Abuse in Broadway musicals was always there

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By Rabbi Richard Hirsh

So there we are, enjoying the musical “Carousel” as it builds to its anthemic ending with the assurance that “You’ll never walk alone.”


And then comes this troubling moment that jars us out of our Rodgers and Hammerstein reverie: Billy Bigelow’s daughter Louise asks her mother: “Has it ever happened to you? Has anyone ever hit you — without it hurting?”

Julie answers: “It is possible, dear, for someone to hit you — hit you hard — and not hurt at all.”

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In our contemporary context of increased awareness about the pervasive nature of discrimination, harassment and assault against women, we now stop to pay attention to troubling aspects of a story that earlier generations may have passed over without comment or concern. And in the case of contemporary Broadway, many of those aspects involve intimate-partner abuse or violence.

And it is not only “Carousel.” Cole Porter’s “Kiss Me, Kate” (and Shakespeare’s “Taming of the Shrew” on which it is based) revolves around the coerced submission of the stridently independent Kate to the demands and expectations of her husband, who manipulates her by, among other things, withholding food.


In Lerner and Lowe’s “My Fair Lady,” Eliza Doolittle is subjected to subordination and emotionally controlling behavior, leaving her identity all but erased.

Each of the recent revivals of these shows reflects an awareness of stories, lyrics and lines that once passed without comment, but that now appear as inappropriate, troubling or even cringe-worthy.

In varying ways and with different degrees of success, each show has attempted adjustments, additions and deletions that acknowledge the problematic presentations of what is now seen clearly as emotional and physical abuse.

The essential mitzvah of Pesach is to “tell the story” of the Jews’ liberation in a way that is relevant to the context in which it is being told. Each of these recent Broadway productions now attempts “to tell its story” in a way that similarly reflects the awareness and sensitivities of our current moment.

Recognizing, exposing and confronting intimate-partner violence means asking who is telling the story. In “Carousel,” Billy Bigelow says about his wife, Julie: “I wouldn’t beat a little thing like that — I hit her.”

What words would Billy’s wife, Julie, use today to describe her experience? How would, could or should Julie and Louise’s friends respond today when she tells her daughter, “It is possible for someone to hit you — hit you hard — and not hurt at all”?

One of the essential steps in exposing intimate-partner abuse is the naming of it as such. Family, friends, clergy and others can help those they care about when they are in unhealthy or dangerous relationships by helping them to name their experience for what it is, and supporting them in the telling of their own stories.

What do we do with stories, whether secular or sacred, that reflect a different time and place, and are dissonant with this moment in which we are receiving them? Using contemporary questions as we revisit classical narratives can allow them to become points of departure for critical conversations.

About the child who is silent at the seder, the Haggadah says at p’tach lo – you create conditions that allow that child to open up. When we confront, rather than avoid, troubling dimensions in familiar stories, we create the possibility for people in abusive intimate relationships who are silent, or have been silenced, to tell their story.

As Pesach reminds us, it is in the telling of the story that a pathway to liberation and freedom begins to be traveled. After many years of silence, the Jewish conversation about intimate-partner abuse and about how to create and nurture healthy relationships continues to grow. And as the Haggadah teaches: “The more one expands on the telling of the story, the better!”

Rabbi Richard Hirsh is a member of the JWI Clergy Task Force on Domestic and Sexual Abuse in the Jewish Community. He is assistant rabbi at Congregation M’kor Shalom in Cherry Hill, N.J.

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