There are certain musicals where only one thing matters - as it draws to a close, are the people around you sobbing?
"Carousel" is one of those shows, and the great news about the revival directed by Nicholas Hytner is that the sobs are audible.
"Carousel" is Rodgers and Hammerstein's most powerful score. It is rarely revived because the book presents such difficulties. A story about a confused man who beats his wife (and then, when he has been sent back to Earth to try to do something good for the daughter he did not live to see, slaps her) is not everybody's idea of something to sing about.
In trying to make the show work, Hytner has opted for actors who can make the book scenes believable, assuming that the songs sell themselves. To an extent, this is true. And his staging throughout is astonishing.
Take the stunning opening. As the somewhat melancholy strains of "The Carousel Waltz" begin, we see girls in a 19th-century textile mill, moving back and forth over the looms like galley slaves, watching a huge clock.
When it strikes six, they head for the local carnival, where, on the stage's huge turntable, they stroll past tap dancers and a dancing bear.
As the waltz gains momentum, carousel horses begin circling the stage, the top of the carousel lowers into place, and the girls find release riding up and down under the admiring gaze of the handsome barker, Billy Bigelow. It takes your breath away.
Another beautifully realized moment is the one where Julie tells Bigelow, her abusive husband, that she is pregnant. The news hits him like a blow and he staggers toward her. As he approaches she draws back fearfully, nervous about his intentions. They then embrace. The movements clarify their relationship perfectly.
Michael Hayden and Sally Murphy delineate the relationship with impressive intensity. Does that compensate for the fact that Hayden's voice is not powerful enough to make Bigelow's "Soliloquy" soar? Or that Murphy does not have the musical skills to deliver the gorgeous "What's the Use of Wond'rin'"? This is a matter of taste.
As Carrie and Enoch Snow, on the other hand, Audra Ann McDonald and Eddie Korbich have lustrous voices that make all their songs meltingly beautiful. Again, Hytner stresses the prickliness of their relationship rather than playing it for easy laughs.
Shirley Verrett's mezzo is a powerful vehicle for "You'll Never Walk Alone," though her diction could be clearer in the comic songs.
Fisher Stevens plays the villain Jigger quirkily but well. There is wonderful work by Kate Buddeke, Jeff Weiss and Robert Breuler.
The production, originally mounted for the National Theater of Great Britain, has choreography by the late Sir Kenneth MacMillan. At times his steps seem a homage to Agnes DeMille, who staged the original.
At other times, the movement seems too balletic for the down-home setting.
But, as danced by Sandra Brown and Jon Marshall Sharp, it is wondrously exhilarating.
Bob Crowley's sets have a toylike sense of marvel (except for the hulking Expressionistic backdrop for the scene in which Bigelow kills himself).
Paul Pyant's lighting captures the show's moods elegantly.
In recent years, musical comedy revivals have tended toward camp. Hytner's "Carousel" is admirable for its desire to recreate the power of the material.
And if you don't have to choke back a tear at the end, you're a better man than I am, Gunga Din.
No musical revival has ever arrived in New York with quite the advance brouhaha of Nicholas Hytner's staging of that Rodgers and Hammerstein vintage standard "Carousel."
Well, it is virtually as good as the hype suggested; indeed it is probably as good as a "Carousel" can ever be, and it triumphantly swung round into town last night at Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theater.
Rodgers' score - despite the occasional saccharin overkill - is among his greatest, and for the first, and I suppose only time, Hammerstein, faced with Molnar's original fantasy "Liliom," was adapting something approaching a real work of art.
But with this show, whatever anyone wins on the roundabouts of the music, some may lose on the swings of its sentimentality.
There is still that exhortatory ending, where you almost expect a platoon of nuns to troop out to render a few choruses of "Climb Every Mountain." There are those who like, or at least accept, this, and those who don't.
There is also that little matter of a wife-beating hero - whose brutality is both justified and romanticized more emphatically than in the play upon which the musical is based. This is not a question of political correctness - it is a question of simple revulsion.
But what Hytner - of "Miss Saigon" fame - has cleverly done is to treat the 1945 musical as if it were one of those new Brit spectaculars and give it the same full cinematic-style treatment. It works. Especially for thsoe who prefer Richard Rodgers to Andrew Lloyd Webber or Claude-Michel Schonberg.
Hytner's recension - originally devised for Britain's National Theater - looks wonderful and moves like a dream.
A crucial part of any "Carousel" is the dancing, originally provided by Agnes de Mille, who has here, with bounce and eloquence, been replaced (and surpassed) as choreographer by the distinguished Kenneth MacMillan, in his second musical ever. Sadly, it was the last work before his recent death.
