Two years after the enormous success of Oklahoma!, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein set out to collaborate again – and the result was the dark yet beautiful Carousel.
The composer and lyricist decided to adapt an early twentieth-century play, a tragedy with an unhappy ending that wasn’t obvious musical theatre material. In the play, called Liliom, the title character is a carnival barker who falls in love with Julie, although he is violent with her. When she gets pregnant, he decides to commit a robbery in order to take care of his growing family. The robbery is botched and Liliom commits suicide. After spending years in purgatory, he gets the chance to return to Earth. If he can make up for what he did to his family, he can go to heaven. Bringing his daughter Louise a star from heaven, Liliom appears and tries to give it to her. When Louise refuses to take it, he hits her. Liliom is sent to hell, while Louise asks her mother if a slap can sometimes feel like a kiss – a troubling question at best.
Obviously, this is not a happy ending, or a particularly happy story! With Carousel, Rodgers and Hammerstein softened the ending by giving the villainous man, now called Billy, the chance to see Louise graduate from college. As an invisible spirit, Billy tells Louise to believe the words of the song “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” and he also tells Julie that he loves her. Billy is then redeemed and goes to heaven.
The most challenging aspect of Carousel is the fact that Billy hits Julie and Louise. He’s an unusual leading character in a musical, a violent, brutal man with no moral compass. This was difficult in 1945 and is even more challenging to stage today, with our modern sensibilities.
This video shows "The Bench Scene" from Rodgers and Hammerstein's Carousel on “Live from Lincoln Center” in 2013. Kelli O’Hara plays Julie and Nathan Gunn plays Billy. In this scene, with the song “If I Loved You,” the two characters get to know each other and fall in love. O’Hara talks about the fact that everyone who sees Carousel wonders why in the world Julie is with this guy, but that as an actor, her job is to respect the material. She observes, “Regardless of whether or not you agree with it, that was her reality – to love a man who was not easy to love.”
In the song “Mr. Snow,” Julie’s friend Carrie, played here by Jesse Mueller (who would later star in the 2018 revival of Carousel as Julie), sings about her boyfriend Enoch Snow, an enterprising fisherman who dreams of a successful future. The men Julie and Carrie choose are very different. Rob Fisher, the Conductor and Music Director for the Lincoln Center production, notes, “It’s interesting to see [Carousel] deal so head on with women’s choice of life partner. And what factors into making a good life partner. And you see the results of two extremely different kinds of choices.”
Stephen Sondheim famously commented that "Oklahoma! is about a picnic, Carousel is about life and death." While the second collaboration between Rodgers and Hammerstein suffered by comparison with Oklahoma!, Carousel was soon rated a masterpiece by the New York Times, and named the Best Musical of the 20th Century by Time magazine in 1999.
Don’t miss the chance to hear the beautiful songs from Carousel on June 8 & 9. Limited seating for The Very Best of Rodgers & Hammerstein is still available but both performances will sell out! Get tickets now at capesymphony.org or call 508.362.1111.