It was a task worthy of Hercules. How could Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II repeat the phenomenal success of Oklahoma! in 1943? The critics had hailed the show as the coming of age of the American musical theatre in which book, music and lyrics were fully integrated in service of the narrative and the psychological make-up of the characters.
The writing partners ranged far and wide in their search for a suitable source but nothing apparently sparked their imagination until Rodgers, who had a house in Connecticut, saw the possibility of a story set in a fishing community on the coast of Maine in 1873. Then they turned their attention to Liliom, a play by the Hungarian dramatist Ferenc Molnar, perhaps best known in this country as the author of The Guardsman. Liliom, reportedly Hungarian slang for a tough guy, is a smooth-talking fairground barker, the lord of all he surveys as he struts around his carousel.
Molnar’s original play had been a success on Broadway in 1921 and a subsequent London production had featured Ivor Novello and Charles Laughton in the cast. Composers Puccini and Kurt Weill had seen the operatic potential in Molnar’s story, but the Hungarian refused to give way to their proposals. He was similarly reluctant to agree to Rodgers and Hammerstein’s approach until he went to a performance of Oklahoma!. The experience left him marvelling at the partners’ ability to turn the relatively minor Green Grow the Lilacs into a blockbuster musical. With Molnar now on board, the way was clear for the development of Carousel.
In retrospect, it seems an odd choice on the part of Rodgers and Hammerstein, who seldom stinted on the saccharine, to make a hero of Billy Bigelow, the new name for the character of Liliom. As quickly becomes clear when Carousel’s plot unfolds, beneath the facile charm, Billy is a petty crook, thief and wife-beater who kills himself to avoid a prison sentence, leaving his partner pregnant with their daughter. Billy is then accommodated in a kind of purgatory or “heaven’s waiting room”, while the celestial authorities decide his fate. Is it the fiery furnace or a heavenly hereafter for our anti-hero? Can Billy redeem himself at the last?
For all Rodgers and Hammerstein’s belief in the best of human behaviour, they did not always view characters through rose-tinted spectacles. Their five great musicals contain ample evidence of the darker side of life, such as the sinister, hulking Jud in Oklahoma! or the Nazis in The Sound of Music.
Carousel opened at the Majestic Theatre on Broadway in April 1945, only a few weeks before VE Day. One wonders if the message of hope in the final moments of Carousel was a product of these more optimistic times. It has been regularly revived, including a National Theatre production in 1992 that powered its way to Broadway, garnering Oliviers and Tonys en route. Making a considerable impression as the upwardly mobile Mr Snow in this production was Clive Rowe, now preparing for a solo appearance at London’s Ivy Club on May 6.
“I didn’t know the piece that well – mainly through bits of the film,” explains Rowe. “I do have a clear memory of Gordon MacRae as Billy in his stripy T-shirt. I was around at the National in the early 1990s, which is why I was given an audition. There was a terrific buzz in the theatre because of Carousel – a general excitement. And I remember when I saw the carousel horses for the first time, I thought the show was going to be amazing.”
Rowe recalls the surprise the company members felt as they explored the deeper aspects of Carousel. “We were amazed by how dark it was. I don’t think we really understood the depths of what Billy has to go through, and through him we see the brutality of his behaviour as well as the optimism of a song like June Is Bustin’ Out All Over. In Julie’s number What’s the Use of Wond’rin’?, you feel that she is practically saying that I’m a woman and so I deserve everything that Billy does to me.”
That song ends with the lines: “He’s your feller and you love him / There’s nothing more to say.”
“It’s problematic,” agrees director Lindsay Posner, who staged Carousel at the Savoy in 2008. “It is a product of an age when certain political and social values were taken for granted. Parts of it, in a similar way to Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, might now be unpalatable to a modern audience. They won’t always accept it.”
Carousel’s unlikely denouement and the involvement of the afterlife might not seem to appeal to a contemporary audience.
Yet it does, Posner argues. “You can’t bring cold intellect to it, because it has the same fantasy whimsy as a fairytale and the sentiment becomes irresistible.”
Carousel was said to be Rodgers’ personal favourite of his musicals, a view supported by Time magazine, which declared it the musical of the century in 1999.
Stephen Sondheim is another fan, to judge by his assertion: “Oklahoma! is about a picnic. Carousel is about life and death.”
Carousel runs at the London Coliseum  from April 7 to May 13