Like a pebble pitched in a pond, the new Carousel installed at Lincoln Center reverberates with circles, rippling forth ever-widening on both sides of the revolving stage-from the ecliptic imagery that first confronts the Vivian Beaumont customers (a fiery ring of red in a Shaker-blue sky) to the circular echoes dotting every scene (factory clock, mounds of meadows, even the earth).
Fact is, Carousel itself has come full circle. One of America’s great musicals has been restored to its initial glory, rescued from being lightly damned as “a product of its time” (i.e., 1945) “reinvented” to be applicable for 1994.
Of the nine shows he did with Oscar Hammerstein II, Carousel remained Richard Rodgers’ personal favorite. Indeed, it got graced with one of the team’s most glorious scores (“You’ll Never Walk Alone,” “June is Bustin’ Out All Over,” “If I Loved You,” “What’s the Use of Wond’rin’,” et al.), but the storyline, which Hammerstein extracted from the grimly gray shadows of Ferenc Molnar’s Liliom, was unlike anything these sunshine boys ever attempted. Americanized from the Hungarian, Carousel tells of a carnival barker—one Billy Bigelow, a brutish and dubious “hero” at best—who beds and weds a trusting mill lass named Julie Jordan, becomes unemployed and uncommunicative, turns into a sometimes wife beater and one-time thief and ends up a suicide, only to have to return to earth to see how his legacy weighs on his daughter.
Trips to and from heaven were common Broadway occurrences a half century ago, but it’s a difficult, nigh-impossible leap of faith for modern audiences. And, with Carousel’s immense musical load, its recycling hasn’t been easy, having had singers instead of actors for its metaphysical tour guides. The only surviving Carousel of record is, sadly, the icky-sticky, static cinematization of 1956 with Gordon MacRae, Shirley Jones and a coating of sentimental syrup that clogged the machinery, making the material unmovable, if not undoable today. But one of the bright young Brits of London’s National Theatre, director Nicholas Hytner, saw passionate possibilities in the property. And, since he was born 81 days after the movie bowed, his
was a cyclical exploration, too.
“Rodgers and Hammerstein are not done in England, so I only knew their shows from films,” Hytner says. “Ten years ago, in Manchester, I saw a production of Carousel and was astonished a play was there waiting to get out. I filed that in the back of my mind, then one day got hold of Liliom. If you read them side by side, you realize how much of Liliom is taken almost unchanged into Carousel. You read Liliom with certain expectations derived from Central Europe. Molnar. Hungary. Sardonic. Budapest, which was and still is, the biggest pickup joint in Europe then you read Carousel, and you think it’s the same play. It makes the same demand for theatrical involvement—plus that score, which makes the movie all the more a shattering travesty.”
Returning to the roots of Carousel, to Liliom, has inevitably colored the show in somber shades, prompting the label makers to tag this resurrection “the dark Carousel” a designation that has now started to grate on its re-creator.
“Aww, dark smark, it’s just real,” he grouses. “Everyone jumped on that ‘dark’ bandwagon. ‘Dark?’ We just do the show for what it means today. It’s a show about redemption, about light, really. For the light to shine brightly, you must go down to come up. That’s what’s so important and moving about it. I’ve done dark shows, but I never did one which has traveled such an intense journey and ended up at such a positive place.”
Whether you call him Hit-ner or the preferred Height-ner, either applies. As associate director of the Royal National Theatre, he’s a bold reinterpreter of classics, a vigilant rethinker of other works, which could be profitably added to the National canon. Ironically, his reputation as a theatrical trailblazer is overshadowed by his single fling at a contemporary musical: Miss Saigon.
“I had a hunch Carousel was one of the great theatre works of the 20th century and that’s why we did it. One definition of a classic work is that it changes meaning. It’s only worth restating a classic if it has changed since the last time it was done. There is no point in doing it if it’s the same show.
“The impulse to do Carousel was not to do it in the context of the commercial West End musical theatre; it was done at the National the same way it was done here—in the much more challenging context of what’s best in the whole world repertoire. That’s a little mission of mine. Carousel was done to show snob British audiences that the great American musicals should be on the stages of the National along with the great British and the great European classics.”
The trick to a revelatory Carousel, Hytner believes, is always to cast the actor before the singer. “That’s what’s exciting for me—when you put that caliber of artist in a musical play of this quality. These shows are so often cast with handsome people with voices—that’s why the shows seem shallow. No one in our show short-changes the audience vocally, and it still works.”
