There’s really nothing that can adequately prepare the spectator to encounter the wonderful, wonky weirdness of Carousel for the first time. It is like a recipe that shouldn’t work, a bunch of disparate ingredients mixed together like a bouillabaisse, and we’re constantly surprised by the next spoonful as we lift it to our lips, thinking, There’s no rational reason this should taste so good! before polishing the whole bowlful off.
Richard Rodgers called it his favorite musical and Time selected it as the Best Musical of the Twentieth Century, but don’t let these accolades mislead you into thinking that Carousel is an elegant, polished masterpiece. It’s full of odd contradictions, peculiar transitions and ideas that are hard to digest.
Since its premiere in 1946, it’s been frequently revived, most notably in a production that originated at the National Theatre under Nicholas Hytner’s direction that went on to Lincoln Center Theater in New York. Wikipedia’s got a pretty comprehensive page that provides an enormous amount of information.
This description of the world of the play comes from the dramaturg at Chicago’s Court Theater, where Carousel was produced in 2007:
For Rodgers and Hammerstein, the most difficult aspect of transforming Liliom — a European classic — into an American musical was finding an appropriate setting. After nine months of deliberation, they decided to move the setting from turn-of-the-century Budapest to late nineteenth-century Maine in order to best capture the wistfulness and melancholy of Molnár’s original play for an American audience. An understanding of the everyday struggles of life on the Maine coast lends the world of Carousel a complex and subtle richness.
Maine had its economic foundations in the fishing industry, a grueling and often dangerous enterprise. The intensive labor and perilous conditions fishermen endure are often glossed over in favor of a romantic portrayal of coastal living and sailing the high seas in many productions of Carousel. The Maine landscape is marked by the miles of rivers that powered its many textile mills. The women of Carousel, if not occupied by duties as a fisherwife, often took work in textile factories for wages averaging $2.25 a week and meager room and board. Mill girls were considered to be among the lowest caste of workers and were forced to endure long hours in factories clouded with dust and the constant buzzing noise of dangerous equipment. In fact, mill girls like Julie Jordan who would “gaze absent-minded at the roof,” risked losing limbs, hair, and even their scalps to such crude machinery. Factory owners such as Carousel’s Mr. Bascombe oversaw their employees like stern fathers since mill girls were often without family, imposing dress codes, curfews, and other strict rules.
Even characters like Mr. Bascombe, who escape the misery of hard labor, still must endure the harsh Maine landscape. The relatively mild weather of June is a respite between the bitter cold of winter and the heat of August. In Carousel, the joy this relief elicits can be expressed only through song and movement, when repressed emotions and desires come “bustin’ out all over.”
In April 2013, “Live at Lincoln Center” presented a concert production of Carousel with the New York Philharmonic and a top-of-the-line NYC cast. Rehearsal and interview footage follows:
And here’s 17 minutes of program highlights:
Here’s a clip from Opera North’s recent production that played in the West End: