then, he raises the stakes:

            Billy: Did you love him?

            Julie: [spoken] No! Never loved no one – I told you that!

            Billy: [spoken] Say, you’re a funny kid. Want to go into town and dance maybe? Or –

Again, Billy tries to steer Julie back to where he is comfortable and confident: “Or –” suggests something more physical – and dangerous.

            Julie: [spoken] No. I have to be keerful.

            Billy: [spoken] Of what?

            Julie: [spoken] My character. Y’see, I’m never goin’ to marry.

She goes back to the “chatterbox” melody:

            [sung] I’m never goin’ to marry.
            If I was goin’ to marry,
            I wouldn’t hev t’be sech a stickler.

            But I’m never goin’ to marry,
            And a girl who don’t marry
            Has got to be much more pertickler!

In performance, Rodgers added a two-note “button” after Hammerstein’s puckish rhyme of “stickler/pertickler”: it always gets a laugh. But, more to the point, Julie has mentioned the “m-word” – marriage – something Billy holds speculatively at arm’s length.

            [Following lines spoken.]

            Billy: Suppose I was to say to you that I’d marry you?

            Julie: You?

            Billy: That scares you, don’t it? You’re thinkin’ what that cop said.

            Julie: No, I ain’t. I never paid no mind to what he said.

            Billy: But you wouldn’t marry anyone like me, would you?

            Julie: Yes, I would, if I loved you. It wouldn’t make any difference what you – even if I died fer it.

            Billy: How do you know what you’d do if you loved me? Or how you’d feel – or anythin’?

            Julie: I dunno how I know.

            Billy: Ah –

            Julie: Jest the same, I know how I – how it’d be – if I loved you.

Billy sees love as a kind of practical transaction, like a contract; Julie has the emotional imagination to embrace love as a comfortable state of ineffability. She then sings about it using the same melody as Carrie’s previous song (“You’re a Queer One”), taking many of Carrie’s lyrics about her and transposing it to the first person. Underneath the melody, Rodgers uses a conceit he always loved, a seesawing alternation of notes to suggest the back-and-forth of a working loom (check out the verse to “Falling in Love with Love,” written with Lorenz Hart):

            [sung] When I worked in the mill, weavin’ at the loom
            I’d gaze absentminded at the roof,
            And half the time the shuttle’d tangle in the threads,
            And the warp’d get mixed with the woof…
            If I loved you –

            Billy: [spoken] But you don’t.

            Julie: [spoken] No, I don’t…

            [sung] But somehow I ken see
            Jest exackly how I’d be…

            If I loved you,
            Time and again I would try to say
            All I’d want you to know.

This is the most expansive melody of the musical thus far, so extended that it requires the actress playing Julie to breathe three times – once at the end of each line – simply to get the entire phrase out.

            If I loved you,
            Words wouldn’t come in an easy way –
            Round in circles I’d go!

            Longin’ to tell you, but afraid and shy,
            I’d let my golden chances pass me by.

This lyrics in this section presages one of the more poignant romantic dilemmas in Carousel; that although Julie and Billy love each other deeply, there will always be subtle barriers to their ability to communicate with each other; as Julie says to Billy in the second act: “I always knew everythin' you were thinkin'. But you didn't always know what I was thinkin'."

            Soon you’d leave me,
            Off you would go in the mist of day,

This resonates as a poignant note for the first-time listener, but is nearly unbearably sad to anyone who’s already seen the conclusion of the show, as it prefigures exactly how Billy will eventually leave Julie in the second act.

            Never, never to know
            How I loved you –
            If I loved you.

Oscar Hammerstein’s lyric choices here capture a sublime tension that allows the scene to remain inconclusive. As conductor and music director John Mauceri put it, “Because it’s not ‘I love you’ but rather ‘If I loved you,’ it’s some kind of strange passive tense – like the subjunctive – what life would be like if they loved each other. And somehow Rodgers captures this complex way of talking in his music and then it builds up to the highest moment on ‘How I loved you’ but at the top of the melody, he pulls back to reality on ‘If I loved you.’”

In cases, this could well be the end of the scene because it is musically conclusive (and certainly emotionally conclusive on Julie’s behalf); in the script and in the score, there’s even a “[Pause]” written in after Julie sings for applause.

But Rodgers & Hammerstein have a longer story to tell. The “If I Loved You” melody underscores the following dialogue:

            Billy: [spoken] Well, anyway – you don’t love me. That’s what you said.

            Julie: [spoken] Yes… I can smell them, can you? The blossoms. The wind brings them down.

The dialogue about blossoms and the wind originates in Liliom, the play by Ferenc Molnàr, which is the source material for Carousel (they are acacia blossoms specifically). This is exquisite poetic metaphor. Hammerstein is clever enough not to musicalize these metaphors – that would be unbelievably corny – so he uses them as part of the interstitial dialogue. The blossoms – and their incipient descent to earth – represent Julie’s emotional vulnerability and her actual virginity.  The wind is an elemental force of nature, blustery and potentially destructive. That could define Billy as well; let’s remember he’s a blowhard. But tonight, the breeziness of that wind is stifled – and it’s quiet enough for Billy to listen to his own soul for the first time.

            Billy: [spoken] Ain’t much wind tonight. Hardly any.

