"A Real Nice Clambake" is the song from Carousel that haters love to hate, but seeing it in context this week reminded me that the song serves two important purposes in the show, and serves them well.
The song opens Act II, and it functions much like “I Feel Pretty” does in West Side Story. Something terrible happened at the end of Act I — in this case, Billy has made the decision to take part in Jigger’s plan to murder the mil owner and steal his money. When the curtain rises for Act II, we have no idea whether or not they have gone through with it, and “Clambake” builds that tension, particularly if it’s staged (as it was at Goodspeed) so that it’s not clear if Billy and Jigger are at the clambake or not.
Perhaps more importantly, “Clambake” is a song about community. Julie and Billy have both been outsiders for all of Act I, but Billy’s renewed commitment to their family when he learns they are expecting a child marks the one moment they are fully a part of their community. With the events that follow “Clambake,” Julie is forever socially exiled as a single mother and the widow of a criminal. This loss is felt more acutely because she (and we) have had that one, sweet taste of what it means to really be a full member of the village community.
So haters gonna hate, but I’m gonna disagree and say that this “Clambake” is more than just real nice — it’s dramatically essential.