In the following excerpt from Todd S. Purdum's upcoming book Something Wonderful: Rodgers and Hammerstein's Broadway Revolution, we find Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II hot off of their debut collaboration, 1943's Oklahoma!. As history goes, they followed up that massive success with the landmark Carousel, which premiered on Broadway in April 1945. The show has since become a beloved classic of the genre, with revivals in 1954, 1957, and 1994—a brand new Broadway production starring Jessie Mueller and Joshua Henry is currently in previews and scheduled to open April 12 at the Imperial Theatre.
This illuminating passage from the book's fourth chapter "Bustin' Out," examines how Rodgers and Hammerstein selected and adapted source material for that second collaboration. (If you're not familiar with the show's plot, there are some spoilers ahead. We've clearly marked that passage in case you'd like to skip over it.)
Something Wonderful: Rodgers and Hammerstein's Broadway Revolution releases April 3 from Henry Holt and Company. To pre-order a copy, click here.
The immediate and overwhelming success of Oklahoma! upon its Broadway premiere in 1943 changed everything overnight for Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, especially for Oscar, who had suffered a long unlucky streak of failures. He was determined not only to savor his success, but also to think carefully and strategically about next steps. In a letter to his son Bill around this time, he explained his thinking. “Dick and I don’t want to start on another show unless we see the chance in it for writing another blooming masterpiece,” he wrote. “This may require some time to find.”
The idea would ultimately come from Theresa Helburn and the Theatre Guild, who thought a musical adaptation of the well-loved 1909 Ferenc Molnár drama Liliom might prove a good choice. The work had initially confused European audiences because its hero dies ignobly halfway through the action. But after the mass loss of life in World War I, theatregoers began to take the play to heart. It also had a curious connection to Rodgers; though he received no public credit, Rodgers’ former collaborator Lorenz Hart had penned the play’s English translation.
Billed as “a legend in seven scenes and prologue,” the play tells the story of the title character—in Hungarian, Liliom means “lily” and is an ironic slang term for “tough”—a ne’er-do-well Budapest carnival barker, and Julie, the unlucky servant girl who loves him unconditionally, even though he abuses her. The young lovers marry, and Julie promptly becomes pregnant. [EDITOR’S NOTE: Spoiler alert. Skip to the next paragraph.] Desperate for money, Liliom agrees to commit a robbery, but he bungles it, killing himself to avoid arrest. He arrives in a night court version of purgatory and is given one last chance to set things right on earth—a chance he also bungles, by striking his teenage daughter, Louise, just as he had struck her mother.
Rodgers and Hammerstein initially balked at the idea, in part because the play’s Hungarian setting seemed anything but timeless in 1943, with World War II raging across Europe and events unpredictable. But Helburn persisted. Discussions went on for some weeks until Rodgers finally lit upon the idea of setting the story in New England in the late nineteenth century, which everyone agreed might work. Liliom, the title character, would become the euphonious Billy Bigelow, still a carnival barker. Julie would be a millworker instead of a housemaid.
“I began to see an attractive ensemble,” Hammerstein would recall. “Sailors, whalers, girls who worked in the mills up the river, clambakes on near-by islands, an amusement park on the seaboard, things people could do in crowds, people who were strong and alive and lusty, people who had always been depicted on the stage as thin-lipped puritans—a libel I was anxious to refute.” As for the two main characters, he said, “Julie, with her courage and inner strength and outward simplicity, seemed more indigenous to Maine than to Budapest. Liliom is, of course, an international character, indigenous to nowhere.”
But even before this crucial decision on locale was made, the team faced another obstacle: Ferenc Molnár had resolutely refused to allow a musical adaptation of Liliom, turning down Puccini himself on the grounds that he wanted the property to remain his play, not someone else’s opera. But nothing was too good for the authors of Oklahoma!, and the playwright, who had emigrated to New York to escape the Nazi persecution of Hungarian Jews, relented the very day after seeing that show. Now the challenge was how to transform his dark and delicate drama into a compelling piece of musical theatre.
