Saturday, April 7, 2018

RODGERS AND HAMMERSTEIN'S CAROUSEL


       My book on the musical Chicago has just come out, so I'm celebrating with a piece on Carousel, which is arguably Chicago's opposite in every way:
 
       Now. When Carousel played its first night, on April 19, 1945, the audience thought it knew what to expect. Like Oklahoma!, the first Rodgers and Hammerstein show, just two years earlier, Carousel was a Theatre Guild production with a period setting,  based on an old Guild property. Rouben Mamoulian directed and Agnes de Mille choreographed, as on the earlier show. And Carousel was billed, like Oklahoma!,  as neither musical comedy nor operetta but “musical play”: with the power of drama and the emotional expansion of music.

       Some of the public might have been familiar with Carousel’s source, Ferenc Molnár’s Liliom, a Guild hit in 1921 with Joseph Schildkraut as the titular anti-hero, ever rebelling against authority and rules—why? because they’re there—and Eva Le Gallienne as his abused but faithful love, Julie. Schildkraut was a heartthrob, quite the exhibitionist in his tight, striped jersey, and Le Gallienne was an actress of such presence that, when she made an exit, she took everything with her, including the grand piano. They worked well together, but their characters make a terrible marriage, because the more Julie understands and forgives, the angrier Liliom gets. He knows he’s unworthy: love makes him feel guilty.

       Liliom is a strange piece, focusing on working-class folk with no ambition and little hope in a stylized realism that suddenly veers into fantasy when Liliom dies and gets a second chance on earth—after sixteen years of hellfire—to do a good deed for his fatherless daughter. He fails and returns to the afterlife, a loser in death as in life. And there the curtain falls.

       That suggests a show that would end up as the one thing a musical must never be: depressing. Yet both Puccini and Kurt Weill wanted to have a crack at it. Molnár turned them down. He turned down Rodgers and Hammerstein, too, but as a refugee from the Nazis he happened to be living in New York, and he dropped in on Oklahoma!. It was instruction in lightning; now Molnár comprehended the potential of music theatre with the poetry of good music but the realism of theatre. And Molnár said yes.

       Chicago, too, is based on a play that was seen on Broadway in the 1920s, and the musical follows it very closely. However, Rodgers and Hammerstein knew they had to reinvent Liliom’s final sequence, rendering it as uplifting rather than dispiriting. What they didn’t like was the setting, in Molnár’s native Budapest. Neither of the two authors had any feeling for Hungarian culture—yet the story seemed to need the exotic locale, with its odd blend of the wistful and the brutal. They thought of New Orleans for a time, then jumped north to New England in the 1870s and 1880s, so picturesque with its accents (“Always settin’ by the winder”) and cotton mills, fisherfolk and carnival, skinflints and clambake.

       They made one mistake, envisioning the afterlife as the gloomy parlor of a dour minister and his wife, which infuriated the audience at Carousel’s Boston tryout. The scene had all the small-town pettiness that New Englanders live by but hate to see revealed, and the authors rebooted it on a bare stage with the minister defrocked as the Starkeeper, still heavenly but less parochial, a dreamer rather than a judge.

       Now Carousel was ready for its New York premiere—but that first-night public wasn’t, because Carousel proved to be nothing like Oklahoma!, and its innovations began literally one minute into the running time. Virtually all musicals had overtures in those days: a fanfare, then a chain of four or five numbers, with a big finish. Rodgers always hated them, because, in the typical Broadway pit, the brass overpowered the strings, so the ballads, in which the violins carry the melody, couldn’t be heard properly. After Oklahoma!’s smash success, however, Carousel could afford a big staging, and Rodgers got twenty-two strings in an orchestra of thirty-nine, almost twice the usual size.

