“That Elusive Brass Ring”
Although carousels that allow passengers to try grabbing a brass ring as they ride around on their sculpted animals are now rather rare, we still refer to grabbing that ring as a sign of success. The current Broadway revival at the Imperial Theatre of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s classic 1945 musical Carousel sometimes comes close to that prize but when the ride stops turning the ring has escaped its grasp.
|Company of Carousel. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.|
Many will, of course, disagree, but at least two who were there when I was will not immediately be able to register their opinions. In the first instance, the show was only minutes into the substantial “Carousel Waltz” ballet that opens the program, prettily choreographed by Justin Peck of the New York City Ballet, when a commotion in the orchestra forced the show to stop. The stage manager made an announcement over the sound system about a sick theatregoer and we waited patiently for the stricken person to be carried out before the dancing could resume.
This being a first for me in over 70 years of Broadway theatergoing, I leaned over to ask a friend, a well-known theatre critic and scholar, if he’d ever seen something like it. He said he had, only once, and could still recall his amazement that an EMS team was able to remove the person in just three minutes. It took a little longer than three minutes, however, before Carousel began spinning again. Then, as the audience applauded, the ballet picked up from a few moments before it had halted.
The show turned smoothly until the second act but, at the moment when the hero, Billy Bigelow, has slit his throat and his wife, Julie, rushes to his side, yet another ruckus arose in the orchestra. Once again, a patron had collapsed. The stage manager’s amplified apology for the disturbance was heard, a group of men once more lifted and carried someone—who appeared to be unconscious—out, and the valiant cast, which had left the stage, returned. Then, as if the show were a video being rewound, Billy lay down to die, Julie knelt at his side, the action moved backward a few moments, and, as Billy passed away, Carousel came back to life.
After the show, I asked the guy at the assisted listening device booth what had happened and he smilingly dismissed the events, saying vaguely there was nothing to worry about. At which point I wish to apologize for this disturbance as we return to my report.
As I sometimes do when writing about the revival of a major work covered in my multivolume Encyclopedia of the New York Stage, I’d like to provide some background on Carousel edited and abbreviated from its entry in the 1940-1950 volume. I’m putting it in red so you can skip it, if you wish, and jump right to my brief reactions to the current production. The plot summary gives both the original actors and those in the revival.
As before, Rodgers and Hammerstein based their work on a play, in this case the Hungarian drama Liliom, which had had its American premiere in 1921, had been revived as recently as 1940, and previously had been considered for musicalization by both Puccini and Gershwin. Author Ferenc Molnàr, however, was not interested in seeing it transformed, and only a view of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! was able to convince him to allow the Theatre Guild to do the job with R&H. The composer and lyricist had their doubts about the Hungarian background, though, and were not convinced that they could do the show until Rodgers came up with the idea of moving the story to a New England fishing village in 1873. The original character names were suitably revised. When Molnàr viewed a dress rehearsal, he, like many of the staff members watching, cried copiously; this led the Guild’s Lawrence Langner (see his The Magic Curtain) to worry for the $180,000 invested, as he thought that a Broadway audience might not relish so sad a show.
More worries were piled on during the out-of-town tryout when the show ran into second-act problems and had to undergo numerous revisions and repositioning of the numbers. With suggestions from Molnàr and the director, the show was greatly strengthened…. One major change occurred when the Boston audiences would not accept a heaven—to which Billy on his death—depicted too literally as an austere New England parlor, with a stern Yankee character called He playing the harmonium, while his wife, called She, sat primly by. Rodgers, aware of the audience’s unrest, told Hammerstein, “We’ve got to get God out of that parlor!” Asked where to put him, the composer said, “Put him on a ladder, for all I care! Just get him out of that parlor!” The librettist did just that, scrapping the parlor and rewriting the entire scene, with the deity presented as the Starkeeper, standing on a backyard ladder and polishing the stars hanging on lines. When the show finally opened in New York, Rodgers had to watch it from the wings propped up on a stretcher because of an accident to his back.
The amusement park carousel of the title is the one at which the loutish braggart Billy Bigelow (John Raitt, in his Broadway debut; Joshua Henry in the revival) works as a barker. In an opening ballet sequence Billy meets Julie Jordan (Jan Clayton, in her Broadway bow; Jessie Mueller in the revival) and tries to date her, although the jealous Mrs. Mullin (Jean Casto; Margaret Colin in the revival), who loves Billy, looks on disapprovingly. Julie overcomes her hesitation, accepts, and soon after tells the news to her friend Carrie Pipperidge (Jean Darling; Lindsay Mendez in the revival), who is herself enamored of Mr. Snow (Eric Mattson; Alexander Gemignani).
Billy turns out to be awkward and inarticulate when alone with Julie, whom he eventually marries (in Liliom they are lovers, not husband and wife). Julie becomes pregnant, to which Billy takes some getting accustomed. Having been fired by Mr. Mullin and needing money for his coming baby, the indigent Billy carries out a holdup with the rascally sailor Jigger Craigin (Murvyn Vye; Amar Ramasar); when capture is imminent, he commits suicide.
Billy spends fifteen years in purgatory, where the Starkeeper (Russell Collins; John Douglas Thompson in the revival) finally allows him to visit earth to perform a good deed and to visit his teenage daughter Louise (Bambi Linn; Brittany Pollack in the revival). He discovers her to be unhappy because of the shadow of his reputation. He offers her a star stolen from heaven, but when she refuses it, his rage erupts and he slaps her, although she feels no pain (a mirror of what happened in life between him and Julie).
