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My Boy Bill, I Will See That He's Named After Me
“Soliloquy” from Carousel is oversung for good reason, I think – certainly because it’s a chance to show off, if you can show off, with a 7-and-a-half-minute runtime almost entirely uninterrupted by speech and a lovely, relaxed saunter out of baritone territory just to remind the audience that you could have been a tenor, had you cared to.
John Raitt’s version is the only one I care to discuss, although Joshua Henry sings it beautifully, and more than beautifully, even if he doesn’t go for the high note on the final “die.” Gordon MacRae may be a fine fellow, but without stomach, and what is one to do with a minced line like “And I’m darned if he’ll marry his boss’ daughter” but turn away?
“Soliloquy” is a fabulous number for pointing, and John Raitt points with the best of them on “haul a scow along a canal.” He also preens, struts, chucks his chin, sticks his skinny chest out like a rooster, lassos an imaginary cow, gropes his own hips, takes a fence-splitting knee, and makes love to himself as well as any musical lead outside of Robert Morse’s exquisitely cruel “I Believe In You.” It’s eight minutes of the Bad Dad at his very best. Broadway homosexuals will remember D.A. Miller’s writing that “the only necessary component of male heterosexuality is not a desire for women, but the negation of the desire for men,” and what a negation on display here! What a desire! He knows how much you want to see a bad daddy break good, and he knows just where to pull out the stops, just how to shape the homunculus so the audience looks in the wrong direction, just when to extract permission by promising to try.
Before one can hate/resent/defeat the Bad Dad (to refer once more to Morse and his all-male team of oppugnants – “Gotta stop that man/I gotta stop that man cold/Or he’ll stop me…/That man”), one must desire him, if only briefly, if only a little, if only to have something to struggle against. The lovely, lovable, tender sentiment of a violent man who already knows how brutal a father he’ll be — “I wonder what he’ll think of me,” Raitt croons, fisting the word “Me” around in his mouth like Sharpay Evans, oboes already trembling in fear underneath his voice, a sea of quavered nerves.
I wonder what he’ll think of me
I guess he’ll call me the “old man”
I guess he’ll think I can lick
Every other feller’s father—
Well, I can!
I bet that he’ll turn out to be
The spittin’ image of his dad
And yet sly! and yet appealing! A sea of licking, spitting fathers, frothing over one another while their sons toss down coins and bet on the outcome, rambunctious and unpleasant and unrepentant.
I’ll teach him to wrestle
And dive through a wave
When we go in the morning for our swim
His mother can teach him the way to behave
But she won’t make a sissy out of him
Not him! Not my boy! Not Bill!
What will Bill be like? Named for his father, his father will see to that (“I will”), tall and tough as a tree, growing from the feet and the ground up, low center of gravity, presumably neither pot-bellied nor baggy-eyed, like the bullies who’ll be sure to avoid him. He’ll know his mother well enough to know she’d like him to be President, but abstractedly, as her wishes will be a matter of relative unimportance to him, busy as he is hauling scows and peddling whips and hammering spikes.
What congested pleasure, to imagine an Antaean son who only does what he likes, who cannot be pushed around, whose true mother is not the woman you knocked up but the ground herself, who could have been president if he wanted to, only he doesn’t want to — a son who doesn’t want anything — a son who doesn’t like anything — a son who doesn’t want or like or care for anything, but who happens to like you, simply because it interests him; the cherished fantasy of the Bad Dad, who wants to believe he’s only violent and coercive because everyone around him is relentlessly disappointing, and not because he likes it. My son won’t answer to anybody, won’t be afraid of anything, including me, except for me, and I’ll only have to beat up his friend’s fathers for exercise or to prove a point, when I want to, and sometimes I won’t want to, once my boy Bill gets here. Once I get here, everything’s going to settle down.
What do we want? Not much.
When do we want it? Bill.