       Anyway, Carousel didn’t have an overture. Instead, the show began with a quirky little prelude suggesting the winding up of a carousel’s drive equipment. As the music grew louder and faster, the house lights went to black and, without warning, the curtain went up, launching the narrative before the audience was ready: on an amusement park with courting couples, the stately bourgeoisie, heroine Julie and her sidekick Carrie, and of course the carousel and its barker, Liliom, now called Billy. The entire scene was enacted in pantomime, and amid  the vignettes and sidebars the public noticed that something interesting was happening between Julie and Billy.

       Traditionally, the next scene would give Julie a Heroine’s Wanting Song and then, perhaps, a duet with Billy. But first Carrie defined Julie from her point of view, in “You’re a Queer One, Julie Jordan.” Then Carrie got the Wanting Song, in “Mister Snow.” And only then did Julie and Billy duet, in the extended musical scene built around “If I Loved You.” Yet they do not sing at the same time, emphasizing how different they are. Never before had a musical explored so much character in a single number, as these two open themselves up to each other. “Two little people, you and I,” Billy calls them—and, in a line cut in Boston, after Julie likens a passing cloud to “a lonely leaf on a big blue stream,” Billy sings, “Who cares what we dream?” It won’t be a good marriage, but it will be a love match. Blossoms are falling all around them, coming down on their own. “Jest  their time to, I reckon,” says Julie. She’s talking about herself.

       Carousel is filled with music in a way few such shows are, one reason it has always tempted opera singers; the very first “crossover” recording was a Carousel in 1955 with Robert Merrill and Patrice Munsel. The centerpiece of this vitally personable score is Billy’s big scene near the end of the first act, called simply “Soliloquy,” proof that, in Carousel as not necessarily in Oklahoma!, Rodgers and Hammerstein made the very term “show tune” inadequate. “Soliloquy” isn’t a tune at all, but rather a musical process that follows Billy’s thought patterns as he considers his coming fatherhood. The music jumps from one idea to another, from melody to melody, Moderato, Allegro (at “My boy Bill…”), Con Moto, confident and secure till Billy realizes that the son he’d be comfortable with might instead be a girl—too tender, too easily hurt, like Billy himself, but without a man’s ability to put on a bold front. The music almost breaks apart, then recovers for one of Rodgers’ loveliest melodies (at “My little girl…”), by which time Carousel has made a complete break with the way Rodgers and Hammerstein realized character development in Oklahoma!. That show’s cowboys and farm girls sing show tunes. Carousel is opera by other means.

       One of its most arresting novelties is its use of the musical’s Second Couple, traditionally mischief makers in the line of Mozart’s Papageno and Papagena or Puccini’s Marcello and Musetta. The First Couple tends to the romance, while the other two bicker, sing comic songs, and pass sarcastic remarks about everybody else on stage. Carrie and her Mr. Snow, however, are in Carousel to elaborate its view of social class. Carrie is a spirited girl, but Snow is a narrow-minded stuffed shirt—a bore, really. You don’t get a lot of those in musicals. He does seem to love Carrie, at least when they’re courting, but the only thing that truly excites him is his plan for a sardine cannery. Carousel’s action spans some fifteen years, long enough for the Snows to produce nine children—but he is as tiresome as ever. “Turn your eyes away, Junior!” he cries, when he and his eldest happen upon Carrie singing a naughty show tune.

       Thus,  Snow is a foil to Billy, who is robust and fascinating but unreliable. Snow, great husband material by comparison (if only on the material level), sucks the  oxygen out of everything. Comparing them, we see why Billy is a scapegrace: he‘s the revolution against all the Mr. Snows, the “big people.” Snow represents that authority and those rules, and Billy defies them because they are set up, he believes, to further the agendas of the Snows of the world, to keep the “little people” down.

       One of the key innovations of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical play is the powerful sense of community the form conveys, in Oklahoma!‘s frontier, Allegro’s small town, Me and Juliet’s theatre people. Billy and Snow outline for us Carousel’s social cross-section, as the former lives in a state of reckless liberty while the latter can’t wait to get bricked up in the wall of bourgeois propriety. In between them are Julie, who throws herself into the arms of destiny, and Carrie, who chooses her future more carefully. Yet who is happier in the end? There is no easy answer. Except for the daughter Billy feared to raise, Julie is alone. Carrie has plenty of company, with Snow and their nine little snowflakes. Yet that revision of Molnár’s ending, with Billy’s ghostly appearance at his daughter’s high-school event and “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” wants us to feel that, somehow or other, love has triumphed, even over death.

