Review: An Expurgated ‘Carousel’ Nonetheless Thrills
By Christopher Caggiano, Contributing Writer, April 16, 2018
Each year, when I cover Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel in my musical-theater history course at the Boston Conservatory, we have a lengthy discussion about what I call “The Elephant in the Room.” Carousel barker Billy Bigelow hits his wife, Julie, and at numerous points throughout the show, Julie excuses and rationalizes the abuse. At one point in the original script, she even claims that it’s possible for someone to hit you but for the blow to “not hurt at all.”
[Warning: Major plot spoilers below.]
Understandably, this causes a good deal of discomfort for my students. It even causes some people to claim that Rodgers and Hammerstein are condoning spousal abuse. But to make such a claim ignores the fact that the show goes out of its way to show that Billy is wrong to hit Julie. In fact, after his death, he’s denied entrance to Heaven until such time as he atones for his misdeeds. Nevertheless, there are many who outright dismiss Carousel as “the wife-beater musical.”
It’s one thing to discuss a challenging show in the context of a history class. It’s quite another thing to deal with these issues in a multimillion-dollar Broadway revival. Carousel is currently appearing on Broadway in an ambitious and intermittently thrilling revival. Director Jack O’Brien clearly went in knowing that he’d need to confront the elephant head-on, and in between the two times I saw the production, once early in previews and once just after it opened, appeared to be testing out different approaches to managing the spousal-abuse element for a potentially sensitive modern audience.
The challenges of reviving classic musicals and presenting them to a modern audience is something that a number of recent productions have wrestled with. Some shows address the potentially divisive issues through staging. For instance, the current Broadway production of My Fair Lady, which is still in previews at Lincoln Center, faces a similar challenge with respect to Eliza Doolittle seemingly returning to Henry Higgins at the end of the show, versus sticking to her pronouncement in the previous scene that Henry will never see her again. Director Bartlett Sher has reportedly been toying around with having Eliza march out of Henry’s study and up the aisle to exit out the back of the auditorium.
Next season, Broadway will see a revival on the Cole Porter classic, Kiss Me, Kate. Recent productions of that show have also used staging choices to address the challenge of having the Kate character bow to her husband at the end, as occurs in The Taming of the Shrew, the Shakespeare play upon which the musical is based. The 1999 Broadway revival had the actress playing Kate wink at the audience, as if to say, “You’ve seen me for the past two and a half hours. Do you really think I’m going to submit to this guy?” The 2014 concert staging of Kiss Me, Kate at the Royal Albert Hall in London had Fred stopping Kate from bowing, and having him instead bowing to her.
In the case of the current production of Carousel, O’Brien opts to make considerable cuts to the text, no doubt with the cooperation of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization. Early in previews, during the scene in which Julie Jordan appears to excuse Billy’s abuse, O’Brien retained the line in which Louise questions her mother about whether it’s possible not to feel it when someone hits you, but cut Julie’s response that indeed it was possible. In the frozen version of the show, O’Brien cuts the interchange entirely.
This may perhaps be wise from a public-relations standpoint, but it causes problems with the emotional impact of the scene. O’Brien has Julie and Louise simply rushing offstage, leaving Billy alone to sing the reprise of “If I Loved You,” which robs this cathartic reprise of much of its emotional weight.
In fact, O’Brien cuts a great deal more from the show, and each cut, even those that are dramatically defensible, causes problems of its own. For example, O’Brien excises the entirety of the song sequence “Stonecutters Cut It on Stone/Geraniums in the Window.” The songs themselves are arguably dispensable, as they only serve to delay the most poignant aspects of act two. But without the dramatic action within these songs, Julie’s gorgeous but masochistic ballad “What’s the Use of Wondering?” lacks sufficient dramatic motivation.
And, hey, if we’re going to start cutting a classic, why not get rid of the egregiously twee “A Real Nice Clambake”? I have never seen this painfully static number successfully staged. Plus, the lyric is downright ridiculous: “Remember when we raked them red-hot lobsters out of the driftwood fire…” Um, yeah, dude, it happened like ten minutes ago.
Far more effective are O’Brien’s staging choices elsewhere in the show to address additional problematic aspects of the piece. O’Brien takes the Starkeeper character, who confronts Billy in the afterlife and offers him a chance to atone, and weaves him throughout the rest of the show. This makes the show’s sudden transition into the celestial a lot less abrupt, an adds a sense of portent to the moments when Billy makes fateful decisions.
