By Margaret Siegrist
“One of America’s finest theatrical achievements,” Carousel follows the ups, downs, round and rounds of life and love.
Premiering on Broadway in 1945, Carousel was Rodgers and Hammerstein’s second collaboration. Hammerstein worried, “We’re such fools. No matter what we do, everyone is bound to say, ‘This is not another Oklahoma!,’” but Carousel proved an immediate smash hit with both critics and audiences. Time magazine even named it the best musical of the 20th century in 1999.
The show shares some interesting parallels with opera. Composers Giacomo Puccini and Kurt Weill both vied to write operas based on Liliom, the Hungarian play that inspired Carousel, but the author famously turned down both classical heavy-hitters before agreeing to let Rodgers and Hammerstein set it some years later. The duo made history exploring integration of music, dance, character and design to produce elevated storytelling, a notion also essential to opera. Oklahoma! defined the course of American musical theater, but they aimed to improve on their vision in Carousel by focusing more on a moral than a mood. The piece is not through-sung like an opera, but it does incorporate longer sections of orchestral accompaniment. For instance, ongoing music defines the atmosphere and pace through the entire scene in which Julie and Billy fall for one another, including the duet “If I Loved You.” Rodgers once mused Carousel “came very close to opera.”
Richard Rodgers once mused, Carousel “came very close to opera”
Characterized by that chest-tingling, heart-in-throat attraction that’s almost impossible to put into words, the central love story between Julie and Billy immediately infatuates Carousel audiences. Their relatable connection makes it all the more heartbreaking when their marriage becomes physically and emotionally abusive. Carousel provides a striking look at two accessible characters in a destructive, unhealthy relationship. Like many strong pieces of theater, it’s an opportunity to examine and discuss tough, prevalent issues. Rodgers said, “It may still be a tragedy, but it’s a hopeful one because in the final scene it is clear that the child has at last learned how to express herself and communicate with others.”