“It’s all the right things in all the wrong places,” Gerrard Lobo said of the play Liliom, a tragic love story of a carousel barker and a small-town girl who are doomed to not reach a happy ending together.
Ferenc Molnár’s play, first written in 1909, tells the story of the failed romance between Liliom and Julie, an unlikely couple who defy convention when marrying and who face financial and emotional hardships throughout their relationship.
Molnar’s play first opened on Broadway in 1921 and was revived eleven years later, but has not received a full production since then. Following its 1932 production, the play was adapted into Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel, which features the famed song “If I Loved You.” The first New York production of Liliom in more than 40 years is being presented by Beautiful Soup Theater Collective, with performances beginning Feb. 26.
Despite Liliom having been written more than 100 years ago, Beautiful Soup Artistic Director and director of the production, Steven Carl McCasland, found a great deal of relevance in its script that he thinks speaks to a modern-day society.
“The play was written in 1909, over a hundred years ago,” McCasland said. “And if you’d asked me this question a decade ago, I might have had a more optimistic response. But we seem to be moving backwards, stuck with antiquated ‘values’ and opinions. The war on women has gotten out of control. Panels of MEN discussing WOMEN’S bodies: what happens to them and who controls them. Liliom certainly tries to control Julie, just has he did with all the women in his life. But Julie is different and isn’t afraid to stand up to his anger. His love for her brings out a side of Liliom he never knew existed. It’s why he steals. It’s why he meets his demise. But even Liliom falls back into his old ways… just like the gentlemen of the GOP.”
“There’s a lot of universals in it that I think people could identify with today – women’s rights, people in everyday relationships, why people do the things they do,” Lobo said. “I feel like you don’t need to know much about the time to watch this and leave with a feeling of identifying something in your own life that you just watched.”
A controversial aspect of the story of Liliom is the fact that Liliom hits Julie, which takes place following the two of them losing their jobs and struggling financially. The violence, and Julie’s decision to remain with Liliom following it, has sparked much conversation about Molnár’s play and Carousel, its musical adaptation.
“We think our concept will help audiences see the damage that domestic violence does,” McCasland said. “Rather than forgiving it as Julie does, we’ve decided to highlight the destruction it has caused.”
A portion of proceeds raised from this production will benefit Safe Horizon, the largest victims’ services agency in the United States, touching the lives of more than 250,000 children, adults, and families affected by abuse throughout New York City each year.
Morgan DeTogne, who plays Julie, shared her thoughts on the relationship between Liliom and Julie, saying, “There’s a struggle between accepting Liliom for who he is – it’s, without a doubt, this love that I don’t think anyone thinks can even happen. She’s just so in love with him. And she hates so much of him as well. She says, ‘You’re wicked and I can’t believe you did this to me.’ She can’t let go of it and be without him. That’s what’s so beautiful and so horrible about it.”
DeTogne said the scenes of abuse between Liliom and Julie are difficult to perform – perhaps even more so because Lobo and she have been romantically involved for several years. Liliom marks the first time they have played a couple together onstage.
“I have a hard time,” she said. “It upsets me so much that he would be this way with her. But I don’t think Julie is ever weak. I think she’s very strong, and she doesn’t let him break her down. There are so many lines where she says, ‘I’m not afraid of you. You don’t scare me, so you can do whatever you need to do.’
“I understand loving someone with all of their flaws,” she added. “I can relate to her in some ways. You know when your girlfriends are like, ‘Why are you with him? What are you doing?’ and you say, ‘You haven’t seen this side of him.’ For Julie, the love that she feels is so strong, the thought of not having that is so much stronger than the thought of walking away.”
“He likes the fact that she sticks up for herself,” Lobo said of Liliom’s attraction to Julie. “That’s what attracts them. He’s always taken aback by how strong she is. When she tries to stop him from doing the inevitable, he says, ‘I’ll hit you.’ And she says, ‘Go ahead. I’m not afraid of you.’ She’s the strongest figure in the play, by far, in terms of sense of self, character, what she wants.”
“Morgan is playing Julie with quite a lot of spunk,” McCasland said. “She’s not afraid to stand up to Liliom. Some people might find her wishy washy, some might even call her pathetic. Ultimately, she stays with him even though he beats her. And that’s certainly not healthy.
“Some may say she’s a product of her time,” McCasland added, “but we’ve seen again and again even today that many people stay in violent relationships no matter how many punches are thrown. But Julie never denies it. And she doesn’t push it under the rug. I think it’s her determination to SAVE the man she loves from his destructive path that makes her stay, not weakness.”
When asked about playing the conflicted character of Liliom, Lobo said, “He’s not a one-dimensional person. You have to justify all the things he does. It doesn’t come from a place of being dim, chauvinistic. He’s struggling because he wants to be a good person for her, but he only knows one thing. He only grew up knowing one thing…. He’s not a horrible guy. He just makes horrible decisions.”
Lobo explored his character deeply in order to understand his choices and the motivations behind them, saying, “You have to find a reason why they do certain things. After I read it again and again, I feel for him and again and again. Everyone knows evil people, but there are some people that are just downright cruel. He’s not cruel, he’s just impulsive and doesn’t know how to deal with his feelings. It doesn’t excuse it, but he literally never comes to terms with it. It’s like he doesn’t know how. He regrets it.”
“He’s a beast who wears his heart on his sleeve,” McCasland said of Liliom. “He has never loved anyone like he loves Julie. In fact, he’s never even been in love. And that love frightens him. As the director, I’ve tried very hard to find the tragic flaws in Liliom.”
Sharing some of the history behind the play, McCasland said Molnár wrote the play, which began as a short story, by writing about himself.
“He was reflecting on his own wife, whom he himself had abused,” McCasland said. “Armed with that knowledge, it’s easier to see Liliom as a man who has tragically fallen from what he could’ve been. It’s easier to forget him and REDEEM him. But without that, many will see him simply as a monster.”
“The thing with Liliom is nothing is really sugar coated or hidden,” Lobo added. “Anyone that’s a character in the play is aware of what’s going on and they’re not trying to hide it. It’s all about the characters deciding how they’re going to live their lives.”
“It also says a lot about abuse, and what it does to a person, how it changes them,” McCasland said. “People will take different things from it.”