But there’s only so much fun to be wrung out of insincerity. A fantasy of compatibility eventually fizzles out into confusion, ranklessness, disorder, chaos, repetition. “He’ll be great…tall…did I mention trees already? We’re going to have the same name, and no one’s going to bully him. Not this type, and not that type, and certainly not them, and that’s all the bullies I can think of. And he’ll be a tree, my son…” There’s got to be someone he can get angry with—
And I’m damned if he’ll marry his boss’ daughter
A skinny-lipped virgin with blood like water
Who’ll give him a peck
And call it a kiss
And look in his eyes through a lorgnette...
Interrupted, charmingly, with the absolutely dreadful rhyme, “Say, why am I carrying on like this? My kid ain’t even been born yet,” delivered straight through the teeth as a show of force, daring you to say something about flatness. All right, not when he’s born, he tells us, which places the audience somewhere in between Bill’s vague, shadowy mother and a Peeping Tom. How about this, then? Surely this will satisfy you bunch of prissy—
I can see him when he’s seventeen or so,
And startin’-in to go with a girl
I can give him lots of pointers, very sound,
On the way to get ‘round any girl
I can tell him—
At which point Bill the First, Bill the awful, Bill the brute you hate to love and love to hate, Bill who knows just how you like it baby, breaks himself up again by asking “What if he is a girl?” But it is not the possibility of Bill la fille that arrests the soliloquy, that turns fantasy from a refuge and a salt-lick into a blasted-out terror, but just how unforgivably pretty his plan is becoming, just how much he’ll enjoy his love for his son, just how much he longs to teach, just what kind of man he wants to nurture and how many girls he wants to churn through with him. Won’t I be awful? And won’t you just love it? Don’t you want to see just how bad this dad can get? You’ll get to feel awfully misunderstood afterwards, darling. That’s seven-and-a-half minutes of the choicest threats you’ll ever get to hear, and who doesn’t want to cower in their seat, every once in a while? This Bad Dad, the carousel barker (“It takes talent to do that”), is in the business of attracting attention, and it’s your bad luck not if he ignores you, or disappears, or treats you with indifference, but if you draw his notice. Once he’s paying attention, he’ll never stop—and fathers ought to pay attention to their children. The nightmare ending of the reformed rakehell, the worst possible timeline: He was a heartbreaker when we first met, but look at him now. He’s so good with the kids.
The rest of the number is spent in retreat and compensation, packed with details and numbers and quantifiable assurance that he knows when he’s gone too far, when to slow down, where the speed traps lie ahead. “You can have fun with a son/ But you gotta be a father—to-o-o a-a giiiiiiiirl….” I’m awfully sorry. I know I took it too far this time. I know just where I went wrong. Girls are gonna steer me right. You can always count on women for that. I’ll look to them for my example. Civilize me, please, I’m going to be a father of a daughter.
He hurries through the counterclaims: She’ll be just like her mother, she’ll be pink and white but also like peaches and cream, she’ll have exactly 1.5 times the intelligence she ought to, I’ll give her an advance on her birthright, dozens of boys will want her—they’ll be pink and white too—let’s all be pink and white now—this is the future, and it’s female, and it’s light-bright, and it’s safe, all wooing, no sex, inexorably and relentlessly white, don’t forget that, but do forget the other things I was saying before—
I got to get ready before she comes!
I got to make certain that she
Won’t be dragged up in slums
With a lot of bums like me
She’s got to be sheltered,
In a fair hand dressed,
In the best that money can buy!
I never knew how to get money,
But I’ll try, I’ll try! I’ll try!
I’ll go out and make it, or steal it,
Or take it—or die!
I love her so much I don’t want her anywhere near me. I love her so much that you’re going to have to excuse me, I forget I had another appointment. I love her so much that I’m going to die right away, never mind the boy Bill now, he never existed, and if you want to talk about the past with someone, it’ll have to be someone else. I used to be able to name all sorts of jobs a man could get just a few verses ago, but now all I can think of is dying before intermission. I don’t wonder about anything now.
Where were you on the night of—
Can you answer the charge of—
How do you plead in the matter of—
Gee whiz, judge, have mercy on a trying man!
That’s why, by the way, it’s so important that any man singing Billy Bigelow hits the G5 at the end of the number. The Bad Dad Who Just Loves Too Much always goes out on a high note.