Legendary choreographer Agnes de Mille may have staged the original dance sequences for Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II’s Carousel—after the trio forever changed musical theatre with Oklahoma!—but the 2018 revival of Carousel that opens April 12 at the Imperial may be the most dance-heavy production ever mounted.
Thank director Jack O’Brien and choreographer Justin Peck for that. O’Brien is, of course, the Tony winner responsible for everything from Hairspray to The Coast of Utopia. And Peck is, of course, the youngest-ever resident choreographer of New York City Ballet. Together, they bring to life what Time magazine once called the greatest American musical of the 20th century: The story of Billy Bigelow (Tony nominee Joshua Henry) and Julie Jordan (Tony winner Jessie Mueller) and their stormy relationship in a turn-of-the-century Maine fishing village.
Peck diligently looked at what de Mille created for the original and Sir Kenneth MacMillan for the 1994 revival that made Audra McDonald a star—then promptly shelved it all and started from scratch.
“There is an opportunity to interject a new voice into this show in regards to the choreography,” he says over lunch during a break in rehearsals. “I think it’s great we’re able to update and create Carousel for the 21st century. And I’m proud to say that I feel like the version we’re developing is a more integrated version than the versions that have existed in the past.”
Peck points to the tendency in musicals of the era to have separate tracks for singers and dancers, but for the 2018 incarnation, “there’s more of a blend. There are moments where you see Billy dance, for example. There are moments where the dancers have to full on sing. We’re at a point now in the evolution of actors where there are more actors who have the complete package to pull off a show like this. Which requires the highest level of all those various disciplines.”
Peck’s insights about the pieces that comprise the jigsaw puzzle of a musical is a reminder that though he may have made his name in ballet, his first love was musical theatre. After seeing a production of Bring in ’Da Noise, Bring in ’Da Funk, Peck began training in earnest in tap dance before his aptitude for ballet became his ticket to New York City and the School of American Ballet at 15. “It’s a pretty disciplined form,” he adds dryly, “so that took almost all of my focus for those formative years. But it feels really great to come full circle and relearn that joy of musical theatre.”
As for his musical theatre future, Peck is eager for more. “Carousel is a really important show in the musical theatre canon,” he says. “It’s exhilarating to work on it. I’m eager to do more in the musical world, actually.”