       Much of Carousel is not just beautiful, but fun: the cue for the clambake number is a girl’s crying, “Look here, Orrin Peasely! You jest keep your hands in yer pockets if they’re so cold.” Though it originally ran only two years (to Oklahoma!’s five), it was Rodgers’ favorite of his own shows, and has become known as the richest score of all Rodgers and Hammerstein. Besides its abundant emotional impact, it is filled with musical echo texture, as a theme from one number will turn up in another. Thus, Billy borrows “You’re a Queer One, Julie Jordan” at the start of the “If I Loved You” scene; and the girls’ “Give it to ‘em good, Carrie!” in the ramp-up to “June Is Bustin’ Out All Over” reappears just before “What’s the Use of Wond’rin’.”

       There is as well the almost sociological nature of the music, as if the authors had interpolated folk songs—the sea chantey “Blow High, Blow Low,” the hymnlike “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” the sorry wisdom of “Stonecutters Cut It on Stone,” which sounds like one of those popular poems credited simply to “Anonymous.” There is something timeless, terrifying, and marvelous about Carousel, another reason why it is unlike the basic and even logical Oklahoma!. The latter is about how a territorial community prepares for statehood: through compromise, as outlined in “The Farmer and the Cowman (should be friends).” But Carousel takes us into the hereafter to try to comprehend how destiny works. If this is a musical, it’s a musical on the grand scale.

       For his part, Ferenc Molnár loved it, even the new hopeful ending. Perhaps he appreciated the way it affirmed his view of “little” souls with big feelings, people like you and me, who simply don’t matter to the Mr. Snows who run the world. Who cares what we dream?

      

9 comments:

  1. Now THAT was a terrific read. An illuminating essay that makes me run back and examine Carousel.

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  2. Thank you for commenting. Carousel is like Show Boat: you can always write about it again because there's always more to say. They're rich works.

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  3. Terrific article. Ethan, you never fail to illuminate!

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  4. This essay is the very definition of brilliance! I will read and re-read for a long time to come. Increased my understanding of this show in a profound way. Thank you!!

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  5. Your book about the musical Chicago was a joy. I have never been a huge fan of this musical as it strikes me as being a cynical revue influenced by Follies' Loveland sequence but your own love of it was contagious. Thank you so much.

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    1. You're welcome.

      Actually, as you no doubt already know, Loveland--and Cabaret's vaudeville inserts as well--dates back to Love Life, the first musical to use numbers commentatively, outside the action.

      One of the glories of the American musical is this rejection of the ideal of integration in favor of meta-theatre, something bigger than mere narrative. I think it so enriches shows that it explains why they are insistently revived: they become intellectually stimulating and provocative but also challenging, and we have to keep going back to them because we never quite collect their observations.

      I can't tell you how many times I've seen Follies in various stagings, yet I always find more in it. Show Boat is like that as well--and I wonder if Ol' Man River could be the first commentative number of all. If you look at how it's set up in the original 1927 script, it really seems to slip in on a pretext, and the narrative stops while the interlocutor steps forward to explain the show's theme to the audience.

      Of course, it was too soon back then to introduce the concept musical and its Brechtian song spots, so the authors kept Joe in character for the number.

      Still, it does feel as though the show--more than the character himself--is trying to communicate with us at that point.

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    2. What a great response. You keep us on our toes! Having read your newest book - I took the time to watch Sandy Duncan as Roxie and I have to admit that she was dazzling. It was acting through dialogue AND dance - seamless. Last evening I rewatched the CHICAGO movie which I'd not seen in 15 years and it was really a treat. So thank you for prompting us to return to some of shows that we take for granted.

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