Musical Theatre Time Machine: Looking Back at Carousel
With their first collaboration Oklahoma!, Rodgers and Hammerstein created a new model for musical theatre that integrated score, plot, character and dance into a tightly-woven theatrical experience that was all of one piece. If they secured this evolving style with Oklahoma!, they cemented it with the far more compelling, and ultimately more satisfying, Carousel. For many, Carousel was (and continues to be) a hard pill to swallow, with it themes of domestic violence and of enduring abuse, imperfect characters who make bad choices, and generally for its hopeful, if not exactly happy, ending.
For me, it is the complexity of Carousel and its willingness to tread in the grey areas of life, love and and the afterlife that make it finest of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals. It is about real people with relatable problems. It explores the muddiness of love and marriage, asking the audience to wallow in the quagmires of stark reality. Not every story is a happy ending. Not every romance is a good thing. Not every person knows how to step away from abuse, or even recognize it through the thin curtain of perceived love. What is more, the male lead of Carousel is not a hero. He is in some ways an anti-hero, a man who wants to do his best, but fails at every turn. He’s a bum, an abuser, but he wants so badly to show his love that we want him to change. He never really figures out how. Carousel succeeds because it has no easy answers, and it invites the audience into a world of ambiguity that is both startling and unnerving.
Whether you like Carousel or not, it is a musical that is continually pointed to as one of the most important pieces in musical theatre history. It’s score is richly textured and most experts agree that it is the finest of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s collaborations.
Here are some interesting facts about Carousel:
- Carousel opened on April 19, 1945 at Broadway’s Majestic Theatre (the current home of The Phantom of the Opera).
- Unlike the other Rodgers and Hammerstein “Big-Five”, Carousel is the only title not to break 1,000 performances. It shuttered after 890 performances.
- The original production of Carousel starred Jan Clayton (who would go on to TV fame as the mother on the TV show Lassie) and John Raitt who would remain a popular theatre star throughout his career and father the country music singer Bonnie Raitt.
- Carousel was adapted from the popular 1909 Ferenc Molnar play Liliom, set in Budapest, Hungary (Molnar was Hungarian).
- Carousel was originally intended to be set in rural Louisiana, but it was decided that a New England fishing village was a better local for the piece.
- Agnes de Mille’s pantomimed opening sequence “The Carousel Waltz” was revolutionary in its day. It was de rigueur to open with either an overture or (during wartime) “The Star Spangled Banner”, so by opening with a scene set to music (not dance, but pantomime) must have seemed very experimental.
- The song “It Was a Real Nice Clambake” was a repurposed song that had been discarded from Oklahoma! called “This Was a Real Nice Hayride”.
- “You’ll Never Walk Alone” is one of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s most recorded songs. Elvis Presley even recorded it, as well as Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, Jerry and the Pacemakers, Doris Day and Andy Williams (among many others). It has also become sort of an unofficial theme song of European Football (Soccer) where it is sung as a tradition of the Liverpool Football Club.