Carousel is the second musical by the team of Rodgers and Hammerstein II. The 1945 work was adapted from Ferenc Molnár’s 1909 play Liliom, transplanting its Budapest setting to the Maine coastline.
The story revolves around carousel barker Billy Bigelow, whose romance with millworker Julie Jordan comes at the price of both their jobs. He participates in a robbery to provide for Julie and their unborn child; after it goes tragically wrong, he is given a chance to make things right. A secondary plot line deals with millworker Carrie Pipperidge and her romance with ambitious fisherman Enoch Snow. The show includes the well-known songs “If I Loved You”, “June Is Bustin’ Out All Over” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone”.
Two young female millworkers in 1873 Maine visit the town’s carousel after work. One of them, Julie Jordan, attracts the attention of the barker, Billy Bigelow (“The Carousel Waltz”). When Julie lets Billy put his arm around her during the ride, Mrs. Mullin, the widowed owner of the carousel, tells Julie never to return. Julie and her friend, Carrie Pipperidge, argue with Mrs. Mullin. Billy arrives and, seeing that Mrs. Mullin is jealous, mocks her; he is fired from his job. Billy, unconcerned, invites Julie to join him for a drink. As he goes to get his belongings, Carrie presses Julie about her feelings toward him, but Julie is evasive (“You’re a Queer One, Julie Jordan”). Carrie has a beau too, fisherman Enoch Snow (“(When I Marry) Mister Snow”), to whom she is newly engaged. Billy returns for Julie as the departing Carrie warns that staying out late means the loss of Julie’s job. Mr. Bascombe, owner of the mill, happens by along with a policeman, and offers to escort Julie to her home, but she refuses and is fired. Left alone, she and Billy talk about what life might be like if they were in love, but neither quite confesses to the growing attraction they feel for each other (“If I Loved You”).
Over a month passes, and preparations for the summer clambake are under way (“June Is Bustin’ Out All Over”). Julie and Billy, now married, live at Julie’s cousin Nettie’s spa. Julie confides in Carrie that Billy, frustrated over being unemployed, hit her. Carrie has happier news—she is engaged to Enoch, who enters as she discusses him (“(When I Marry) Mister Snow (reprise))”. Billy arrives with his ne’er-do-well whaler friend, Jigger. The former barker is openly rude to Enoch and Julie, then leaves with Jigger, followed by a distraught Julie. Enoch tells Carrie that he expects to become rich selling herring and to have a large family, larger perhaps than Carrie is comfortable having (“When the Children Are Asleep”).
Jigger and his shipmates, joined by Billy, then sing about life on the sea (“Blow High, Blow Low”). The whaler tries to recruit Billy to help with a robbery, but Billy declines, as the victim—Julie’s former boss, Mr. Bascombe—might have to be killed. Mrs. Mullin enters and tries to tempt Billy back to the carousel (and to her). He would have to abandon Julie; a married barker cannot evoke the same sexual tension as one who is single. Billy reluctantly mulls it over as Julie arrives and the others leave. She tells him that she is pregnant, and Billy is overwhelmed with happiness, ending all thoughts of returning to the carousel. Once alone, Billy imagines the fun he will have with Bill Jr.—until he realises that his child might be a girl, and reflects soberly that “you’ve got to be a father to a girl” (“Soliloquy”). Determined to provide financially for his future child, whatever the means, Billy decides to be Jigger’s accomplice.
The whole town leaves for the clambake. Billy, who had earlier refused to go, agrees to join in, to Julie’s delight, as he realizes that being seen at the clambake is integral to his and Jigger’s alibi (“Act I Finale”).
Everyone reminisces about the huge meal and much fun (“This Was a Real Nice Clambake”). Jigger tries to seduce Carrie; Enoch walks in at the wrong moment, and declares that he is finished with her (“Geraniums In the Winder”), as Jigger jeers (“There’s Nothin’ So Bad for a Woman”). The girls try to comfort Carrie, but for Julie all that matters is that “he’s your feller and you love him” (“What’s the Use of Wond’rin’?”). Julie sees Billy trying to sneak away with Jigger and, trying to stop him, feels the knife hidden in his shirt. She begs him to give it to her, but he refuses and leaves to commit the robbery.
As they wait, Jigger and Billy gamble with cards. They stake their shares of the anticipated robbery spoils. Billy loses: his participation is now pointless. Unknown to Billy and Jigger, Mr. Bascombe, the intended victim, has already deposited the mill’s money. The robbery fails: Bascombe pulls a gun on Billy while Jigger escapes. Billy stabs himself with his knife; Julie arrives just in time for him to say his last words to her and die. Julie strokes his hair, finally able to tell him that she loved him. Carrie and Enoch, reunited by the crisis, attempt to console Julie; Nettie arrives and gives Julie the resolve to keep going despite her despair (“You’ll Never Walk Alone”).
Billy’s defiant spirit (“The Highest Judge of All”) is taken Up There to see the Starkeeper, a heavenly official. The Starkeeper tells Billy that the good he did in life was not enough to get into heaven, but so long as there is a person alive who remembers him, he can return for a day to try to do good to redeem himself. He informs Billy that fifteen years have passed on Earth since his suicide, and suggests that Billy can get himself into heaven if he helps his daughter, Louise. He helps Billy look down from heaven to see her (instrumental ballet: “Billy Makes a Journey”). Louise has grown up to be lonely and bitter. The local children ostracise her because her father was a thief and a wife-beater. In the dance, a young ruffian, much like her father at that age, flirts with her and abandons her as too young. The dance concludes, and Billy is anxious to return to Earth and help his daughter. He steals a star to take with him, as the Starkeeper pretends not to notice.
Outside Julie’s cottage, Carrie describes her visit to New York with the now-wealthy Enoch. Carrie’s husband and their many children enter to fetch her—the family must get ready for the high school graduation later that day. Enoch Jr., the oldest son, remains behind to talk with Louise, as Billy and the Heavenly Friend escorting him enter, invisible to the other characters. Louise confides in Enoch Jr. that she plans to run away from home with an acting troupe. He says that he will stop her by marrying her, but that his father will think her an unsuitable match. Louise is outraged: each insults the other’s father, and Louise orders Enoch Jr. to go away. Billy, able to make himself visible at will, reveals himself to the sobbing Louise, pretending to be a friend of her father. He offers her a gift—the star he stole from heaven. She refuses it and, frustrated, he slaps her hand. He makes himself invisible, and Louise tells Julie what happened, stating that the slap miraculously felt like a kiss, not a blow—and Julie understands her perfectly. Louise retreats to the house, as Julie notices the star that Billy dropped; she picks it up and seems to feel Billy’s presence (“If I Loved You (Reprise)”).
Billy invisibly attends Louise’s graduation, hoping for one last chance to help his daughter and redeem himself. The beloved town physician, Dr. Seldon (who resembles the Starkeeper) advises the graduating class not to rely on their parents’ success or be held back by their failure (words directed at Louise). Seldon prompts everyone to sing an old song, “You’ll Never Walk Alone”. Billy, still invisible, whispers to Louise, telling her to believe Seldon’s words, and when she tentatively reaches out to another girl, she learns she does not have to be an outcast. Billy goes to Julie, telling her at last that he loved her. As his widow and daughter join in the singing, Billy is taken to his heavenly reward.