Bob Crowley's turn-of-the-century New England settings and costumes, with Paul Pyant's lighting, create a whole world of their own, combining a greeting-card prettiness with a chic abstraction perfect for both the score and Hytner's approach to it. Though the real strength of the new "Carousel" lies in this energized yet elegant Hytner/MacMillan/Crowley concept - that is what eventually makes the show spin - the performers, picked as much for their acting as singing, are exceptionally good.
A splendid Michael Hayden - the one cast holdover from London - sings well and provides Billy, the fairground bully, with a dysfunctional vulnerability intended to give a hell a soul. Although I was unexpectedly disappointed by the crossover-style singing of opera's great diva Shirley Verrett, as Nettie, many of the other roles proved sharply etched.
Sally Murphy makes an unusually touching Julie, a sweet-voiced Audra Ann McDonald is delightful as Carrie, Eddie Korbich has a pompous charm as her beloved Mr. Snow, while, best of all, Fisher Stevens cuts a memorably vicious figure as Billy's nemesis, Jigger, who leads him to murder and, eventually, heaven!
This is a defining "Carousel" for our times - hard-edged, imaginative and exciting. What goes around has come around - again.
"Carousel" will be 50 next year, but as of this morning it is the freshest, most innovative musical on Broadway. It is also the most beautiful.
Time and again you will marvel at the way the British director Nicholas Hytner and his designers transform the curved stage of the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center, where the production opened last night. Sculptors of space, they summon out of the star-flecked darkness breathtaking images of a 19th-century seacoast town in Maine. In the scheme of things, this brawling little world is nothing, a mere speck in the cosmos, ignored by the indifferent moon overhead. But it is so full of life and love struggling to make itself felt that it is everything. Clearly, a rueful philosopher abides deep within the immensely gifted Mr. Hytner.
Just as often, you will gasp at the bold moves and risky choices made by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein 2d. The success of "Oklahoma!" two years earlier had proved their partnership worthy. "Carousel" would sanctify it. As much a musicalized play as a musical, it explores in some of the team's most enduring songs the troubled souls of Billy Bigelow, carnival barker and ne'er-do-well, and Julie Jordan, the millworker who falls for him and then suffers his abuse with a kind of helpless fortitude.
"What's the Use of Wondr'in'," Julie's attempt to explain the unexplainable bond between them, may be the sweetest surrender to fate ever penned. But then, this is a luminescent musical shot through with pain and bewilderment, an uplifting musical in which the lives of most of the major characters are either miserable or misspent. The paradoxes and contradictions are precisely what keep "Carousel" alive and vital. The simpler-minded entertainments tend to die young.
There is one big obstacle to your enjoyment, however, and you should probably know it right now. With a few exceptions, this "Carousel," which originated in late 1992 in London at the Royal National Theater, is indifferently sung. Those who fondly remember John Raitt or Gordon MacRae in the role of Billy, or the likes of Barbara Cook and Shirley Jones as Julie, will find the evening short on vocal luster. The most powerful voice in the company belongs to the mezzo-soprano Shirley Verrett, who appears as the warm-hearted Nettie Fowler. But the diva seems uncomfortable belting out "June Is Bustin' Out All Over" and only slightly more sure of herself with "You'll Never Walk Alone."
Mr. Hytner's blanket solution to this problem is to have the performers approach the songs as monologues, sound the lyrics for their hidden impulses and then simply act the stuffing out of them. Over the years, Rodgers and Hammerstein have come to stand for a corn-fed American goodness and the more saccharine forms of optimism. It's an erroneous impression, largely spawned by "The Sound of Music" and Hammerstein's moralistic injunctions to "climb ev'ry mountain" or "whistle a happy tune." Mr. Hytner will have none of it. He wants to restore the grittiness to "Carousel" and, in that respect, gorgeous singing matters less to him here, I suspect, than the proletarian authenticity of the characters.
That Michael Hayden, who plays Billy, comes across as a boy in a man's part is no doubt intentional. Billy is callow and unthinking, a touseled idol for 19th-century teen-age girls. He really doesn't start to grow up until he dies and goes to purgatory. The strapping first-act "Soliloquy" has the character bursting with the wonder and pride of impending fatherhood. As Mr. Hayden sings the number, however, what registers is fear and confusion, eating away at the soaring melody. Sally Murphy is a more assured singer, but her Julie has a wan and slightly unkempt air. She is attracted to danger and instinctively flouts authority. She would probably get along with Tonya Harding.