His quest for the best acted of Carousels has been a global obsession, so it’s ironic he winds up with a couple of Broadway debuters who came from Juilliard, a good block from the Beaumont: Michael Hayden (Class of ’92) is the show’s Billy Bigelow, a combustible mix of violence and vulnerability, and its mother-earth figure, Nettie Fowler, is played by Shirley Verrett (Class of ’61), the mezzo soprano who normally works another 100 yards from Juilliard at the Met. But the most recent Juilliard graduate is Audra Ann McDonald (Class of ’93), who pertly plays the heroine’s best pal, Carrie Pipperidge.
In the case of Hayden’s short stroll from Juilliard unknown to Beaumont star, you have to figure in his 6,000-mile round trip to London where he began his Olivier Award-nominated performance of Bigelow. The part that got him the star spot on Carousel couldn’t be more removed from Hayden’s own clean-cut, all-American good looks. During his last months at Juilliard, he shaved his head, applied prosthetic make-up and originated the role that last year won Ron Leibman a Tony: Roy Cohn in a student production of Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Angels of America—hardly the proper calling card for Billy Bigelow, and therein lies an extremely convoluted tale.
“When I was doing that show, I got tickets for a friend of mine, and he brought Vinny Liff, who was then casting Carousel and, of course, didn’t think for a second I’d be right for Billy,” Hayden says. “But a girl in my class going out for Mrs. Mullin urged him to see me, so he called my agent and set up an audition. I sang and read for him, and he was taken aback that I knew the music by heart. I’d done the role. It was the first role I ever did in my life in the ninth grade—so I knew it. I went in the next day for Nick and a bunch of National Theatre biggies. Everybody was a bit nervous because nobody knew who I was, but they gave me the role anyway.”
This bizarre route to Billy Bigelow pleases Hayden. “Ralph Richardson did Lear when he was 25. Gielgud and Oliver also were doing, at very young ages, amazing roles they had no business doing—they said so later in their autobiographies—but in America we’re too much into types. Because of how I look, people say, ‘Oh he’ll play young-male-lead parts. But I have no agenda to play only that. I’d quite like to play Macbeth—things I have no business playing—because that’s what actors do. Some can, some can’t. I believe I can. Hopefully, I’ll get more opportunities to do even better parts.”
Similarly, Sally Murphy’s most famous role hardly qualifies her for Julie Jordan consideration: In 1990’s top Tony winner—the play that gave full dramatic due to John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath—she was Rose of Sharon, who figured so poignantly in the novel’s last chapter. But Sally’s ride on this Carousel constitutes her own circular story: It’s the first time she has sung a note in seven years. A voice performance major at Northwestern, she lost her way. “I never consciously gave up singing,” she says. “I was living in Chicago, and I didn’t have any plans on leaving, but I did know that I didn’t want to just do revivals at the dinner theatres.”
In time she signed on as a Steppenwolf company member and worked steadily; only recently did musical regrets start to surface. “Right before Carousel happened,” she says, “I’d really made a commitment to go back to music. I had just been in Chicago doing a play, and I’d seen my old voice teacher. She and her husband own an Italian restaurant, and I went there with a good friend of mine who’s also a singer. Everybody sang. My teacher sang. My friend sang. I, of course, didn’t. I was too shy and I thought, ‘What am I doing? I love music, and I’ve missed it terribly.’ Then this came along. I thought about it, started singing for about an hour a day and was surprised to find the voice was still pretty much there. So, I decided to audition—and I got the part.”
Shirley Verrett has never been far removed from singing, amassing a classical career of great distinction, but until now Broadway has not been a real option. Carousel completes a circle of sorts she started back in her Juilliard days. Performing at various charity recitals, she caught the ear of Richard Rodgers’ wife, Dorothy, who alerted her husband. At that time Rodgers was auditioning for No Strings, but he invited her to come in and sing for him.
“He said, ‘My wife wants me to do something for you, and now that I’ve heard you, I want to do something for you. What can help you right away? Having money every week, right? What I can do is make you an understudy for Diahann Carroll. She will never get sick. You will never have to go on. And you’ll just be earning money.’ I asked him if I could think about it, but I knew the answer when I said that. A couple of days later, I told him, ‘I’ve started on a route, and I have to go with it now—concerts, arias, oratorios, things like that—but thank you very much.’ He said, ‘Well, it’s not all over.’ What he did was to put a certain amount of money at my disposal at Juilliard for my photos and stuff. I said, ‘That’s all I need—just money to do that because I don’t want to ask my parents.’ I only used $5,000. Never asked for another penny.”
She and the Rodgerses remained friends. Verrett even sang at the composer’s memorial service—and she can’t get over the irony that when she finally opted for Broadway, Richard Rodgers’ favorite show was there waiting for her. “For me, this couldn’t have happened in a better way. It’s like I’ve come full circle. I told Mary Rodgers just the other day, ‘I’ll bet your dad and mom are happy I’m doing this.’”
And so, Carousel takes another turn.