As usual, Dick and Oscar began at the beginning. The play had started with a silent prologue, set in the amusement park, which introduced the principal characters. Hammerstein went further, devising a detailed pantomime that swiftly sketched out Billy’s magnetism; his complex relationship with the carousel owner, Mrs. Mullin; Julie’s fumbling, intense attraction to Billy; Mrs. Mullin’s jealousy of Julie; and Billy’s studied nonchalance toward both of them. In eight minutes, the central dynamic of the plot is laid bare, to the accompaniment of a sweeping set of waltzes by Rodgers. Dick had long felt overtures were wasted on Broadway audiences, with an auditorium full of distracted, rustling latecomers still taking their seats, and was eager to try something new. So the curtain would rise as the first notes of music sounded, and though Rodgers liked to insist that he didn’t employ the standard songwriter’s trunk of stored-up tunes that could be plucked at will to suit a new purpose on short notice, in this case he did seize on a bubbling suite of waltzes he had first written more than a decade earlier, for the film Hallelujah, I’m a Bum.
And just as he had done when adapting Green Grow the Lilacs into Oklahoma!, Oscar hewed closely to the original playwright’s scheme, while deftly turning spoken dialogue into sung lyrics. By the time of the producers’ story conferences in December 1943, Terry Helburn wrote that Hammerstein had regarded the crucial early scene in which Liliom and Julie meet on a park bench and tentatively explore their mutual attraction “as almost too beautiful and too tight to tamper with in any way, but he did feel that the curtain with the falling acacias might lend itself to a beautiful number.” This number would become perhaps the greatest “conditional love song” of any Broadway score, and once again, Hammerstein found his inspiration directly in Molnár’s words, in which Liliom queries Julie: “But you wouldn’t marry a rough guy like me—that is,—eh—if you loved me—”
“Yes I would,” Julie replies. “If I loved you, Mister Liliom.”
Oscar’s first stab at a lyric was as halting as the would-be lovers’ exchanges:
If I loved you
I would tremble ev’ry time you’d say my name,
But I’d long to hear you say it just the same
I dunno jest how I know, but I ken see
How everythin’ would be
If I loved you…
If I loved you
I’d be too a-skeered t’say what’s in my heart
I’d be too a-skeered to even make a start
And my golden chance to speak would come and go
And you would never know
How I loved you—
If I loved you.
Through his usual painstaking process of condensation, sharpening, and refinement, Hammerstein eventually produced the far more powerful final result:
If I loved you,
Time and again I would try to say
All I’d want you to know.
If I loved you,
Words wouldn’t come in an easy way—
Round in circles I’d go!
Longin’ to tell you, but afraid and shy,
I’d let my golden chances pass me by.
Soon you’d leave me,
Off you would go in the mist of day,
Never, never to know
How I loved you—
If I loved you.
The scene continues at length, with sung dialogue in the manner of opera—not in the typical singsong of recitative, but with a natural conversational tunefulness. Rodgers once boasted that “what Kurt Weill calls recitative, I call melody,” and the claim was not misplaced in the case of “If I Loved You.” Stephen Sondheim would call “The Bench Scene” “probably the singular most important moment in the evolution of contemporary musicals” as Billy sings of the lovers’ cosmic insignificance:
There’s a helluva lot o’ stars in the sky,
And the sky’s so big that the sea looks small,
And two little people—
You and I—
We don’t count at all.
The scene ends as it did in Molnár’s original, with acacia blossoms softly falling. But Hammerstein one-ups Molnár’s suggestion that “the wind brings them down” by having Billy point out that there is no wind, and having Julie acknowledge that they are “jest coming down by theirselves—Jest their time to, I reckon.” For better—and for worse—it is Julie and Billy’s time, too.
The original production would run for 890 performances on Broadway and a national tour of two years. With the war in Europe now ending, and so many American households touched by years of death and loss, Carousel resonated in a darker, more visceral way than Oklahoma! had two years earlier. Now audiences were filled not with soldiers preparing to ship out to war but with veterans returning from the grim rigors of the battlefield. Jan Clayton, the original Julie, would recall that at each performance when Billy rose from the dead, “invariably you heard from the balcony, ‘Oh, Jesus Christ! That’s too much!’”
To the end of Rodgers’ life, Carousel would remain his favorite score, his favorite show. “I think it’s more emotional,” he would say. “The whole subject matter cuts deeper. I feel it has more to say about human relationships. And I also think it’s the best score we’d ever written. I have more respect for it. I just like it better.”
Excerpted from SOMETHING WONDERFUL: Rodgers and Hammerstein's Broadway Revolution by Todd S. Purdum, published by Henry Holt and Company April 3rd 2018. Copyright © 2018 by Todd S. Purdum. All rights reserved. Lyrics from "If I Loved You" used by permission of Williamson Music Co., All rights reserved.