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Interview with Carousel cast Gavin Spokes, Alex Young and Brenda Edwards
Rodgers and Hammerstein's classic 1945 musical Carousel is one of the most loved musicals of the twentieth century. With a rapturous score of unforgettable numbers and some of the most well-crafted characters in the musical theatre canon it is consistently revived and revisited by theatre and opera companies around the world. The ENO's semi-staged production, which is currently running at the London Coliseum, presents the musical in its finest form with a glorious cast of ensemble performers that draw out its modern and relevant themes along with its timeless message of hope and reconciliation.
Of all musicals in the Rodgers and Hammerstein catalogue, Carousel is perhaps the most consistent in terms of its supporting characters with the roles of Carrie Pipperidge and her husband Enoch Snow providing a vital contrast to the roles of Julie Jordan and Billy Bigelow. Julie's cousin Nettie Fowler plays a warmer leader within the small-town community and carries two of the show's best known songs “June is Bustin' Out All Over” and of course, the glorious anthem “You'll Never Walk Alone”. In this new production Gavin Spokes and Alex Young delight as Enoch and Carrie, finding a smooth chemistry and graceful humour that becomes a stand out of the production. Brenda Edwards is equally thrilling as Nettie, breathing new life into the classic numbers and offering a fresh richness to Rodgers' score.
We caught up with the three performers at the London Coliseum last week to hear more about their experience of bringing this wonderful musical to life.
“It has been a delight” exclaims Gavin, speaking about his experience so-far as part of one of the West End's biggest companies. “It really helps that everyone involved is so lovely, it's such a nice building – it's a happy place to work.”
“We had five weeks to get to know each other and get to build on that and that helps to build those relationships” echoed Brenda. “We're like a community – that's what this piece is about, and it's just really nice that we got that, the dancers, the chorus and the whole cast”.
The show consistently appears in lists of the top musicals of all time, and was reportedly a favourite of Rodgers and Hammerstein themselves.
“I've always respected the books” explains Gavin, referring to the work of Oscar Hammerstein not just as a lyricist but as a dramatist, adapting this particular musical from the play Liliom by Ferenc Molnár. “There are so many musicals with dreadful scripts - with Rodgers and Hammerstein they are just fantastic books. They can be guilty of being a little bit overwritten at times but I think contemporary audience were more au fait with sitting there and listening to all that text. This is probably the most sweeping score – it's so grand.”
“They're also very politically charged” comments Alex, “Hammerstein was quite a political man, quite right on the money, from doing Show Boat when he did. All of his shows have got some kind of righteous message which is nice to play because it makes it rich.”
As the musical's 'secondary couple' both Spokes and Young are given the lighter material that helps elevate the show and provide a necessary contrast to the relationship of the central couple, played in this production by Alfie Boe and Katherine Jenkins.
“The song 'Mr Snow' has been with me for quite a long time” explains Alex. “I did it at college and it has been my audition song for ages but it's nice revisiting it as the character. What's really lovely to me is that I'm used to playing character roles and generally the songs aren't as lyrical, they're a bit more 'wise-cracky' or wordy, especially for women they tend to all belt, so this is something that feels like a character ballad. It's gorgeous – it's just funny but when you get to the refrain she's just very much in love. I love what she has decided to love about him. He's big, he's overwhelming, he's bewhiskered, he's brave.”
“'Geraniums in the Window', my second act song is on text a very bizarre one” Gavin comments. “You realise it's incredibly melodramatic and that's probably the only way it can really be played. In rehearsals it went somewhere extraordinary. I was told to pull it back a little. It's mainly in the text of the songs, they make it easier to play.”
In contrast, Brenda's explains how her role exists as a figure head of the community and helps Julie in her moment of need. “I think Nettie is more of a town crier” she laughs, “I come on and rally everyone up. It's nice to be that, I want a big bell to ring, but I have doughnuts instead – they all come running for the doughnuts!”
With a score as famous as Carousel where many of the songs, including “You'll Never Walk Alone” exist outside of the context of the piece itself, there are distinct challenges about performing them in the world of the drama itself.
“I think I was the only person who didn't actually realise the underlying connotations to 'June is Bustin' Out all Over'” laughs Brenda. “I didn't realise there were sexual connotations underneath and when I did I got a bit flustered and I thought 'oh no, surely we're not singing about sex'? It was good when Lonny actually explained everything. I've watched the film so many times and that just didn't come across to me. I just thought it was literally about June and the buds and the flowers. I had no idea.”
As one of the biggest ensemble numbers in the show the song serves an important function and musically is usually associated with a high soprano voice. For this production Nettie's songs have been transposed to give a different feel to the key moments in the score and add a freshness that sits alongside the stunning orchestra of the ENO.
“When I went for the audition back in November I sang it in the key it was written in and the director Lonny Price said what he wanted to do was not have a soprano, he wanted something different and for me to be able to belt it”, Brenda explains. “We worked through different keys and it transpired they wanted it more 'mother earthy'. I'm quite a 'bassy' person, and they wanted that so they wrote to the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organisation asking if that was okay and they approved it, and I'm a very happy girl! When I met them they said it was nice to be in this key because the words come across and it lends more weight to the situation that's happened rather than people just singing it off the page. I also found out I've got four octaves! I'll have that!”
Alex, Gavin and Brenda all received excellent reviews for their performances and the production itself was praised for its scale and treating the material with such respect.
“I would say there is a huge amount of heart to the production” Gavin explains. “There are a lot of people who have been hugely moved by it. I had some friends in the other day, people I used to play cricket with and football mates – they were passing tissues to each other. I think we have hit a chord with that.”
“I think there's a lot of different skills that people have brought to this production” Alex states. “We do have these incredible singers in the ENO chorus and then Lonny Price has cast a lot of actors as well in some of the lead roles. Lovely then to counterbalance with two such extraordinary singers in Katherine and Alfie, there's extraordinary talent on stage, everyone seems to be at the top of their field. I look around and just think there is no one who could do this better”.
For Brenda coming to the musical theatre world as a singer she also explained how she finds inspiration in her fellow cast mates.
“I've been watching these two from rehearsals and I've just fallen in love with their characters and the relationship that they have” she says, referencing Gavin and Alex. “I'm currently like a sponge – just soaking up everything from them because I'm not from the acting world, I'm from the singing world so it is a real honour to work with these amazingly talented people.”
Carousel continues at the London Coliseum to 13 May