O’Brien’s most effective and affecting change comes in the final scene of the show, which features Louise’s high school graduation. Traditionally, the performer who plays the Starkeeper returns here as the doctor who gives the graduation speech. In O’Brien’s production, when the doctor begins the speech, Billy starts to speak along with the doctor, and eventually takes over the speech entirely. This simple but deft touch solves another significant problem with Carousel: Billy’s redemption seems forced when he simply exhorts Louise to believe what the doctor is saying. Here, with the words coming directly from him, there’s a much more palpable sense of Billy’s atonement, and adds emotional impact when Billy is finally allowed into Heaven.
Well, it seems that addressing the elephant in the room has forced me to bury two of the main reasons to see the current production of Carousel, which is the first-class cast and the thrilling choreography. Joshua Henry as Billy Bigelow is an inspired casting choice. Henry seemed a bit more natural the first time I saw the production, but there’s no questioning the visceral impact of his singing voice, his strapping physiognomy, and his sharp character choices. Henry’s “Soliloquy” was absolutely on fire, possibly aided by the fact the Henry himself recently became a father.
Jessie Mueller may have made a better Carrie Pipperidge, which she played in a concert version at Lincoln Center a few seasons back, but she remains one of the most luminous stars of the Broadway stage. And she simply can’t be beat in terms character depth and emotional connection, particularly when she at first appears numb upon Billy’s death, only to collapse in Nettie’s arms once the gravity hits her. Lindsay Mendez meanwhile is an absolute stitch as Carrie, and reveals a fine legitimate singing voice in addition to her well-established contemporary pop belt.
New York City Ballet’s Justin Peck makes a thrilling Broadway choreography debut here with his lively, athletic brand of dance. I can’t remember ever seeing Carousel and considering “Blow High, Blow Low” one of the highlights, but, boy, is it ever, a thrilling mix of muscular height and earthy breadth. Louise’s second act ballet is a supreme joy, alternately lyrical and rugged, when it needs to be. Peck cuts out a good deal of the action and focuses mostly on the pas de deux between Louise and what the script refers to as the “boy who looks like Billy,” but the end result is simply thrilling.
As a historian, I understand that some shows over time become so discordant with modern sensibilities that they need to be relegated solely to the history books. The racially stereotyped Shuffle Along (1921) would be one of the shows, although the story of that show’s creation served as the inspiration for the recent Broadway musical, Shuffle Along, Or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed. And with today’s evolving sensibilities towards portrayals of race, we may never see another Broadway revival of Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Mikado, even though that show was never really about Japan to begin with.
However, it would be a shame, and I think counterproductive, to put Carousel out to pasture. First, this represents an arrant misunderstanding of the message of the piece. Also, the musical contains some of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s most complex and dramatically satisfying writing. Rodgers never surpassed the bold richness of this score, and Hammerstein never created more complex characterizations nor lyrics with more subtlety and depth. Carouselcontains some of the most finely crafted musical sequences in all of musical theater, including “You’re a Queer One, Julie Jordan,” “When the Children Are Asleep,” and especially the magnificent “If I Loved You.”
Carousel may not be as cohesive as a show as Oklahoma!, nor as thematically ambitious as South Pacific, but Carousel is nonetheless an American classic that will not be easily dismissed.
Carousel at the Imperial Theatre, 249 West 45th Street, for an open run. Running time: 2 hours and 45 minutes with one intermission. Book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II; music by Richard Rodgers. Directed by Jack O’Brien; choreography by Justin Peck; scenic design by Santo Loquasto; costume design by Ann Roth; lighting design by Brian MacDevitt; sound design by Scott Lehrer; hair, wig and make-up design by Campbell Young Associates; orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick; musical supervision and direction by Andy Einhorn.
Cast: Joshua Henry, Jessie Mueller, Renée Fleming, Alexander Gemignani, Lindsay Mendez, Margaret Colin, John Douglas Thompson, Amar Ramasar, Brittany Pollack, Colin Anderson, Yesenia Ayala, Nicholas Belton, Colin Bradbury, Andrei Chagas, Leigh-Ann Esty, Laura Feig, David Michael Garry, Garett Hawe, Rosena M. Hill Jackson, Amy Justman, Jess LeProtto, Skye Mattox, Kelly McCormick, Anna Noble, Adriana Pierce, Rebecca Pitcher, David Prottas, Craig Salstein, Ahmad Simmons, Antoine L. Smith, Corey John Snide, Erica Spyres, Ryan Steele, Sam Strasfeld, Halli Toland, Ricky Ubeda, Scarlett Walker, Jacob Keith Watson and William Youmans.
Cover: The Company in a scene from ‘Carousel;’ photo: Julieta Cervantes.