He must then return to purgatory, although he does watch Louise graduate from school. She cannot hear or see him but he somehow inspires her to join in the singing of “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” earlier introduced by Julie’s cousin, Nettie Fowler (Christine Johnson; Renée Fleming in the revival).
Elevating the show into the musical stratosphere was the enormously rich and varied score, of which many songs became standards. Among them were “Carousel Waltz,” “You’re a Queer One, Julie Jordan,” “When I Marry Mr. Snow,” “If I Loved You,” “June is Bustin’ Out All Over,” “When the Children Are Asleep,” “Soliloquy,” “What’s the Use of Wond’rin,” “Blow High, Blow Low,” “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” “This Was a Real Nice Clambake” (a reject from Oklahoma!, where it was “This Was a Real Nice Hayride”), and “The Highest Judge of All.”
Carousel also benefitted from exceptionally lovely sets and costumes, brilliant choreography, direction that individualized the chorus members and wove them into the action, and memorable performances from a cast with first-rate singing and acting abilities. None of the performers was a star, most of them being completely unknown. None became as popular as the handsome, powerfully built Raitt, former University of Southern California athlete. Raitt was back as Billy when the show enjoyed a lauded revival in 1965, 20 years after the original.
Herewith, a few notes on the current production:
The most recent prior New York revival of Carousel was the highly lauded one at Lincoln Center in 1994, with Michael Hayden as Billy, Sally Murphy as Julie, and Audra McDonald as Carrie. The current one, directed by Jack O’Brien, elevates the role of Nettie to top billing because it’s played by popular opera star Renée Fleming, who uses her famous soprano in only a handful of songs, notably “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” Justin Peck, has choreographed an abundance of balletic dancing (Agnes DeMille was responsible for the original), some of his own ABT dancers—like Ramasar and Pollack—being involved.
|Amar Ramasar (second from right) and company. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.|
It’s a postcard-pretty production, with designs by Broadway greats Santo Loquasto (sets) and Ann Roth (costumes), supplemented by lovely lighting by Brian MacDevitt, that sticks close to conventional expectations. (The Rodgers and Hammerstein estates likely deplore any radical interpretations in the design, staging, or music.) Audiences will ooh and ahh early on at the descending carousel’s crown, which opens like an antique toy, and at the fairytale-like depiction of the afterlife. There are few other surprises in store.
|Lindsay Mendez, Alexander Gemignani. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.|
As mentioned in my background notes, Carousel’s original out-of-town version created a bit of controversy because of its depiction of heaven. That vision’s replacement brings to mind Marc Connelly’s 1930 play Green Pastures, a resemblance made even more resonant by casting African-American actor John Douglas Thompson, one of our foremost classical actors, as the God-like Starmaker, and by dressing him in white like Morgan Freeman in Bruce Almighty. Thompson brings his distinguished bearing and presence to the role but one wishes the part were meatier to take advantage of his rhetorical skills.
|Jessie Mueller, Joshua Henry. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.|
One might argue that casting baritone Joshua Henry, who is black, as Billy is also controversial, since it jars with historical probability. And then there’s the small matter about Billy hitting women. I’ve heard a number of theatregoer acquaintances raise the connection between these issues but very few critics have connected the problematic dots. There’s no question that Henry is the most impressive thing in this production, his explosive rendition of “Soliloquy” alone justifying his presence. The issue is fraught, and can be argued pro and con, but I’d like to quote Michael Bracken’s review on the “Theater Pizzazz” website, where, before praising Henry's potentially Tony-winning performance, he wonders about:
the questionable wisdom of putting on a show in 2018 which involves a man who hits his wife and daughter. Furthermore, that issue—perhaps the ultimate hot-button topic in the #metoo age—is made infinitely more complicated by the fact that Henry . . . is African-American. Indeed, one wonders throughout the show if O’Brien thinks that Henry’s race (and possible mistreatment by the surrounding white community) is meant to be a mitigating factor for this behavior, since it’s hard to tell from the production if this is merely color-blind casting or a social statement.
|Joshua Henry. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.|
And, in this context, is one permitted to wonder why Billy and Julie’s daughter, Louise, though exquisitely danced by Brittany Pollack, looks neither biracial nor anywhere near 15?
In the 1945 production, there were two young children, Bessie (Mimi Strongin), and Jessie (Jimsey Somers), who ran around at the carnival. Since Mimi is a close friend, I was hoping to see those characters depicted so I could imagine her as she might have been 68 years ago. Thus was I disappointed to discover that there were no kids in this production. Eliminating them is probably common practice.
|Renee Fleming, Jessie Mueller. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.|
I realize I haven’t gone into critical detail but there are dozens of other commentaries available (see below) and I’ve already overstayed my welcome. I’ll say simply that this Carousel grabs a few brass rings but not the big one. It often drags as drama (which isn’t helped by the long ballets) and frequently seems dated; its leading female character (though well performed) lacks luster and its hero’s violence and her weak response are troubling; and its sentimental fantasy about the dead returning now seems not only precious but childishly naïve; it’s also easier to accept in Our Town.
That all sounds rough, I guess but there are those other rings: its score remains one of the best in Broadway history, its singing is glorious, it’s pleasant to look at, Joshua Henry is sensational, and it still has the power to moisten your eyes. Enough, I admit, to take a ride on this Broadway carousel.
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