It’s only fitting that Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Carousel is enjoying a revival on Broadway. After all, Carousel is the sophomore effort from the legendary team that literally invented the modern Broadway musical with their first collaboration Oklahoma! Although Carousel did not enjoy the initial commercial success of it’s predecessor, it played on Broadway for 890 performances, and in 1999 Time magazine named it the best musical of the 20th Century.
That’s high praise indeed, especially considering that this duo alone also wrote South Pacific, The King & I and The Sound of Music. But one of the reasons that Carousel is on top of so many people’s “Best” lists is because it explores the grey areas of life and doesn’t offer any easy solutions. It’s about regular people in a small New England town and the good and bad choices they make. It’s still resonant today, with it’s portrait of an abusive marriage, a man who can’t find work who turns to crime to support his family, and a woman who sacrifices everything for the man she loves. The score is gorgeous, the lyrics moving without being maudlin, and the interweaving of dialog, song and dance in service of explicating both plot and emotions is masterful.
Carousel is an adaptation of Ferenc Molnár’s 1909 play Liliom which was set in Budapest. In the Rodgers & Hammerstein version, we have turn-of-the-century star-crossed lovers millworker Julie Jordan (Jessie Mueller) and carnival barker Billy Bigelow (Joshua Henry) in coastal Maine. (Although I’m sorry to report that in the current production, those who attempt a Down East accent sound like they belong more to Brooklyn than Bangor.) They meet, fall in love and lose their respective jobs because of each other, all in one night. Thus begins a downward spiral for them that ends in a tragedy. But that isn’t the end of the tale. We fast forward 15 years and see the results of the choices Billy made and his attempts at redemption.
I suspect that there will be those who object to reviving Carousel at all due to the portrayal of domestic abuse, and the fact that the abuser is able to partially redeem himself in the end. But I won’t be one of them. I was actually quite impressed with how Rodgers & Hammerstein in 1945 drew attention to the issue. They presented both sides of the relationship with some sympathy, both the woman who was so in love she would forgive and understand, and the man who was so depressed and frustrated with life that he lashed out at the person who was closest to him. And the reactions of the people around them to the abuse is always swift and sure. When Julie confesses that Billy has hit her to her best friend Carrie (Lindsay Mendez), Carrie’s reply is “Did you hit him back?” He is also denied entry into Heaven because of his abuse of Julie. Which I think is a pretty progressive stance for 1945, and is unfortunately still relevant today.
Both Joshua Henry as Billy and Jessie Mueller as Julie give us very full-fledged, rounded characters. Billy can be a tough character to portray realistically because of his outsize personality and swift changes of mood and perspective. But Mr. Henry is up to the challenge on every front. His acting is specific and nuanced, his voice strong and his physicality magnetic. We believed his feelings and understood his reasoning even if we couldn’t condone his actions. Jessie Mueller once again displays the magnificent soprano voice and well honed acting skills that have won her so many accolades. Her Julie is a more subdued, less flashy girl in the beginning. Surer of herself throughout however. Quieter and more intense.
The supporting cast did an excellent job. Especially Lindsay Mendez as Carrie Pipperidge and Alexander Gemignani as her intended, Enoch Snow. Mr. Snow is usually played as a ridiculous character which in turn calls Carrie’s judgement into question for loving him. Just because he’s a fisherman and smells like fish. But Mr. Gimignani had a quiet dignity and just enough sex appeal to make their relationship credible and charming. And the opera star Renée Fleming acquits herself nicely in her Broadway musical debut as Julie’s cousin Nettie Fowler. Of course, she does get to sing “You’ll Never Walk Alone” twice, for which I personally would have paid the price of admission. It’s become one of the most recorded and beloved songs the world over. It is ubiquitous at soccer games worldwide, everyone from Frank Sinatra to The Mormon Tabernacle Choir to Alicia Keyes has recorded it, and supposedly it helped inspire Queen’s “We Are The Champions.”
Also making his Broadway nod, choreographer Justin Peck does a magnificent job of reimagining the dance-heavy show. Although purists may gasp, he has jettisoned Agnes DeMille’s original choreography and completely redone it using some of his NYC Ballet Company. In fact, the stirring ballet by Julie and Billy’s daughter Louise (Brittany Pollack) in Act II is performed by a soloist with the NYC Ballet where he is Resident Choreographer. Never fear. The opening dance sequences are beautiful and lyrical. And the sailor’s dances are inventive and masculine. It’s seamless and I know Ms. DeMille was in the rafters on opening night applauding wildly. Along with the rest of the misty-eyed audience.
(Photo by Julieta Cervantes)
What the popular press says...
"Blame it on God, or the fates, or — to use the metaphor of choice here — the stars. But when Billy meets Julie in the heartfelt, half-terrific revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel... you can tell they’ve been felled by a force beyond their comprehension or control."
Ben Brantley for New York Times
"Carousel has such a glorious score that the music always shines bright — even in a revival as wobbly as the one now on Broadway at the Imperial Theatre."
Joe Dziemianowicz for New York Daily News
"Carousel's sumptuous new Broadway revival plows steadily through the show’s darker currents. Director Jack O’Brien invites us to admire the show as an exemplar of classic American musical theater, lovingly emphasizing its virtues."
Adam Feldman for Time Out New York
"Carousel embraces darkness and brutality while balancing sorrow with jubilation, tragedy with redemption in a show whose emotional complexity is equaled by its ravishing score. What a gift to have it back on Broadway in a magnificently sung revival that breathes pulsing new life into this shimmering masterwork."
David Rooney for Hollywood Reporter
"Audiences encountering Joshua Henry's electrifying performance as the charismatic but star-cursed Billy Bigelow will long remember the experience. In this new Broadway revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Carousel, Henry shows off the exceptionally beautiful voice of a genuine actor-singer, a voice that while warm and mellow, can also soar with joy and tremble in despair."
Marilyn Stasio for Variety
External links to full reviews from popular press...