By darkening the characters in this fashion, Mr. Hytner allows his actors to work with a denser subtext than usual. Romance can turn rough and sweaty. Quick tempers keep undermining the Puritan proprieties. When, speaking of Billy, Julie admits to her friend Carrie Pipperidge, "Last Monday he hit me," the flat, emotionless confession may come out of the blue, but it comes as no surprise. You won't cotton to Mr. Hytner's method if you like Rodgers and Hammerstein for their sunniness. On every front, a heightened dialectic between light and shadow, decency and prurience is central to the vision and gives the production its distinction.
The very first sight to greet you, during the pantomimed prologue that opens the show, is a huge clock. Under it, Julie and seven other women, exhausted automatons, slave away at a massive loom. The clock strikes 6. The women let out a whoop of liberation, run to exchange their drab smocks for more festive garb and make their raucous way out the factory gates.
All the while, the stage is revolving. Then, as if in a giant kaleidoscope, the garish elements of a carnival begin to float into view -- Uncle Sam on stilts, a dancing bear, the gaping jaws of a fun-house door and finally the wooden steeds of the carousel itself -- propelled in great circles by a headstrong waltz and the tipsy excitement in the air.
Simpler in design, but visually no less arresting, is the spectacle of the townsfolk packed into rowboats of brightest red, heading out to their island clambake on an inky sea. Bob Crowley's sets and costumes and Paul Pyant's lighting go beyond picturesque. They are art. Even when they have the sober truth and plain purpose of New England about them, they can be sinfully lovely.
The secondary leads, Carrie Pipperidge and Enoch Snow, inhabit more traditional musical-comedy terrain, although Mr. Hytner has seen fit to make their eight children into a walking United Colors of Benetton ad. Audra Ann McDonald, the real find of this production, has a welcomingly open manner as Carrie, a vigorous voice and a ready sense of comedy, while Eddie Korbich stays on the likable side of pomposity as her beau. By the second act, they've become a rich, stuffy bourgeois couple, another not-exactly-happy ending, if you think about it. Fisher Stevens, sounding like steel wool on sandpaper as that drunk and bad influence, Jigger Craigin, and Jeff Weiss, as a Starkeeper out of "Star Trek," both successfully buck convention, which calls for more folksy interpretations of the roles.
After the dazzling prologue, you can forgive the production for not reaching the heights again until well into the second act. But hit them it does in the dream ballet, which shows Billy and Julie's young daughter, Louise, being seduced by a strutting fairground boy. Choreographed by Sir Kenneth MacMillan in and around the wreckage of a carousel, the dance is a torrid affair. At the preview I saw, the sullen bravura of Jon Marshall Sharp and the daredevil petulance of Dana Stackpole, an understudy, were a highly flammable combination.
The explosion of sexual energy in the pas de deux is Billy and Julie's story one generation later. By this time, Billy, of course, is a ghost. Julie just looks like one. Love can do that to people. Mr. Hytner, you shouldn't forget, is the man who staged "Miss Saigon," another tumultuous story of doomed love.
Better singing voices no doubt could have made this a "Carousel" for the ages. Instead, it is a "Carousel" for our times, which is still a considerable achievement. In any case, you will leave the Vivian Beaumont humming the sets. Normally, that's a joke. Here, it isn't. Consider it the highest of compliments.
"Carousel" is breathtaking, a mesmerizing revival that startles and startles and then startles again as director Nicholas Hytner, choreographer Kenneth MacMillan and designer Bob Crowley refashion the beloved Rodgers and Hammerstein musical into a tale of beguiling beauty, explosive passion and, above all, almost unbearable intimacy. That all this takes place across the vast acreage of the Vivian Beaumont stage proves even greater testament to the team's accomplishment.
Indeed, "Carousel" surely ranks with Hal Prince's new "Show Boat" reprise (in Toronto, due at the Gershwin in the fall) as the most eye-opening, not to mention eye-popping, revivals in an era flooded with them. And like Prince, Hytner and his collaborators have underscored a musical's dark side rather than gloss the very elements that in lesser hands would make the work seem little more than a treasured but dated artifact.
Hytner and MacMillan waste no time declaring their intentions, opening the show not, as expected, at the amusement park where Julie Jordan (Sally Murphy) first locks eyes with the carny barker Billy Bigelow (Michael Hayden). Instead, the famous opening pantomime, the "Carousel Waltz," begins at Bascombe's Cotton Mill, where a somnambulant Julie and the other young women methodically work the massive looms beneath a huge clock as the day ticks down to 6 p.m. and freedom.
In this prologue the women trot past the guarded mill gates, across town to the carnival in the deep, blue night under a ripe, full moon, through a whirlwind of fire-eaters, dancing bears and bearded ladies to the carousel, its tendrils unfolding like an umbrella skeleton as the horses circle center stage; on the platform Billy flirts with them and they with him, as he wards off any challengers to his domain, until that moment when he lifts Julie onto a horse -- and then they lock eyes.
