Rodgers and Hammerstein's Carousel returns to delight London's West End
Of all Rodgers and Hammerstein's musical hits, their second Broadway collaboration Carousel is arguably London's most loved. From full scale revivals at the Savoy Theatre and the Barbican Theatre in the past decade, to smaller fringe reinventions at the Arcola, the story of Julie Jordan and Billie Bigelow still continues to delight London audiences and connect with each new generation.
As a musical Carousel is often criticised from multiple angles as being too soft and sentimental, especially in regards to its attitudes to domestic abuse. As Julie and Billy fall in love in at an accelerated pace that Shakespeare himself would be proud of, their marriage is far from happy, and Julie is physically and emotionally beaten by Billy who finds the trappings of convention too conventional for his wild and feisty lifestyle.
Another uneasy aspect of Oscar Hammerstein II's book is the metaphysical nature of the story. Mid-way through the show as Bigelow dies following a robbery and is faced with “The Greatest Judge of All” in heaven and the show breaks the element of naturalism, and sees Billy learning from the 'Starkeeper' about the meaning of life and our relationship with those we have left behind.
It's deep, profound and highly emotive, and for my money Carousel is one of the most finely crafted musicals of the the twentieth century – both ahead of its time in terms of theatricality and astutely contemporary in its stagecraft that features a second act ballet and the full expanse of a Broadway musical orchestra. Voted Best Musical of the 20th Century by Time Magazine, Hammerstein's book is so expertly constructed on a scene by scene basis that it manages to create drama from the seemingly trivial. From the conditional love story as Billy and Julie first meet at the 'bench scene' of Act One, to the harrowing 'porch scene' of Act Two, where his spirit returns to meet his daughter Louise and in a split second refuses to learn the lesson he should have picked up on earth, the book asks questions of the audience and pushes beyond the contemporary musicals of 1945.
The score is arguably the reason that the show continues to find a new audience, jam packed with musical standards ranging from the hauntingly beautiful “If I Loved You” to the anthemic “You'll Never Walk Alone”, which is perhaps the most famous musical theatre song of all time, heard at numerous concerts around the world not to mention the football stands at Anfield and beyond. The combination of Hammerstein's lyric setting against Rodgers' rousing dramatic swell make for a anthem of hope, community and strength that transcends the context of the musical and has become a torch song for causes all over the globe.
Artists as diverse as Aretha Franklin, Barbra Streisand, Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles, Nina Simone, Tom Jones, Elvis, Johnny Cash, Pink Floyd, Renée Flemming, Alicia Keys and Olivia Newton-John have recorded songs from the show for their albums, decades after musical theatre stopped filling the Billboard Top 100 with hits, and each new recording cements Rodgers' score as not just a classic of the theatre, but a classic outside its usual genre.
Rousing ensemble numbers such a “June is Bustin' Out all Over”, “Blow High, Blow Low”, and “This Was a Real Nice Clambake” sit alongside the more introvert character moments to add to the score's rich tapestry, making for a toe-tapping and emotive musical that truly stands the test of time, 70 years after opening.
Carousel, which is to be revived at the ENO's London Coliseum in 2017 starring Katherine Jenkins and Alfie Boe has led a rich life on both the world's stages and concert halls, thanks to the potential crossovers that the musical offers. Equally at home in classical music houses and opera repertoire, the show appeals to singers such a Boe because of the melodic depth and vocal challenges that it presents, with “Soliloquy” which closes the first act one of the most exciting musical narratives in the canon.
Nicholas Hytner's ground-breaking 1992 revival of Carousel at the National Theatre helped redefine classic musical theatre, dusting off the preconceptions associated with the musical and forcing a modern viewpoint for the characters and situation to be addressed. Using the expansive size of the Olivier Theatre, the metaphysical questions were placed front and centre, and instead of considering the show as a staple of amateur and stock companies, audiences sat up and paid attention to its deep emotional core. Hytner not only managed a 'coup de theatre' within the first ten minutes, throughout the glorious Prologue but also managed to re-evaluate the key moments, particularly Louise's ballet in the second act, performed in front of a skeleton of the carousel itself.
The production was universally acclaimed and saw Olivier Awards for Michael Hayden, Joanna Riding and Janie Dee, transferring to the West End produced by Cameron Mackintosh. It later moved to the Vivian Beaumont Theatre at the Lincoln Centre in New York, winning the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical and redefining how the show was considered by audiences. Hytner's production for many became the 'gold standard', and a revival at the Savoy Theatre in 2008 shouldered much of this comparison, offering a serviceable yet efficient retelling that showcased the musical once again in the commercial West End. I found myself personally most moved by a daring revival at the tiny Arcola Theatre in east London in 2014 that helped reinvent the show once more and draw out the emotional heart of the material.
The strength of the GradeLinnit Company's ENO musicals, which have included Sweeney Todd and Sunset Boulevard, is the emphasis the revivals place on the score within the 'semi-staged' nature of the productions. Placing the orchestra in the centre of the stage, the score and the orchestrations form the heart of the piece and offer a genuine first-rate realisation of a classic musical score in a unique environment. Carousel may well have its detractors, but I for one relish any opportunity to see this near perfect musical in a new and glorious form.
Carousel runs at the London Coliseum from 7 April to 13 May 2017.