January 2, 2012

70 Years After Premiere, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Carousel Retains Contemporary Feel

When Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel made its premiere in April of 1945, it captivated everyone from theater critics to a 15-year-old Stephen Sondheim. Sondheim, who attended opening night with friend Jamie Hammerstein (son of Oscar) later described the evening as a “seminal experience” and recalled how the musical moved him to the point of tears:
“I remember how everyone goes off to the clambake at the end of Act One and Jigger [the hoodlum villain] just follows, and he was the only one walking on stage as the curtain came down. I was sobbing.” (How Sondheim Found His Sound, p. 64)
For Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, Carousel came at the heels of their debut, the hugely successful Oklahoma! When writing their second musical together, Rodgers and Hammerstein included many of the elements that had made Oklahoma! a success, such as the ballet sequence. They also added new elements; for example, instead of opening the show with the traditional overture, Rodgers composed the “Carousel Waltz,” which was accompanied by an onstage pantomime.

One of the most important innovations introduced in Oklahoma! was the integration of music and story, so that plot advancement and character development were accomplished not only through dialogue, but also through the songs themselves. In Carousel, Rodgers and Hammerstein built upon this concept, creating masterfully-written examples of musical storytelling such as Billy Bigelow’s near-8-minute-long “Soliloquy” and the famous bench scene.’

Based upon the play Liliom by Hungarian playwright Ferenc Molnár, the plot of Carousel centers on the complex and often turbulent relationship between carousel barker Billy Bigelow (portrayed in this production by Ben Crawford, pictured above, left) and mill worker Julie Jordan (portrayed by Alexandra Silber, pictured right). In contrast to the generally sunny Oklahoma!, Carousel depicts a complicated world that is at times painful, tragic, and dark, a shift in tone that prompted Sondheim to quip, “Oklahoma! is about a picnic; Carousel is about life and death.”

It is, perhaps, this timeless and universally-relatable subject matter that makes Carousel just as moving today as it was 67 years ago. Of course, Carousel features one of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s most beautiful scores, with classic songs such as “If I Loved You,” “June is Bustin’ Out All Over,” “What’s the Use of Wondrin,’ ” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” Together, these elements contribute to make Carousel one of the all-time masterpieces of musical theater and a favorite of everyone from critics to audiences to Richard Rodgers himself:
“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 than any I’ve ever written. But it’s not just the songs; it’s the whole play. Beautifully written, tender without being mawkish, it affects me deeply every time I see it performed.” (From Richard Rodgers’ autobiography, Musical Stages, p. 243)
The RPO performs Carousel in a live concert performance, complete with Broadway actorsJanuary 6 & 7 in Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre. Tickets start at $15 and can be purchased online or by calling 454-2100.

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