Almost as quickly as it has appeared, the carousel is gone and we are in the center of a seaside Maine town; moonlight dances on the ocean, there's a church in the distance. On a green mound that looks like the sliced off top of a giant Spaldeen, Billy and Julie and her friend Carrie Pipperidge (Audra Ann McDonald) flirt some more, despite the intrusions of the jealous carousel owner, Mrs. Mullin (Kate Buddeke), and the officious mill owner (Robert Breuler). All of this builds like the force of nature it is, conspiring to bring Julie and Billy together in the furious, unhappy union that begins innocently, if almost mournfully, with "If I Loved You."
"Carousel," of course, is not a pleasant story. Rodgers and Hammerstein were nearly faithful to Molnar's "Liliom," about an abusive loser who thwarts his own redemption both in this life and the next. But in addition to giving the story an upbeat ending, Rodgers and Hammerstein replaced Molnar's middle-European fatalism ("What are we," Billy all but spits out, "a coupla specks of nothin'!") with a spirited Americanism in which life, not death, is the motivating force.
That's abundantly clear in "June Is Bustin' Out All Over," which is nothing less than R&H's "Rite of Spring" and here is reconceived by MacMillan and Jane Elliott -- freed from the long arm of Agnes de Mille -- as a fierce mating dance in which the innocent smiles can hardly cover up the sexual charge building to a frenzy as these girls and boys fly about in hot pursuit of springtime thrills.
MacMillan died while rehearsing the National Theater debut of this production , and "June" was completed by Elliott. But he'd also finished the prologue and the stunning pas de deux danced, near the show's end, by Julie and Billy's now-teenaged daughter, Louise (Sandra Brown), with a "fairground boy" (Jon Marshall Sharp). The difference between these dances and the originals is that de Mille choreographed a scene's superego, while MacMillan reveals its id. (For the record, fight director David Leong staged the "Blow High, Blow Low" tavern scene, while Elliott completed the rest.)
The production has an almost shocking youthfulness. Moreover, the close-in relationship the Beaumont's modified thrust affords, and some very subtle miking (kudos to soundman Steve Canyon Kennedy) mean we're actually hearing the human voices producing those soaring melodies. Thus, as it was with the recent two-piano version of "The Most Happy Fella," this gorgeous score's soaring sentiment comes across free of broad gestures and hardcore belting.
Murphy is a fine Julie, nicely balancing her fortitude and plaintiveness, qualities that come together in "What's the Use of Wond'rin'." Hayden, the sole holdover from London, is a risky choice as Billy, for he's more bantam than bruiser, and so hard-edged that it's difficult to see what draws Julie to him in the first place. Hayden's voice is also problematic; at one performance his singing was often flat; but at another the voice was lovely.
No doubt about McDonald, one of two stars born here. Her Carrie is lushly sung and slyly acted, a smug girl able to poke fun at herself, and she's a glinty foil to Eddie Korbich's buffoonish Enoch Snow. The other revelation is Brown's liquid dancing in Louise's ballet, no meditation on pubescent conflict but a sinuous, fevered embodiment of it.
Fisher Stevens is a foot-stomping, gravel-voiced Rumpelstiltskin of a Jigger Craigin, Buddeke's Mrs. Mullin his soul-mate in every way. As Nettie Fowler, Shirley Verrett is that rarity, an opera singer able to pull back so as not to throw off the balance.
Crowley's palette runs from primary colors to subdued tones, and from whimsy to brooding. The town square looks like a happy West Indian painting, all those jammed-together rooftops pointing joyously heavenward; Billy's "Soliloquy" begins there and shifts to a pier with a lamppost surrounded by a shimmering sea. His botched robbery is set on a darkly ominous waterfront, while the scene in heaven is clinically modern, a mist-enshrouded blue expanse with a high tower and, against the rear, an enormous window looking out to a cloud-covered Earth in the distance. It's all beautifully lit by Paul Pyant.
Returning to that Earth for his last shot at redemption, Billy Bigelow nearly blows his chances when he slaps Louise in the face; Hytner doesn't attempt to underplay it, and the audience gasps. Yet Billy nevertheless finds salvation.
"It is possible, dear, for someone to hit you, and hit you hard and not hurt at all," Julie tells her frightened daughter. Well, it isn't possible even in these environs, and that's the Hammerstein fantasy no production of "Carousel" can ever resolve. The final stage picture reveals Louise's high school graduating class singing "You'll Never Walk Alone" as Billy does just that, slowly ascending a stairway to heaven. Things are looking up for everyone, and we are by now desperate to believe it so. That's the haunting magic of "Carousel"-- that's, I suppose, what we come to it for, and what Hytner and company have delivered in spades.