            [sung] You can’t hear a sound – not the turn of a leaf,
            Nor the fall of a wave, hittin’ the sand.
            The tide’s creepin’ up on the beach like a thief,
            Afraid to be caught stealin’ the land.
            On a night like this I start to wonder what life is all about.

For the first time, we get a glimpse into Billy’s psyche. He’s not irredeemable, he has deeply felt elemental feelings and he’s connected to his physical environment (the coast of Maine has a lot of waves and tides, after all). And yet, Hammerstein is savvy enough to make Billy sensitive without being uncharacteristically poetic. The audience begins to root for Billy and Julie to wind up with each other.

            Julie: [sung] And I always say two heads are
            better than one, to figger it out.

            Billy: [spoken] I don’t need you or anyone to help me. I got it figgered out for myself. We ain’t important. What are we? A couple of specks of nothin’. Look up there.

Hammerstein continues with Billy’s existential explorations and his reference to “stars in the sky” becomes resonant in amplifying the imagery of the scene and the larger arc of the show’s setting (where the character of the Starkeeper would eventually become crucial to the show’s resolution).

            [sung] There’s a helluva lot o’ stars in the sky,
            Stars in the sky
            And the sky’s so big the sea looks small,
            And two little people –
            You and I –
            We don’t count at all.

Billy mentions “You and I” – the first time he seriously considers being a partner with Julie, even if this is just a subconscious admission. The raising of these stakes gets under his normally thick skin:

            [spoken] You’re a funny kid. Don’t remember ever meetin’ a girl like you. You – are you tryin’ t’get me to marry you?

            Julie: [spoken] No.

            Billy: [spoken] Then what’s puttin’ it into my head? You’re different all right. Don’t know what it is. You look up at me with that little kid face like – like you trusted me.  I wonder what it’d be like.

            Julie: [spoken] What?

            Billy: [spoken] Nothin’. I know what it’d be like. It’d be awful. I can just see myself –

Although the next few lyrics mock Julie and (what Billy assumes is) her lower-middle class existence, the melody returns to the “You’re a Queer One” theme. Julie is not just getting under his skin, she’s beginning to enter his soul. Rodgers’s music is making Billy truly vulnerable for the first time.

            [sung] Kinda scrawny and pale, pickin’ at my food,
            And lovesick like any other guy –
            I’d throw away my sweater and dress up like a dude
            In a dickey and a collar and a tie...
            If I loved you –

            Julie: [spoken] But you don’t.

            Billy: [spoken] No I don’t.

            [sung] But somehow I can see
            Just exactly how I’d be.

At this point, Billy recapitulates not only Julie’s tune, but her lyrics as well. It’s the first actual reprise in the show thus far. He’s heard this song before – so have we – but this time it enters his soul and transforms him completely. As Mauceri says about this sequence, “the most powerful force in western music is memory.” It’s a memory for the audience and a memory for Billy. It’s unusual that a composer would repeat such a significant song so early in the show – but it’s an essential transfer of emotion energy; Rodgers has become the melodic matchmaker between Billy and Julie.

            If I loved you,
            Time and again I would try to say
            All I’d want you to know.
             If I loved you,
            Words wouldn’t come in an easy way –
            Round in circles I’d go!

            Longin’ to tell you, but afraid and shy,
            I’d let my golden chances pass me by.

            Soon you’d leave me,
            Off you would go in the mist of day,
            Never, never to know
            How I loved you –
            If I loved you.

At this point, in Hammerstein’s previous “what if” songs, the leading couple would reprise the chorus (or at least the concluding part) one more time, finally in harmony – as perfect a metaphor as one could wish. The romantic couple is presented to the audience as musically in harmony, which must mean they are emotionally in harmony.

But Rodgers & Hammerstein eschew this predictable convention.  Instead, they return to dialogue. And we see Billy spent and vulnerable, emotionally sucker-punched by this “funny kid” with the “little kid face” who has the courage to stay out all night and open up her heart to him.

            Billy: [spoken] I’m not a feller to marry anybody. Even if a girl was foolish enough to want me to, I wouldn’t.

            Julie: [spoken] Don’t worry about it – Billy.

            Billy: [spoken] Who’s worried!

Julie calls him “Billy” for the first time. They began the scene as strangers, but by admitting how strange they are to one another – by opening up to their vulnerabilities and idiosyncrasies – they find that they’re not strangers, after all. (Rodgers would cleverly use this irony when he wrote music and lyrics to a duet, “Strangers”, for the television musical Androcles and the Lion in 1967.)  Billy and Julie have danced around each other and their defenses long enough; the blossom and the wind are no longer at odds with each other.

            Julie: [spoken] You’re right about there bein’ no wind. The blossoms are jest comin’ down by theirselves. Jest their time to, I reckon.

As the blossoms fall, the orchestra takes up the rest of the story – we’re beyond words or lyrics – and suffused by one of Rodgers’s most brilliant harmonic progressions, composed by Rodgers, Billy moves to Julie and they kiss.

End of scene.

Even if you didn’t know the English language, even if you were from another planet – even if you were from the stars – you would know exactly what was happening. And that is the emotional truth and storytelling genius of Rodgers & Hammerstein.

Laurence Maslon is the author of The Sound of Music Companion as well as Broadway to Main Street: How Show Tunes Enchanted America. He also is the host of the weekly broadcast/podcast “Broadway to Main Street” on the NPR affiliate WLIW-FM.