The new Goodspeed Musicals production of Carnival!, the musical about an impressionable lass who joins a circus, is a reminder that one of the choice soprano roles in American musical theatre is a girl named Lili.
Lili, you say? In the new revival at Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, CT, the character comes to the fore as a refreshing discovery partly because the show is not often revived, partly because she sings such a large chunk of Bob Merrill's score (including the signature waltz "Love Makes the World Go 'Round") and partly because Lauren Worsham sings it so beautifully and approaches Lili with such guilelessness.
In the 1961 stage musical inspired by the 1953 film "Lili," Worsham's moon-faced character has lost her father and traveled far from her hometown of Mira to join a circus. When she gets access, she is pulled between two masculine forces in the second-rate company: Marco the Magnificent is a leering womanizer, and war-veteran Paul is a broken misanthrope who only comes alive when performing a modest puppet show on the circus grounds. When Lili is partnered with Paul's puppets, their act takes off and brings new life to the enterprise — and new conflicts for Lili.
Worsham, who was seen as Cunegonde in New York City Opera's Candide, answered a handful of Playbill.com's questions about how she approached playing a girl who so easily falls in love with puppets. Lili is such an open and vulnerable girl. Is it a challenge playing someone so impressionable?
Lauren Worsham: Lili is wonderfully naive and open to everyone she meets. Allowing myself to be that open is actually quite lovely and freeing. In many ways, it's like being a child, before life gave us various bumps and bruises. The challenge lies in the rollercoaster of emotions that Lili is subjected to throughout the course of the play. Opening up can be scary, especially when one is continually molested, manipulated and berated by most of the men in the show!
There is a moment in the show that Lili is first approached by the puppets, and she is completely open to a relationship with them, as if Paul does not exist. Is she naïve enough to believe in make-believe, or is she in on what's happening?
Lauren Worsham: This is a great question and one that Robert Smythe, our puppet designer, and Darko Tresnjak, our amazing director, spent a lot of time discussing. I think the answer is a combination of naivete, a strong sense of wonder, a willingness to play, and a desperate need for any sort of affectionate contact. Lili is a young and very sheltered girl. I think we forget in modern times the power of newness and wonder. A little over 100 years ago, patrons ran screaming from a theatre when they saw the first moving picture and thought a train was hurtling toward them. Lili has never seen puppets before. They are exciting, completely new and enthralling.
Also, at the point in the play when she starts her relationship with the puppets, she has just undergone a series of heavy-duty traumas. She has lost her family, home and village. She has nothing and has perhaps ruined her only chance of a future at the carnival. She's at the end of her rope and about to literally jump when she encounters the puppet Carrot Top. She is so desperate for any sort of kindness and is so grateful when "someone" shows her that the world isn't all bad.
However, I choose not to believe that she thinks the puppets are "real." She knows they are puppets, but she's not a cynic. She doesn't feel the need to bash the imaginative and very comforting play between her and Paul. She can exist in between reality and fantasy and believe both.
What do you like about playing this role? What's the challenge?
Lauren Worsham: This is the most emotionally exhausting role I have ever played. I spend most of the play desperate for a home in every sense of the word. Unfortunately, I also spend a good part of the play scolded, bashed or abused. Which isn't to say the show isn't a blast! It is actually a really beautiful, fun show. I think the emotional rollercoaster of Lili and her relationship with Paul gives the show a huge amount of heart. Darko has chosen to set the piece just after World War II in France. Stakes are high and people are bruised, but they all have a lot of heart.
It didn't occur to me until I saw the show just how vocally demanding and rich the role of Lili is — that it may be one of the great soprano roles in musical theatre. Do you agree?
Lauren Worsham: I completely agree with you! I was only nominally familiar with the score when I began the audition process and I am now completely in love with it. I think the entire score is actually one of the best ever written. Lili's songs run the gamut from comedic to almost pop-jingle-esque to full-out anger ballad. Many are technically difficult to sing, but they are also all great acting pieces. It's a pleasure and an honor to get to sing through this score.
Do you have a favorite song?
Lauren Worsham: I have two favorite songs in the show: "Her Face" sung by the character of Paul, the fantastic Adam Monley, and "I Hate Him." Curiously enough, the two songs combine in Paul and Lili's one-and-only duet in the show. I think "Her Face" is an amazing acting piece as he basically repeats the same lyrics but with completely different intentions. Adam is a wonder on stage as well. I really enjoy singing "I Hate Him" because it is finally Lili's turn! In the song she gets to vent all of her frustrations. I've spent so much of the play being nice and loving and continually trashed on — it's nice to let it all out and not worry so much about the purity of sound as the purity of emotion.
Goodspeed Musicals' Carnival! opened Aug. 4 following previews from July 9. Performances continue to Sept. 18.
Carnival! features music and lyrics by Bob Merrill and book by Michael Stewart, based on material by Helen Deutsch, with revisions by Francine Pascal. This version of the 1961 musical was seen at the Kennedy Center in 2007; that revival cut the song "A Very Nice Man" (a song for newcomer Lili, pitching herself as an employee at the circus) but Tresnjak has restored it.
Many consider Carnival! to feature the best score in the career of late composer-lyricist Merrill (Take Me Along; New Girl in Town; Henry, Sweet Henry). Merrill also penned lyrics for Jule Styne's score to Funny Girl.
The score includes "Direct from Vienna," "Mira," "I've Got to Find a Reason," "A Sword and a Rose and a Cape," "Humming," "Yes, My Heart," "Everybody Likes You," "Yum Ticky Ticky Tum Tum," "The Rich," "Beautiful Candy," "Her Face," "Grand Imperial Cirque De Paris," "I Hate Him," "Always, Always You" and more.
Tickets are available through the box office at (860) 873-8668, open seven days a week, or online at www.goodspeed.org.