Carousel was Richard Rodgers’ favorite musical. Boldly, he stated in his autobiography, “One of the most frequent questions I am asked is: ‘What is your favorite of all your musicals?’ My answer is Carousel. Oscar never wrote more meaningful or more moving lyrics, and to me, my score is more satisfying that any I’ve ever written.” Well, that’s pretty clear!
Many feel it’s the closest to opera of all the R&H shows—and in some ways that is true. The emotions are large and rich, the poetry is at a very high level, and the music is profound and passionate. But it is one of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “musical plays”—and that places it squarely in the realm of the musical theatre. Its vocal demands are strong, and the more emotionally honest the performances are, the better. I will confess that many is the time when I have had to stifle tears at the end of the show when Billy—now a ghost who really isn’t present—finally tells Julie that he loved her. She can’t hear him, but when it’s played well, we know she feels it.
Billy is one of the musical theatre’s great anti-heroes. His music is glorious, but he is full of flaws, not all of which he sees or admits to. Yes, we are told, he hit his wife, provoked by an argument she won. Whoa! That was bad behavior in 1945 and nothing in the changing of the world has made that moment any less reprehensible. He doesn’t see what all the fuss is about—we can, and do. But we also see Julie’s complete devotion to him, and that’s what makes the story so interesting. There is a chemistry between those two that is explosive and solid. She has chosen him as the one for her, and in her own quiet and determined way, she is going to stick it out. That makes for highly dramatic moments, and yet it’s a sentiment that has caused push back.
Carousel opened on Broadway April 19, 1945, at the Majestic Theatre, where it ran for 890 performances, eventually becoming a movie in 1956, reteaming the Oklahoma! film stars Gordon MacRae and Shirley Jones. There were two brief City Center engagements of the show in the 1950s, but it didn’t receive a full-fledged, first-rate revival until 1994.
It was that revival that ushered in a new appreciation for the works of Rodgers & Hammerstein. Chosen by the Royal National Theatre and its benefactor Cameron Mackintosh to kick off a series of musicals at the National in London, Nicholas Hytner’s production was a revelation. A modern theatre artist approached the material with fresh eyes and intellectual curiosity and came up with a production that was bold to look at and dazzling in its stagecraft. Carousel was presented with no apologies and an enormous amount of class. Personally, I am happy to observe that as I write this, the best production of Follies since the original is currently playing at the National, and starring the Julie and Carrie from the Hytner production, Joanna Riding and Janie Dee.
Someday I hope to create a definitive recording of Carousel as it was originally presented. There are wonderful bits and pieces from the many recordings over the years, but they all fall short in some regard. If it was Richard Rodgers’ favorite, wouldn’t it be great to give it the same treatment we were able to give our Allegro recording. Just saying…