In 1999 Time Magazine voted Carousel the Best Musical of the 20th Century. While I disagree and give top honors to Cabaret, I could easily go for a tie between Carousel and The Threepenny Opera for Best Score Written for the Musical Theatre in the 20th Century. No matter how many times you have seen this 1945 Rodgers and Hammerstein opus, the sheer scope and beauty of the music will always take your breath away.
This is the second time in a decade that director John Saunders and choreographer Kelly L. Shook have teamed up to stage Carousel at the Mac-Haydn (the last time was in 2005) and since then I have seen and reviewed two other productions of the show at very different theatres – in 2008 at the Cohoes Music Hall and in 2009 at Barrington Stage. And I have yet to find a production that really embraces and tells the story of Julie Jordan and Billy Bigelow, largely because of what producers, directors, and audiences today think Carousel is all about is not what Carousel is all about.
Rodgers and Hammerstein have become synonymous with happy, sunny musical comedy – and Hammerstein’s lyrics are relentlessly optimistic – but the source material they selected for their work was often dark and troubling. That was not a problem when this show opened in 145 because Ferenc Molnár’s 1909 tragedy Lilliom, on which it is based had been wildly popular in its English stage translation for nearly a quarter of a century beforehand. Rodgers and Hammerstein shifted the setting to coastal Maine and thus avoided some of the anti-Semitic aspects of the original Hungarian locale, and they gave Billy a sliver of hope at the very end (in the original his failure to aid Louise sends him straight to Hell), but otherwise the story is largely unaltered. Carousel remains a tragedy about a headstrong woman and a stupid, angry man who impulsively get together despite every indication that they, their relationship, and eventually their daughter, are doomed.